Tolstoy famously opened his magnum opus with the truthy formula “All happy families are alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.” It sounds good, concedes Ursula K. Le Guin: “It’s a great first sentence.” So many families are extremely unhappy! And this extreme unhappiness feels unique, because its structural character—like the structure of capitalism—is cunningly obscured from view.
In fact, Le Guin suggests, the reverse of Tolstoy’s apothegm is ultimately closer to the truth. She knows of what she speaks, having herself grown up “in a family that on the whole seems to have been happier than most.” She finds it “false—an intolerable cheapening of reality—simply to describe it as happy.” To her, the very phrase “happy families” bespeaks a fundamental incuriosity about the nature of happiness, which—under capitalism especially—comes with enormous costs.
Genres of family critique other than the bourgeois novel do exist, but they aren’t necessarily pretty. I’m thinking of the medium crawling with moms turned murderers, blood-spattered dining-rooms, incest revenges, and homes set ablaze: Hereditary, The Shining, Society, Goodnight Mommy, Psycho, The Stepfather, Us. Critical cinema scholars have long identified a latently insurrectionary desire at play in horror movies, especially those that depict attacks (often from within) on the propertied white family, the patriarchal regime of housework, or the colonial homestead. Books like Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film argue that violent and scary movie-making is, more often than not, a popular vehicle for mass anti-family desire.
Think of the menacing domestic interiors, hostile kitchen appliances, creepy children, murderous kin, and claustrophobic hellscapes of your favorite horror flick. In slasher, home-invasion, and feminist horror canons, the narrative pretends to worry nationalistically about external threats to the family while, in fact, indulging every conceivable fantasy of dismembering and setting fire to it from within. From gore to so-called “psychological” horror, diverse genres openly implicate the family-form in the tortures it is enduring. In these movies, the suppressed, disavowed violence of the home is returning home. The monster is coming from inside the house.
Wow, who am I calling monsters—dads and moms and great-aunt Trish? No: family abolition is not “puerile” politics (albeit children must be on the front lines of imagining it). Family abolition does not expect a state of perfect, uninterrupted, universal happiness. Rather, I would ask you to flip the script and consider that it is the family that is unrealistic and utopian. The family, right now, is supposed to make everybody happy. We are all supposed to be avatars of our little biological team of competitive social reproduction. When we are delinquent, we are a burden on the family: an experience which, ideally, reforms us by making us remember (like it’s a good thing) that family is all we’ve got. Even when we are exceptional, we are, in a sense, chips off our biogenetic clan’s block; something for blood relations to be proud of.
I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the lottery that drops a neonate arbitrarily among one or two or three or four individuals (of a particular class) and keeps her there for the best part of two decades without her consent, making her wholly beholden to them for her physical survival, legal existence, and economic identity, and forcing her to be the reason they give away their lives in work. I’d wager that you, too, can imagine something better than the norm that makes a prison for adults—especially women—out of their own commitment to children they love.
‘The idea that a fetus is not just a full human but a superior and kinglike one—a being whose survival is so paramount that another person can be legally compelled to accept harm, ruin, or death to insure it—is a recent invention. For most of history, women ended unwanted pregnancies as they needed to, taking herbal or plant-derived preparations on their own or with the help of female healers and midwives, who presided over all forms of treatment and care connected with pregnancy. They were likely enough to think that they were simply restoring their menstruation, treating a blockage of blood. Pregnancy was not confirmed until “quickening,” the point at which the pregnant person could feel fetal movement, a measurement that relied on her testimony. Then as now, there was often nothing that distinguished the result of an abortion—the body expelling fetal tissue—from a miscarriage.
Abortion is often talked about as a grave act that requires justification, but bringing a new life into the world felt, to me, like the decision that more clearly risked being a moral mistake. The debate about abortion in America is “rooted in the largely unacknowledged premise that continuing a pregnancy is a prima facie moral good,” the pro-choice Presbyterian minister Rebecca Todd Peters writes. But childbearing, Peters notes, is a morally weighted act, one that takes place in a world of limited and unequally distributed resources. Many people who get abortions—the majority of whom are poor women who already have children—understand this perfectly well. “We ought to take the decision to continue a pregnancy far more seriously than we do,” Peters writes.’
