Labor of Love? North American and Haitian Gender Politics in ‘Vers le sud’

Sharon Meilahn Bartlett

Heading South' (2005) | Free movies online, Amazon movies, Movies online

The film Vers le Sud (Heading South, 2006), by French director Laurent Cantet and Haitian author Dany Laferrière, demonstrates how economic marginalization and racialized social codes produce a crisis of masculinity in Haiti in the 1970s. The White,[1] North American female characters in the film are sex tourists who take charge of their sexual needs and use economic capital to meet them in much the same way that men do. Above all, the film inverts the paradigm of domination one would expect to see in a patriarchal culture like Haiti’s by attributing the power to dominate to women and positioning men as their victims. Cantet accomplishes this through the spatial configurations of the scenes, diverse representations of male workers, and above all, through the narrative agency of the female characters whose perspectives and experiences structure the film. Drawing from the work of Caribbean and gender studies scholars including Frantz Fanon, Patricia Mohammed, and Judith Butler to examine the ways Cantet’s film problematizes and reformulates the long-standing conceptualization of the colonizing power as the “motherland,” my analysis focuses on the way that narrative agency is expressed through two key filmic forms: the use of monologues and the gaze. By arguing that the women’s voices take on greater weight than those of men I hope to inspire new interrogations of the intersections between gender, race, politics and capital in Haiti and the Francophone Caribbean.

Vers le sud, based on a series of short stories by Laferrière, centers on three White women, two from the U.S. and one from Quebec, who have come to a resort in Haiti to pay for sexual gratification with much younger Black Haitian men[2]. Two of the women, Brenda and Ellen, are particularly attracted and attached to one young man, Legba. Although they care for him, they do not understand the social cost men like Legba pay for supporting themselves as prostitutes. They eventually indirectly cause Legba’s death in the end, but the film’s final scenes suggest the women’s lives will continue on and they will find new young lovers in Haiti and other exotic locales.

The socio-political backdrop of Vers le sud is the dictatorship of “Baby Doc” Duvalier during the 1970s. This historical setting brings Haiti’s legacy of colonialism, slavery, and economic disenfranchisement into new light. Although the origins of these conditions can be traced back to France’s colonial rule, the American Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and what J. Michael Dash calls its “pseudo-colonial” dimension reawakened feelings of inadequacy in the Black population because of the apparent need to be governed by White authority (44). The White superiority implied during the Occupation gave the imperialist project a racial dimension that continues in some Western attempts at intervention today. Thus, one of the greatest influences on Haitian prosperity (or lack thereof) comes from North America, as represented by the White female protagonists.

As years went by, no real economic development occurred. Many Haitian leaders appealed to foreign investors to sustain the economy, but more often than not their infusions of capital landed in the pockets of the ruling class. While the average Haitian lived in extreme poverty, the elite lived luxuriously (Girard 102).[3] This is further exemplified by the tourist trade, a sort of pseudo-colonialism that attracted White foreigners, like the women in the film, to lavish resorts that sheltered them from the unpleasantness of the abject poverty just beyond its limits. One example of the burgeoning tourism industry in Haiti was the opening in 1977 of Club Med (Heinl 792).

By the 1970s, many Haitian men struggled to attain economic viability because the social system marked them as lacking due to their race, class and even gender. Employment became increasingly hard to come by, exacerbating feelings of inadequacy. Patricia Mohamed asserts, “masculine gender identity has generally derived from the promise of what a man can do, not what he is. Manhood and masculinity were/are linked to power, status, control, and the execution of his role as provider and breadwinner” (54). If a man cannot fulfill this role, as the unemployed or under-employed Haitian male cannot, then he is not a man (54). These assertions can be observed in Haiti where questionable economic viability makes the Haitian male an unappealing partner and results in a low frequency of marriage. Haitian women, therefore, have little cultural, legal, or financial incentive to bind themselves to a male counterpart. This reduces his contribution to society and contributes to his emasculation. 

