Film Corner: Super Sperm Baby

[Content Note: Reproductive Coercion, Gender Essentialist / Heteronormative Narratives]
[NB: Not only women need freedom from reproductive coercion.]
I couldn't get past the birthing issues.

Husband took me to see Superman this week, or I suppose it's technically called Man of Steel. And actually, he took me to see it twice: the first time we went, it was sold out. Our local movie theater of choice is never sold out, so I was doubly surprised; I've never been a big Superman fan, to tell the truth. I find invincibility kind of boring and secret identities incredibly dull. But that's just me!

But Husband took Thursday off of work and took me to see the film. It wasn't a bad film. I give it 4 stars, or whatever rating you personally prefer. Henry Cavill was as good as I expected in the role, which is to say I can't imagine anyone else playing the part. His persona of strong gentility is sublime for the character. All the other actors played their roles flawlessly, and it was nice to see Russell Crowe in the role of Jor-El. The character of Lois Lane was nicely written, and perfectly wove personal integrity with a nose for news -- and of course I was thrilled that they didn't even attempt to keep Superman's identity from her. All around, there were a lot of good decisions and if we must have reboot-after-reboot from Hollywood, it's good to see a willingness to discard the stuff that is stupid-in-retrospect.

But I couldn't get past the birthing issues. And the longer the movie went on, it was clear that it couldn't get past the birthing issues, either. The birthing issues were like a kudzu plant intent on enveloping the movie whole in a big ugly mess of ISSUES. 

In Man of Steel, Superman is "the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries". "Natural births" (UGH THAT TERM) are against the law on Krypton and are considered by the populace to be heretical to their way of life; instead, babies are born in a "birthing matrix" that, yes, looks pretty much just like THAT ONE but with a more soothing color palette. (Strangely, even though Morpheus runs the Daily Planet in this iteration of earth, he seems not to know or care. Maybe this movie is some kind of prequel to his realization of the truth.)

And, oh yeah, the Matrix Babies on Krypton are preprogrammed at birth to be workers or nobility or warriors (which of course made me think of Barbara Tuchman. But then most things make me think of Barbara Tuchman). And Sperm-Daddy Russell Crowe explains all this with a big frowny face to Henry Cavill before explaining that he and his wife chose to defy the law against "natural" birth because they believe that everyone should have the right to CHOOSE whether to be workers or nobility or warriors.

(Then there's a lot of stuff about how Jonathan Kent isn't really Superman's father only he kind of is a little only he's wrong about everything ever only he's not (except he really is) only he wants to limit Superman's CHOICE to be something other than a farmer only maybe he doesn't only then he dies because that was just super complicated and it's easier to not have an adoptive-daddy hanging around in competition to the sperm-daddy. And then Superman ends up wearing an "S" on his chest that is really an announcement to all the world as to who his sperm-daddy is because it's a family crest and not just the "symbol of hope" we were sold in the trailers. AND THERE ARE A LOT OF THINGS I COULD SAY ABOUT THIS. But I don't want to, because I want to talk more about the women in this story than I want to center yet another white man. But just because I'm not talking about it doesn't mean I didn't have issues with it. Because I do.)

I really, really, really tried to let all this slide as so much campy backstory that we're supposed to drink in without thinking about. But the movie just wouldn't stop harping on about it. Every twenty minutes or so, we'd return to the theme of "natural births" versus what I will term for convenience "artsem", and every twenty minutes we'd be reminded that the only really right way to be a Good American is to have "natural births" carried in womanly uteri and placed there by manly peni. It was very distracting, to say the least.

