SPAIN: Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006)

The Role of Women During the Franco Era

by Allison Green

The film, Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro, explores two worlds through the eyes of the young Ofelia. We see a contrast between the reality, a post-civil war Spain, and a magical world, filled with mythical creatures from a story book. The fantastical universe is created from Ofelia’s imagination and acts as a way for her to cope with the troubles that are presented in her reality. Although these difficulties are important to investigate, I chose to leave out the supernatural side of the film in my video essay. This allows the viewer to focus on the issues present in the real world, specifically those associated with the treatment of women. The film serves as a platform to show how the three main female characters’ handle being oppressed by men with power. The three of them, Carmen, Ofelia, and Mercedes, approach their troubles from different directions.

The role of women during Francisco Franco’s regime, in which the setting of the film is reflected upon, was gender biased and forced females into roles of housewives and mothers. When looked at in depth, it is clear that these same stereotypes are represented and shown throughout the film. The manner in which Carmen (Ariadna Gil), Ophelia’s mother and Vidal’s wife, deals with the way she is treated is differently than others in the film. She lacks in self-confidence and bravery which allows her to be pushed around by Vidal. In the first encounter between Carmen and Vidal, he places his hand on her stomach to show his possession and then continues to force her into a wheelchair. Her only protest is a soft “no” and then she succumbs to his pressure. The wheelchair is a symbolic reference to Carmen’s character. It represents weakness and the need for someone else to control her. This reflects how women were portrayed during Franco’s regime because “women were regarded as fragile creatures,” (Morcillo, 2010, p.71). Vidal believes that her pregnancy makes her frail, which is why e forces the wheelchair.

During the Francoism era, women were essentially turned into baby machines. Their role in society shifted from entering the workforce to entering into a marriage in order to produce children that would carry on the husband’s name. In her book, The Seduction of Modern Spain, Aurora Morcillo states that, for single women under Franco, “finding a husband was not just a survival skill but also a national responsibility.” (p.136) It is clear that this is in the case between Vidal and Carmen because he tells the doctor that he would rather have him “save the child” than the wife. This was not unusual during Francoism, in fact “marriage under Franco developed into a political ground where men and women encountered each other for the sole purpose of procreation.” (p.136) Women were devalued and dehumanized by Franco, which we see examples of in the film between the interaction of Carmen and Vidal.

In the film, Carmen’s daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) found a unique way to handle the way that Vidal treats her. She creates an imaginary world in which she is a princess. In this world she is told that to become the true ruler, she must complete three tasks. As she completes each of these tasks, she reveals her bravery, courage and audacity. During her first task of feeding the toad she realizes her power and declares it, “hello. I am Princess Moanna, and I am not afraid of you.” In my opinion, although her appearance comes across as weak during this scene, it seems as though she recognizes that, and realizes in order to be a strong princess, she must have bold characteristics. Even after her mother warns her that, “life isn’t like your [Ophelia’s] fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that…” she continues to complete these tasks to prove that fairytales aren’t always as easy as they appear. In contrast to her mother, Ofelia comes up with a way to deal with her hardships, which helps her cope with the issues present in reality.

Similarly, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is arguably the character that most significantly resists Vidal.  Her character is made to appear as though she is Vidal’s servant, who will do as he asks. In the video essay, this is exhibited through the many scenes in which she prepares his food and waits on him hand-and-foot. However, throughout the duration of the movie it is revealed to the viewer that she in fact takes advantage of the fact that Vidal looks at her as “just a woman.” She assists the opposing forces with food and medicine, and is constantly thinking ahead. Her thoughtfulness is divulged during the many kitchen scenes where she is seen concealing a knife in her apron. This, in turn, ends up saving her from torture and death. Her character challenges the gender stereotypes that were present during this period of time, and epitomizes the movement towards women’s liberation.

Women’s inequality and gender bias was a large issue during the period of fascism. Women struggled to find a voice as well as a role outside of their homes, during Franco’s regime. Guillermo del Toro provides insight into just how serious these problems were through his work Pan’s Labyrinth. By reflecting Franco’s fascist perspective in Captain Vidal, the connection between the real world Spain, and the issues present in this film were connected. The three female characters, Carmen, Ofelia, and Mercedes, were perfect examples of how different women reacted to the existing oppression that surrounded them. The female role can often be overlooked in films, which is why I specifically looked for instances in which this issue surfaced. By looking at less-obvious details, the viewer can learn a substantial amount about past problems in a country.

Work Cited

  • Morcillo, Aurora G.. Seduction of Modern Spain: The Female Body and the Francoist Body Politic, Bucknell University Press, 2010.

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