Transgression of Female Stereotypes and Empowerment of Women in The Third Wife
Film review by Hanh T. L. Nguyen.
Abstract: This article analyzes the Vietnamese award-winning film The Third Wife (director Ash Mayfair, 2019) in relation to the film’s transgression of female stereotypes and empowerment of women. Through the filmmaker’s feminist perspective, The Third Wife offers an alternative understanding of patriarchy and gender oppression. It offers a closer look at women’s experiences and practices that transgress the image of the conventional Vietnamese woman. Besides, the film empowers women by negotiating the power relation with men via not only the characters’ narratives but also the cinematic language. The article concludes that a female perspective and a female voice that summon a genuine world of real women are crucial in art, especially if gender stereotypes and discriminations are to be challenged.
Keywords: Patriarchy, The Third Wife, transgression of stereotypes, empowerment of women, female perspective, feminist artwork
The Third Wife , a feature film by Vietnamese female director Ash Mayfair, was first screened in 2019 and has won several prestigious international film awards. In the 19th century in Northern Vietnam, a 14-year-old girl (May) is married off to a middle-aged landowner who already has two wives, three daughters and a son. The film views polygynous family life through teenage May’s lens as she learns the ropes of being a housewife while simultaneously exploring her own sexuality. She learns that the main functions of a wife in the family (and a woman in society) are to satisfy her husband, to take care of housework, and to give birth, especially to sons to continue the husband’s bloodline. However, she also discovers how women can express their identity and satisfy their female sexuality.
By means of filmic language, The Third Wife tactfully negotiates female identity. Subtlety in using cinematic language such as colours, sounds, textures, and positioning in the film empowers the female characters and contributes a unique female voice in a predominantly male choir of the Vietnamese cinema industry.
The Confinement of Domesticity in the Vast Land of Patriarchy
Male favoritism is manifest in the patriarch’s, Hung, polygynous marriage with Ha (first wife), Xuan (second wife), and May (third wife). The film starts with a sequence of May being sent by boat to her own wedding with Hung. The Third Wife represents a chronological length along which May learns the primary tasks of a woman: pleasing her husband sexually, bearing children for him, and tending to housework. The film illustrates not only Hung’s enjoyment of sexual intimacy with each of the wives but also the wives’ discussion of ways to please the husband: “Only if you pretend to be enjoying it can he enjoy it”. Apparently, the man’s sexual privilege is highly emboldened.
Bearing children is another main duty that these women concern their lives with. By reproduction, they not only accomplish their “heaven-granted position” (thiên chức) or their “natural destiny” as women (Murru, 2018) but also fulfil the mission of a wife to continue husband’s lineage. At this point, male favoritism is duplicated to the next generation where a baby boy is preferred to a baby girl. This favoritism of maleness creates stress for the wives as they turn to metaphysical powers and pray for a male baby so their position in the family could be reinforced.
Finally, women are expected to take care of the household. Similar to the Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern (directed by Yimou Zhang, 1991), except for a few outdoor scenes, The Third Wife is situated entirely in the household, showing how circumscribed the lives of the women are. It is quite noticeable that women’s space is very specifically defined in the film. The film uses various frames to define the women’s limited space by showing the female characters molded within the window or as a reflection confined in the mirror. Although not trapped in dark rooms, surrounded by menacing walls, or enveloped in unsympathetic biting snow as in Raise the Red Lantern, the lives of the women in The Third Wife are only seen within the boundaries of the family’s estate. May’s gaze at the gate of the house as it gradually narrows and eventually blocks the view of the outside world signifies her desire to explore that world and accentuates the threshold she might not ever be able to cross to break free from the confinement of the house.
Even that confinement, however, is a “favor” bestowed by men. In such familial and social space whose masters are men, a woman’s identity only exists in relation to men. Without this relational identity, a woman seems to be nothing. As such, Tuyet, the unconsummated wife of Son’s, Hung and Ha’s son, takes her own life after yet another rejection when her father refuses to take her back into his family, announcing her “useless” for failing her “only responsibility”, which, supposedly, is the job of getting the marriage consummated, or the sex service. Tuyet hangs herself from the leafless tree near the family’s mansion. Belonging neither in her father’s nor her husband’s family, Tuyet has no place in such a world so she is forced to leave it by means of suicide. Tuyet’s death is an emblem of the ultimate male oppression of women, not only robbing women of the freedom to participate in life outside the domesticity but also depriving them of their own identity.