Economic capital is represented in the film by the notion of vacation, which signifies escape and, in turn, employment, since the need for one is not possible without the other. The three White female tourists enjoying a vacation from their jobs are set apart from the Haitians around them, who make their vacations possible, by the simple fact that they qualify for vacation time and have the income to travel somewhere. By associating capital with female characters, Cantet initially undermines the stereotype that men control capital and women’s sexuality. Not only are the White women in the film single and most likely financially independent of male figures, but they have also traveled alone to spend their own money in search of sexual adventure in a foreign land. This dislocates many assumptions about women: like White men they, too, are wage earners capable of performing a certain pseudo-colonizing role in what Nancy A. Wonders and Raymond Michalowski call “sex tourism,” the convergence of prostitution and tourism (545). A study conducted by Kamala Kempadoo found that “the global location of the Caribbean region as a service center and playground for wealthier nations and peoples has positioned both Caribbean men and women as sex workers, reinforcing not only global gendered inequalities but also long-standing patterns of dominance and subordination between the North and the South” (40).[4]

Whereas most sex tourism studies focus on female sex workers who interact with male sex tourists, Jacqueline Sánchez Taylor’s work considers female sex tourists. She has found that while “researchers often acknowledge that sexual relationships between local men and tourist women are based on an exchange of money or goods and gifts” they also argue that the actors describe their experiences in a narrative of romance and courtship, making the term “prostitution” inappropriate (750). By casting female sex tourists as seekers of romance, those researchers have failed to recognize “that women, as well as men, can be sexually hostile and predatory” (759). This failure, together with the male sex tourism/female romance tourism dichotomy itself, reproduces essentialist notions of male and female sexuality.

Vers le sud raises a greater concern, aptly articulated by Sánchez Taylor in relation to her own work, that of the “theoretical privileging of gendered power over questions of racism and racialised power” (759). Cantet effectively signals the racial dimension of Haiti’s class system through the White and Black characters’ unequal relationships. While it may be subversive to show women attaining freedoms usually associated with men, the sexual exploitation of Black subjects in a developing country neutralizes any positive value behind that subversion. Cantet creates a paradoxical situation where one minority may advance but only at the expense of another. Neither truly gains any ground in a patriarchal cultural order since both are subject to domination by White men.

A colonial subject gains and loses value according to the racial, class, and gender codes imposed by the colonial power. When a Black Caribbean male is evaluated from the perspective of a White colonizer, it is predominantly in gendered terms according to his virility, body, and sexuality. Brenda, Ellen and Sue depend on Haitian men for their femininity, yet Legba and the other prostitutes gain nothing besides entrapment in a pseudo-colonial relationship of domination. Frantz Fanon contends in Peau noire, masques blancs that Black men are always associated with sex and are always reduced to their sexual organs (130, 137). Their black skin, their primary source of difference from the colonizer around them, continuously specularizes and overdetermines them (Fanon 93). The film affirms these points. The Black Haitian men are treated merely as sexual objects and as such are specularized and objectified.

In contrast, Fanon believes a Black male who takes a White woman as his lover may have certain advantages. It makes him seem “White” and affirms his assimilation of Western values (55). Fanon writes that loving or marrying White women offers something of value to the Black male, but in a relationship determined by the economic value of sexual gratification, love and marriage are implausible. Fanon admits that relations with White women can cost the Black man his manhood and his community. Legba and the other prostitutes have made this sacrifice in order to support themselves, swapping one aspect of their masculinity for another. They gain only marginal economic advantage over other Haitian men because their advantage depends on White women who themselves need to ensure the men earn too little to be truly autonomous. The White women would not themselves be empowered by wealthy Haitian men, which is why it is crucial the Haitian men be hungry and dependent.

