Poor Things: A feminist male sex fantasy

By Tori Brown 

In the aftermath of this award season, I can’t help but feel sick to my stomach, and it’s not just because of the catastrophic Barbie snubs. No, what makes me abhor this past Oscars ceremony is the Barbie snubs alongside the highly awarded, fetishized porno masquerading as female empowerment that was the film, Poor Things

Let’s take a step back. If you somehow missed this film entirely, I don’t blame you. It snuck in like a thief towards the end of last year and somehow garnered eleven Oscar nominations and four wins. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things is loosely based on a book of the same name and is a modern retelling of Frankenstein. It follows Bella’s journey of self-discovery as she travels Europe with her paramour, but Bella isn’t like the other girls. Bella is the reanimated corpse of a dead woman named Victoria, who committed suicide while pregnant due to her dire life circumstances with an abusive husband, and Bella has the brain of her unborn child.  

This raises some red flags immediately. A man has found a pregnant corpse, violated it by not only reanimating it, but by then removing its brain and inserting the brain of an infant. This is particularly tone deaf after the year we’ve had with women’s bodily autonomy and the worldwide impacts of overturning Roe V. Wade. Not only that but the history of medicine has its own murky and questionable past with women’s autonomy, bringing to mind (or lack thereof) lobotomies, electro-shock therapy, and the false diagnosis of hysteria.  

This aspect of the movie, however, isn’t necessarily the issue. In fact, I thought the way it discussed these current issues of bodily autonomy brimmed on satire even, feeling a bit too close to reality. No, it is instead what the film decides to do next.  

Poor Things spends half its runtime with Bella having incredibly graphic sex. 

When I saw this film in cinemas, I didn’t mind it, until I saw Emma Stone reach between her legs within the first 15 min and masturbate. I think I speak for most women, and most people, when I say I do not remember having my sexual awakening within the first year of my personhood. But I kept watching despite the discomfort at seeing a toddler explore themselves. She is then betrothed to an assistant of her mad scientist and, seemingly, father figure, who finds her naivete attractive. Their lawyer, while drafting up their airtight marriage contract, then sexually assaults Bella.  

This is all well and good though because Bella is ready to explore her sexuality, and she runs off with the lawyer for a fun little sex-capade across Europe. Have I mentioned that Bella has the brain of an unborn child? Because this film seems to continually forget it. Even as their protagonist innocently asks whether she can engage in ‘furious jumping’ with her lover, having not yet learnt the word for the act.  

The film dangles perilously close to some deeper meaning when she encounters an interesting old lady onboard a cruise, but this plotline is discarded to instead save screentime for Bella’s stint as a prostitute in a brothel. Full of bawdy and crude sex scenes that have no greater meaning, other than to reiterate that Bella likes sex and is not ashamed of it. It was at this point that I considered leaving the theatre. I felt sick to my stomach, squirming in my seat, unable to be at ease. How had this film received so much critical praise? I reluctantly stayed; I could see ways the film could turnaround. I had hope. I was disappointed. In the weeks that followed, I would bring the film up in conversation, horrified when I heard that it was being paraded as empowering to women, a feminist masterpiece. 


In trying to set aside my displeasure with the film’s plot and themes (surely there must be something in this film to like), I found myself let down again. The soundtrack was garish and hard to listen to, akin to nails on a chalkboard. The cinematography was also nauseating with abrupt fisheye lens nonsensically sprinkled in. The acting was good. I certainly can’t look at Mark Ruffalo the same way ever again though. While I can appreciate the gorgeous set design and the stunning costumes and makeup done by the brilliant Holly Waddington, they ultimately brought nothing to the story other than to distract myself from the on-screen porn. 

Poor Things fails horribly as a feminist film. It assumes that a sexual awakening is the only aspect of womanhood and that all women are deeply ashamed of their sexuality. This is compounded by the film’s belief that the most empowering thing a woman can do is work in a brothel. A take that only a film written by a man, adapted by a man, and directed by a man could achieve. Bella herself is the perfect male fantasy, a hot raven-haired woman with little brain, a disgusting evolution of the ‘Born Sexy Yesterday’ trope.

All the while Barbie, a film written, directed, and led by women with a diverse cast including solid POC and LGBTQIA+ representation, and holding a deeply powerful message to all women is completely overlooked. Greta Gerwig is snubbed once again of Best Director, as is Margot Robbie for Best Actress despite the outstanding role she had in the film and its production. Out of the nine nominations Barbie was awarded, it walked away with only one win for Best Original Song, What Was I Made For?. Written off as vague and shallow, Barbie was misunderstood by all, except the women it was made for. Ultimately, Poor Things was degrading to all women, which makes it so incredibly disappointing that it seems to be what the Academy deems feminist. 

Because what’s more feminist than a film made by men where a woman with the brain of a toddler is groomed and raped for 142 minutes, who eventually finds happiness in a brothel. 

It makes me sick. 

Tori Brown is a Meanjin based writer and filmmaker. Currently working as QUT Literary Salon’s Media Manager whilst studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing).  She loves writing stories about relationships in any shape or form and how they affect us. None of her works would be possible without the immense emotional support of her cat and the power of caffeine. Find her online here @__niwatori__


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