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Silkwood's Working Class

By Amy Burchard, with comment by Sonya Dollins-Colton

[1] Before I begin, I would like to provide some information about where I'm coming from as I look at Silkwood. When I chose this film, I did so in a somewhat desperate attempt to avoid working on a film about war or a biographic film on a male historical figure. Alas, these are the types of films that tend to dominate the historic genre. I turned to Silkwood not as a film about the nuclear industry or a murder mystery, but rather a film about a woman -- not a glamorous woman, but a real woman with flaws. I wouldn't have chosen this film for the nuclear issue alone, as it is before my time and, at least at the onset of the project, I had no real understanding of what the nuclear industry was all about.

[2] Though it has been talked about as an anti-nuclear film, the nuclear theme is an underlying one. (A good question to ask is why this is NOT the main issue.) The way I look at Silkwood is the way many reviewers have; the central issue of this film is the story of the working class. I feel that I can comment legitimately on this issue, as the rural Pennsylvania town where I grew up is not too far from Silkwood's Oklahoma countryside (except geographically, of course). Some of the problems the Kerr-McGee workers have are familiar to me. For example, job security, especially now as I write, is of utmost importance in my home community. Like Crescent, Oklahoma, my community in Pennsylvania has one main industry, but it is at least a safe one: tool and die. As technology increases, these jobs are becoming obsolete, and, so, anyone in this trade in my hometown is lacking job security. And this in turn threatens other local businesses that depend on tool and die workers spending their money.

[3] But back to Silkwood. As an historical film, it immortalizes an image of the working class in Crescent, Oklahoma, as well as Karen Silkwood, their representative. It is important to think about how the film treats the working class -- is the tone condescending, honest, or quaint? And how does Karen fit in as their spokeswoman?

Silkwood and the Working Class: Case Studies

[4] Thelma: She functions in the film as both friend and mother figure to Karen, and acts older than her age. Thelma wears a wig, encourages Karen to "settle down" with Drew, and advises against "the pot -- and the kinda sex." Spouting traditional ideals, and without being asked, Thelma raises some questions, namely WHAT kinda sex? We never see or hear about Karen and Drew doing anything kinky, though they are quite amorous. Yes, they live (and sleep) together out of wedlock, which is a nontraditional set up, but they don't seem ready to handle a more permanent arrangement -- marriage -- like Thelma would have them do. On the subject of drugs, yes, we see Karen smoking pot once with Drew and Dolly (granted, Karen is behind the wheel), and once Karen gets mad at Dolly for spilling marijuana seeds on the newly swept floor, but Thelma's comment indicates her drug use is more of a problem than we would otherwise believe. (The filmmakers chose to leave out the detail that two joints were found in Karen's purse at the accident scene.) Again, Thelma instructs Karen to toe the line.

[5] We learn that Thelma's daughter has cancer, a pretty dismal sounding case. After seeing her daughter go through rounds of treatments and giving up her "good wig," Thelma is deathly afraid of getting cancer. This makes it all the more tragic when she is cooked. She assumes she will get cancer, but no one in the film has said anything about the plutonium-cancer connection yet. Importantly, though, Thelma is a character who fears cancer and feels she can get the disease at her workplace, yet she continues to work at the plant. She is back on the job the very next day after her contamination. This seems strange, but the plant so dominated the job market that she had no choice, really.

[6] Gilda: She truly stands for the powerlessness of the plant's workers. All she wants to do is get through life with the least amount of conflict possible, even if she compromises herself in the process. In the beginning, she is Karen's pushover friend, who agrees to work for her so Karen can visit her children. She is a decent and honest friend to Karen also, telling her she is suspected of causing the contamination in their section (0:22:22). Always present in her speech is the name Curtis, her husband by whom she is evidently ruled . Upon receipt of her birthday present, lingerie, she says, "Curtis'll kill me." What, for being sexy? Or for accepting a present from Karen, whom he does not approve of (as we learn)? After Karen visits Washington and begins carrying her notebook everywhere, there is a scene in the lunchroom between her and Gilda (see Key Passages 1:34:00). Gilda (probably guided by Curtis) lashes out at Karen's inquiries about missing plutonium, declaring the subject "none of [their] business." She doesn't see the union as more than a vehicle for "uppin' [their] wages," yells at Karen, "I LIKE MY JOB!" (does she really, or is it having a job that she likes?), and quits speaking to Karen altogether since she is stirring things up at the plant.

