Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Women’s Rights vs. Animal Rights?

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There’s an unwritten mandate woven into the fabric of most documentary films: to edify and to make the world a better place. That’s usually a pretty straightforward proposition. Docs that champion the needy, marginalized and dispossessed connect audiences to many important social causes. Of course, this can get a little tricky when you disagree with the social cause, as I’ve written about when I blogged about Expelled, the doc advocating Intelligent Design. But to make a sweeping generalization, most docs are made by liberals and viewed by liberals.

Mari Paz Vega in Ella Es El MatadorHowever, it can get really tricky when you have two conflicting liberal social agendas, and the film addresses just one, and pretty much ignores the other. I’m talking about this week’s POV broadcast of Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador). The film is a noble and refined depiction of two women asserting their identity and reaching for their dreams in a male-dominated culture. And, yet, they’re doing it at the expense of the bulls. It’s women’s rights versus animal rights. And although some of you may roll your eyes, I imagine others will seethe at the brutality depicted in Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador).

I liked this doc. It’s beautifully shot and well constructed; the main subjects, two women matadors (well, one aspires to that title), are very compelling. I found myself rooting for them all the way. And yet, as a former animal rights advocate, I was intrigued by how the cruelty of the sport was diminished. Although the women talk passionately and sincerely about the deep relationship between the bull and the matador, and one even uses the word “cruelty,” there’s little acknowledgment that bullfighting is a controversial subject. But, I mean, even if there’s tradition and respect and honor and all that going on, you still have animals being killed for sport.

Honestly, it doesn’t bother me too much personally, because the cruelty that goes on in factory farms dwarfs bullfighting and I’ve moved on to other worries beyond saving the world’s furry, four-legged population. But I’m curious — are there any animal-rights folks who found Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador) objectionable? And, if so, does the unfair treatment of the women in the film — women who take bullfighting so seriously, and who appear to be such valiant, good people — diminish that objection?

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • J. White

    FOREIGNID: 20126
    I don’t think the killing of the bulls was downplayed but the doc really was about the women trying to make it. Dealing with issues surrounding cruelty in bullfighting is a whole different story.

  • Melanie

    FOREIGNID: 20127
    Each documentary is a contribution to the conversation, not an entire conversation. Since everything is connected, it would be impossible to cover all the issues in one film and would likely become boring, academic, or dilute the issues. I think of documentaries as a focal lens on a specific issue. We get magnification of a detail that we might not have known or thought about.

  • Tracy

    FOREIGNID: 20128
    I haven’t seen this film.
    But I don’t believe “advancing” into such a career helps women’s rights. Not everything a man does is to be looked on highly.
    Killing an animal does not advance the cause of women. It diminishes it.
    I support women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, animal rights, etc. We shouldn’t help one cause while hurting another.
    I also think it’s a shame that you so casually dismiss helping animals. You admit you know about the cruelty of factory farms, yet you don’t seem to care. You can “move on to other worries” while at the same time eating like you give a damn. It’s easy and can be done three times a day, without taking time from your “other worries.”
    Visit for more info.

  • Lisa

    FOREIGNID: 20129
    I think you have raised a very valid point that reaches far beyond the boundaries of just women’s rights v. animal rights. For those of us who see bullfighting as a primitive, cruel sport we would like for all to disengage. But given that it continues to be a legal, beloved sport the argument becomes one of allowing women equal access which is a valid expectation given the current model being used to judge parity and progress. However, I regret that we, as women, do not encourage ourselves to question whether it is noble to be pursing the right to engage in any action men are exclusively engaging in. Is it always progress to be standing alongside men on a given front? What about all those areas where the greater achievement is in the refusal to engage in order to discourage a morally flawed social ill? For instance, should American feminists fight to make sure Blackwater employs as many female mercenaries as male? Might bullfighting be just such a ground? I object to the simple reduction that says women achieve parity by being represented in every activity once reserved for only males. This would only be true if all currently male dominated activity were just and moral. This is not the case. I much prefer a goal of women picking and choosing roles within society based on our own moral and intellectual sensibilities and throwing away forever the uninspired model of “if men are doing it, we must be allowed to do it, too”. On some fronts, we need to be working to defeat them, not join them.

