The Exploitation of Women in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’

Movie poster for Children of Men
I like Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak, dystopian cinematic interpretation of Children of Men (based on the PD James novel) wherein the world collapses after an infertility pandemic strikes, causing there to be no human births for over 18 years. It poses remarkable questions like, “What do we value about life?” and “What do children mean to humanity’s sense of longevity and continuity?” and “Does the future exist if humans won’t be around for it?” Though this film appeals to my sci-fi post-apocalyptic proclivities, its treatment of women, children, and reproduction leaves much to be desired.

Children of Men immediately draws critical attention to this futuristic declining world’s tendency to turn women and children into symbols. The opening scene shows droves of people mourning the death of the youngest person in much the same way that celebrity deaths are mourned, setting up the 18-year-old man as a symbol of youth and a reminder of humanity’s impending extinction. The activist immigrant rights group, the Fishes, sees young pregnant Kee (portrayed by Clare-Hope Ashitey) as a symbol. She is not only a West African immigrant, but also the only woman to become pregnant in 18 years. She is a symbol of the humanity of immigrants, the salvation of the human race itself, and of a coming revolution. It is also made clear that women are forced to submit to fertility tests or face imprisonment, rendering these survivors little more than failed symbols of reproduction and shamed symbols of infertility. Though the film overtly critiques this desire to turn human beings into symbols, it indulges in it quite a bit.

The scene in the abandoned school is pregnant (pun intended) with symbolism.

“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.” – Miriam

As the young Kee sits alone on a rickety swing set, the camera pans the dilapidated building and Miriam recounts her experiences as a medical midwife at the beginning of the pandemic. The scene mourns imaginary children who never existed along with an imaginary future that proves likewise illusory. The empty school reinforces the crushing absence of children, which in turn represents the absence of a future.

The film apparently resists turning pregnant Kee into a symbol by showing that the only sane response to her pregnancy is that of Theo’s overwhelming desire to get her to a doctor so that she can receive necessary medical attention. However, when Kee reveals the fullness of her pregnant stomach to Theo, it is nothing but indulgent symbolism. She takes her shirt off in the middle of a barn full of cows, her posture of one hand covering her breasts and the other cupping her belly simultaneously one of modesty and fecundity. 

Kee is dehumanized and symbolized

This image of the pregnant black woman amongst livestock paired with the swelling music that evokes apotheosis is particularly offensive to me. Her humanity is transcended into grotesque female-coded symbols like earth, goddess, fertility, and nature. Her blackness is racistly used to reinforce the nature symbolism as well as the birth and beginning of mankind. The deliberateness of these symbols is even more apparent when the original PD James text The Children of Men is considered in which Julian (played by middle-aged white Julianne Moore) was the character with the mystical pregnancy. Though it is impossible to not read some symbolism into Kee’s pregnancy, her “revelation” scene is exploitative and is done dramatically and specifically to benefit the male viewer in the form of Theo.

Which leads us to the next issue I had with Children of Men: Most of the female characters are peripheral or marginalized. The midwife Miriam is portrayed as a religious nutcase who does some kind of spiritual Tai Chi, chants over Kee’s pregnant belly instead of using the hard science she learned in medical school, and believes in UFOs. Janice, the wife of Jasper (played by Michael Caine) is catatonic. Marichka is a Romanian woman who doesn’t speak English, babbles a lot, and has a bizarre relationship with her dog.

The unsavory Marichka driving Theo & Kee to a filthy room for the night

Julian, though a strong woman, is too often shown from Theo’s perspective as the beautiful, unattainable bitter ex-wife and forever mourning ex-mother. Not only that, but she dies suddenly very early on in the film. Her death itself is the most important thing about her because it’s an inside job, showing that the so-called immigrant rights activist group has questionable morality and can be trusted no more than the oppressive government regime. Therefore, Julian’s death is highly symbolic and paradigm shifting.

The Fishes scorn Julian’s non-violent methodology and murder her in order to exploit Kee’s baby as a symbol for revolution.

Not only were there few representations of non-symbolic women, but the entire film, a film about fertility, motherhood, and childbirth, is told from the perspective of a man. The most flagrant example of a marginalized female character is Kee. She is a child herself with no true agency, who knows nothing of pregnancy and motherhood, who must rely on the experience and protection of Theo. Kee’s lack of agency and complete reliance on Theo set up yet another patriarchal iteration of genesis wherein the rebirth of the human race isn’t due to Kee and her baby girl, Dylan; it’s due to the perseverance of a lone man whose ideals may be jaded, but he feels compelled to “do the right thing”  no matter what noble sacrifices it might require.

