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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Gender, Development and Postcolonialism in Documentaries

In Mexico, female sex workers pray to the folk deity Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte (1). That this goddess of death is only called upon with the permission of the male Christian god implicitly reflects the gendered power dynamics that appear throughout both Michael Glawogger’s documentary Whore’s Glory (2011), as well as his documentary Workingman’s Death (2005) and Young Lacota (2012) directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt. These power dynamics entail that women are subjugated to men, be it as objects of sexual desire, in instances when it appears self-evident that a woman leaves behind her career opportunities to follow her husband as housewife (2), or when men make choices over women’s reproductive rights (3).

At the same time, the preference of the women Glawogger encounters to address Santa Muerte, rather than God, metaphorizes another aspect: It would be misleading to see power relations as one dimensional. Such an assumption would easily lead to the misconception of – particularly non-Western – women as being a homogenous group of weak and disempowered individuals who are victim to an equally homogenous group of men (4) (5). Instead, power dynamics are multi-faceted, much like men and women’s identities and lived realities, leaving space for resistance and empowerment.

Workingman’s Death (2005)

In Workingman’s Death, Glawogger investigates the question of whether heavy manual labour is disappearing or merely becoming increasingly invisible in the 21st century. He documents the working lives of certain people in Ukraine, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and China.

Whore’s Glory (2011)

Glawogger’s documentary Whore’s Glory, too, focuses on different geographical contexts: In Thailand, sex workers in a club wait behind a large glass pane to be chosen by a client. In Bangladesh, he documents the lives of women in a brothel district. Often, their only choice is between sex work and the streets. In Mexico, Glawogger offers glimpses into the lives of women who pray to Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte for love and protection.

Young Lakota (2012)

With their documentary Young Lakota, Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt follow two women from the Pine Ridge Reservation fighting for women’s rights within their state as well as the Oglala Sioux community as South Dakota plans to ban abortions (even in the case of rape and incest). All three documentaries offer insights into issues related to gender, development and/ or postcolonialism.

Gendered Lives and Identities

Gender is not binary but a spectrum which includes various masculine and feminine identities and sexualities (6). However, the aspects of gender documented in Glawogger’s documentaries as well as in Young Lakota fall within the binary representation of (presumably) heterosexual cis-men on the one hand, and (mostly) heterosexual cis-women on the other hand. Workingman’s Death documents the circumstances of mostly male workers (except for a group of female miners in Ukraine). It could be argued that thereby the precariousness many female workers experience is downplayed or made invisible (7). Yet, simultaneously, the focus on male workers highlights that gender and gender-related issues are often falsely conflated with women (8). Glawogger thereby reveals a pattern of gender norms that results in male heavy manual labour workers risking their health and lives to earn a living for themselves and their families while women are responsible for domestic tasks.

In contrast, sex work is presented as predominantly (cis-)female, apart from a brief part of Whore’s Glory in which female sex workers in Thailand spend one of their free evenings with their male colleagues from a different club. In this context, too, however, labour is not seen as part of women’s social role. This is highlighted by a conversation between two Thai sex workers in which they state that women who are older than 30 should not work but take on the domestic responsibilities of a wife and mother. This representation of women ties neatly into Chandra Mohanty’s (6) analysis of the representation of non-Western women as cheap source of industrial, domestic and sex work.

Similarly, in Young Lakota, Sunny, the young woman at the centre of the documentary, explains that women on the reservation are expected to marry, have children, and take care of them. In this latter context, female identity intersects with indigenous identity thus raising postcolonial issues. Sunny, whose mother was ashamed of her indigenous identity, seeks to understand and reclaim her identity as an indigenous woman. She describes the abortion issue as one which Christian people "laid on our people".

Meanwhile, tribal president Cecelia’s struggle for a women’s clinic on the reservation should the abortion ban become operative illustrates the challenges indigenous women may face from outside their community: her project is interpreted by many as for indigenous women only solely because she herself is indigenous. It also reveals the balancing act of being woman and indigenous which is made evident by her statement: "You have to forgive people (…) Because those people are still tribal members, (…) they’re my relatives" (3). It echoes Lisebeth van der Hoogte and Koos Kingma’s argument that women are not a homogenous group but that identities are intersecting and multifaceted so that, i.e., indigenous women cannot be seen as women or indigenous alone but must be acknowledged as indigenous women in specific. Discrimination against them must therefore be understood in these terms, too (9).

Postcolonialism and Violence

In particular, Whore’s Glory portrays an overall reduction of women to physical features – including age – and their degree of submissiveness (10). At times, these gendered (power) relations overlap with postcolonial connotations, i.e., of one of the Thai sex worker’s light skin being praised as a positive attribute, or the condescending attitude of a foreign clients towards a sex worker who does not speak English (1).

Both, the dangerous conditions of male workers documented in Workingman’s Death, and the effects of gendered relations on women presented in Whore’s Glory and Young Lakota imply a connection between violence and men both as being subjected to and as being perpetrators of violence (11). On the one hand, male workers are portrayed conducting heavy manual labour and thereby risking their lives and health. This may be interpreted as the structural violence reproduced by working laws and employment policies, as well as the inequalities of global capitalism.