The focus of this article, however, is not the injustices against women in a patriarchal society. Rather, it explores ways that Ash Mayfair negotiates power and understanding of femininity from a female perspective despite the backdrop of patriarchy and male dominance, as analyzed below.
A Feminist Understanding of Patriarchy and Femininity
The film transgresses the traditional view of women and femininity in several ways, including the narrative and an array of stylistic filmmaking techniques.
Perhaps the most obvious feminine aspect of the film is the aesthetic aspect manifest through the texture, including the film colors and the clothing materials. The overall visual tone feels rather feminine by the use of delicate colors such as pastel, creamy yellow and white, and warm brown as worn by both the female and male characters. Silk as the primary clothing material also adds to the tenderness of the pictures. Unlike the stark colors featured in male director Yimou Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern such as sharp bright red and fierce white snow against ominous dark walls, which are utilized to bring out the vicious nature of China’s long-standing patriarchal traditions, The Third Wife summons a more harmonious feeling in terms of the overall tone with synergetic colors and natural elements such as floating cherry blossoms and the softness of female skin brushing against babbling waters. Drifting above and about this softness is a thin veil of fog that permeates the supple texture of the film.
Sounds are another element that adds to the unique female voice of the film. Even though the women’s lives are limited to the family’s estate by means of visuals as discussed earlier, the film allows them to be part of a larger world through the measure of sounds. Sounds such as rippling leaves, dripping water, tweeting birds and chirping crickets from a distance hint at a larger world beyond the household.
The film also demonstrates a female understanding of male powers through the male characters’ tone of talking. Although the film is a condemnation of patriarchy, the male characters never show the faintest hint of violence in their voice towards the female characters. On the contrary, their voices always seem indulging and endearing. For instance, when Hung (the husband) asks May to approach him on her knees, he delivers his request very gently and endearingly: “Be on your knees, my dear. Not in the bed. On the floor. Come here. Come on, come here to me”. Although visually from Hung’s gaze, which coincides with the spectators’, May looks like an obedient animal crawling on the floor with all four limbs, his gentle voice sugarcoats the disparity in their relationship and in this particular erotic scenario where he is the master and she is his pet. If he speaks in such a gentle manner, perhaps in his mind, this is not an act of degradation of a woman’s dignity. A necessary note is that this is not a roleplaying sexual scenario in which both sides discuss their preferable role; rather, the role of the dom is assumed by Hung while the role of the sub is imposed on May.
Another example where men’s powers are practiced through an unthreatening tone is when the grandfather refuses his granddaughter’s wish to have her big brother’s pony, who no longer needs one. By simply saying “Oh my dear”, he belittles and nullifies the little girl’s dream and causes distress for her mother who fears that her daughter has overstepped some invisible line when asking for the pony for herself. Such examples reveal men’s unawareness of the fact that their pleasing words could mean cruel reality for women. To women of a patriarchal family, though, their lives and experiences are shaped by these seemingly harmless, even endearing, remarks.
Transgression of the traditional view of female
The following sections examine ways in which the traditional view of women as inferior to men is subverted in the film.
First of all, the film is distinctive as compared to the melodramatic genre that addresses similar situations where multiple women share the same male partner. Instead of focusing on the rivalry between the wives, The Third Wife takes the high road in portraying women that are able to enjoy love for themselves, for each other, and for nature and animals rather than simply suffering from victimhood or turning into vessels of hatred, jealousy and resentment. The film is full of scenes with the presence of only women whose conversations do not concern men. For example, multiple scenes portray women only, washing themselves and each other in the stream or singing together. Presenting women free of men suggests woman identities independent of men. The film also refuses to take the well-trodden path where the main female characters usually are victims of adversity caused by patriarchy. Instead, real tragedy is experienced by side characters (e.g., Tuyet’s suicide) while main characters negotiate and transgress male powers, transforming the film from mere condemnation of sexism to empowerment of women.
Empowerment of women
Xuan, the second wife, is the champion of feminism and the main power transgressor in the film. The feminist voice is articulated in several ways through this character. First of all, male power is decentralized (from the patriarch Hung) by means of Xuan’s sexual relationship with Son. In this affair, Xuan is more powerful than her lover, firstly by the fact that she is the one making the decision of breaking up the relationship, which leaves Son not only heartbroken but also powerless.