Theo sacrifices his own life to protect Kee and her baby, ensuring they make it to safety first

Not only is Theo the martyr and savior of this film, but he knows more about motherhood than Kee does. He delivers the baby, coaching Kee on how to breathe and push, motivating her when she is overcome. He then delivers Kee and her baby to the so-called safety of The Human Project (a secretive group purporting to be searching for an infertility cure). 

I ask you, why is this story told from Theo’s perspective? Why isn’t Kee our heroine? She’s the one with messianic qualities and an epic quest who undergoes a mystical pregnancy, sneaks her way out of West Africa only to become a hunted “fugee” in Britain, before traversing war-torn areas only to give birth in a filthy flophouse before escaping via rowboat to the elusive, mythical Human Project. Why is her tale told once removed in the form of Theo? Her femaleness along with her Otherness as a black woman and her status (in our current day culture) as a pregnant woman apparently give Cuarón license to strip her of real humanity and complexity. Her lack of agency in her own story and the way that she’s relegated to supporting-character land make it easy to inscribe meaning upon her, to turn her into a symbol in a way that Theo and his friend Jasper aren’t really because they’re men…children of men
Kee’s pregnant body is turned into an icon.
In the novel version, it is the male sperm that becomes nonviable, causing the infertility pandemic. In the movie version, it’s the women who are suddenly infertile after repeated miscarriages. This puts the blame on women for the pandemic while identifying men (i.e. Theo) as the solution to the problem. It even makes me wonder if the way that the film depicts infertility as full of despair (as if civilization must collapse if we can’t make babies) is some sort of derailment of a masculine ideal, wherein reproduction and the passing on of one’s genes is a vital component of manhood. Yes, it would suck if humanity’s extinction was imminent, but the implosion of cultures and societies does not necessarily logically follow. Even now, we destroy our environment and use up our resources at an unsustainable rate, and first world countries do not fail because of it. The slow march toward extinction is one we’re increasingly familiar with as war over oil spreads across the globe and our climate Hades-heats up.  

Children of Men‘s depiction of women as props, tools, symbols, or cardboard underscores the notion that women’s true purpose is reproduction, and when women can’t reproduce, they’re not only useless, but society itself collapses under the burden of their neglect of duty. Despite many of the intriguing themes this film explores (including a scathing denouncement of the treatment of immigrants), Children of Men ends up falling in line with its mainstream contemporaries to assert that women are merely bodies, that a woman’s value lies in her ability to reproduce, and that she has and should have no control over that body or that ability to reproduce.

12 Comments

  • Posted April 24, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I agree. I had high hopes for this movie (silly me) that collapsed almost as soon as the movie began.

  • Posted April 25, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this insightful reading. In my initial admiration of the film’s fruitful explorations of immigration, terrorism, privilege/context with regard to art, and the function of green- and red-zones, I rather missed (or refused to see) the now plainly reductionist gender (and race) politics present there. The scene of Kee among the livestock in particular should have been a red flag.

  • Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I really liked Children of Men, and I agree with the character of Kee being underdeveloped. Her immidiate trust in Theo doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and her lack of dialogue is a little troubling. Though, I’m not sure I agree with your analysis. It is not just the women who are reduced in this movie – the entire human race is reduced to pointless desperate violent creatures. No life is worth anything – except that of the unborn child’s. Kee is only a vessel, a symbol, a body – yes. Though, the men (and other women) in this movie aren’t even that. By this time in the dystopian story, no-one is anything anymore, they have no worth or function at all. Theo’s only point is to get Kee and her unborn to “safety”. He isn’t a hero, he isn’t anything – but this last task that is put upon him.

  • Posted June 16, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Although I understand many of the arguments made in this post, you have missed several key points. For starters in the scene where Kee is among the livestock, this is actually a reference to the Nativity story told in the bible, where another “miracle baby” is present. Also you have said that the character of Marichka is crazy, thus de-valuing women. Where in actual fact she portrays heroic traits when she immediately risks her own life and attacks the deranged Sid who is trying to take Kee’s baby. She fought a man with a gun to protect 2 people she had only met for less than an hour. She also stays behind when there is not enough room to escape on the boat, making her a martyr also.

