Courtesy of Searchlight

March 21, 2024

On ‘Poor Things’: Her Own Means of Production

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“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” While the attribution of this quote to Oscar Wilde remains debatable, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things embodies its essence flawlessly. A masterpiece of fiction, Poor Things continues to stir a maelstrom of contrasting reactions: Some adore it, others find it disconcerting; it exudes opulence yet leaves an unsettling impression. The bizarre brilliance of Bella Baxter (portrayed by Emma Stone) has prompted some to exit the theater within the first 30 minutes, while others, myself included, found themselves ravenous for seconds.

As a scholar in feminist studies, I’d be remiss in not admitting my perspective on the film to be tainted with a bit of bias. Nonetheless, I’m unsure whether I’d posit Poor Things as an objectively feminist film. A capitalist commentary and sexual think-piece? Most certainly. Yet, does it stand alongside the works of Audre Lorde and Simone de Beauvoir in my academic discourse? This is a matter that warrants further thought.

The disjunction between Bella Baxter’s body and mind is palpable, and her story is undeniably liberating. Bella navigates the world with curiosity and impoliteness, endearing lovability and innocence tinged with occasional violence. She is a monstrous creation, born from Willem Dafoe’s Frankenstein-esque experimentation. Most notably, she is a woman. 

Of all that Bella comes to learn and discover, what most captivates her ever-developing mind and evolving interests is sexual pleasure — to the extent that she struggles to comprehend why people don’t indulge in it all the time. And while I’d contend Bella is no anomaly in this thought process, from what I have gauged, her intrigue has been met with an air of disgust and disturbance.

Sex is ubiquitous. It’s thought about, it’s dreamt about, it’s sold and it sells. What makes Bella’s sexual narrative so fraught, however, is how the sexual narrative is placed in her hands. What Poor Things does so poignantly is divorce the sexual from the pornographic and the erotic and instead employ it as a tool for self-discovery. It is a film about female pleasure untethered from the likes of men.

Nevertheless, I recognize the surface-level distaste. The portrayal of a childlike woman who has yet to murmur a coherent sentence, finding pleasure from herself and Mark Ruffalo’s sumptuously perverted and glaringly insecure Duncan Wedderburn, is undeniably irksome. The foregrounding of Bella’s libido throughout the piece raises concerns, perpetuating accusations of patriarchally-driven nymphomania and infantilization. Yet I contest that Lanthimos navigated the politics of this concern with caution. You are, in fact, supposed to wince at how quickly the men grasp at her ever-waning innocence.

As our beloved Bella continues her carnal dance with Wedderburn, and perhaps even more notably, with herself, Poor Things lays bare her childlike wonder, juxtaposed with her unwavering willfulness, her fiery flair, her taste for adventure and her embrace of autonomy. She, as a woman, emerges as an active agent in her sexual endeavors — unabashedly apathetic to male desire.

As such, while Bella’s journey into personhood is undeniably shaped by her exploration of the venereal, her concept of pleasure transcends mere sexual gratification. She enjoys reading and cultivating friendships and displays a penchant for exploring new cities and encountering eclectic characters.

Settling into a brothel community, Bella understands the opportunity to finally relish in the delight and freedom of being her “own means of production.” It was this line that stuck with me, the one that I wrote down in my journal and brought up at the dinner table — the line I believed captured the essence of the film: the promotion of a reality where the pleasure of women, be it sexual, personal or futile, is not an adjunct to that of men — a domain where a woman’s promiscuity and willingness to use the erotic to her own benefit is not construed as a form of social suicide.

However, what gives me pause in labeling the film as deliberately feminist is that Bella’s actions are not a deliberate rebellion against patriarchy so much as they stem from a blatant ignorance of it. Born — or more aptly, created — into domestication and continuously subject to (albeit unsuccessful) attempts to exploit her initial naivety — whether by Wedderburn’s pursuit of sexual gratification or the eccentric Godwin Baxter’s (portrayed by Willem Dafoe) scientific endeavors — Bella had yet to live a life beyond the purview of control. As such, her sourcing of power in pleasure and the shamelessness she exerts in doing so is not deliberately radical so much as it is, in her specific case, just something new. She is not much a feminist icon as she is an unwitting trailblazer.

Do not get me wrong, this critique is not to discredit the social significance of the film’s narrative. Hailing from the same lab that merges goats with men and ducks with dogs, Bella is, quite literally, a descendant among monsters. Nonetheless, what Lanthimos makes so blazingly apparent is her monstrosity, as a woman, being rooted in her sexual liberation. 

Sex, undeniably, serves as a dual-edged sword, simultaneously used to condemn women and set them free. At its core, Bella’s story is one of freedom and self-discovery, independence and autonomy. Despite the efforts of the men in her life to frame sex as the former, Bella steadfastly — out of no radical interest but that of her own — upholds the latter.

In apropos to the wisdom of Lorde and her understanding of the erotic as power, it is the contemporary sexually-liberated women, so eloquently embodied — albeit inadvertently — by Bella Baxter, who can equate the erotic, the sexual, to a knowledge of themselves as opposed to an understanding of how and whom they think they should be to cater to the preferences of men. 

In establishing a sphere of sexual subjectivity where female eroticism and autonomy breaches the confines of domesticated spaces and, by extension, most certainly evokes discomfort, the woman who understands her body as her “own means of production,” not only utilizes it as a business opportunity, she serves as a compelling illustration, highlighting that seizing opportunity is inherently and decisively a woman’s business. 

Eve Iulo is a second-year in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].