Reel Women: Sex-Trafficking Thriller ‘Eden’ Handles its Obvious Themes Skillfully
'Eden' hits theaters this week, and it's the kind of allegorical thriller that manages to hit all the familiar notes, but it does so beautifully. Jamie Chung stars as the titular heroine, a woman kidnapped and forced into sex slavery, and though the film takes place in the 90s, 'Eden' reminds us that its themes (sadly) remain relevant today.
Directed by Megan Griffiths, 'Eden' tells the story of a young woman who uses a fake ID to get into a local bar with her friend and finds herself charmed by a man who appears to be a firefighter. Lured away in his car, the young woman is sold into sex slavery and taken to a prison-like facility where she, along with several other underage girls, have their bodies sold while a group of nefarious men (including a sheriff) reap the profits.
As a thriller, 'Eden' is your typical paint by numbers film and checks all the right boxes along the way, but what makes this film something special is that it deals with resonant themes that are just as applicable now as they were 100 years ago, making its 1990s setting of little consequence. From the start, we see how Eden, who just wants to dress up and have a couple of drinks with her friend at a bar, is punished for her behavior by getting kidnapped. Does this sound familiar? A woman gets dressed up and goes out for a night on the town, and then she's assaulted and people say things like, "She shouldn't have been dressed like that. She shouldn't have gone to that place." As if we should be ashamed of the desire to have fun or dress in a way that makes us feel attractive; as if we should be ashamed of our bodies.
And that's just the beginning of this rollercoaster, which takes Eden to a place where women are treated as price tags, only valuable until they reach adulthood, and the sheriff (Beau Bridges) explains that she needs to bathe twice daily and once after every instance of sexual intercourse. We live in a male-dominated society where expectations are created for women by people who are not women, where we are to be vessels for desire or blank screens onto which men project their fantasies. And yet, we shoulder all the burden and responsibility of living up to someone else's ideal -- their projection of what we should be. We must be the virgin and the whore, and 'Eden's use of an underage sex-trafficking ring is such a pointed metaphor for the world in which we live. It's obvious, yes, but thanks to Griffiths' skilled direction and a thoughtful screenplay from Richard B. Phillips, the film allows the allegorical aspects room to breathe, rather than cramming them into a tube and shoving it all down your throat with brute force.
In captivity, Eden sees how women are pitted against each other -- Svetlana, a pretty blonde Russian girl, has risen above the other girls because she didn't try to escape when she had a chance and looked on in silence as her friend was murdered by their captors. Svetlana has her choice of jobs and mostly sits around answering phones and scheduling appointments. In the world of 'Eden,' the most these girls can hope for is to become someone's secretary and housekeeper. But what's more interesting about Svetlana is that she serves as an example of the ways in which women are pitted against each other.
To wit: media is powerful, and every day we are confronted with harsh imagery at checkout stands, magazine covers that point out actresses who have gained our lost weight, become too fat or too skinny, and with the use of Photoshop, they illuminate impossibly perfect, unattainable bodies which we're told should be the ideal. We are raised to believe that men are superior, and we're starving ourselves so much trying to attain an unrealistic image, and that starvation becomes more than just literal -- it becomes figurative. A person who is starving is irritated and fragile and more easily manipulated. In the world of 'Eden,' and in our own tangible world, it becomes easy to accept cruel treatment from men as the norm, and they can convince us that a rock is a carrot at the end of that stick -- and it's even easier to turn on other women.
What 'Eden' shows us is a patriarchal prison wherein women must identify with their abusers and captors in order to survive, and that means forsaking fellow victims in the interest of keeping themselves alive. And in the real world, women turn on other women because that's what we've been taught to do. We've been taught to be superficially critical and clique-ish, to scorn other women as an outward projection of our own insecurities. We beat other women down because magazines and television shows and men (and the men who control the media) do it. And they need us to keep hating each other if they want to keep turning a profit. Similarly, in 'Eden,' the men in control want no camaraderie among the female prisoners because they outnumber their captors, and if they were to band together and stand up for themselves, those guys would be screwed.
Again, does any of this sound familiar to you?