Beggars Who Choose

Anne Hathaway as working girl-turned-“working girl” in 2012’s Les Miserables.

We saw Les Miserables on Christmas Day. As the scene of Fantine’s descent into a messy and unregulated underworld unfolded, I was struck by how incredible it is that vulnerable women were able to demand money for sex in the first place. We owe a lot to prostitutes, perhaps more than we are willing to admit, for asserting ownership of their own bodies – something that we (yes, we) still cannot take for granted.

We owe a lot to the grisettes who stood up to their filthy bosses, even when it cost them their jobs, until their collective resolve turned the tide. We owe a lot to the first women who refused marriage proposals to men who were not their equals. We owe a lot to every woman who ever saw an obstacle and turned it into an opportunity.

Those women rescued us from the plight of needing to be rescued. No longer do we live solely at the mercy of men, who have the power to decide when and where we will have sex and whether or not we will survive in society.

On the way home, I debated with a family member over the degree to which characters like Jean Valjean and Fantine had choices. I had an advantage, having actually read much of the book (pub. 1862), over those who only saw the on-screen musical and were asked to blindly feel all the feelings without much backstory. I think they both faced hard choices, but I would still call his theft and her prostitution choices. Either of them could have simply given up. Neither did. They did the best they could with what they had in the service of others, and that is what makes them heroes.

In fact, I am frustrated by how often we look down on people in our own society and say that “they had no choice,” when their choices are simply – and often unjustly – constrained. We see them as having fallen from some place in society they may never have occupied rather than looking at where they came from and showing some respect for what they managed to achieve.

This is not to imply a lack of sympathy for those who face obstacles – there is nothing worse than being told that your problems are imaginary when you know the chains that bind you are real. However, I think we often find that when we say we have “no choice,” we mean that we are afraid to peer into the darkness to see what else is out there that we may not yet have found.

One of the women in my binder offered this very simple piece of advice for women: Ask. We are often afraid to ask for what we want or need, placing limitations upon ourselves that do not truly exist. When we assume that our employers will not adjust to our needs, we, not they, are at fault. When we silence ourselves for fear of challenging our culture, we don’t give it a chance to change. When we assume that men will reject us if we are too ambitious, we judge those we do not know.

Divining the precise line between true boundaries and perceived ones is no easy task – but if we do not ask, if we do not explore, we allow our fears to rule us. Unlike the heroes of Les Miserables, we are not beggars. If they could choose, so can we.

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