In terms of mythology archetypes, Superman is obviously a sun god. He is Jesus, he is Moses, he is Hercules. He takes his energy, literally and explicitly, from the rays of the sun. He is humanity's savior. But in this movie, he also takes his essential goodness from being born the Right way from the Right people: he is a man-child who was born of a noble white man and a woman willing to be pregnant with that man's child, no matter what the cost to herself since it's heavily implied that the cost of breaking the "natural birth" law on Krypton is very severe. And presumably Super-Mom (Lara Lor-Van) must have sequestered herself in their home for nine months so that no one would find out she was secretly pregnant, because she wants that "natural" birth so very much NO MATTER WHAT SOCIETY SAYS. Ahem.

Oh hai thar, Bella Swan. Oh, hey, speaking of! Do you all remember when every reviewer on earth criticized Breaking Dawn for being a movie about a woman who carried a life-threatening pregnancy through an isolating sequester and culminating in a risky birthing procedure carried out by amateurs and how anti-feminist it was for a modern movie to carry that kind of message? I'm sure ALL THE REVIEWS for Man of Steel will mention that Lara Lor-Van is a woman who carries a life-threatening pregnancy through an isolating sequester and culminating in a risky birthing procedure carried out by amateurs and how anti-feminist that is. Right?

And, of course, the difference between the behavior of the male partners in each movie -- i.e., that Edward is trying to pressure Bella to abort and she will not whereas Jor-El supports Lara's pregnancy -- will have nothing to do with any critical treatment of these narratives about which woman is "wrong" for making these choices, nor will anyone care that Breaking Dawn is a movie by women for women whereas Man of Steel is a movie largely by men for men. RIGHT?


Let's talk about reality society and not fantasy society for a minute. Not even one week ago, the United States House of Representatives voted to pass a bill which would prevent women from terminating pregnancies after 20 weeks, a bill which will kill women if it becomes law. This legislation comes in a series of yearly records of legislative challenges to abortion. And as I have pointed out before, that proposed bills like "personhood amendments" claim to be pro-life but will actually limit the ability of infertile women to bear children by erecting barriers to artificial insemination and IVF procedures is a feature, not a bug of these laws. Because these laws and the people proposing them don't care about life, they care about controlling people. Especially people of uteri, but also marginalized people in general: people of color, people of lower wealth class, etc.

I cannot strongly enough vocalize how difficult it is for me to sit in a movie that claims to be about choice and freedom to choose, while at the same time being told that there is only One Right Way to birth children, and that this One Right Way just-so-happens to be the way that a controlling federal legislative body is trying to mandate RIGHT OUTSIDE THE THEATER DOOR.

And I cannot strongly enough vocalize how distracting it is for me to be told that children should have the right to choose whether to be workers or rulers, and simultaneously lionizing the American working class with frequent long pans over Smallville, its farming community, and its workaday brands like IHOP, Sears, and U-Haul, while at the same time I live in a country where the mean wealth of affluent households is 24 times that of a working family. Or where it has taken fifty years to move the pay gap between men and white women 18 cents closer to parity (with non-white women still being paid significantly less). Or where the national minimum hourly wage is significantly lower than the federal poverty level. Or where the average adjusted wage growth for the bottom 90% of Americans has been 59 dollars in 45 years.

But, yeah, sure, as long as babies are pushed out of the vaginas of white cis women instead of birthed with artsem, I'm sure they can be anything they want and the SKY IS THE LIMIT. Keep selling that American dream, Hollywood.

And because I couldn't get away from the birthing issues, I couldn't stop seeing the female characters through that lens. Lara Lor-Van is our saintly mother archetype, willing to die thrice over for her baby: once by defying the law in order to bear the first "natural birth" on Krypton in centuries, twice by having this birth in secrecy with only her husband in attendance, and thrice by sending her child to a new world in the limited-on-space escape vehicle while staying behind to die. Martha Kent is the adoptive mother of our savior, the infertile woman who very badly wants a child, but hasn't Chosen (with a capital-c) to bear one the Wrong Way through artsem. (That the Kents almost certainly cannot afford artsem is not the point, because there is no class in this universe because CHOICES.) Instead, she waits for heaven to drop an infant into her lap for her to dutifully raise.