The forms deployed in the film, specifically the use of monologues and the camera’s gaze, illustrate the ways in which Haitian men have been economically disenfranchised. By integrating monologues with the rest of the narrative, Cantet differentiates Vers le sud from films with more classical narrative styles. The monologues demarcate the distinctions between the White female and Black male subjects. The three White women enunciate their own monologues, but among the Black men in the film, only Albert, the maître d’ and chauffeur for the resort where the women stay, has this opportunity. Since the women’s monologues outnumber those of the Haitians, the film privileges the voices and stories of the three White women.

The women’s monologues allow them to directly address the camera, giving the viewer the sensation of being directly addressed as well. The White women’s monologues describe the most intimate details of each one’s sexual history and conquests. Albert’s, the Black manager of the resort, reveals his resentment of and prejudices towards the White tourists on the island.

Those monologues enunciated by the tourists take place in each woman’s hotel room where they are situated on her bed, relaxed and comfortable. This comfort and intimacy suggest that these statements are journal entries, meant for their own review, and not interviews done for an outside interviewer. It reminds us that this technique allows the women to portray themselves as they choose; we cannot know how much of each story is truthful and how much is embellishment. Above all, it emphasizes their agency since they are able to narrate their own stories.

Albert is distinguished from the other Haitian men by virtue of, among other things, his monologue. Unlike the young male prostitutes who have no inner thoughts, Albert shares his thoughts on the American Occupation and the White tourists who have arrived since. His criticism of these events resonates with irony because it is launched in a voice-over as he works in the hotel’s kitchen. Whereas the White women narrate their stories from the comfort and privacy of their own rooms, Albert’s is delivered in public while serving the very people he and his family once ardently fought against. Although he may have a narrative voice, it is burdened by the economic reality of work. While Albert’s point of view addresses racism and is restricted to a voice-over, the women address their sexuality in their own voices. Race is an integral part of the dynamic between the White female tourists and their Black male lovers, yet it is marginalized in the monologues’ presentation. In this way, the form echoes the predominant theme of White female sexuality at the expense of Black male subjectivity.

Regardless of the format of his monologue, Albert’s articulation still presents a possibility to voice views that the Haitian prostitutes lack. Without their own narrative voices, they cannot criticize the system around them any more than they can assert their desires. Legba, for example, is clothed and fed according to Ellen’s and Brenda’s desires. Like the other Black male characters, Legba is not presented as a full-fledged desiring subject. They are all described or presented only in relation to women.

Legba’s character serves as a link between the blissfully ignorant tourist world and the extreme Haitian poverty. He is also a link between female and male subjectivity since he is at once virile, muscular and masculine yet commodified and specularized as the female subject typically is in cinema, according to Laura Mulvey in her groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The composition of the shots makes apparent Legba’s objectification. When we first see him at the beach in the beginning of the film, the camera slowly pans over him. Later, in Ellen’s room, Cantet’s camera shows the viewer Ellen’s point of view while she photographs him. This effect doubles the gaze (the film camera and Ellen’s camera) and specularizes him. She positions him naked and face-down on her bed. Although she tells him she wants to capture both his face and his buttocks in the photo, the protrusion of his shoulder and the arrangement of the pillows prevent us from actually seeing his face. The effect depersonalizes him and emphasizes his status as her sex object. Her photograph is not designed to capture a memory, but rather to dictate Legba’s actions. If the viewers were unaware of the structuring role of female subjectivity in the film, they will undoubtedly note the authoritative way she directs his body, and consequently shapes his subjectivity. By turning the gaze on him, Ellen asserts her agency over his and invests him with the passive characteristics Mulvey associates with female subjectivity in classic Hollywood cinema.[5]

Similarly, when Legba has sex with Brenda for the first time one evening on the beach, the low lighting used in the shots makes the pale skin of her body highly visible while his dark skin recedes into the background, rendering him practically invisible except for one shot of his muscled back. The viewer knows her partner is Legba, but we have no visual clues to confirm this. In the absence of such clues, he is reduced to a mass of toned muscles and the sexual effect his actions have on her. This scene echoes the earlier scene with Ellen and her camera, yet it carries the idea of control even further because it not only positions a faceless body, but also renders it almost invisible. This impoverishes his subjectivity and foregrounds hers.

