Men conquer the world; women have babies.
I had several dolls throughout my early days and I still remember “taking care” of them as best I could and pretending, as children do, that they were real babies: feeding them, dressing them, brushing their hair, changing their diapers…but as I grew older, my interest in babies changed significantly. While most of my young friends waited in line to hold a new baby under the watchful eye of the mother, I was turning my Barbie dolls into Astro Boy, my childhood hero, and creating scenarios where the world was in dire need of saving.
“How many children would you like? When do you want to get married and start a family?” These were the questions I encountered while growing up, which I flatly answered with the likes of, “I don’t think I want to have children…I don’t care about getting married.” Nobody ever said, “Oh yes, that’s perfectly alright and completely understandable.” It was always a concerned look (perhaps of discomfort) that clumsily met my eyes before I received a retort indicating I was somehow a freak of nature since I was daring to defy nature.
I’m a girl, I’m a woman, I’m a female. Therefore, the presumption elucidates, I should naturally want to have children just because I can. I don’t think I’m breaking any news when I say that men can “have children” too, it’s just that men are incapable of giving birth. But a woman who doesn’t want children is an anomaly. A man who doesn’t want children is right on track with his “male manliness”—a man who doesn’t want to get tied down too soon and will eventually settle down to a little wifey with 2.5 kids in a house complete with a white picket fence…at least that’s what society seems to suggest.
Now, I must concede that I can only speak for my own experiences, and that the times they are a-changin’, but I’m going to assume that the average boy or young man is not asked similar questions throughout his life. Does this speak to the essential value we place on women and men? It would seem to me these experiences reflect the intrinsic gender role expectations within our society. Men conquer the world; women have babies. While this is a gross simplification, I think there is an insightful truth to be further explored. Though these kinds of mindsets are dangerous for both men and women, I’m going to focus on the implications of women’s roles that are often portrayed, and one needn’t look any further than Hollywood to observe these conforming gender stereotypes in action.
In the movie Noah, a recent adaptation of the biblical story, the film portrays women as helpless and weak objects to be possessed; men as powerful and strong subjects who possess. But what I want to target specifically, though perhaps not as obvious, is the assumption of females as baby-makers, which runs rampant throughout the movie. And while not completely damaging, I would suggest that this expectancy is disempowering as it perpetuates the notion that women and much of their integral worth and contribution to society is in their ability to be child-bearers. Men’s worth, on the other hand, is in their ability to be everything else, essentially, their ability to be men. (Here you go gentlemen, carry the weight of the world and be heroes while you’re at it. As if that’s not detrimental in its own right.)
One of the pivotal storylines within the movie focuses on Noah’s vision from the Creator to prevent humans from reproducing; all of humanity is to perish due to their inherent wickedness. Upon this newfound calling, Noah learns that his adopted daughter, Ila, is pregnant with his son Shem’s child. In great rage, Noah declares that if their child is a boy, he will live; if their child is a girl, she will be slain. Noah reasons—as the film suggests—that a girl will be able to have children. Never mind that this is a terribly flawed movie plot, but the logic behind this is ludicrous.
First, killing the female child would accomplish nothing if Ila is fertile. What guarantee is there that she wouldn’t get pregnant again? But following the rationality of that premise, had Noah thought it through or rather the cohort that produced the film, he would also have to murder Ila (sparing his wife assuming that she can no longer conceive). Second, if it’s an either-or scenario, why not kill all of the males instead of the females? Men are just as responsible for procreation as are women. I’ve never heard of a woman waking up one day without ever having sex and realizing she was pregnant, unless of course you consider The Virgin Mary. And third, instead of resorting to murder, why not simply castrate all of his sons and himself if Noah wanted to ensure the human race wouldn’t survive? But the first solution, as savage as it is, still flies under the radar as being the most rational alternative as presented in the movie and no doubt as accepted by the audience.
What this story line represents to me is the conception that beyond women’s ability to have children, they are worthless and expendable. Two additional points in the movie that solidify this indication is when Ila, before she is healed of her barrenness, pointedly states that Shem needs a real woman for a wife, a woman who can give him children. Lastly, after Ila and Shem have twin daughters (surprise!), Noah simply cannot bring himself to murder the infants. Instead, he blesses his granddaughters with the responsibility of multiplying and replenishing the earth once more. No blessings to live happy lives, to become wealthy or successful, no. But to be prosperous in their wombs.
Now, one could argue that the film is merely a reflection of the times of that society and of the Bible. While I don’t even want to get started on the ubiquitous patriarchy that exists within the Bible, what I will touch on is that the Bible, as far as we know, was written solely by men and so the stories within it take only men’s perspectives. More importantly, the director of Noah, Darren Aronofsky, indicated that artistic licence was taken to create his adaptation. Then I have to ask, why still propagate the perceived proclivity that women are passive objects in which their value is limited to flourishing the human species? Furthermore, the movie Noah was an edition of modern times, so despite that it is an old story its nuances still visibly mirror contemporary views. And finally, it was noted in an article by Fox News that little is known about Noah within the book of Genesis. With that in mind, why not flip the patriarchal paradigm on its head and present Noah’s wife and other women characters as having a more dominant role? My guess is that Aronofsky and his counterparts are male and therefore submitted a version of Noah through their own male perspective.
For the record, I am not saying that women are weak or somehow less-than if being a mother is what they desire. I take issue, though, when the expectation of motherhood is placed on all women as the source of their value. Likewise, I am not blaming the male perspective or anyone for being male for that matter. Nor I am not insinuating that these matters of gender inequality presented within Noah were intentional. Quite the opposite; I am suggesting that because this problem is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society and in our beings, these issues persist as though they are a product of nature itself. In fact, nearly 100% of my own personal experiences involved the interrogative commentary from other women.
And so, Noah reminds me of the expectations I’ve encountered throughout my life: the purpose of childbearing. This disempowering sentiment was most evident when I’d found myself answering to a work colleague that I did not intend on having children at any point in my life. Stunned and offended, she mulled the idea inside her brain. After several minutes, she turned to me and replied, “Well then what’s the purpose of your life?”
Photo credit: Pregnant by Ineke Kamps
Aronofsky, D. (Producer and Director). (2014). Noah [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Associated Press. (2014). With revival of the Hollywood Bible epic, Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ finds rough seas. Fox News. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/03/21/with-revival-hollywood-bible-epic-darren-aronofsky-noah-finds-rough-seas/