Welcome to the Women in Horror column. Every Wednesday, we highlight the work of women in the horror genre.
Einstein once stated that the definition of insanity – or unsanity for the sake of the film’s title – was the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Steven Soderbergh’s 2018 film, Unsane, asks audiences if its protagonist, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), is in fact, insane. Are the women who have walked in the shoes of Sawyer and those alike all insane?
The film opens with the color blue. “I love it when you wear blue,” says a mysterious narrator. He then romanticizes, tracing over the “love” he feels for a woman. You would almost believe he were in love, but you know better. It then cuts to Sawyer. After having a speedy, half-eaten lunch, she gives her side of the story. She is not the object of someone’s love, but someone’s obsession. She has been stalked, and she now lives 400+ miles away from all friends and family.
“Your life slips away from you, you know? Changing your phone number and your e-mail becomes normal. Changing your lunch hour every day becomes normal. Second-guessing every single thing you say in case it might be misinterpreted?”Sawyer Valentini (Unsane)
As she is living her life the way she does, Sawyer begins to feel like she might be insane, or at least that she needs someone to talk to, so she goes to Highland Creek Behavioral Facility for counseling. While there, her vulnerability is taken advantage of, as she is admitted against her will. Sawyer is a vision of purposefully unheard and misunderstood women. Her niceties are mistaken by deprived men for an open invitation. Her rejection is taken as a request for her pursuers to try harder. Then, her olive branch for help is twisted by manipulation and disregard. Hm, sound familiar?
What Soderbergh did with the first two-quarters of the film was agonizingly realistic to the realities women face today. To be “too nice” means you welcome what comes to you. The trauma of our lives is placed upon our own responsibilities, not the men who lack comprehensive social and emotional skills. In a flashback – with a cameo starring Matt Damon – a cop is seen telling Sawyer every action she needs to take to “protect” herself: put bars on your door, don’t walk alone, buy a gun, don’t have a set schedule. There is a list of things for her to do, but nothing for her abuser. She can take out a restraining order, but what good does that do? Even when her stalker isn’t around, she must remain constantly aware of his presence. In doing so, her mental health is compromised because if not, other results could be deadly. As a woman, our normal is a constant state of insanity.
If her constant paranoia at the start of the film isn’t enough to shake your reality, during her forced time at the behavioral facility, she is found and tormented by her stalker. He finds a way to become a nurse at the facility, and Highland Creek becomes Sawyer’s own living hell. Her warnings and cries for help are simply disregarded in the worst ways. She is sedated into constant submission until her only choice is to try to defend herself through any means necessary. When she tries to physically fight back, he is literally protected by the system and those around him. She’s treated like an unhinged patient while he is coddled like a victim. She resorts to verbal assaults, hoping that if she’s mean enough, he’ll catch the hint. But that’s not the problem is it? No matter how nice or mean a woman is, she will always be unheard by men who have already made up their mind. Sawyer is a shell of a woman to him, filled with his own fantasies of her ready for his taking.
So, is Sawyer insane or unsane? Are all women? Society would have you believe so. Society wants you to believe that whatever happens to women, it is a result of their wrongdoings. She was too nice, or her rejection was too harsh. She was dressed too slutty, or she was too much of a prude. She was a tease, or she was too promiscuous. When she is attacked, pursued, and abused, she is responsible, not the men who lack self-control. Through the many nuances of Unsane, a small window is opened to the anxiety of everyday women. Walking through life on mental eggshells, constantly trying to find ways to cope, which always forces women to add more layers to our emotional and physical exteriors. No, we are not insane. The world believes that after years of telling us to change our attitudes, our clothing, and our personas over and over again, it will change the minds of men who poison our every move.