The female villain in this movie (Faora-Ul) has a much higher on-screen body count than the ostensibly main villain Zod; while Zod flies around the sky with Superman and crashes bloodlessly (either his or anyone else's) into high rise ofice buildings, Faora takes a more visceral approach, slaughtering male soldiers -- always male, only male -- and smirking at them as she taunts them with their mortality. Her fight dialogue with Superman consists almost entirely of an interesting lecture wherein she claims superior strength because "we have no morality", thanks to superior evolution. She seems to be claiming that all Kryptons lack this morality, or at least all Kryptons designated as warrior babies in the birthing matrix.

Yet this raises the Very Problematic Point that the only way to be a Krypton with morality -- with, essentially, a soul and a sense of right and wrong -- is to have the right birth: a "natural" birth. And, by implication, the only way for a Krypton woman like Lara or Faora to make a moral Choice (with a capital-c) is to bear a "naturally" birthed baby. Which means that Faora is, in a sense, immoral in part because she doesn't consent to be impregnated. Whoooops.

I don't get this sense from the other women in this movie, the sense that they might be simultaneously Good and disinterested in bearing children. Lara is obviously willing to bear a child. Martha is willing. Lana and Lois and numerous unnamed women in the film beam at Clark in ways which suggest they would be more than willing to have his child, given the chance. Indeed, at the emotional climax of the film, when Superman is howling with grief at being forced to take a life, Lois comforts him by clasping his head to her stomach in a gesture that I usually see reserved for film scenes in which a joyful father-to-be tries to "hear" the baby for the first time. I doubt this was done on purpose, yet I think it's an interesting juxtaposition after the hours and hours of talk about the POWER OF NATURAL BIRTH, to see a man emotionally healed by being clasped close to a cis woman's uterus. And especially after all the scenes of Superman grasping for strength from the rays of the sun (his other source of power) which gives us cause to mark the parallel, I think.

Even the final scene drives home how Good Women want the Super-Peen. When Superman destroys a surveillance satellite and tells the military representative of the US government that he would very much rather not be spied on thankyouverymuch, the General whips around and asks the female soldier behind him why she's smiling. Does she say that she finds it amusing that Superman is the one American citizen the government can't use drones to spy on? Does she think it's hilarious that Superman's working class background and transient job history indicate that he might be one of the few people safe from PRISM? Does she chalk her smile up to just being amused by the absurdity of an American-Alien who isn't THAT KIND of "alien" that the pundits like to scaremonger about? NO.

"I just think he's kind of hot," she confesses while she tries unsuccessfully to wipe the grin off her face.

RAGE. SMASH. sigh.

It's not that I didn't like Man of Steel. It's not that I think you shouldn't go see it and like it. It's a pretty movie. It's superbly well-acted. It has absolutely gorgeous special effects. It is eminently possible to view a feminist message within it. It has one of the best portrayals of a super-hero girlfriend I've seen in a month of Sundays. It's easily the best Superman movie I've seen. Go see it, if that's your thing. Enjoy it as much as you can.

Because it's not that Man of Steel is bad. It's that I'm so tired of this meme that Bad Women won't birth "naturally". (See Way of the Gun.) It's that I'm so tired of this meme that Good Women will birth "naturally", and that women derive their entire worth from bearing children. (See 300.) It's that I'm so tired of the meme that White Male Choice has the power to change the world but that everyone else has only one "choice" they can make in good moral conscience. (See pretty much every movie ever made ever, including prehistoric cave paintings probably.) And it's specifically that I'm tired of these things when every morning of my life I wake up to the realization that there are people in power, right now, who want to legislate all my choices away from me: who believe that I should be locked into a wage gap I don't want, bearing only "natural" births that would literally kill me.

I'm tired of that. I want more. And I'd like a movie blockbuster -- any movie blockbuster, really -- to acknowledge the war being fought against women like me.

Other than that, it was a great film. 4 stars or whatever. 


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