  • Annalee

    FOREIGNID: 20131
    Honestly, get over yourself Tommy. If this movie had been about male bullfighters, you wouldn’t blink an eyelash. Your angle is women’s rights versus animal rights? Like what, women are animals and they’re both below males?
    Gawd what a bunch of sexist crap. If you want to go there, then consider this: In every way, a man is half of a woman. Think about it.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 20132
    I do not dismiss others helping animals. I said that, for myself, I chose a different path. I actually do care: I just don’t do anything (other than being fish-eating vegetarian, but now that the ocean’s fish population is being depleted, I’m not sure what to do) about it any more. As for AC; if this doc were about male bull fighters, it wouldn’t have been worth making. I don’t really follow the rest of your argument.
    More on topic, Lisa: I agree with what you are saying but then I catch myself with a question: is the US military a more humane place, now that more women are a part of it? I genuinely don’t know, but I suspect so. I don’t think the same could be said about bullfighting, because I bet if you asked the bull, they wouldn’t care who is poking them with spears and swords until they bleed to death.
    I should add that everyone should see the doc tonight, and see if you still feel the same way as you did pre-viewing.

  • doc soup man

    FOREIGNID: 20134
    …and I want to also add that I hope this discussion doesn’t influence your viewing too much: there is much more to this doc than this issue of women’s rights vs. animal rights; it’s just one angle that I found interesting.

  • Nabeel

    FOREIGNID: 20135
    I have to take issue with the last statement by “doc soup man.” To wit: “is the US military a more humane place, now that more women are a part of it? I genuinely don’t know, but I suspect so.”
    Why this sexist pandering? Abu Gharib, Bagram, Ramadi, torture and dehumanization so deep and wide that the mind is barely able to comprehend it. Please.
    Women in power — whether politics, Indria Ghandi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher or in the boardroom — the woman who headed HP, for example — women don’t strike one as very different from their male counterparts. Oh, let us not forget Condi and Hilary; two power pushers on par with the worst of the male lot.
    Back to Lisa’s point: Should we applaud women who get jobs as concentration guards just because they broke the barbed wire ceiling? The answer is obvious.

  • Jason

    FOREIGNID: 20137
    I like Lisas idea about standing up to things that while socialy acceptable are morally wrong. That is the doc I want to see. This has been the real fight throughout history since the beginning. Show me a doc about people standing up against bullfighting and how thier message is received in that culture. That would really be interesting!

  • Paniacci

    FOREIGNID: 20138
    wherever you enter in the arena of women’s rights(twilight zone tune),they trump all others,even children’s well being.
    See divorce and “family” courts or abortion rights over the not even born.Need to say more.
    Women cry…..,and forget about even a bull’s bigger balls.

  • Richard Rosichan

    FOREIGNID: 20140
    I don’t understand how a “sport” that involves torturing animals to death can be considered legitimate, and why admitting women to its ranks would be considered an advance of some sort. Every culture and every religion on the planet has elements in it that are not just absurd but just plain WRONG. This is one. Would it have been an advanmce for womens’ rights if Michael Vick had allowed women to join in his dog fighting operations?

  • ht

    FOREIGNID: 20141
    I agree with AC’s comment: “If this movie had been about male bullfighters, you wouldn’t blink an eyelash. Your angle is women’s rights versus animal rights? … women are animals?”
    But Doc Soup’s comment is also true and even courageous: “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me too much personally, because the cruelty that goes on in factory farms dwarfs bullfighting and I’ve moved on to other worries beyond saving the world’s furry, four-legged population. ”
    My questions to the bull-fighting critics are: Would they be content that animals are slaughtered in secretive, closed slaughter houses, away from public eye — so the consumers of meat can eat with a peaceful conscience?
    As for condemning women who pursue high profile ambitions that men pursue, I like to point out that slaughter houses also employ women workers. Anyone wish to decry that there are women who work for slaughter houses? Finally, can the critics give up meat eating as a protest against bullfighting?
    Animals and poultry — except pets — are bred for human consumption. That’s a cruel fact few people care to visit.
    I am not pro-bullfighting,but I believe bullfighting is the most honest way a human can kill an animal. The violence and blood that humans create, are all in the open, not performed in secret. There is no hypocrisy. Plus, there is the the possibility of fairness to the animal about to be killed — it may have a chance to kill its killer.
    As long as humans consume animal meat, killing bulls in the open, before the public, is an honest way to show the human’s bloodthirsty needs.

  • green t.

