I recently dared to suggest on social media that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale was feminist propaganda. Interestingly enough, I received pushback from two different sides — Those who objected to it being portrayed as feminist propaganda and those who defended it AS feminist propaganda. The series is being hailed as a dire warning against totalitarianism, especially as foisted by political conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and the Patriarchy. Who else? The series’ application, so they say, is specific to Trump’s America and as a Warning to Conservative Women.
Of course, this is not much of a surprise. Railing against conservative Christians and white men is the perennial cause du jour for progressives. Now with Trump in the White House, they’ve set the Doomsday Clock to midnight and proclaimed themselves the new #Resistance.
What’s mildly surprised me is the degree to which artists are being recruited into this #Resistance. Whereas agenda-driven, preachy stories were once condemned by the gatekeepers, now they appear to be in vogue. Building upon this “revolutionary” momentum set in motion by The Handmaid’s Tale, lists of other works of “feminist fiction” have made the rounds. What strikes me as interesting in many of these lists is the inclusion of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. For example, this list from i09 recommends 10 Other Works of Feminist Fiction. Number 2 on their list is Children of Men. Their summary:
…Cuarón’s 2006 film takes place in a dystopia that resembles a grimier, way less pious, way more disorganized parallel universe to The Handmaid’s Tale. They share, of course, the idea that widespread infertility will re-shape society as we know it—and that the (male) leaders of the future will deal with the crisis in different but still deeply shitty ways.
Men acting in “deeply shitty ways” is a requirement of feminist fiction. The question that I’ve had while perusing these lists is, How ‘feminist’ was Children of Men?
When I first saw the film, I blogged about my thoughts in a post entitled Hollywood’s Violent Contradiction. Here’s some of what I wrote:
The sanctity of life is a consistent theme in Hollywood films. How many times has a movie left us with the message that one life matters, that everyone’s special, that we all have a sense of destiny. A film as innocuous as The Revenge of the Sith culminates with the birth of a child (Luke Skywalker, who will save his people from the Empire). The Butterfly Effect reminds us that every action — every choice — is infinitely important. Darren Aronofsky describes the central theme of his new film The Fountain, as “the sanctity of life.” Some have gone as far as to suggest that in Children of Men: Hollywood Goes Pro-Life. The official site for the film opens with a glowing embryo descending onscreen.
Here’s the catch: Hollywood celebrities are decidedly pro-abortion.
Therein lies the “violent contradiction” I spoke about. Hollywood wants to celebrate individual worth and human dignity while supporting the legal termination of almost 1 million unborn children a year. Nevertheless, many have noted the blatant pro-life message of Children of Men. One blogger called it “unabashedly pro-life.” Another wrote about, “the fundamentally pro-life fabric of the film: human dignity should never be compromised, and human life, foreign and domestic, young and old, is a gift that should be protected.” Students for Life included the film in their list of Films with a Pro-Life Message.
But to the degree that Children of Men contains a pro-life message, it deeply undermines its feminist cred.
Of course, this “pro-life message” is but a shadow of the author, P.D. James’, original novel. For example, Terry Mattingly noted that “the team behind the movie ripped out the book’s gripping Christian foundation.” Reflecting on the film a decade later, Warren Henry wrote in Ten Years Later, Critics Still Love—And Misunderstand—’Children of Men’:
…the critical adoration for “Children of Men” is largely misplaced. The movie is technically brilliant, but fails even as the sort of political agitprop its admirers would like it to be.
Beneath its sci-fi veneer, the novel is an essentially Christian nativity tale that strongly suggests that the global infertility (and resulting statism) is the product of a civilization that became so godless and hedonistic that children and family were no longer the future of humanity. The movie avoids identifying an express cause of the infertility, but presents divine judgment as the theory of crazed, masochistic zealots.
Cuarón, the director, told Filmmaker magazine the “book is almost like a look at Christianity, and that wasn’t my interest. I didn’t want to shy away from the spiritual archetypes but I wasn’t interested in dealing with Dogma.”
Another reviewer called the book a “subtle critique of our current culture of sex-obsessed, anti-Christian, child-phobic self-indulgence.”
These are NOT the types of things one would naturally attach to a “feminist film.” Yet despite the director’s disavowal of the author’s faith and her novel’s message (the last act of the novel is the baby’s baptism), the film still cannot shake the novel’s pro-life underpinnings.
Perhaps this says more about the hijacking of art for political and/or religious purposes. I tend to see it as an indictment of Hollywood and contemporary feminism. Recently, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez made it clear that pro-lifers are not welcome within the Democratic party, demanding that unwavering support for abortion is “not negotiable” for “every Democrat.” A similar groupthink is demanded of feminists regarding abortion rights as a central tenet of their creed. Making “pro-life feminism” a virtual oxymoron.
Supporters of The Handmaid’s Tale and its perceived message, though eager to include other pieces of art and fiction in their cause, shouldn’t get too excited about Children of Men’s inclusion. For to the degree that Children of Men contains a pro-life message, it is not “feminist fiction.”