[7] Dolly: She is a character with a nontraditional lifestyle, which, in a fictional tale, could account for her implied disloyalty at the end of the film. But even though this is a true story, Dolly is at best loosely based on a real person, so she could be analyzed like a fictional character. Dolly is one of the more pathetic characters in the film; she holds the position of "Dolly Trashbags" at work and can't seem to avoid pissing Karen off at home. She is in love with Karen, as well as terribly jealous of her. The film suggests that Dolly tipped off the Kerr-McGee management about the x-ray documentation Karen was gathering for the New York Times article, but in reality, Karen never told ANYONE, even Drew, what she was doing. Unlike the other workers, Dolly doesn't follow the rules. She smokes pot and prepares it at the kitchen table; she is a lesbian; and she is unconcerned with anything going on at the plant. When Karen tries to tell her that plutonium is a carcinogen, even causing genetic damage, she replies, "I already got [gross physical and mental defects]" (see Key Passages 0:45:23). Like the others, she is ineffectual and without power, unless, of course, she is responsible for taking Karen down.

[8] Drew: He's a man's man, tough and gritty, with a dream of owning his own mechanic's shop. A reviewer described him as "profoundly ordinary Drew, a man who works hard at his dangerous job, takes care of his troublesome woman in bed, and wants no further complications in his life" (Denby 96). Okay, I have to object to classifying Karen as simply "troublesome," as if she is nagging about Drew leaving the toilet seat up or something -- please. The rest of this description fits Kurt Russell's Drew, though. He is a hard worker but prefers to leave work at the plant. His relationship with Karen was more complicated in life than can be explored on screen, and he did want her to quit. In reality, Drew was initially in the union himself and concerned with health and safety, but he didn't let it take over his life, as Karen allowed it to do. He quits his job instead of dealing with "a problem [he] can't solve." All said, Drew is "profoundly ordinary," with simple ideals: make enough money, start a family, and have some fun, too. He is respectable, if a little rough around the edges.

[9] With the exception of Dolly, we can see that the Kerr-McGee, blue-collared, working class employees are generally conservative, fearful of cancer, lacking job security, shortsighted, and without a desire to rock the boat. They are obedient to their bosses (see my scene analysis), powerless, and without mobility. But they are good, honest people at heart, even the sneering Carl ("Why are you so interested?") and the stern, religious Georgie. They will make sure the union is kept intact but don't want to fight the big fight for better conditions. They want to do what they feel is right, but not necessarily what is a "moral imperative."

Their Stand-Up Girl

[10] In Silkwood, Karen is the heroine of the working class, their martyr even, the one who will take the extra steps to improve health and safety for everyone. She is portrayed as a smarter, feistier, perhaps trashier version of her co-workers, with a greater concern for what is morally right and a determined spirit to top it all off. Karen is a liaison between the working class and professionals, but she cannot quite be taken seriously by national union officials Stone and Richtern. And on the small scale, she can't really spar with Hurley or Winston on level ground, but she'll give 'em hell.

[11] Hurley and Winston are working class, too. However, they have the "big fish in a small pond" syndrome and believe they are above Karen. Hurley is a manager, but he unintentionally puts himself on the workers' level when he says, "the contract isn't gonna be renewed and none of us is gonna have a job" (see my scene analysis). "None of us," he says. And since Hurley is Winston's supervisor, Winston must also be one of the "us" whose jobs are in continual jeopardy. Karen tells Drew, "I'm as smart as Hurley is," but is she?

[12] We see Karen at her dumbest in scenes with union men Stone and Richtern. Quincy, the head of the local union, is completely lacking in articulateness as he explains their concerns to Stone and Richtern, but Karen is made to look somewhat ridiculous as the third wheel of the negotiating committee. Her input about the need for more than two showers at the plant is immediately shot down by Stone, saying he wants to focus on health and safety. This makes Karen look bad, but if we think about what the showers are used for -- scrubbing down after contamination -- it is clear that this need is related to health and safety. But Karen says nothing to defend her idea and is left looking dumb.

