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Poor Things and the Monstrosity of Womanhood

By Eve Reid

Poor Things (2023) sets out on an ambitious cinematic expedition, attempting to unfurl a fantastical narrative around sexually liberated womanhood. Director Yogos Lanthimos crafts a steampunk black comedy with his signature abject and dystopian flair, adapted from Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel of the same title. Poor Things reimagines Mary Shelley Godwin’s Gothic novel Frankenstein (1818), introducing a twist—a narrative centred around a female ‘creation.’

The story is set in a world reminiscent of the Victorian era, with a blend of Art Deco and German Expressionist set design. Dr. Godwin (God) Baxter, a brilliant anatomist, embarks on a Promethean experiment. After discovering the body of a recently deceased pregnant stranger in the River Thames, Dr. Baxter endeavours to revive her. Through a bold procedure, he implants the brain of her unborn child into her head, giving life to ‘Bella Baxter,’ his experimental creation. As an infant in the body of a mature woman, Bella navigates her new existence under the careful guidance of Dr. Baxter and his assistant, Max McCandles, adapting to her transformed body and surroundings. Bella becomes particularly concerned with both receiving pleasure from her limited ventures outside and her increasing sexual appetite. The men whom she begins to meet, including McCandles, are enamoured by her virtuosity. Against her creator’s will, she escapes captivity in his house to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe with seedy lawyer Duncan Wedderberg, who seeks to broaden her horizons.

Alexandra Kopko and Stephanie Turci, hosts of ‘The Film Bros’ podcast, ground their analysis of Poor Things in its use of the ‘Born Sexy Yesterday' trope. This articulates a convention in science fiction in which ‘a naive, yet highly skilled, girl is written into the body of a mature sexualized woman’ as described by Video Essay creator Pop Culture Detective in 2019. This trope operates under the assumption that the female subject is sexually inexperienced, granting her male sexual partners an undue amount of power when they educate and expose her to matters of a sexual nature. 

Bella is oblivious to Victorian standards of female behaviour, both intriguing and offending her male companions with her base desires. However, Lanthimos subverts the Born Sexy Yesterday trope by making Bella so obviously baby-like in her manner. Men flock to Bella, while she is basically incontinent for the first part of the film. Furthermore, her speech and movement are jilted and strange. Bella behaves offputtingly and Lanthimos seeks to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible to illustrate the absurdity in finding this ‘sexy baby’ woman attractive. This promising message, however, is undercut by relentless sex scenes and the scant lingerie costumes worn by Bella. Lanthimos provides us with both the opposite of Victorian prudishness, a woman unsullied by stuffy social moralism, and a character who is exposed and vulnerable. Bella is endearing in her lack of care for demure womanhood but somehow never faces the violent repercussions we would expect for a woman engaging often in exploitative sexual relations with men who are attracted to her childishness. Lanthimos attempts to illustrate how ‘one is not born but becomes woman’ as famously articulated by Simone de Beauvoir, Bella never has to grow up and learn the hard lessons of male domination because she is already grown. She is a blank slate unaffected by patriarchy, however, much of her characterisation relies on the fact that the viewer never knows whether to approach her as a child or an adult. Womanhood is now an obscured fact, sign and signified are not clear.

For female viewers, this is horrifying. For although Bella becomes more learned and aware of how she is vulnerable to male exploitation, her entire ‘birth’ is rooted in male fantasy. She becomes further from a Frankenstein, who seeks acceptance and knowledge, and more of an Edward Scissorhands if he had a passion for sex rather than landscaping. As film critic Karen Hollinger writes in 1989, ‘the monster film is centrally concerned with problems of sexual difference.’ The woman monster in film creates a Freudian castration anxiety in her real absence of a penis. As a result, Bella’s character is a potent allegory for fears of female sexuality and Lanthimos attempts to make this a liberating factor within the film. Bella towards the end is abandoned by lover Duncan Wedderberg in Paris so must make money through sex work. She takes this in her stride, finding power in being able to use her sexual prowess to make money. Lanthimos does not consider the dangers that this may pose for her or the trauma that may ensue from possible negative interactions with clients. Bella instead eventually tires of sex work, humorously preferring to attend socialist meetings and engage in sapphic encounters with female friends. This seems to assume that Bella is not simply just unphased by the possibility of male exploitation, but entirely operates in a world removed from female experience. As a female viewer, I was left confused by this. At first this poses a refreshing take on the strength of female character but quickly becomes unrelatable. The film is of course fantastical and dystopic/utopic in both aesthetics and narrative but is still firmly tied to ethical and social concerns of the material world. Why then does the film end (spoiler alert) with Bella inheriting the doctor’s house and living in domestic bliss with Max McCandles? 

To conclude, the patrilinear Victorian society that Poor Things is set within is both otherworldly and firmly grounded in history. Lanthimos presents us with a multifaceted and ‘freed’ vision of womanhood that subverts social respectability but doesn’t manage to escape notions of the infantilised ‘kept’ woman. Bella is only able to gain freedom from her Rapunzel-like captivity by being passed from her creator to a lover. While this would have most likely been the case for young Victorian women, why then present Bella as a fundamentally subversive vision of womanhood in the first place?


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