In every culture, at a given historical moment there are prescribed gender roles that demand successful performance. Judith Butler explains “because gender is a project which has cultural survival at its end, the term ‘strategy’ better suggests the situation of duress under which gender performance always and variously occurs. Hence, as a strategy of survival, gender is a performance with clearly punitive consequences. […] [T]hose who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (522). One key example illustrates the artifice behind Legba’s performance of masculinity as well as the punishments he receives for failing to properly perform the sexual function assigned to him by the White women who play a pivotal role in the socio-economic system that has disenfranchised him. This scene is particularly striking because Legba dares to criticize Ellen’s appearance. While they are in the ocean, her hair soaked and plastered against her head, he declares that he does not like her with her hair like that. She reacts by dunking him under the water, indifferent to his inability to swim, and then consoles him. In conventional films, as Mulvey’s work has shown, the female character is brought back in line to perform her role as the sustainer of masculinity. Here we see that she brings him back in line by asserting her dominance over him. This reaffirms that the social order in this socio-politico-economic context is governed not by the Black male subject, but rather by the more self-directing White female subject whose wealth and race assure her dominance over him and show her greater degree of agency.

It is significant that Cantet’s film and the short stories by Laferrière upon which the film is based, both treat the North American women with contempt, thereby complicating the gender/race problematic. Although the majority of sex trade is perpetrated by men, Cantet and Laferrière depict White women in the role of sex tourists. Cantet’s film portrays the White women as exploiters and the Black men as victims, which, by virtue of a perceived reversal of the victimizer/victim roles, questions the naturalization of domination.

In a 2005 interview included in the press kit accompanying the film, Cantet said he wanted the film to be viewed as an example of “love tourism.” In a 2006 interview for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists he told Jennifer Merin that since the Haitian men and North American women are “equally oppressed, their intimacies aren’t exploitation. If men were coming to get young girls, for example, that would be sexual tourism. Then, the film would be about exploitation.” When I presented this paper at a Francophone Studies conference focused on the Caribbean in 2010, several people in the audience expressed their agreement with these ideas and felt that the film demonstrated a mutually beneficial relationship between the Haitian men and White women in the film. Cantet’s comments and the approval of them illustrates a double standard at work that needs to be recognized and questioned. If the film featured White men traveling to the Caribbean to have sex with young, local women, it is doubtful the term “love” would be applied to the exchange. Rather than try to paint the men’s actions in terms of emotion, viewers would probably attribute them to male sex drive. I contend that calling it “love tourism” is a strategy that cloaks women’s sex drives in more socially acceptable terms since many people have traditionally assumed women view sexual activity as an extension of their feelings for their partner. To argue that both the Haitian men and White women are “equally oppressed” and therefore the women cannot exploit the men is to disregard the legacy of French colonialism, the racial codes that justified the slave labor that made the colonial exploitation possible, and the U.S. pseudo-colonialism of Haiti in the 20th century.

As Western tourists in an economically underdeveloped nation, the agency of the White female tourists in Vers le sud is clear from the beginning of the film. On one hand, since their agency comes at the expense of Black Haitian men, having it cannot be considered an achievement. On the other, their agency is limited to the socio-economic context that privileges their particular racial and class attributes. In North America, their sex marks them as inferior to the White men who dominate the social order, thus, they do not enjoy the same influence and status there as they do in Haiti. Cantet complicates the categorization of victims and victimizers through the White female tourists who both participate in the system of patriarchal privilege and are themselves victimized by it. The film successfully illustrates the myriad damaging effects of the prevailing patriarchal order on gender identity, but it does not contest binary gender logic or this type of tourism; it merely reverses the normalized roles each sex plays in patriarchal, heterosexual society. By presenting the convergence of race, economics, and gender the film offers viewers the opportunity to re-examine their assumptions about gender, race, economics, and exploitation.


