The feminism of Babette's Feast

Published: Jun 07, 2019, 06:33 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello | Mumbai

During a recent re-watch, I saw the movie as a feminist parable that was potentially about an artist subverting the norms of patriarchy

A screen grab from the 1987 Danish film, directed by Gabriel Axel, which is based on the eponymous short story by Karen Blixen. Pic/Orion Classics
A screen grab from the 1987 Danish film, directed by Gabriel Axel, which is based on the eponymous short story by Karen Blixen. Pic/Orion Classics

Rosalyn D'MelloTwo weeks ago, I re-watched 'Babette's Feast', because I wanted my linguist-farmer fiancé to see it. I contended that the story remains somehow foundational to my identity as a feminist writer and a home cook. It is a work of art I keep returning to, akin to what the Pakistani feminist author, Sarah Ahmed refers to as a companion text.

The 1987 Danish film, directed by Gabriel Axel, is based on the eponymous short story by Karen Blixen. Two Protestant sisters, daughters of the founder of a religious sect, come to inherit a French maid, Babette, who arrives at their doorstep in Jutland, the Cimbrian Peninsula, a refugee from the counter-revolutionary bloodshed in Paris in 1871. She has been recommended to them by Papin, one of the sisters' rejected flames.

They are reluctant to take her in only because their meagre income doesn't allow them the privilege of affording a maid. Babette tells them that if they cannot absorb her into their household, she will surely die for lack of alternative options. She has nowhere else to go. They agree, bartering accommodation with her instead of wages.

Over the next 14 years, Babette learns their language, customs, and eating habits. She manages their kitchen and their meals, and the sisters are surprised and intrigued to learn that ever since Babette began to live with them, they have more money than before because of her charming, penny-pinching ways.

When she wins the lottery, her only link to France, on a ticket she has had a friend renew year after year, the sisters are sure she will leave them. We see Babette lost in thought, as if strategising what her next step should be. She goes to the sisters and tells them that for their late father's upcoming 100th birth anniversary, she would like to cook a French meal for them and their guests, the remaining members of the declining sect. She asks for a week's leave so she can go to source ingredients. They are initially
hesitant.

They are not entirely convinced about being extravagant in any way. But Babette reminds them that in the time she has been there, not once, ever, did she make a demand upon them. This is and will be her only request to them.

My German-Italian fiancé read the film as a story. I listened to his perspective. He thought the film was outrightly an evangelical ode to the transcendental powers of French cooking triumphing over Protestant stoicism. It was flat.

Through my numerous viewings of the film, I had intriguingly never once evolved such a one-directional understanding of it. I saw both the story and the film as a feminist parable. He asked me to elaborate. I ventured to articulate a position that I had never before voiced. That the story and the film was potentially about a feminist artist subverting the norms of patriarchy. He was surprised. He hadn't recognized such a premise.

Since the hunter-gatherer perspective of history was first pedalled, we digested the notion that a woman's place was always in the kitchen. Men foraged and hunted, women took what was handed as game spoils and created a meal.

If we invested instead in the food theory of evolution, that the human species evolved after the invention of fire, after the discovery that raw ingredients could be transformed by the process of applying heat, that eating cooked food helped enlarge the sizes of our brains, thus allowing for the growth of human intellect, then the historical role played by women in the kitchen assumes a more influential dimension.

Haven't we been too quick to dismiss the significance of the kind of metabolic and metaphysical nurture that was the consequence of cooking? I have begun to theorize that while women took on the emotional labour of feeding, patriarchal structures ensured that the tables were domains governed by men.

Women fed men. In return, patriarchal codes dictated that women were excluded from the table and relegated instead to the kitchen. And yet, within the sanctuary of the kitchen, women maintained kinships with each other, nurtured storytelling traditions, rescued languages from colonialist threats of erasure and disappearance and secretly kept the world from imploding upon itself.

The tables still exclude us. And for long, women have been fighting for their right to be seated. What if, instead, we stopped seeking patriarchal validation?
What would happen if we collectively decided to dismantle the oppressive structures that exclude all of us who were historically marginalised and created a new world order by cooking and serving our kin?

Babette served her feast on her own terms, using every last bit of the money she earned from the lottery, rendering herself poor once again and yet, replenished.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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