Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Three of the leading Oscar nominees for best picture for 2024 — Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Poor Things — include women in controlling situations that make one wonder if post-postmodern feminism isn’t upon us, and, if so, how did men get so chickenchoked. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not trying to say anything politically incorrect — I mean, if I got canceled today, at my age, that would be the end of my sorry ass. But something’s not right. It’s time to sort through the signs and haruspicate.

For instance, in Oppenheimer two strong women — wife Kitty and mistress Jean Tatlock — are fight over access to Oppie’s schlong. Tatlock, a former student of Oppie’s, and a psychiatrist and communist activist, in one notable scene pulls herself off Oppie’s meat rocket to go over to the bookshelf and pull out the Bhagavad Gita, containing the now-famous Hindu script: Now, I have become as God. She hops back on and essentially forces the hero to read the script in translation while she rides him until he has a massive mushroom explosion, constellating her firmament with swimmy stars, and making one wonder if we couldn’t all get together and re-tell our Origin story that way. Please? Tatlock ends up killing herself and, of course, the SALT II Treaty isn’t working. And when I remember Carl Sagan saying we are all ‘star stuff’ I now get queasy.

Barbie, from what I could see and understand, had no conventional sex in it — by the heroine at least — making the film a kind of version (virgin?) of the anatomically incorrect doll girl she so sensually embodies. There’s like a formula at work here. In her previous film, Barbie star Margot Robbie played a totally anatomically over-the-top slut in the aptly named Babylon. Now, in this film, she’s like in rehab, on the sexual wagon, got herself into a nunnery, maybe part of a 12-step program that involves heavy doses of sunshine smiles and lampooned male-gazing reversed or something. What range. I don’t know, am I wrong, or was Barbie cynically targeting the LGBTQ+ complexity and the whole bolshy I’ll Remake Me Who I Am scene? What a time to be a man!

I dunno. I’m willing to entertain the notion being kicked around like a can in near-academia that Barbie is an ur-feminist movie. That it’s actually angry. Like some Mile Davis tribute album: I’m a sex doll; they’ll never let me forget it. I’m a sex doll alright; I’ll never let them forget it. So much of feminist academia seemed to me back then angry and an interrogation of privileged white male gazing and its fixities of purpose. In this film, Ken (Ryan Gosling) seems suitable for a future cuckolding, and the arrival of GI Joe, which you expect at any moment, to rock the arc, never arrives. We begin with a lame send-up of 2001: A Space Odyssey (is that a kazoo playing the Strauss theme?), a little girl touches a monolithic (and svelte) Barbie leg and becomes a wrecking ball, smashing one doll’s head in with another doll in a revolution of tool-making — the tool here, presumably, withholding love (and what says withholding better than anatomical incorrectness?).

Then the party with all the flavors of Barbie (from frolicsome fat to NASA lift-off) showing up and dancing queenlike to gay choreography, only to see the party come to a sudden halt when someone mentions the word DEATH. Silence. For anatomically incorrect also means DEATH. The Barbie scene, with the vast array of doll roles and accessories, ain’t the ideal fem world after all. There’s some bite here. Now you get why they embedded the grim-sounding Billie Ellish number, “What Was I Made For?”, which has frankly nihilistic tendencies — though not as nada, nada, nada as that song that has the lyric “I wanna end me” from Night Country. Jesus, you’re thinking, Barbie just might be subversive, along the lines of an Angela Carter re-fabling, out to castrate the grinning wolf in grandma’s bed. Gaze on that, motherfukka! says the little visiting hood.

Then there’s the film I’m here to concentrate on, Poor Things. What a hoot! I hope it wins the whole shebang. The production design is elite. The writing’s over-the-top clever. The acting by the principals is top-notch. But is it a feminist feel good movie, as some people I don’t necessarily trust are saying, just because she CHOSE to be a whore? In this day of rescinding rights for women (see Roe v. Wade) maybe being a whore in a (classy) Paris brothel is a way of saying with Miles, again, I’m a play doll alright — I’ll never let you forget it. There’s more to it, though. Shall we unpack and stay a while?

Poor Things (2023) is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, 2015), and stars Emma Stone as Bella Baxter, Willem Dafoe as Godwin Baxter, Vicki Pepperdine as Mrs. Prim, Ramy Youseff as Max McCandles, and Mark Ruffalo as Duncan Wedderburn. This main ensemble is terrific. Secondary players, such as Hanna Schygulla (remember her — ooh, was that a pun); Jerrod Carmichael, as Harry Astley, the handsome Black intellectual is excellent as the confidante who urges Bella to ‘see the world’ while, at the same time, declares that ‘the world sucks’ and she shouldn’t expect much. (He is like an anti-Pangloss advising a female Candide as she embarks on her ‘education of the senses.’ It’s the worst of all possible worlds.) And speaking of candida, it’s a miracle Bella doesn’t catch something of that ilk at the Paris brothel run by pimpette, Swiney (played by Kathryn Hunter of Harry Potter fame).

