In Exodus: Gods and Kings, producer and director Ridley Scott made many controversial interpretation decisions in his treatment of the story of Moses. Arguably, the most provocative choice was nearly to eliminate women from his narrative. In Exodus, only one woman (Moses’s wife Zipporah, played by Maria Valverde) has a full speaking role, but she is on screen for a few moments only twice in the 150-minute film and has little influence on her husband. All other women in the movie – and there are only four – speak one or two words and have little impact on people and events. In short, this is a decidedly male-dominated tale, where men make all the decisions and women are relegated to the scenery. Even headliner Sigourney Weaver, who plays Tuya, Ramesses’s mother, is rarely on screen and utters merely a couple of sentences.
Such elimination of women in 2014 stands in stark contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s treatment of the same story in 1956: The Ten Commandments. In the 1956 iteration, women played a central role throughout the film, manipulating men and events and exploiting opportunities. Moses’s adoptive mother Bithiah is strong and willful, Moses’s pre-marital love interest Nefretiri is cunning and seductive, Moses’s nurse/servant Memnet is proud and defiant, and even Moses’s wife Sephora is portrayed as wise and commanding (rather than submissive and innocent as in Scott’s rendering). The 1950s rightly have the reputation of being an era of social conservativism unfriendly to women’s rights, which makes the comparison between the 1956 film and the 2014 film all the more striking. In this framework, Scott’s 2014 tale seems more appropriate to the 1950s, and De Mille’s epic fits 2014.
Much of the controversy surrounding Exodus has focused on race, fueled by an inflammatory statement Scott made to Variety in November 2014: “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such…I’m just not going to get it financed.” But there is also an unspoken racial dynamic to his treatment of gender: while all the men in the film are white, all women (with the exception of the nearly mute Sigourney Weaver) are portrayed as dark-skinned or of Arab ethnicity.
There is a body of historical and literary scholarship about the real and symbolic subjugation of the bodies of women of color. Though Scott does not completely whitewash his cast (as Noam Murro did in his 2014 film Noah, or Mel Gibson did in 2004 with The Passion of the Christ), his decision to racialize and subjugate women is more damaging in today’s charged cultural atmosphere than such a whitewashing would be. Rather than a racially homogenous cast that simply denies the anthropological roots of the Bible, Scott’s film allows whites to conquer the Bible symbolically through white men’s domination of Middle Eastern women’s sexuality (and, thus, their progeny). Western Christians have never accepted that their prophets or their savior looked less like Crusaders and more like the Muslims against whom they warred. Scott not only indulges this untruth, he hands a visual victory to those who labor to protect it for their own power or political gain.
Scott’s gender imperialism should not be ignored. As tensions rise between the West and the Middle East, Ridley Scott offers a version of history where, through a deliberate racialization and marginalization of women, white men conquer all.