[1] In an effort to be anti-racist in my work and as such, convey that Whiteness is as much a social construct and identity marker as Blackness, I am capitalizing both “White” and “Black” throughout this piece. See “Recognizing Race in Language: Why We Capitalize ‘Black’ and ‘White’” by Ann Thúy Nguyễn and Maya Pendleton at the Center for the Study of Social Policy for more information. https://cssp.org/2020/03/recognizing-race-in-language-why-we-capitalize-black-and-white/#:~:text=Lowercase%20black%20is%20simply%20a,and%20Native%2C%20are%20routinely%20capitalized.  

[2] “La Maîtresse du colonel” and “Vers le sud” in the collection La Chair du maître. Lanctôt Editeur, 1997.

[3] The ensuing corruption plagued both Duvalier dictatorships and later Aristide’s rule. By the 1970s, foreign aid provided 70% of Haiti’s treasury. However, Baby Doc manipulated foreign sensibilities to secure that aid, while squandering it on his own personal projects (Girard 102). For more on Haiti’s economic stagnation see Heinl and Heinl pgs 614-615. For more on inequality and corruption in Haiti see Dash, J. Michael. Culture and Customs of Haiti. Greenwood Press, 2001 and Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of Power. U of California P, 2005.

[4] Kempadoo’s study was primarily concerned with the conditions for female sex workers and rested on the presumption that the large number of women participating in global sex trade is due to the historic control of female sexuality and labor under patriarchal systems. Nevertheless, it also recognized that men were active in the trade (45-46).

[5] While Mulvey’s work was groundbreaking in its time, it has since been criticized for depending on a binary logic consistent with patriarchal systems of power. Nevertheless, certain points in her essay help explain the effects of power structures such as access to economic capital on gender identity. The White female tourists do not occupy the passive, “feminine” role as spectacle in the film by virtue of their financial independence, the primacy of their points of view to the film’s narrative and to its individual shots, and by reason of their aging rather than sexually idealized bodies. The Haitian men fill the void of femininity by being objectified, by serving as the spectacle.

Works cited

– Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,’ Theatre Journal, vol. 40, 1988, pp. 519-531.

– Cantet, Laurent. Vers le sud. Haut et court, 2005.

– Dash, J. Michael. Literature and Ideology in Haiti, 1915-1961. Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.

– Fanon, Fanon. Peau noire masques blancs. Editions du Seuil, 1952.

– Girard, Philippe. Paradise Lost: Haiti’s Tumultuous Journey from Pearl of the Caribbean to Third World Hot Spot. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

– Heinl, Robert Debs and Nancy Gordon Heinl. Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995. UP of America, 1995.

– Kempadoo, Kamala. “Freelancers, Temporary Wives, and Beach Boys: Researching Sex Work in the Caribbean.” Feminist Review, vol. 67, 2001, pp. 39-62.

– Merin, Jennifer. “Jennifer Merin interviews Laurent Cantet re Vers le sud,” AWF (Alliance of Women Film Journalists). 9 Dec. 2006, http://awfj.org/blog/2006/12/09/26/.

– Mohammed, Patricia. “Unmasking Masculinity and Deconstructing Patriarchy.” Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analyses, edited by R.E. Reddock, The U of the West Indies P, 2004, pp. 38-67.

– Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.

– Sánchez Taylor, Jacqueline. “Dollars Are a Girl’s Best Friend? Female Tourists’ Sexual   Behaviour in the Caribbean.” Sociology, vol. 35, 2001, pp. 749-64.

– Shadow Distribution (2005) “Interview with Laurent Cantet.” Press Kit, 2005, http://www.shadowdistribution.com/headingsouth/downloads/HeadingSouthPresskit.pdf.

– Wonders, Nancy A. and Raymond Michalowski. “Bodies, Borders, and Sex Tourism in a Globalized World: A Tale of Two Cities Amsterdam and Havana.” Social Problems, vol. 48, 2002, pp. 545-71.

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