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Poor Things: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Sexuality in the Modern Day

4 min read

Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

is, at its core, an exploration of women's sexuality. Its rich tapestry of ideas weaves together themes of identity, societal expectations, and the complexities of women's sexuality in the Victorian era onwards. Despite its pseudo-historical setting, the 's examination of these ideas resonates with contemporary conversations about gender, sexuality and autonomy. Causing ripples in public discussion with its graphic depictions of sex, Poor Things can help audiences bridge the historical and the modern, highlighting enduring struggles and progress. 

directs this novel adaptation, written by Tony McNamara, with very particular intent. The 1992 book by Alasdair Gray follows Bella Baxter, a corpse who was reanimated with the brain of her unborn fetus—echoing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Bella learns rapidly as she ponders the world with a child's mind, questioning society's norms and discovering sexual pleasure of her own accord. While Poor Things focuses on a steampunk surrealist Victorian era, its exploration of women's sexuality can offer insights and reflections that resonate with the modern age. 

Intersectionality of gender and society

Class and societal expectations shape Bella's () experiences, as well as her gender. The expectations placed upon women in the Victorian era may feel starkly different to those today. But, it doesn't take long for a viewer to dissect the message being portrayed in this story. Audiences can find insights into the intersectionality of gender, class, and societal norms and bridge the gap between this time period and the present. This is because Bella's social status influences how she is perceived and the constraints placed on her.

In the modern day, similar convergences play a role in shaping women's experiences of sexuality. The film prompts viewers to consider how factors such as race, socioeconomic status, and cultural context impact women's sexual autonomy today. For example, discussions on the wage gap, access to healthcare, and representation in the media highlight the interconnecting factors that affect women's lives. Bella's struggle becomes a mirror reflecting the ongoing fight for equality and the recognition of the diverse female experience. 

Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Challenging norms and expectations 

Bella's defiance of societal norms serves as a compelling example of challenging expectations. In a repressive Victorian society where women were expected to conform to predefined roles. Bella's rebellion questions the traditional norms imposed on women. Bella is often seen defying lawyer and lover Duncan Wedderburn (), resulting in him confining her to a ship in an effort to halt her ever-growing inquisitive mind. He wishes to stunt her progress and desire for equality, only wanting to quench his own thirst for sex.

This resonates strongly with present-day movements challenging societal expectations. The #MeToo movement, for instance, has empowered women to challenge and speak out against sexual harassment, which had long been an ingrained problem. The parallel between Bella's resistance and modern acts of defiance underscores the enduring nature of the struggle against societal norms. 

Also, conventional beauty standards are constantly being questioned with debate around body positivity and thus empowering women to embrace different body types. This can serve as a reminder to viewers to question rules and norms that may restrict women's sexual agency and encourage them to remember the importance of individual autonomy in making choices related to sexuality. 

Emma Stone in POOR THINGS. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

By watching how Bella navigates her desires within the constraints of her time, viewers can reflect on the historical evolution of sexual freedom for women. This evolution continues today, with ongoing talks about sexual liberation, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. For example, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in a number of countries represents a significant step towards recognising diverse expressions of love. We can appreciate the progress made while acknowledging the challenges and inequalities that persist now. 

Identity 

Bella's journey to construct her own identity within the confines of societal expectations aligns with today's dialogue about self-determination. In the film, Bella's transformations and wanting to construct her own identity mirror the fluidity and complexity of gender identity and sexual orientation. Bella's struggle becomes a touchstone, prompting viewers to consider the evolving understanding and acceptance of diverse identities in the current era. 

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in POOR THINGS. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.© 2023 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Agency and consent 

The theme of agency and consent, as portrayed through Bella's experiences, finds resonance in today's conversations around consent and bodily autonomy. Bella's transformations raise questions about control and agency, which parallels contemporary discourse about the importance of clear communication in relationships. Educational campaigns, legal changes, and advocacy for reproductive rights highlight the current fight for women's control over their bodies. 

While Poor Things is rooted in a specific historical context, it serves as a powerful exploration of women's sexuality. This can be a lens through which audiences can contemplate contemporary challenges faced by women and progress in the realm of gender and sexuality. It invites reflection on how societal attitudes, norms, and expectations continue to shape women's experiences in the modern age. The film's portrayal of Bella's defiance, struggles for autonomy, and journey to self-discovery speaks to the enduring nature of the fight for women's rights.