On the other hand, men are seen as perpetrators of violence: symbolically by posing for photos holding a (toy) weapon (Pakistan) and against other men (Indonesia). Men’s violence against women is represented as both physical violence and in the form of less visible, structural dynamics (12). The latter form of violence includes denying women the autonomy over their own bodies, and deflecting the blame from men for unwanted pregnancies as the result of rape through a narrative that suggests that women are the only ones who are responsible for pregnancies.


In Rory Horner’s (2020) contrasting of international development and global development, it becomes evident that the term development is far from fixed. While international development rests on the distinction between Global North and Global South, global development considers as countries as developing countries. Different conceptualizations of development emphasize to a varying extent aspects such as economic growth, human development, geographical realities, different and at times intersecting inequalities, sustainability, or capabilities (13) (14).

Within the framework of global development, it may then be argued that change regarding the above-mentioned aspects of development does not (solely) occur in relation to other contexts (i.e., the Global North) but in contrast to the past as a Chinese steel worker in Workingman’s Death remarks.

However, the distinction between the geographical area(s) usually described as Global North, the West, or developed countries and those referred to as Global South, non-West, or developing/ less developed countries remains visible in Workingman’s Death. Glawogger’s attention is drawn to geographical regions located in the non-West. He then contrasts them with a scene from a shut-down steel factory in Germany (the West) in his epilogue. He does so, perhaps not so much as to create a distinct separation between geographical regions and their contexts as to highlight global inequalities. These inequalities are further highlighted by scenes such as two German tourists taking a trip to the volcano in Indonesia where locals risk their life while working, and negotiating a lower price for a piece of sulphur one of the workers sells (2). Similarly, Glawogger draws a contrast between the hero-imagery of Soviet coal miners and the precarity of illegal post-Soviet Ukrainian miners.


If we see development as processes of change that decrease inequalities and ameliorate people’s living conditions and wellbeing, empowerment plays a significant role. Naila Kabeer links (women’s) empowerment to education, paid work and political participation which if reinforced in unison have the potential to enable women to make more choices (15). Yet, she notes as further vital factor the necessity of alternatives to the choices made. Kabeer’s approach can be seen reflected in the three documentaries and is a useful means to avoid essentialisation of, i.e., non-Western women as weak and without agency. For instance, a group of female coal miners in Ukraine reflect on whether they should have gone to college and conclude that it would not have made a big difference due to a lack of employment options. This reflects on the one hand the potential of education to enable alternative choices, and on the other hand highlights that education alone is limited in this potential.

The differing circumstances and statements of the women Glawogger follows in Whore’s Glory reflect two aspects. The first aspect is that sex work can be empowering. This is the case for those women who appear content with their work and state that they chose to become sex workers i.e., as it grants them more independence. The second aspect is an illustration of Kabeer’s argument that choices made and employment taken solely out of need for survival, and without (recognised) alternatives does not qualify as empowerment (15). This is the case for those women whose only choice has been between selling sex and living on the street.

Lastly, Young Lakota (2012) illustrates the empowering potential of political participation and women in positions of political decision-making. Not only does tribal president Cecelia Fire Thunder seek to implement projects that would improve women’s conditions, but she also encourages other women, such as Sunny, merely by being a woman holding a political office and standing up for other women.

Written by Merle Emrich.

Cover photo by Edgar Santos T.


(1) Glawogger, Michael (2011) Whore’s Glory, Austria.

(2) Glawogger, Michael (2005) Workingman’s Death, Austria.

(3) Lipschutz, Marion & Rose Rosenblatt (2012) Young Lakota, USA.

(4) Mohanty, Chandra (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ in Feminist Review, 3, pp. 61-88.

(5) Connell, Raewyn W. & James W. Messerschmidt (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’ in Gender and Society, 19(6), pp. 829-859.

(6) Harcourt, Wendy (2009) Body Politics in Development, London: Zed Books Ltd.

(7) Ong, Aihwa (1987) Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Disciplin: Factory Women in Malaysia (2nd edition), Albany: SUNY.

(8) Bannon, Ian & Maria C. Correia (2006) ‘Introduction’ in Bannon, I. & M. C. Correia (eds.) The Other Half of Gender: Men’s Issues in Development. World Bank.

(9) Van der Hoogte, Lisebeth & Koos Kingma (2004) ‘Promoting Cultural Diversity and the Rights of Women: the Dilemmas of “Intersectionality” for Development Organizations’ in Gender and Development, 12:1, pp. 47-55.

(10) Horton, Paul & Helle Rydström (2011) ‘Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Vietnam: Privileges, Pleasures, and Protests’ in Men and Masculinities. 14(5), pp. 542-564.

(11) Jacobsen, Joyce P. (2006) ‘Men’s Issues in Development’ in Bannon, I. & M. C. Correia (eds.) The Other Half of Gender: Men’s Issues in Development. World Bank.

(12) Sen, Gita & Veloshnee Govender (2014) ‘Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Changing Health Systems’ in Global Public Health, 10(2), pp. 228-242.

(13) Horner, Rory (2020) ‘Towards a new paradigm of global development? Beyond the limits of international development’ in Progress in Human Geography, 44(3), pp. 415-436.

(14) Nussbaum, Martha (2005) ‘Women’s Bodies: Violence, Security, Capabilities’ in Journal of Human Development, 6(2), pp. 167-183.

(15) Kabeer, Naila (2005) ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: a Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal’, in Gender and Development, 13:1, pp. 13-24.


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