Without spoiling anything, I wondered if Emma was faking it, and if they went ahead and used those cucumbers and carrots in the salad afterward. We wonder, what’s with Godwin’s fucked up face, and how does he remain so handsome and approachable, when so many others would have succumbed to Victorian melancholy? And I had a jack-in-the-box when the quim-questing Bella snatches at the housekeeper Mrs. Prim, and she shouts: “She grabbed me hairy business!” Ramy Youseff is a Muslim and we wonder how he could play in this movie, even as a foil or as a nice but uninteresting man; he shows signs of a boring lover’s devotion. And Mark Ruffalo who, last seen in a film, was leading Leo toward a lobotomy on a Boston Harbor island asylum in Shutter Island is, here, arch as, and a real comical girdle-wearing douchebag, who falls for Bella hard in a reversal of fortunes wolves howl at the moon over. He himself ends up in a rubber room, bouncing off the walls.

Well, okay, who is this dona Bella (as opposed to belladonna)? Alive and kicking. Finger-licking. Blissful oodles of gliss. Tanatalizing feminism that fucks with your mind. We all want to be Duncan Wedderburn, even at the risk of a rubber room with a view, in the end. But Bella, Bella does not suffer fools for very long. If it all comes down to ‘being with’ you or else achieving an orgasm, then Bella’s choosing the O, and preferably a climax by self-immolation. Duncan, you can go fuck yourself.

Poor Things is based upon the 1992 novel by Alisdair Gray, a Scottish writer and artist, with lovely and raunchy wit and quirks that hearken back to the titillating secret chamber days of Victorian England. It’s essentially a naughty Victorian novel, the kind that saw spanks administered back in the day, for no good reason. A Portnoy’s Complaint for the lacy boudoir set. Victoria’s Secret catalog. In fact, Suzy Bemba, who plays Toinette, a socialist prostitute and confidante, and who gives Bella orgasmic head in one scene, could have sprung straight out of today’s VS catalog.

Gray sets out to write a Victorian tale based on a mystery of a book-find, such as Conan Doyle might have devised for Sherlock Holmes. Alisdair Gray, pretending to be a character in the novel, explains in the Introduction that the tale comes as the result of a local historian in Glasgow, Michael Donnelly, discovering a book in a trash heap, and thinking it a lost gem decides to publish it. Gray tells us:

Michael saw the name of the first woman doctor to graduate from Glasgow University, a name only known to historians of the suffragette movement nowadays, though she had once written a Fabian pamphlet on public health.

Oh, so it was a feminist, Sherlock. Say more.

The plot is simple and straightforward. A pregnant aristocrat jumps from a bridge into the dark icy waters below and drowns. Presumably she’s depressed. Her body is salvaged by Godwin Baxter and his assistant, Max, and brought to a lab for vivisection. Oh, so it was a feminist who killed herself, in perhaps the ultimate form of abortion. Surely, then her life to the man who knocked her up was unbearable and she’d be damned if she’d be stuck in the role of wife and mother,, slave to that brute. She must have been married to a monster! Stay tuned.

The woman, Victoria is her name, is fixed up by Baxter, including the removal of her old brain and the replacement of it with her unborn child’s brain, in a campy scene reminiscent of the classic board game Operation. Godwin reanimates the dead body with electricity, and voila! Emma Stone has lots of fun in the role for the first hour playing an infantile nymphomaniac, who wants to Daddy up (but he refuses to sleep with her, in a marvelous rebuke of the Freudian Electra impulse), and who takes the self-pleasure principle too far, and who will grab your ‘hairy business’ if you’re not careful.

She is assigned by Daddy to marry lab assistant Max, a nice but bland typical Victorian man. A contract is drawn up, with Duncan Wedderburn, a lawyer, surprised by the details that essentially see Bella made a prisoner for life. A lascivious Duncan wants to take a look at the would-be bride for himself, and goes to the estate to check her out. Pretending he needs to pee, he excuses himself from a conference with Godwin, and tra-la-las through the house until he comes across the idiot savant-to-be Bella reclined on a sofa blowing bubbles (ostensibly, thinking of Da, who blows bubbles out of his body). Duncan wants some of that. He gets her to want to leave and to travel with him abroad. What can Godwin say? He so wants her happiness. He agrees to let her seek her experiences and releases her to the cad’s care. Max will have to wait. (Poor Thing.) And off she goes like Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) from Babylon on a continental sex romp that makes Eve’s work with ‘Satan’ in Eden look G-rated.

Then Bella, her baby brain now all growed up, returns home to Da, and becomes the first female scientist to do what her Daddy did. Vivisection is a feature. Her father was wont to create strange new creatures, like a goose/bulldog, a duck/goat, a bulldog/goose, a goose/basset hound, a pig/shaggy dog, a shaggy dog/duck, and a pig/chicken. (Godwin might have been the creator of the duckrabbit.) Bella, too, is a ‘poor thing.’ An expression that goes back to Victorian days, according to OED. And Bella, creates a man with a goat’s brain in revenge for transgressions all-too-rife to the times, including domestic imprisonment. It’s great to see a monster get his comeuppance. Compare this to how Godfried had let her go. Like Anonymous said: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” Saw that poster a lot in the free-love 60s. Didn’t see many people coming back though.

