What are feminists fighting for today? According to Rebekah Merkle, not much.
“I don’t think even the third-wave feminists have any idea what they’re fighting for,” the author and mother of five says in the recent documentary “Eve in Exile: The Restoration of Femininity.” “Every battle has been won,” Merkle continues, “and now we’ve gotten into the weird space where we don’t know what a woman is,” she says in the 67-minute film from Canon+, a streaming service from Canon Press. The documentary traces the history of feminism, how it dismantled the meaning of womanhood, and how women today can reclaim that identity.
Merkle never explicitly explains the film’s title (which it shares with her 2016 book), but her description of feminist ideology as a destructive force conjures the image of Eve, a symbol of womanhood, wandering through a confused world and robbed of purpose.
After tearing down centuries-old understanding of sexuality, feminism has declared that women are not and cannot be anything different from men. What’s more, it preaches a gospel of self-fulfillment over self-gift, rendering family life at best superfluous and at worst deadweight.
But with appealing optimism, Merkle asserts that she wouldn’t want to live in any other age. Because now, amid the wreckage of modern culture, there is an opportunity to rebuild a home for Eve.
Addressed primarily to Christians, Merkle pieces together a scriptural understanding of what womanhood means. At the same time, her arguments incorporate historical and scientific facts that can resonate with nonreligious viewers as well.
Motherhood as a Way to Love
For example, she points out that because fertility is an integral part of women’s biological and psychological existence, it’s only natural that the mission of women involves bearing and caring for life. For many, that means literally being mothers, but for all women, it means approaching their work not just as a path to personal achievement but as a way to love and uplift others.
Merkle quotes the Bible often, but it’s never forced and always in a natural setting: while making coffee, painting bookshelves, or strolling through her garden. Her faith is visibly integrated with her life, and that makes her message appealing – even when she takes on the disquieting biblical passages about wives being subordinate to their husbands. Without watering down the passages, Merkle offers context and with just a few simple words shows how the Bible actually honors women as the pinnacle of God’s creation. “If you just look at [God’s] creation,” she asks, “…Why would he suddenly, when he gets to mankind, top it off with … a creature that’s never allowed to do anything neat?”
What Does Biblical Femininity Look Like?
“Eve in Exile” does leave something to be desired: more voices. We see women of all ages on screen, cooking meals or digging in gardens, but it’s all overlaid by Merkle’s monologue. Granted, she did write the book that grounds the film, but by the one-hour mark, it’s hard not to feel a little tired of hearing the same voice.
Merkle could have strengthened her message by discussing it with other women trying to live it. What does biblical femininity look like in the life of a college student, a young mom with toddlers, a middle-aged mom working part-time, or a retired grandmother? Merkle notes that living the mission is unique to each woman’s life, and she has a point. Still, individual stories would offer ideas about how the rebuilding of womanhood could look for one woman or another.
Merkle does give a few examples from her own life, particularly working with her husband to redesign the kitchen. The anecdote offers insight about spousal love and cooperation — but for those of us who are not planning a full kitchen remodeling, the example doesn’t quite hit home.
This leads us to another area where the film falls short: practical tips. After presenting such a countercultural view of womanhood, some suggestions about how to uphold it in everyday situations would have clinched the message as not only desirable but doable.
Documentary Lacks Real-Life Mess
Toward the end of the film, Merkle encourages her fellow women to roll up their sleeves and to not be afraid of getting messy while rebuilding their feminine role. Meanwhile, all the footage shows clean, glossy homes with smiling families. As heartwarming as these images are, they seem more like commercials than real life. It might leave us wondering whether in this glorious pursuit of womanhood, a new mom struggling to nurse or a busy mom cleaning up vomit is falling short.
Merkle speaks about messes in general terms, but the film could have been more upfront about the real thing, the unpredictable adventure of mothering, the necessity of leaning on loved ones for help — and the beauty that can be found amidst it all.
In the end, Merkle’s message about womanhood sells, but it remains unclear how it’ll work. In other words, “Eve in Exile” is inspiring but incomplete. Perhaps the book offers more perspective and practical tools, and if the intent of the film was to encourage viewers to read the book, it might succeed. But for those who prefer the pep talk and the practical tips on screen, we could do with a sequel.
“Eve in Exile” is available to stream on Canon+.