    Julian is only shown through Theo’s views on her as the entire narrative film is shown through his point of view. The only scene which is omniscient is the scene where Jaspar euthanises his wife and dog. And Miriam may be a “hippy” with her alternative medicine, but so is Jaspar.

    In regards to the change from the book in which the men were the infertile ones, this was done to make the story more believable. If the men were the infertile ones then Kee’s pregnancy would not have been as important. It would have been more crucial to find the father and have him begin repopulating. By changing it for the film it adds emphasis to the importance of Kee’s pregnancy and no thought is given to the father as Kee mentions that she doesn’t even know who he is.

    And finally the film follows Theo rather than Kee because he is the protagonist, and it makes sense for this to be so. The story needs to follow a character arc and maintain a storyline. If Kee were the main character the story would be “This is a world where there are no kids, this is Kee, she discovers she is pregnant, 9 months of her being messed about by the fishes, she makes it to the human project”. The whole story of the film takes less than a week and that simply wouldn’t be possible with Kee as the main character. Instead we are introduced to the drunken, depressed character of Theo who is pulled away from his life and is suddenly forced to act under pressure and help these people who he barely knows.

    And of course Theo is telling Kee what to do during the birthing scene. With Miriam gone and Kee never having even seen a pregnant women before he is the only one to aid her. Remember that he has experience given that he had a son in the past.

  • Jamie MacDouglass
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    lol you feminazis sure like to whine! sure hate men too!

    • Steve Gibson
      Posted September 19, 2016 at 12:04 am | Permalink

      Oh boy, another knuckle dragger comments…..

  • Gret88
    Posted February 15, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I agree with a lot of your points, especially how they made Kee so helpless, though I appreciated that the salvation of humanity was a black woman. I haven’t read the book so I can’t compare, but in thinking about the infertility question (men in the book, women in the movie), it does occur to me that female infertility is actually far more desperate (extinction-wise) than male. After all, if women can still bear children, then if they could find only one man with healthy sperm, or even some way to clone sperm, extinction problem solved. But if women can’t conceive or gestate, all the working sperm in the world are useless, from a population standpoint. And if you have only one fertile woman, you still have a big population problem. So for story purposes, making it female infertility ratchets up the drama.

  • Yaaaasss
    Posted April 18, 2015 at 2:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this very important analysis. I personally love the film but I had to look up the way this film deals with gender and race to get the critical ideas not offered in mainstream reviews. Children of Men offers many interesting ideas that may not have centered on dehumanization of female bodies but many important themes still relied on this dehumanization. I had to ask myself during the film why Theo was so central as a character and so important to Kee. Some reviews say he grows morally from downer bureaucrat to life-risker for the sake of humanity. But your points make me realize that Theo was most important for his male agency and male gaze. I thought it was a revolutionary idea that the savior of the world (or saviors as Kee and Dylan) is female but then I remembered Dylan had to be female. Only Dylan can inherit Kee’s fertility.

  • ianism
    Posted September 6, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    one of my favourite movies. excellent article.

  • Миша Роснач
    Posted December 11, 2016 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    Kinda reads like you’re pulling at straws. The men in this movie were mostly ridiculous or hostile, Theo knows more about taking care of a baby because he actually had one, the movie is told from a man’s perspective because it’s made by a man (it isn’t unheard of for a man to tell a story from a woman’s perspective, but it’s rather unusual and awkward), and symbolic fertility visuals work a lot better with pregnant women than they do with pregnant men.

    In addition, I don’t think this movie has any truly complex, fleshed-out characters; however, the movie’s female characters get a lot closer to it than the male ones do.

  • The Duck of Death
    Posted May 12, 2017 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes it would be way better if men were to blame instead of women. Why is that? It matters not which gender is sterile as both are needed.

  • Earth
    Posted January 2, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this (wish I’d seen it years ago). Glad to see I’m not the only one who had issues with Children of Men. On top of the problematic and stereotyped treatment of its characters (of both sexes, I would argue (because do you get it? Tory Boy Michael Caine’s a whacky old hippie!) the film also strips the interesting science fiction concept of its own notable characteristics to score cheap political points instead. I despise W Bush’s administration as much as the next sane human, but the Guantanamo Bay and Iraq War imagery is completely unexplained and nonsensical in a world collapsing because of population decrease. Children of Men is a nihilistic, adolescent thesis on humanity noteworthy only because of that one long uncut shot in the car.