The scholar Katie Gentile argues that, in times of cultural crisis and upheaval, the fetus functions as a “site of projected and displaced anxieties,” a “fantasy of wholeness in the face of overwhelming anxiety and an inability to have faith in a progressive, better future.” The more degraded actual life becomes on earth, the more fervently conservatives will fight to protect potential life in utero. We are locked into the destruction of the world that birthed all of us; we turn our attention, now, to the worlds—the wombs—we think we can still control.
There is a loss, I think, entailed in abortion—as there is in miscarriage, whether it occurs at eight or twelve or twenty-nine weeks. I locate this loss in the irreducible complexity of life itself, in the terrible violence and magnificence of reproduction, in the death that shimmered at the edges of my consciousness in the shattering moment that my daughter was born. This understanding might be rooted in my religious upbringing—I am sure that it is. But I wonder, now, how I would square this: that fetuses were the most precious lives in existence, and that God, in His vision, already chooses to end a quarter of them. The fact that a quarter of women, regardless of their beliefs, also decide to end pregnancies at some point in their lifetimes: are they not acting in accordance with God’s plan for them, too?
‘…Yet with the upcoming release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, poised to be the biggest film of the year, it’s just as worthwhile to consider what these films don’t seem to fear. While recent dystopias warn youth about over-reliance on computers, totalitarian rule, class warfare, pandemic panics and global warming, very few ask audiences to think deeply about sexism and racism.
Which is strange. If the United States were to truly transform into a totalitarian state, or suffer an environmental catastrophe, it’s safe to say society’s deepest divisions wouldn’t magically disappear overnight. These dystopian adaptations ask their young audiences to imagine that race and gender issues have been partially overcome in the future, while general human suffering has somehow increased. The results feel false, and undercut the films’ attempts to comment on the present day.
This is not to say that these movies don’t occasionally touch upon identity—both Divergent and The Hunger Games clearly have something to say about gender equity, and The Maze Runner gives boys of color some prominent roles. But none imagines a future in which racism and sexism are significant problems facing their protagonists.
For instance, in The Hunger Games films, there is diversity in the cast. District 11, the site of a brutal execution in the second film, is filled almost entirely with black inhabitants. But at the same time, the film implies that white characters like Katniss and Gale now make up the majority of the poorest district (12).
Whenever Hollywood does get an opportunity to talk about race in one of these movies, it minimizes the subject. Characters of color like Beetee, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who mentored Katniss, or Christina, Tris’s best friend in Divergent (played by Kravitz’s daughter Zoe), certainly play major roles in these stories, but their race is never at issue. You might say that this is an example of admirably “colorblind” filmmaking—were it not for the fact that the audience’s perspective is always that of a white protagonist.
To an extent, the diversity of characters depends on the source material, but producers typically have some leeway in casting decisions. Suzanne Collins, in her original novel, does not explicitly describe Katniss as Anglo-Saxon (she has “olive skin”), so it’s actually the filmmakers who make the decision to default to white. In fact, Collins intentionally leaves many lead characters in the novels racially ambiguous, creating a more integrated and nuanced world.
When the first Hunger Games film decided to cast black actors in the roles of Cinna and Rue, many fans of Collins’s book (who had imagined the characters differently despite the novel’s clear description of their “dark brown” skin color) were upset, but they still went to see the film in droves. In the sequel, Jeffrey Wright was cast as Beetee, who is in fact described as having “ashen” skin by Collins.
Similarly, the recent film adaptation of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s beloved dystopian young adult novel, hinges on the concept of “sameness,” as it imagines a future in which those in power have decided to erase the collective memory of humanity and “protect” people from their own emotions. The result is the creation of a bland and literally colorless community (the first section of the film is presented entirely in black and white). Yet rather than using this opportunity in part to further explore how “color” operates in the real world (namely, how race relates to power), the filmmakers barely touch the subject at all, in essence promoting the very “sameness” that Lowry feared.’
We just saw Christopher Nolan’s new film. It was a good film, though not his greatest. We were never bored. The story itself was good, though our assumptions about the film’s foundations were sadly correct – even more than correct. They spot-on celebrate everything we find wrong with the post-apocalyptic genre. The pro-natalist leanings are the movie’s downfall and are what kept me from really caring what happened to this version of the human race in general.
Interstellar wasn’t just about saving the humans – it was also about starting it over if necessary. Starting us over.
Some of the humans in the film are prepared to go off and leave everyone on earth and just start over with an “ark” of human eggs and sperm. This plot point was somewhat pathetic (on the characters’ part) but necessary to show the multiple levels of human thinking. It asks the question: What is more important, those already living and suffering or the thought of no humans existing at all?
