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Guest post: Reproduction on film

22 Mar, 2011

A scene from The Stepford Wives

A scene from The Stepford Wives


James Poskett attends an evening of film, science, reproductive dystopias and Stepford Wives in Cambridge.

When I was at university, the most exciting place we ever held a public seminar was next to a collection of fossilised nematode worms in the zoology museum. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear about a new series of talks about the portrayal of reproduction in movies, taking place at the local Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema.

The Reproduction on Film season is bringing people together to watch and then discuss a variety of films with reproductive themes. Part of the ‘Generation to Reproduction’ project at the University of Cambridge, each screening is followed by a discussion led by experts on film, science and history.

The first set of movies in the season focus on the theme of reproductive dystopias: pessimistic visions of a time or place in which science, technology and culture have blighted the way in which we reproduce. This includes 1930s classics such as The Island of Lost Souls and more recent blockbusters such as Children of Men. I opted for that vision of 1970s suburban perfection: The Stepford Wives.

With popcorn in hand, the audience sat down to listen to Professor John Forrester of the University of Cambridge, introduce the film. Without giving away too much of the plot (SPOILER WARNING), he suggested the different ways in which The Stepford Wives could be interpreted: a robot film, a feminist film, an anti-technology film, or perhaps just a good old-fashioned horror movie?

In the dreamy town of Stepford, every woman appears to be the ‘perfect’ housewife. But over the course of the film, we see that this ideal of perfection is quite literally manufactured by a group of complicit men; a group whose desires are perhaps most plainly revealed when one utters the line: “She cooks as good as she looks”.

When the lights up we began to discuss our responses. A number of audience members agreed that the film was not a full-on feminist affair. Whilst The Stepford Wives certainly challenges the idea of the ‘perfect housewife’ it still champions a Hollywood vision of the ‘perfect mother’. Professor Forrester prompted further reflection by pointing out that Betty Friedan (a leading 1970s feminist) was particularly critical of the film, perhaps for this very reason. Other audience members suggested that the film was an exploration of post-reproductive life: what do men and women do once their reproductive function is complete? One character in the film reveals his own warped yet tragically monotonous ideal with the line: “I like to watch women do domestic chores”.

My favourite comment of the evening was one comparing the film’s style to eating the most synthetic of synthetic ice creams (a point I particularly felt having just scoffed a bag of popcorn). It really helped bring into focus what an exciting and sometimes strange medium film can be. This star-spangled Hollywood production has managed to challenge an idea seemingly at the heart of film itself: the yearning for manufactured perfection.

James Poskett

James Poskett is a recent graduate of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge.

The Reproduction on Film series continues at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse with Children of Men on Wednesday 23rd March.

The Generation to Reproduction project is funded by a Wellcome Trust Strategic Award.

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