Xuan is also more powerful than her husband and her lover as expressed in their intimate positions. In all three sex scenes with Xuan, she is always on top of the man, either with Son on his knees in front of her towering standing figure or with Xuan siting on either Son’s lap or Hung’s abdomen. These positions not only visually suggest Xuan’s superior sexual power in relation to the men; more importantly, they indicate that Xuan knows what she likes and unapologetically pursues her pleasure rather than assuming a docile wifely role, compromisable at the lover’s pleasure. In Vietnam where numerous married women associate sex chiefly with reproduction and feel guilty or embarrassed if they consider sex a means for pleasure (Castañeda, 2013), Xuan’s emphasis on her sexuality and strive for sexual gratification provide quite an eye-opening alternative perspective for several Vietnamese women.
Framed in patriarchy where women should be subordinate to men, women are usually punished and disciplined by men when they display “improper” female behaviours, such as having more than one sexual partner (McKeganey and Marina Barnard, 1998, as cited in Do, 2006). For example, the wife in Raise the Red Lantern is punished by death for her extramarital relationship. However, The Third Wife lets Xuan come out of her affair unscathed. The affair could be interpreted as the filmmaker’s way of claiming, on Xuan’s behalf, some “equality” with her husband, who gets to openly and legally engage with many sexual partners. Though set in the 19th century, the film also speaks against sexism existing in today’s society. In contemporary Vietnam, men’s involvement with multiple sexual partners has long been condoned as naturally and biologically conditioned, while women with multiple partners are seen as morally depraved (Rydstrøm, 2013). By leaving Xuan unharmed, the film stands against the double standard, which is linked with the traditional paternal view of women as “virtuous” and “loyal”. Moreover, unlike Raise the Red Lantern’s framing of the affair as stealthy when letting it happen under a cloth-covered table, Xuan’s affair takes place in the middle of an open space in the wood. Rather than being hidden by an accomplice of darkness, the site of the sexual encounters is relatively well lit, which renders the affair a non-crime. This setting exudes a feeling of a natural happening with an audacious voice.
Lesbianism in The Third Wife
The film documents May’s growing and self-discovery as a young woman through which process she explores her homosexuality. As such, male centralization is diluted through the lesbian affections between Xuan and May, or rather by May towards Xuan. By means of this connection, the gaze is diverted from male to female. When Xuan’s sexuality is portrayed, either through her facial expression of pleasure or her breasts pressing against soaking wet silk, it is always May who is the spectator. When Xuan sings at May and Hung’s wedding, serving an entertainer’s role, it is also May who enjoys the entertainment rather than a male audience.
The depiction of lesbianism set in the 19th century indicates that the film recognizes homosexuality as a sexual orientation with a long history. This is in contrast with the Vietnamese State’s late recognition of homosexuality in 2000, though by criminalizing it with the 2000 Law on Marriage and Family. In 2002, the Ministry of Labors, War Invalids and Social Welfare listed homosexuality as a “social evil”, equating it with prostitution and drug using and trafficking. However, in 2015, a significant amendment was made in the Law on Marriage and Family, which annulled the 2000 ban on same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, Article 8 of this amendment also states that the Vietnamese state does not recognize marriages of homosexual couples. By and large, while same-sex marriage is no longer criminalized, homosexual couples do not have the same rights as heterosexual married couples, such as the right to inherit in case of the spouse’s death.
The ambivalence, and rather ignorance, with respect to homosexuality makes it a hypersensitive and uncomfortable topic among many Vietnamese. The media have also either invalidated homosexuality or portrayed it as a perversion (Horton, 2014; Nguyen, 2019). Television shows and commercial movies, including self-claimed LGBTQ-friendly programs (e.g., the dating show Người Ấy Là Ai/Who Is Single), still (unwittingly) depict this community as perverted and abnormal (e.g., by differentiating gay men with “real men”).There have been many Vietnamese historical figures whose gay sexuality has been largely ignored, even in the case of artists whose sexuality is the main impetus of their work. Xuan Dieu, the “king of love poetry” of Vietnam, is an example. Many of Xuan Dieu’s poems were written about his love for other men, such as Tình trai (Boys’ love) or Ta biết ngày mai em có vợ (I know tomorrow you’re marrying a girl) in which he expressed his forbidden desires and his contempt for (moral) norms and well-trodden paths (Khinh rẻ khuôn mòn, bỏ lối quen). Given the large archive of Xuan Dieu’s poetry, the only poem by Xuan Dieu that is taught in high school is Vội vàng (Fleeting), in which his sexuality is absent. Despite the national recognition for Xuan Dieu’s mastery in poetry, his underlying inspiration has been either ignored or misinterpreted. As his sexuality is overwhelmingly expressed in Xuan Dieu’s poetry, nowadays, many literary critics write about his homosexual affections. Interestingly, critics seem to view it from a “tolerating” outlook, considering Xuan Dieu a human being with flaws, one of which is homosexuality (e.g., Đặng Vương Hưng, 2016).