The fictional Alisdair Gray tells us how he and Michael Donnelly perceived the readerliness of the Poor Things:

[Donnelly] thinks it a blackly humorous fiction into which some real experiences and historical facts have been cunningly woven, a book like Scott’s Old Mortality and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I think it like Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson; a loving portrait of an astonishingly good, stout, intelligent, eccentric man recorded by a friend with a memory for dialogue.

This is incomplete, as, in Hollywood’s hands, it is also a lot like the erotic tell-all The Romance of Lust by Anonymous, a popular author in the 19th century. Or A Mummer’s Wife by George Moore.

It is more difficult to assign a feminist bent to this film than you might think. What was Gray doing writing a Victorian retro tale (1992) and what did he hope to achieve with this? Can we learn something about by having our way with the now-distant past. Perhaps he is checking in on our historical progress over widely perceived shortcomings of those times. Scholar Peter Gay writes in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984):

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the embattled bourgeoisie confronted three adversaries, none of them very much inclined toward compromise: surviving centers of aristocratic power and prestige; growing working-class parties spurred on by militant, often revolutionary, ideologies; and implacable avant-gardes in literature, the arts, the theatre, and philosophy, disdaining the bourgeoisie as bereft of taste, avid for money, and hostile to cultivation.

This film has all of that. We find today that Aristocratic power is making a strong comeback. Socialists seem to be going down on technologists. And the avant-garde, well, what can you say: We’re now into book-banning. We’re about to put back into the White House a guy who likes to grab women by ‘the hairy business’. We seem to be going backwards, but not for any coherent reason.

An aspect of the film I really enjoyed is the set design and costumes. Poor Things is a fantasy world and a fantastic job they did creating it. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan said the crew emulated Francis Ford Coppolla’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and one can see that marvelously well in the atmospherics. But the real inspiration for the story came from a dream:

While wringing my brain for new story ideas I woke one morning from a peculiar dream. In what seemed many years ago I saw a young woman, seated and staring out of a window at children playing in a back green between high tenements. A dim figure beside me said, “She will not be able to think before she has memories to think with”, and I realized the young woman had only just come into existence. This suggested a version of the Frankenstein story without the horror.

So hmph!

There is also the film’s seemingly strange use of fish eyes lens shots and other visual oddities. This appears to be a grateful nod to author Alisdair Gray who was a well-known designer and artist. But it is also a paean to his interesting philosophical premising and de-privileging of the mind over body, so prevalent and needful to many Victorians. One academic account of Bella’s representation is especially helpful to the professional supposer — Marie-Odile Pittin-Hédon writes in her essay, “Literature against Amnesia”:

In Poor Things, the separation of mind and body, of memory and the present, is … pathological … Bella is quite literally a mnemonic amputee. This allows the novel to set up two discourses to face one another. The first one is that of Godwin Baxter, the mad scientist of the Frankenstein category, who gleefully asserts that her brain ‘has risen from’ a state of total blankness, a sort of positivist assertion from a creator confident in his opinion that Bella’s – as well as Caledonia’s – future can arise from total emptiness, while the second one, the creature’s own assessment of herself, stresses that without her memory she is only ‘half a woman’ (Gray, 1992, p.61).

Without spoiling it, Bella essentially remembers, which is bad news for the aristocracy.

Some folks want to argue that Poor Things is a kind of retelling of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein. Mostly so that can make the case for feminist pioneering or something. Oh, I guess so, kinda. Poor Things may have been the story she WANTED to write, stuck there between two competing poets, secretly desiring to be their rocket launchers. I like to think that they menage troised. Mary’s monster ends up moving to Maine (or was it the Arctic?). I dunno. Is this some kind of withholding-of-love symbol I neglected as an undergrad? As for the film being a real feminist tract, whoa Nelly! Wasn’t it written by a wry and twisted Scotsman from Glasgow? And in the end doesn’t she just introject Daddy’s values? If I may wax Freudian for a sec. C’mon, will ya. Cut the shit. More likely a case of Barbie goes on an Around the World Tour and likes it.

We are amidst the AI Revolution. We are remaking ourselves — literally — with CRISPRS, gene splicing, brain enhancement, synthetic body parts printed out by 3D bio printers, and handing our ‘intelligence’ over to AI (see consequence AGI). We’re hivemindin’. We refuse to be pinned down to one orientation and will be who we want to be in the end, to quote The Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin.” Mawkish Gothic suits us right about now. One day, when the AIs are finished with us, us thinking they’re benign mad scientists, we’ll think The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a documentary. In other words, we’ll be the Poor Things that gossiping AI bee-atches take ‘pity’ on: Oh, gee, I wish I hadn’t been so hard on his reputation, she’ll say, scratching her synthetic hairy business.


Readers interested in reading the novel online for free can access it at the Internet Library.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.