Sexuality, Femininity and Macabre Medical Procedures
By Chess Q
Content warning: this article discusses misogyny and suicide
Poor Things by Alasdair Gray is a Victorian medical sci-fi romance which uses provocative circumstances to challenge the beliefs and opinions of Western society on femininity and female sexuality.
The novel follows Archie McCandless as he falls in love with Bella Baxter, the ‘niece’ of his colleague Godwin Baxter. With his medical prowess and curiosity, Godwin perfected a method to implant one creature's mind into another’s body. The epitome of this manifests with Bella, who is animated with the body of a pregnant woman who committed suicide and the brain of the unborn fetus she carried. The ultimate takeaway of the novel is Bella’s journey to discover her own identity, independent of the men who ‘frame’ her narrative. In this way, the men only serve as ‘accessories’ to her far more moving and exciting story as an individual, exploring sex, love, philosophy and the greater world in ways which will still resonate with readers today.
The film adaptation of Poor Things is set to come into UK theatres on January 12th, 2024 and will be featuring an all-star cast starring Emma Stone as Bella Baxter and Willem Dafoe as Godwin Baxter.
Voyeurism or Empowerment?
My overwhelming takeaway from the novel was about Bella’s character, specifically her shameless expression of sexuality, femininity, and autonomy in the face of society and with the men in the story who sexualize and infantilize her. However, I have to acknowledge that the novel could cater to a more construed perspective as there is a certain perverted and voyeuristic angle which can easily be read into. While Bella has both the body and the autonomy of a grown woman, she also has a child’s emotional intelligence, particularly toward the start of the novel. This is a dangerous line to tread, but it is also where the complexity of the novel is derived. For the sake of analysis, I’m choosing to focus on what I found to be a very liberating portrayal of a woman who defies the expectations of society while pursuing her own identity as an individual.
Godwin Baxter: Questionable Motivations and ‘Morbid Talent’
Naturally, Bella’s story starts with her ‘conception’, thanks to one Godwin Baxter. Godwin channels the rejection and isolation he faces in his own life, attributed to his great intellect, unorthodox upbringing and his off-putting appearance, into his work. While, for the most part, he becomes a dotting, respectful, and quite progressive father figure for Bella, we do see him act selfishly, disregarding the will of the women in the story.
This disregard begins with Victoria Blessing, a pregnant woman who committed suicide and is then brought to the coroner's office where Godwin works. When he has her on his table, he discovers she is not actually dead yet. Instead of resuscitating her, he chooses to respect her choice to kill herself. Perhaps he is also blinded by the opportunity to, crudely put, harvest her body and the body of her unborn fetus to test out his provocative and secret technique. Even as he convinces himself that he is respecting Victoria’s wishes in her death, he still forces life upon her via Bella. Not only does he use Victoria’s body, but he also uses the body of her unborn child to execute his morbid will.
This is a prime example of women’s bodies being used and exploited, especially in a sexual context, even in their deaths. In his choice to use her body, he denies her final dignity in death.
Bella Baxter: Liberation from Sexual Shame
At this point, it’s important to note the full scope of how Bella’s conception affects her. At the beginning of the novel, having the brain of a fetus, Bella has no faculty of self-sufficiency, no understanding of language, no experience, and no memories. But because she is physically mature, her body enables the right conditions for rapid mental development. However, because that interval of mental growth is so brief, Bella misses out on the years of formative experience which normally come from childhood and, as it relates to the story, girlhood. She recognizes this lack, saying, ‘I am only half a woman Candle, less than half having no childhood… no sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice-little-girlhood, no early-love’s-young-dream-womanhood... I need more past.’
This becomes relevant as she expresses her sexuality and femininity, as she meets the world at large and the suffering within it. As she ages, Bella expresses her sexual desires very freely and securely. She isn’t plagued with the shame Western society instils in women from their childhoods: being harassed and ogled, being judged as virgins or whores, being sexualized, exploited, and perceived against her will by those she is taught to trust the most. She doesn’t comply with the expectations of how a woman is supposed to behave in a romantic relationship, either.
Bella pursues her own pleasure and prioritizes her own ambitions, while unapologetically expressing her love not only for her partner but for herself.
Again, we see this dichotomy pop up where we are almost able to experience this liberated sexuality vicariously through Bella. I found it healing really to be able to see such unrestricted expression of sexuality without all the trauma, insecurity, and shame undercutting it. But then we can also consider the more disturbing angle that the men in the story try to prey on that (unsuccessfully, I would say, but preying nonetheless). In that way, the novel has a certain voyeuristic air to it.
Archie and Duncan: Predators or Lovers?
The men in the book certainly have questionable motives when it comes to Bella. These are revealed when Bella isn’t subservient to them, and when she challenges their expectations and expresses her own liberated sexuality disregarding their more corrupted fantasies of her as a more impressionable and demure conquest for their desires. Bella recognises this as it happens, thinking, ‘That is how I learned he did not think that kissing hands is love. Love (Wedder thinks) only deserves the name when men insert their middle footless leg.’ But again, Bella rejects these perspectives in quite a humorous way, as seen through this excerpt of the book: ‘[Bella] laughed and nodded. [Archie] said, “I love you.” She said, “I’ve got another lad who does that.” And, in what is perhaps my favourite quote from the whole novel, ‘More with men makes babies. I want fun, not babies.’
Archie and Duncan: Predators or Prey?
When the men in the story find Bella’s unconquerable independence surpassing them, they choose to victimize themselves rather than accept her as she really is. ‘So I know who your niece is now, Mr. Baxter. The Jews called her Eve and Delilah; the Greeks, Helen of Troy; the Romans, Cleopatra; The Christians, Salome. She is the white daemon who destroys the honour and manhood of the noblest and most virile men in every age.’ They condemn her behaviour when it doesn’t serve them, saying ‘No normal healthy woman… wants or expects to enjoy sexual contact, except as a duty… De Rerum Natura Lucretius tells us that only debauched females wriggle their hips.’
Bella Baxter: Ambition and Independence As Bella returns from her travels having learned about the suffering in the world, she is determined to become a doctor. Baxter and Archie question this decision for the mere fact that she is a woman, and at the time female doctors were few and far between. They veil their worries with trivial blither, but Bella sees through them and holds her ground, confronting them, saying, ‘Do you too think my hatred of suffering is nothing but displaced motherhood?’ She ultimately pursues her goal and becomes very successful and happily marries Archie. This conclusion very neatly ties a bow around what was a whirlwind of a journey of Bella discovering her identity and place in the world.
Poor Things is a complex novel and one that can be interpreted in many different ways depending on how you choose to read it. I’m excited to see how the film adapts the story. So far, the trailers look promising, with stylistic performances and beautiful cinematography. But in any case, it’s a worthwhile read, and I certainly took a lot away from the book.