On ARRIVAL, and the Power of Female Language

You’ve already seen a billion reviews and recaps calling it a wonder of a film, one of the year’s best, an Oscar contender, a breath of fresh air in the Sci-Fi genre.

Personally, I find it to be one of the most feminist films I’ve ever seen.


Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is presented to us as the best in her field, and her field is linguistics. She shows up to her job as a professor at a large university laden with books and computers. She walks into her classroom and immediately begins lecturing, even though there’s only half a dozen students sitting in the lecture hall. Louise has worked hard for her shit and she is there to let people know it, even if it is just sharing her knowledge of the origins of Portuguese with the nerds who bother to show up. Louise expected a bigger audience, but she’ll teach to those who care. The constant trade off between knowing your value and having others see it, too.

The next day– mind you, the day the entire world is in an uproar because goddamn aliens have landed– Louise is the only person to show up for work. With an umbrella in her hand because it’s drizzly. This is Louise. And the people who need her know that is her essence, because when she’s needed, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) knows exactly where to find her.

Louise knows what her power is, and it’s language. Seeing this film shortly after the election, I saw before me on the screen another “cold” or “unlikable” woman whose entire life was rooted in ideas and translation of those ideas. She lets Weber know exactly how she feels about him and his arrival in her cocoon, cutting him down and translating his work using his own words. He’s there because he’d used her translation skills before:

Weber: You made quick work of those insurgent videos.
Louise: You made quick work of those insurgents.

Understandably, this pisses Weber off. He bullies her, and when she’s hesitant to join up with him because of his arbitrary restrictions, he tells her he’s going to see another man about a horse. He’s off like a cowboy, but Louise knows he’ll be back.

The movie progresses and because we wouldn’t have a plot otherwise, Louise has a one-way ticket to Alientown, USA. On the helicopter ride, Louise puts on headphones so she can hear Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) patronize her as he just cracks the spine on a fresh copy of her book. He’s a scientist, you know. And science is always more important than words.

This is the essential crux of the movie’s feminism. We have the embodiment of three different stereotypes before us– Renner, the white, male logician; Whitaker, the black, male Army man who rules by force; and Banks, the white woman who rules with language.

It should be noted that Adams is just about the only woman on screen for the whole film and the only woman given any sort of leadership position at the Army base camp.

Louise is alone. Louise has been ghettoized from anyone who may support her. Even Louise’s linguistics team reports to sneering Agent Halpern of the CIA, not to her. And, in a subtle dig, Louise and the viewers find out she was the second linguist on the site in just as many days.

She wasn’t even the government’s first choice. “The other guy” had already tried, but failed. If a man can’t do the job, they might as well try Louise.

The film continues on to be a bit heavy-handed in its unifying message– everyone just get along!but the subtleties of the way men and women use language weave throughout. Ian compliments Louise for approaching language like a mathematician. Ian, looking for usable names for the aliens, deems them male– Abbott and Costello. An army Captain on the phone with his family back home, repeating stoically that everything will be fine while we hear his wife sob non-stop about her fears for their children. That same army captain tuning in to an online, conservative shock-jock calling for action.

And Louise, always Louise, calling for the men around her to calm down, slow down, and really listenBecause when you do, you’ll save the world.

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