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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Public Cinemy No. 1: The problem with ‘Poor Things’

“Poor Things” is a symptom of sexualized media co-opting feminism.


Amidst a backdrop of gothic production design, fisheye lenses and vibrant color grades, Director Yorgos Lanthimos boldly poses the question: What if Frankenstein’s monster was a manic pixie dream girl?

Jokes aside, “Poor Things” (2023), which some critics have interpreted as a feminist flick, reads as naive and snobbish at best and downright patronizing at worst. I believe in Lanthimos’s ability to craft a feminist picture (“The Favourite” (2019) ranks among my top films), but his newest venture misses the mark.

Proponents of “Poor Things” read it as the tale of a young woman, uninhibited by cultural hangups, escaping her patriarchal would-be-keepers in a fantasy that shows what women could do if they refused to be held back by society. Once free, she chooses to embark on countless sexual escapades, including a stint working in a Parisian brothel. Although there’s much to be said about how women have historically been excluded from the sexual pleasure and freedoms men enjoy with abandon, I wonder if “Poor Things” portrays this idea in a way that is exploitative rather than truthful.

The message of sex in “Poor Things” has already been debated to death, so I’ll simply add another facet to it that I haven’t yet seen discussed. If the film is centered on Bella Baxter’s  (Emma Stone) pursuit of sexual pleasure, then why does she largely have sex with men who she seems to have little, if any, attraction to? She breaks free of patriarchal boundaries by telling patrons of her brothel that they smell, but has sex with them anyway. She finds Duncan (Mark Ruffalo) odious, but delights in their physical relationship. The men she is entangled with are overwhelmingly older than her, uglier than her and sometimes possessing overt physical deformities. There’s no genuine attraction, just enjoyment of the physical act. This image of a woman’s sex life confuses and disturbs me — why is male sexuality portrayed as a pursuit of something altogether desirable, while female sexuality is portrayed as a soulless, robotic act that can take place with anyone or anything? When women’s sexuality takes center stage, why does attraction take a back seat? Isn’t this portrait of female pleasure a seed for the type of incel philosophy that’s sprouted over the past decade: ‘if woman sexually liberated, why she no have sex with me?

If Bella’s escapades are solely transactional, then Lanthimos’s portrayal of sex work is nothing new; it’s actually hundreds of years old. The notion that Bella is profiting, “winning” the transaction or even exploiting the johns ignores the realities of sex work. I won’t write an entire essay on the matter, but I will say that 68% of sex workers meet the criteria for a lifetime diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which is almost 10 times the PTSD rate among war veterans. This worship of sex work as fodder for philosophical debate or female mysticism harkens back to the works of gems like Director Louis Malle and poet Charles Bukowski, which show men building fantasies of prostitutes and nymphomaniacs with the rubble of exploitative industries and desperate women. The irony of the film being a ‘feminist satire’ is in its willing exclusion of the ending of the book the movie is based off of, where Bella reveals the portrayal of her is an inaccurate sexualized fantasy created by her husband. Instead, the movie takes this sexualized fantasy, force-feeds it acid and runs with it.

The portrait of women’s self-discovery being intertwined with sexual escapades is a pattern I’ve seen emerging over the past few years, and I can understand why. In a world where women historically have been shamed, vilified for and gatekept from sexuality, it’s natural that liberation and sexual expression will blend together. But alongside films like “Lady Bird” (2017) and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) which explore female sexuality in an honest, compelling way, there’s been an onslaught of sexualized media positing that sexual liberation means never saying no. A stubbornly patriarchal society makes it far too easy for male consumers to co-opt women’s sexual expression; thus, we must not lose sight of the feminist tenets that allowed us to explore it in the first place.