The Anti-Heroine in “Lady Macbeth” is More Sinister Than She Seems

By and large, misandry has become a joyous, joke-y trope in feminist pop culture. Cheerfully proclaiming that you hate men is a reasonable response to centuries of misogyny and a satisfying troll of MRA-types who characterize feminists as haters of men. This understanding of misandry is disrupted in Lady Macbeth, a film set in 19th century England. When Catherine (Florence Pugh), is married off to a wealthy landowner in the North, she feels trapped in a stultifying home environment and begins an affair with one of her workers. It’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that she and her lover kill her husband. So far, so misandrist—audiences acutely aware of feminist literary and cinematic portrayals of female murderers (think Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace or Park Chan-Wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) know that to bear witness to a narrative from the murderer’s point of view is to understand her as someone whose murderous acts are a justifiable response to the structural violence she faces. Lady Macbeth rips up that established wisdom.

The most fascinating aspect of the film lies in its racial dynamics. While Catherine is white, her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who plays a central role in the film, is Black. In fact, about half of the movie’s main characters are Black, a reversal of historical films and television series that have afforded few opportunities to Black actors. Beyond the numbers alone, Lady Macbeth has more to say about race, gender, class, oppression, and power. Catherine’s sociopathic power plays, which would be understood as feminist rebellion in a film populated solely by white characters, take on a more sinister, layered aspect in Lady Macbeth. She can be understood, at least initially, as a victim due to her status as a woman. However, the story rapidly underscores her role first in complicity, then in active villainy. Catherine’s accomplishments in cruelty are achievable because she’s a white woman.

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth

Sixty Six Pictures

Her misbehavior results in Anna being punished, subject to an excruciating act of racist humiliation by the master of the house as Catherine sits by, seemingly oblivious and self-satisfied. The only way Anna can relieve her wrenching feelings of powerlessness is by opening the windows to let the morning light in her mistress’s eyes less gently than she should. As the film proceeds, Anna is literally silenced—and stricken—by her trauma. The triumph of white womanhood is portrayed as a violent, tragic ending. While dissimilar from films such as The Color Purple or 12 Years A Slave, which centers Black subjectivity as they document Black suffering, Lady Macbeth undoubtedly also differs from, and subverts film narratives such as The Help where the triumph of white womanhood is finally reconciled with the acknowledgment of Black personhood. Lady Macbeth parables the old, real story of white women throwing Black women and people of color under the bus for personal profit.

We get very little insight into Catherine’s mental state, though we need little: She is a sleek, graceful panther who pounces on her prey and feels little remorse. In this context, the title comes to sound like another neat subversion of one’s expectations—in privileging action before thought, Catherine resembles Macbeth of the Shakespeare play rather than her direct namesake. Macbeth begins as a good soldier who grows more ruthless as the play proceeds until he is transformed into a monster. Lady Macbeth, we’re shown, is the more ruthless and ambitious of the couple before beginning to suffer from fits of conscience. Similarly, Catherine begins as someone audiences are predisposed to feel sympathy for before committing increasingly monstrous acts, while her would-be consort, Sebastian, is the one overcome with remorse.

Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth

Sixty Six Pictures

At one hour and 30 minutes, every aspect of the film feels spare and graceful. The camera lingers on domestic interiors that resemble a Vermeer painting, the repression and religiosity of the household posing as a visual allegory of the repression of Catherine’s boiling sexual energies. Dialogue, too, has been pared to what is necessary. There’s no soundtrack. This has an interesting effect on the narrative—Lady Macbeth feels like a parable, with more energy attached to doing than saying. I came away from the film thinking of bell hooks’s energetic disavowal of misandry, if only because women of color have often had due cause to identify more easily with the struggles of men of color than those of white women:

At the time, many white women’s liberationists did not care about the fate of oppressed groups of men. In keeping with the exercise of race and/ or class privilege, they deemed the life experiences of these men unworthy of their attention, dismissed them, and simultaneously deflected attention away from their support of continued exploitation and oppression. Assertions like “all men are the enemy,” “all men hate women” lumped all groups of men in one category, thereby suggesting that they share equally in all forms of male privilege. (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center)

In Lady Macbeth, Catherine troubles the status quo by killing white men, but this is no simple victory – her other victims are people of color. By telling a story as much about race as it is about gender, Lady Macbeth troubles our easy assumptions. What happens when the woman is someone you can’t root for? 

Lady Macbeth movie poster

Sixty Six Pictures

Lady Macbeth
Director: William Oldroyd
{ Sixty Six Pictures }
Premiere date: July 14, 2017

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by Li Sian Goh
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Li Sian is a grad student and writer from Singapore living in Philadelphia. You can find her on Twitter at @extemporalli.

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