The other issue we had was the main point to the film – of finding another planet to colonize. If we couldn’t take care of the last one then how dare we feel entitled to another one? Not to mention the fact Nolan conveniently didn’t acknowledge other life on those planets (that I can remember) – only if they did or didn’t support human life.
Another bone we have to pick was on a topic Nolan could have explored more. One of the characters has and loses a child on earth to a sickness the dust storms cause (affecting the lungs). Why the hell would you be having babies when you knew your world was dying? Not only is everyone starving, but they can’t breathe and you think it’s a good idea to bring another oxygen-needing, food-needing human into the world? Huh?
Jessica Chastian’s character asks of her then-in-space dad at one point “Did you leave us here to die?” What it really should have been was, “Why the hell did you bring me into this world, dad?”
But back to the main point. Nolan seems to be very anti-earth in this film, though I don’t know if he meant to be. He likens the struggling farmers trying to feed the population as “caretakers” who are pathetic and without dreams – as if going into space and leaving the human mess behind is the only way to have hope.
Sorry, but no. It is that very escapist outlook that many of the European colonizers had (escape Europe, start over, be in charge of a colony! Never mind the Native Americans who already live here). Leaving earth won’t solve humanity’s problem. It will leave them going from planet to planet like locust, continually throwing things off balance.
I would much rather be a caretaking steward of the earth we do have than have my species blamed for killing off every other species (plant and animal – oh, and not a single animal was seen in the film, by the way. Hm, I WONDER WHY). I would much rather our species be able to fix problems rather than escape them the way Nolan suggests in this film.
Let me give you an example: Instead of leaving a planet that was losing its oxygen, why not have scientists mutate the human body to have them better withstand the nitrogen that was taking over in the film? Why not genetically modify humans to withstand the climate they created? That’s adapting.
My point is: There has to be a better way than leaving our mess behind. Leaving is only a temporary solution. We will always have to come back and face our “ghosts” eventually. I don’t want to be a scary ghost. [Spoilers] After all, even in the film, the human race (which now knows more about 5th dimensions and gravity and time and space and is perhaps more evolved (?)) comes “back” to make sure things go right for the human race. Why can’t we just work toward being good ghosts from the beginning? [End Spoilers]
However, I think people will be talking about the topics this film raised for a long time to come. I know we will be.
“Don’t go down so gently…I’m just waiting on you to breathe without permission”
This essay will explore the post-apocalyptic genre’s pro-natalist tendencies serving as the vehicle of “hope.” It argues that colonialism and apocalypse are symptoms of pro-natalist fixations. In a similar vein of Annalee Newitz’s work Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, it concludes with a brief exploration on how humanity might change when changing the narrative.
Be it natural disaster, war, famine, alien invasion, robots, zombie attacks, or all of the above, post-apocalyptic literature and film are usually about hope. Hope that no, this is not the end. There is more. We will rebuild it.
In these post-apocalyptic stories, our hope is a hope for what was there before the apocalypse. But, at best, humankind tends to set goals of starting at square one (reestablishing civilization, the population, surviving until those points are achievable, etc.). These goals tend to ignore that “starting over” is a cyclical thing to hope for and that humankind is doomed to repeat its mistakes once it reaches its next apocalyptic turning point. It is not what I would call a “true solution” to avoid another “Armageddon.” The struggle perpetuates itself through never breaking the cycle—through putting our hope in the next generation, as if they will get it right the next time.
This is when the theme of “hope” becomes synonymous with “children.”
This hope is seen very well in the film Children of Men, where humanity is in the tank not because it is necessarily struggling to survive a die-off caused by natural disaster or plague, but simply because no children are being born. In fact, you could argue humanity is not struggling to survive, merely reaching zero population growth. The infertility itself spurs chaos. The message is, essentially, that there is no purpose for life if you cannot leave a legacy behind (such as art) for the future to appreciate. History becomes meaningless when it stops with you and religion becomes a crutch to get you through the despair. At the end of the film, the viewer is left with the “hope” that the only child born in the last eighteen years will restore, you could say, not only the species, but our humanity. However, putting all that pressure on one child is a slightly selfish spin on things and a risky ratio. There are still too many eggs in one basket—a basket of pro-natalist fantasies.