The Third Wife, however, depicts lesbianism as natural. The revelation of May’s blossoming lesbian sexuality is depicted as natural and beautiful as the metaphorical images of blooming flowers and de-cocooning butterflies. Interestingly, despite the ample evidence of May’s homosexual tendency, including a kiss on the mouth with Xuan, a very well-worded film review still manages to misrecognize the kiss as precipitated by a strong “sisterly bond” between the two characters (see Khoi Pham, 2019), as if lesbianism was a concept so inconceivable that it never crossed the writer’s mind.
Another occasion where the film reinterprets femininity from the female perspective is through the female characters’ daily conversations. In some of these conversations, the women casually discuss subjects normally seen as female taboos like menstruation and masturbation; through such conversations these women proclaim the female body as a natural biological constitution with functions and needs, just like that of males. For example, when Lien, Xuan’s teenage daughter, bleeds at her first menstrual period, instead of panicking, she calmly announces “It has finally started”. Another example is when Xuan, Mai, and Ha discuss masturbating, climaxing and how to satisfy themselves first before satisfying the husband. Rather than being treated as a secretive or “dirty” dialogue, this conversation is doled out as a spontaneous small talk while glossing jewelry as a chore.
In contemporary Vietnam, sex education is still not a school subject on its own. There have been efforts to educate teenagers about sex and (hetero)sexuality as combined with Biology lessons. However, teachers have been reported as either being uninformed themselves (Zhang & Lock, 2002 as cited in Castañeda, 2013) or finding it awkward, even humiliating, to talk about sex or genitals to their teenage students (Blanc, 2004 as cited in Castañeda, 2013). To adolescent women, especially those living in rural areas, talking about sexuality is not just embarrassing but also morally wrong (Rydstrǿm, 2013). In such context, the film’s treatment of female sexuality as “no big deal” and discussion of how women can enjoy sexual intercourse are not only audacious but also educational, to a certain extent.
Although the film champions women, it is not a fight against men but a voice that speaks against patriarchy and traditions that render women inferior to men. Albeit the film’s sympathy for female struggle, it does not portray men only as perpetrators but also as victims of patriarchy. The family’s eldest son, Son, is devastated to the point of attempting suicide as he is forced into a loveless arranged marriage with Tuyet. Despite being the son of a wealthy landowner, Son is deprived of the right to free love and romance as dictated by the patriarchs of the family, his father and grandfather. Furthermore, although patriarchy places men in the powerful position of decision makers, as discussed earlier, men might not be aware of women’s predicaments as a result of their decisions. These decisions might just be an act of following traditions, which are so inculcated in their minds that they take them for granted.
The Third Wife’s film crew, which is constituted of mostly women, including the director and screenwriter, the cinematographer and the costume designer, created a cultural product about the lives of women that are relatable to real-life women. As cultural production has so far been dominated by men through film productions (Wolff, 1990), the women in cultural products oftentimes are not real women but a reflection of male perception of women (Kaplan, 1983). From the male perspective, however, women’s experiences could be understood and interpreted vastly differently from the first-hand experiencers themselves (Wolff, 1990). For example, reviewing the film The Third Wife, a male commentator perceived the wives’ lives as “relatively dandy” (see Khoi Pham, 2019). In contrast, a female reviewer saw a poetic but suffocating world, calling it a paradise crafted in hell (see Janet Lee, 2019). It might be hard for men to see violence or suffering without their physical manifestations. Meanwhile, for women, violence and oppression do not always come in intense forms, such as yelling or physically laborious work. Similarly, with different life experiences and different lenses, male and female artists could create starkly different worlds in their work even though they both feature women. As such, a female perspective and a female voice to call up a world of genuine women in art are crucial. If gender stereotypes and discriminations are to be challenged, an alternative perspective is to be introduced through many channels, including feminist artworks.
 The Third Wife is claimed to be inspired by true events that happened to the director’s great grandmother who was one of the wives and lived in the 19th century.
 The film won the following awards among others: Best Artistic Contribution (Cairo International Film Festival 2018), Gold Hugo Award (Chicago International Film Festival 2018), Youth Jury Award (Fribourg International Film Festival 2019), Special Mention of the Jury Award (Minsk International Film Festival).
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