    FOREIGNID: 20146
    In answer to Richard Rosichan’s “I don’t understand how a “sport” that involves torturing animals to death can be considered legitimate” –
    The human world has been doing this since it discovered the pleasure of taste buds and games. We have evloved a long way from the world of gladiators. But even today’s movies (“The Gladiator”, for example) still glorify gladiator related drams. There is even a reality TV show called “American Gladiators” or something like that. Anyone want to protest against Hollywood for these gladiator TV shows and movies?
    Bloody sports that promise fame and profit, are acceptable to the public — except when the players are women. That’s what makes it controversial. Not so much the bloodiness or cruelty, but that women too want a piece of what is men’s right.
    I find the hue and cry from the public that are otherwise silent about the breeding animals for slaughter houses and the production of fois gras, for example, that these otherwise silent voices condemn bull-fighting — especially because the fighters are women — are a kind of hypocrisy.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 20150
    Nabeel, it’s interesting to note that I (and I assume many of us) learned a lot about those Abu Ghraib women soldiers you refer to from a documentary; Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure. In that doc, they come across as perpetrators but also as victims of a sort, of the sadism of their male counterparts as well as the military “justice” system.
    As others have been saying: you have to look at the specifics of each case. Which is what tonight’s doc (airing in 2hrs and 18 minutes!) did for me: I felt more sympathetic to these two women bullfighters, even if I think their occupation is barbaric.

  • Jo

    FOREIGNID: 20153
    Women are wrong to be cruel to animals? Isn’t that statement as sexist as a male dominated sport? The sport is cruel. Women can be cruel. Why is cruelty to animals the equivalent of sexism in sport?

  • Bonnie

    FOREIGNID: 20204
    I just read the filmmakers statement that “Our intention in this, our directorial debut, is to open a window for viewers to enter into a unique world without judgment…” Why should we? Unfortunately, had they used more judgment their film might not have glorified women who, by entering into a hitherto fore (almost entirely) male dominated blood sport, simply proved that women, too, can be cruel and indifferent to the suffering of animals, even to the point of making a profession of ritualistically torturing them for fame and profit. I hope the filmmakers will judge more carefully their next project. As for this one … may it be received with the outrage and disgust it so richly deserves.

  • V

    FOREIGNID: 20216
    To Lisa (comment on Sept. 1/09):
    Amen! I think you hit the deeper issue right on the nose!
    We shouldn’t be blindly fighting for equality, but equity.

  • Jack Lani

    FOREIGNID: 20246
    Leave the women and the bulls alone. It’s really NONE of our business. We’re not required to attend bullfights. I do have a bone to pick with animal radicals though. I’m tired of the genocidal eradication of indigenous tribes globally by use of these nefarious groups. And all because the tribes have valuable natural resources corporations and nations want to grab. Then there’s always HSUS with its agenda to do species genocide on all pet and farm animals. Sad how few who part with funds realize they are going to rob people and kill whole species of animals.

  • Linda S. Berl

    FOREIGNID: 20291
    I turned the bullfighting program on late, but could not believe what I was seeing. I thought if the words “women pilots” were substituted in place of “female bullfighters”, the stories could have been the parallel ones to my life as a female pilot. It is disappointing to see that the machismo-wall that I have slammed into time and again in aviation is the same in other non-traditional avocations. The passion the women reflected in your story about bulls and bullfighting is the same intense way I feel about flying. Just as the bulls do not care whether or not you ar male or female, and airplane does not know or care about the gender of the pilot. It is all about the individual’s level of passion, willingness to work hard for a fair chance to reach a goal, and or cosourse, training. These women bullfighters are not unreasonable in their desire to fight the bulls— as it should not be so crazy that all I think about are airplanes and flying. If I sound frustrated, it is because I am! Why does it always have to be so hard? Why does society put so much effort into squelching instead of supporting and promoting a women’s interests just because she is female? When you are passionate about an activity/career gender disappears in the mind of the woman…at least it always has in me. I grow so tired of having to fight what others are encouraged to do (not that it will ever stop me). Yes, I am feminine and do not consider myself a feminist. I am a lady, not a tomboy (see, even that has the male connotation!). All we women with unusual pastimes want is the same chance that everyone else gets to do what they love. God gave us these interests, skills and desires for a reason. And that reason was not to sit on the sidelines watching. That’s all I have to say about this. I enjoyed the show and wish that I had tuned in sooner!

  • Theresa

    FOREIGNID: 20386
    For those of you who missed the film, you can watch Ella Es el Matador on the PBS website until September 30, 2009. Read more comments about bullfighting on the Ella Es el Matador special feature: “What’s Your POV About Bullfighting?”

  • George

    FOREIGNID: 20579
    If there is anyone who got it, it was Ms. Linda S. Berl.
    Her comment -posted sept. 3rd. Elequently states what this film is truly about. If you have not viewed the film, but the first thing that comes to mind is animal cruelty, You will not get it. It’s that plain and simple.

  • Linda

    FOREIGNID: 23415
    I’ve never even heard of a “former” animal rights advocate. It’s like saying “I used to be opposed to child abuse, but not anymore!”