[13] A similar incident happens during a phone call between Karen and Stone, in which she tells him about "the maintenance people [being] exposed to more hot stuff than anybody." He cuts her off, insisting, "It's the x-rays that are really important" (see Key Passages 1:35:11). While in the film the union officials seem almost sinister at times, the real-life Steve Wodka and Anthony Mazzocchi were truly concerned with what was going on. The aforementioned scenes are constructed in such a way to downplay Karen's intelligence.

[14] Possibly the most insulting way Karen is dumbed down is her parroting of the term "moral imperative," a term that Richtern uses when trying to convince her to do the investigating for the New York Times article. In the film, this scene is a series of shots in which Richtern and Stone are shown opposite Karen. She is alone, against a blank wall in her carefully-chosen dress, and the men are together, taller, and in suits and ties. Because Karen and the men are not shown in the same shot throughout this conversation, it visually pits them against each other and invites criticism of the union guys' bullying of Karen. Now, it is conceivable that Richtern would use big words, and he is surely more educated than Karen, but that doesn't excuse this deliberate and negative distinction made by the filmmakers between his use of the phrase and hers. After returning from Washington, Karen insists to Drew that her "spyin'" is a "moral imperative," words we know Karen has not come up with on her own. This use of the phrase "moral imperative" is a creative way for the film to put Karen's ignorance on display.

[15] What we don't learn about Karen from the film is that she had a real and definite interest in science. She won a scholarship to study medical technology at college but never got her degree because she got married and started having children. When she left her family and took the job at Kerr-McGee, she really thought she would finally get to have the career in science that she wanted. So why, in the film, is her love for science reduced to a seemingly insignificant comment about her mother wishing she took Home Ec in school instead of chemistry? (To downplay it even more, Meryl Streep's Karen says there were no boys in Home Ec, another hint at her sexuality.) Why, in the film, can Karen hardly contain herself when she is referred to as a "trained technician"?

[16] There is one instance in the film when Karen is actually given credit where it is not deserved (see Key Passages 0:45:23). In this scene, Karen discovers (in union literature) that plutonium -- shock !-- causes cancer. Really, none of the workers at the plant knew this and, in fact, were explicitly told that radiation is safe. Karen and the other two members of the union negotiating committee first heard that plutonium causes cancer from union official Tony Mazzocchi when they met in Washington. So the film curiously gives left-handed credit to the union for the revelation, but ultimately it is Karen who makes this discovery. The film also leads us to believe that workers were already suspicious about a plutonium-cancer link (as seen with Thelma), but it appears that no one really worried about cancer until the talk was given by union doctors (see Canaries 1:18:55). That Karen is not told this information, but discovers it for herself, contributes to the film's hero(ine)ification of Karen. Yes, interestingly, she is both hero(ine)ified and dumbed down.

[17] Karen is arguably smarter than her peers, but she is most definitely more concerned and determined than they are. Author Richard Rashke has stated, "Now that she left her family, and is on her own, as an adult, in her 20's -- free for the first time in her life -- she becomes a different person. But what she carried from her previous life were the very things that drove her to become a whistleblower" (Contaminated). This is his explanation for what is a big question about Karen Silkwood: what made someone like her do what she did? "What she carried from her previous life" refers to her toughness and bullheadedness that made her stand up to anyone she felt was wrong. She always had strong beliefs (steeped in genuine concern) and was willing to fight for them. While she can be criticized and thought heartless for abandoning her children, it should be known that she was actually in anguish over leaving. Fighting against Kerr-McGee and for her fellow workers may have filled her need to nurture, as she could no longer do with her children.

