Precious, Stupak, and the Erasure of Women’s Lives

With the Stupak amendment literally and symbolically stripping women of equal status, the movie "Precious" presents, in grim detail, the way race, class and bias render a woman's body simultaneously invisible and subject to abuse.

"Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire" couldn’t come at a more frightening moment for
American women. With the Stupak amendment literally and symbolically stripping
women of equal status and ignoring our right to bodily self-determination, here
is a movie that presents, in grim detail, the way race, class and gender bias
render a woman’s body invisible and susceptible to the worst kinds of abuse and
neglect. Beyond that, the film is a reminder that when we talk about women’s
health every statistic masks a story, a woman’s story that none of us can
understand unless we see it firsthand. This is the underlying message of the
reproductive justice movement, a message many of our legislators have forgotten
or never learned.


This isn’t to say that "Precious" should be read only as a piece of
political commentary–it’s a work of art first and foremost. But it’s hard not
to see the parallels. Congress continues down the path of separating women into
two groups–women of means who have reproductive rights and women without
economic, social or geographic privileges who lack them. Meanwhile women are
flocking to theaters to see Precious Jones dream of being someone who, in her
mind, matters: a white married woman who lives in Westchester. Her innermost
thoughts echo the divide that Stupak-Pitts would put on the books.

Social critics and film critics alike are divided on whether
"Precious," the story of an obese, illiterate, victimized young
African-American woman’s self-actualization through literacy, constitutes
"poverty porn," an unrealistic "fairy tale" or something with a "spirit that soars." This polarizing effect arises from the
film’s methodology: like many politically-conscious artists before them,
filmmaker Lee Daniels and author Sapphire have stacked circumstances against a
protagonist until it’s almost unbearable, then given her a shot of hope.
Precious is raped by her father, beat up by her mother, scorned by everyone
else. While the story itself hearkens back to The Bluest Eye and The Color
, Clarisse "Precious" Jones also recalls a character in a
Victorian "social problem" novel.  A child herself and pregnant
with her second baby by her father, she is both an Oliver Twist and a Tess
Durbeyfield, shunned and dismissed as less than human by everyone around her
(and perhaps the audience initially), but with an inner light that throws her
corrupt, decaying society into relief.

Subtle it isn’t, but the story has a mass appeal and an absolute urgency in
making viewers interrogate their own assumptions. The question of bodies hangs
over the whole film. Everyone around Precious violates her bodily autonomy,
from her father to her mother who physically, verbally and sexually torments
her, to the school officials repulsed by her pregnancy to boys on the street
who ignore, mock or push her. Her very presence is treated as an affront: too
large, too dark, too sexual, too hungry.

Precious herself believes this. She longs to be thin and "light-skinned"
or white–she suffers deeply from internalized racism and sexism. During her
most harrowing moments she has fantasies about being on the red carpet or in
music videos, showing the power of pop cultural images to create teenagers’
aesthetic values and perhaps cause self-worth to plummet. Precious’s dad is
almost entirely off-screen, but his shadow looms: Precious’s mother Mary, is in
thrall to his presence, deeply jealous of her daughter because she has
unwillingly captured this monstrous man’s attention (and because her daughter’s
swelling belly symbolizes her own inability to parent). This is her excuse for
throwing fists, kicks, taunts and household objects at Precious.

The film’s two female-only spaces, the stifling, horror-filled home with Mary,
and the limitless school room, are study in contrasts. Precious’s mentor, an
alternative-education teacher named Blu Rain, is in a loving lesbian
relationship. Precious finds her voice among this group of young women like
herself, all learning to read together. In Precious’s life, the sole male hero
is a gentle nurse who doesn’t mind being teased about his job. In this way
"Precious" doesn’t indict men as much as reject the patriarchal
values of dominance and competition, in favor of cooperation, communication and

"Precious" puts its greatest faith in the transformational ability to
express ourselves. Precious, formerly illiterate, recites the ABCs in her
darkest moments; her burgeoning ability to put pen to paper is her salvation.
In the "real world" this message rings true: literacy in the broader
sense is absolutely essential to the formation of a self, the ability to
establish boundaries and envision a future. Precious doesn’t fully grasp what
has been taken away from her until she begins to understand and accept who she
is: not only through building her vocabulary but through learning to
"read" personal, social, and emotional situations.

The film asks that we never see Precious herself as a symbol. She’s a real
person with a sharp sense of humor and desires that are hers alone. Still, that
personalized story makes a statement. Beneath the scenes of depravity and
misery which make the audience gasp or shield its eyes, "Precious" is
an affirmation, a reminder that the people we may ignore on the street (or when
we pass bills in congress) have unique souls. It’s also reminder that
government programs, when actually staffed by decent people, can truly help: an
alternative school, a halfway house, a counselor end up helping Precious save

"Precious" is a complex, sometimes difficult work of art whose
underlying politics matter mostly in service to its heroine’s story. I
recommend the pieces below for some nuanced analysis of the film’s content. For
some viewers, the film’s broader critiques are overshadowed by the horrifying (and perhaps stereotypical) spectacle of Mary’s persona. For others, the
casting of lighter-skinned actors in the heroic roles reinforces the colorism the story aims to combat.

But flaws aside, the film’s messages are worth pondering at this difficult
moment for American women. Restrictions like the Hyde Amendment and
Stupak-Pitts don’t just divide women into have and have-nots, but also into
"good" and "bad." The fact that until this week, the RNC provided abortion
coverage to its own members
proves again
that bills like this are less about saving fetuses and more about punishing
certain women and refusing the social safety net to those deemed
"undeserving." But "Precious" asks us, all of us, to see
deserving and undeserving in a new light.

The film’s release in tandem with the Stupak-Pitts disaster strikes back
against the amendment’s underlying assumption: the belief that some people are
worth more than others, that some bodies deserve less protection than others,
and that some stories don’t need to be told.

Other great commentary on "Precious":

Nina Sankovitch: Why
Precious Matters

Why Hasn’t Precious Received "The Color
Purple" Treatment?
The Root

Slowly but Surely,
"Precious" Finds Success, Criticism
, Jezebel

Of "Precious,"
Percival and My Pafology,
at Racialicious

Long Day’s Journey Into
Night: Watching Precious, Reading Push