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The Student News Site of Saint Louis University

The University News

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The University News

Becoming Bella Baxter, Sexual Liberation and Metamorphosis: A “Poor Things” Review

Emma Stone plays Bella Baxter, the living experiment of a grown woman who has a child’s brain. Her creator, Godwin, played by Willem Defoe, keeps her locked up in their home in Victorian London, so that she may grow up safe from outside influences and dangers. She is engaged to one of Godwin’s students, Max McCandles, but before settling down, Bella demands to explore the world on her own terms, through a tumultuous love affair with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn, played by Mark Ruffalo. 

At its heart, “Poor Things” is the tale of a free woman, one who has no knowledge of proper behavior in “polite society” and does not wish to learn it. Once leaving home, Bella embarks on a gluttonous and sexually-driven escapade with Wedderburn, learning about the pleasure of her own body and what delicacies exist in the world.

Unlike everyone else, Bella has never been taught proper etiquette or manners, which liberates her from conforming to societal expectations and enables her to behave without concern over her public perception, such as when at a public restaurant she loudly comments on her sexual experiences with Wedderburn and spits out food she finds “revolting,” much to Wedderburn’s chagrin. 

The most interesting dynamic is between Bella and Wedderburn. Wedderburn’s initial interest in Bella stems from her unconventional lack of manners and her disdain for what is deemed proper, which he relates to, remarking, “I do not care for polite society. It’s fucking boring and destroys one’s soul.”

When he first whisks her away, Wedderburn delights in teaching Bella about her sexuality and body; however, he quickly realizes they have different expectations for the relationship. Wedderburn intends to make Bella fall in love with him, and when she does not immediately fall in love, he begins to find her behavior in public unbecoming and rude. Though he claims to be the best lover she will ever have, even he finds her constant desire for sexual stimulation to be exhausting, as he remarks, “Unfortunately, even I have my limits. Men cannot keep coming back for more.” He is emasculated when she flatly observes, “It is a physiological problem. A weakness in men.”

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Though originally drawn by her unchecked and unembarrassed human nature, viewers watch Wedderburn slowly give into a masculine tendency and urge to control Bella, demanding she behave herself. Bella refuses to conform, not because she is incapable, but because she doesn’t see the point. The more Wedderburn seeks to mold Bella into a woman he can fall in love with, the more she pulls away and seeks to explore the world and her identity on her own.

Bella begins as a woman entirely motivated by her own sexuality. She explores her desire individually and then with Wedderburn and others, but as she moves further away from her home and experiences life without Wedderburn’s control, she becomes more intellectual, educated and independent. On a boat to Greece, Bella dives into the world of philosophy, as she begins to ponder the purpose of existence: “It is the goal of all to improve, advance, progress and grow. I know this in me and am sure I am indicative of all.”

The more Bella changes, the more Wedderburn seeks to stifle her development by enticing her back into the bedroom, once more suggesting his intrinsic urge to shape Bella’s narrative for her, primarily through sexual power. However, time after time, Bella refuses to let anyone control her life, instead declaring, “I am a changingable feast, as are all of we.” 

Even when exploring the world on her terms, Bella’s narrative continues to be guided and influenced by men. Her upbringing is controlled by Godwin, who is symbolically nicknamed “God,” and though there is a housekeeper, she plays a passive role. Her sexual journey is initially guided by Wedderburn, but even he pulls away the more she expresses her personal delight in “furious jumping,” as she calls it. 

It is not until she arrives in Paris, after compassionately giving their money away to the poor and resorting to working at a brothel to survive, that Bella finds formative relationships with women. While many of the film’s sex scenes with men show Bella in a position of power and assertion, they are still highly aggressive. Contrarily, when Bella begins to sleep with fellow prostitute Toinette, their relationship is shown through a more tender lens, suggesting that the relationship is not only physically satisfying, but there is also empathy, kindness and understanding between them, social feelings Bella lacks in her relationship with men.

Bella defies the odds of Victorian England, where threats of being thrown into a madhouse over maternal anxiety and genital mutilation loom over women’s heads, keeping them submissive. More importantly, Bella transcends seamlessly into the twenty-first century as a woman who is unapologetic, loud, careless, utterly free of social conventions and refuses to become someone else’s “territory.”

Bella refuses to follow convention, finds great power and identity through her sexuality and strives to create her own narrative, but this is not radical–this is normal. How Bella behaves is how all women ought to feel they can behave. Living freely is not merely a privilege–it is a right. Bella embodies the kind of woman we still need around today, the kind of woman who can teach us all a little bit about immersing ourselves in what the world has to offer and caring less about what other people think.

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About the Contributor
Morgan Hausback, Managing Editor
Morgan is a senior studying English with a minor in Law, Religion and Politics. She is extremely passionate about student media and is honored to serve as the Managing Editor this year. When she is not writing, you can find her ranking her favorite romantic comedies in order, checking out books at the library, or listening to podcasts, like Binchtopia and Celebrity Memoir Book Club.
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