[18] Karen was deathly afraid and was planning to "get out of Dodge," but first had to finish what she started. In the film, her determination is best shown when she tells Drew that she "can't quit now," but this hardly expresses her real struggle to bring out the truth. She didn't know she would die in the process, of course, but she was afraid of what could happen to her. We don't see what might have shown her true grit -- her desperate phone calls to her sister, who had trouble even understanding what Karen, beyond inconsolable, was saying. Karen wanted to quit but kept at it even as her co-workers quit talking to her, told her what happened behind closed doors at the plant was "none of [their] business," and perhaps even had a hand in her death. Though she wouldn't have called it as such, she was working on a "moral imperative," more than could be said for her peers, who preferred to work on the idea that "ignorance is bliss."

Other Details

[19] Reviewer Sheila Benson brings up the issue of blue-collar representation, writing, "You may pick up another undertone, far quieter. Writers Ephron and Arlen seem to regard their subjects with the faintest condescension, not coolly -- the scenes between Karen and Dolly are too good for that -- but as quaint (that talk in the cafeteria about wives who put pineapple into everything; Karen's naiveté in asking the stewardess how much the food on the plane will be, and the amusing habit of her union colleague of taking snapshots everywhere)" (Benson 1). She misses the opportunity to really make a point. Yes, this picture of rural Oklahomans is "quaint," but these examples are honest, not "condescending," though others are (which I will address momentarily).

[20] So the plant workers' wives pack their lunches and bake with pineapple; this homeyness is a reality in a rural area, untainted by store-bought baked goods and takeout lunches. Secondly, there are some people who never leave their home community; there are people who never set foot on an airplane; there are people who wouldn't want to be in Washington, D.C., and miss an opportunity to see the Lincoln Memorial, even if someone like Paul Stone (or Sheila Benson) is amused by their excitement. Benson's examples of Oklahoma life can be viewed as condescendingly quaint if you identify more with a character like Paul Stone, but in the subtleties of the film, one can find details far more condescending.

[21] Like what's with the Confederate flag in Drew and Karen's bedroom? They aren't in South Carolina or Alabama. I laughed out loud as the film opened with a banjo plucking frenzy. Why was a tune so obviously indicating backwoods, redneck country chosen by the filmmakers to introduce the viewer to the setting? The other memorable song from the film is the a cappella "Amazing Grace" first sung by Karen (Streep) in the car on the way back from visiting her children, and it returns at the end as we see her smashed car in the culvert. It is unclear why this song would be chosen, not because of the theme, which, of course, fits with Karen's life, but the bottom line is that it is a religious song. And it is widely believed that all small town people are deeply religious. Karen was not a very religious person and surely wouldn't have broken into this song on the spur of the moment. (see comment by Sonya Dollins-Colton) The score's belittling country western and traditional gospel tunes are part of the image of the working class projected by Silkwood.

[22] I'm not sure how to weigh in on details like Drew's desire to own a mechanic's shop, the poor speech many characters have, Karen's chain-smoking, multiple characters swearing, the bedroom's water-stained walls, beer-drinking and belching Drew, Karen's wish for hair conditioner, and leftover spaghetti wrapped in foil. For the most part, these details seem honest, a result of lack of resources -- namely money -- and the ignorance that, unfortunately, exists in many members of a rural community.

[23] These details are consciously chosen by filmmakers in their construction of the working class, though, so it must be recognized that unless Karen really told Drew that she wanted to ask her mother to send her hair conditioner, this detail may be based on a stereotypical view of the blue-collar worker. I haven't come to a true conclusion on how the working class and Karen are represented, and I feel this issue deserves a closer look. I do feel that except for a few slip-ups, the film is respectful toward these blue-collar workers.


Sonya Dollins-Colton 8/23/10

I know Amy stated she is from a small town and not everyone is religious, but one must look at the time period in which Karen Silkwood was raised. Karen was probably raised religiously but choose not to live a religious life, so, of course ,she would know the song "Amazing Grace." However, this part of the movie is completely fictional, and we don't know if she ever sang the song.

Benson, Sheila. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. Los Angeles Times 14 December 1983: Calendar 1.

Contaminated: The Karen Silkwood Story. History's Mysteries. The History Channel. 1996.

Denby, David. Rev. of Silkwood, dir. Mike Nichols. New York 26 December 1983: 96.

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