In a short story titled “As Good As New,” published by Tor and written by Charlie Jane Anders, a young woman—a lone survivor of some recent apocalypse—finds a genie and uses her three wishes to restore humanity back to the day before it went to hell. She uses one of her wishes to reverse all apocalypses—overlooking that she, too, is the result of a type of apocalypse (what Annalee Newitz, based off her work Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, would call a “mass extinction apocalypse” (goodbye dinosaurs…)). And she uses her last wish to keep the genie “in the family” so that she and her descendants can stop the apocalypse from ever happening again—should they ever need to. It is a delightful and witty story, and it highlights the fact that even the author knows the human tendency to just keep screwing things up. But what undermines it is the main character’s faith in her own DNA to keep an apocalypse from ever happening again—as if the family won’t eventually produce some evil spawns or even infertility. The story makes for a very natalist excuse to keep on breeding and doing “what humans do” without true introspection.
A less post-apocalyptic example (but nonetheless approaching apocalyptic) is the BBC TV show UTOPIA, where the protagonists try to stop a secret organization that wants to sterilize the world population by putting something undetectable in our food. The show often vilifies or makes pitiful the characters who actually want population control or see it as humanity’s only hope.
The pro-natalist protagonists (kind of) stop the organization from releasing the medicated food, but they offer up no solutions on how to help their downward-spiraling world avoid its breaking point. Thus, the population is left to just “keep breeding.” Or, perhaps, something even more depressing:
What makes this post-apocalyptic story unique is that the Earth and what remains are not used to respark civilization. Yet, the driving force behind it all is still children and fighting for our species to live on regardless of our responsibility to the world we leave behind.
In an ironic twist, perhaps one of the few apocalyptic stories to break the natalist trope is the Christian apocalypse. Like it or not, the Christian mythos is the foundation that fuels many of our fears and interests in these stories “of the end times.” Karen Armstrong, in her book The Gospel According to Woman, observes that Saint Augustine “was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing: it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end. By continuing to propagate the human race we were simply holding up Christ’s glorious return.” What makes the Christian apocalypse so complex (and perhaps most inventive) is that if there were fewer humans on earth, mortals could force God to cash in on his threatening promises.
The Christian apocalypse is one that is still inserting itself into the genre, most recently in the 2014 Nicolas Cage Left Behind film (which I did not watch and don’t need to, because I think we all get the idea). The only reason that version of the Christian end-of-days is not a natalist orgy apoc-pile is because all the innocent little babies have been raptured up to God and God no longer needs humans to be good Christian breeders. But Left Behind fills a grey area: it is not post-apocalyptic, only apocalyptic—and it is something desired to happen (by Christians). The desire, coming either from revenge on sinners or for peace on earth, is what makes the story and all its versions ambiguous. What comes after said apocalypse depends on your interpretation and belief (i.e. what does “heaven on earth” mean to you? Will we be defined as human at that point? Will breeding even be a concept? All this is irrelevant and beside the point…). Whatever happens, the post-Christian apocalypse, at its core, has no focus on children or future generations; it is a focus of the past and present being given “eternal life”—not adding new life.
The Christian apocalypse subverts the natalist trope and instead places hope in Christ or some version of heaven. The Christian apocalypse does not hinge on whether or not you think having children is a moral issue, though today the Christian stance seems to be so go ahead and breed anyway (as seen with generalized, conservative Christian platforms on birth control, family values, and their view of the world as a disposable resource). Thus, since it is a story recounted and upheld by pro-natalists, we cannot claim that the Christian apocalypse, as story, is anti-natalist. At best, it is neutral. It still breaks from the norm and can highlight what the “norm” is for this genre, however.
At this point, you may be wondering if post-apocalyptic stories can exist at all without natalist fantasy or religion propping them up, and I am here to tell you that there are ways and I would like to see more of them. Just because the human era is dwindling does not mean our story is ending in these post-apocalyptic stories. Our hope does not have to be contingent on human children. Hope can be explored in the uploading of our minds into a matrix-like computer where we can become immortal and not “need” to repopulate. We can become cyborgs that don’t need to depend on current human resources. We can even become a completely different species: a good example of this is the book/film, The Girl with All the Gifts, where hybrid zombie-human children, whose reproductive status is moot, are the future. Not humans themselves. Stories which break the natalist mold in such a way are a refreshing rarity and are cause for us to examine our choices and the genre.
Post-apocalyptic stories are usually clouded with flying storks. At the genre’s core is a cliché not readily broken, perhaps highlighting the human psyche in ways our storytellers could more actively address. Because, if our characters really cared about future generations, they wouldn’t have let the apocalypse happen in the first place.