Since discussions on reproductive rights are circulating in the media again, I've started thinking about birth control, and how its introduction in the US as oral contraception revolutionized sexuality, changing society's views on morality and casual sex indefinitely. Before the pill, women had to worry about getting pregnant if they wanted to have sex with a man. My generation and the ones that follow may not think about this as profoundly as women did prior to the pill and other effective methods of birth control. Especially considering that before the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, condoms weren't as widely used as they are today. Sure, spermicide and diaphragms have been around since the late 1800s, but these were virtually inaccessible, so they didn't impact society the same way oral contraception did nearly 100 years later.
Even when birth control gained approval from the USDA in 1960, an additional five years passed before the supreme court granted married couples access in every state. At that time, 26 states did not extend this right to unmarried women. It wasn't until 1972--twelve years later--that the supreme court granted all women in the US the right to use birth control, regardless of marital status.
Three years after, Loretta Lynn wrote a song called, "The Pill" which is said to be her most controversial song ever written. The lyrics basically tie pregnancy and motherhood to male oppression. She sings of a new found freedom to do as she pleases without being tied down to a man and another baby, "cause now I've got the pill..." Plus, there are underlying implications of her liberty to have sex with whoever she wants. As one could imagine, this little pill had caused a social revolution, allowing women to step off the purity pedestal at will for the first time. However, given that "Americanization" through advertising had become a global phenomenon, 'woman as object' inadvertently grew more solidified as a result of this liberation. Bear in mind, this was just before 'women's lib' became a household term, and predates the end of second wave feminism, where it had become commonplace to discuss the objectification of women, especially in advertisement and film.
In 1966, French New Wave filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard made Masculin Féminin, a film that greatly explores a woman's perspective. Throughout the film, the young male and female characters openly discuss their views on sex, and birth control is often talked about.
Godard is frequently misinterpreted as being a misogynist for his portrayal of women, but what his critics don't understand is that the perspective he offers is meant to discuss the objectification of women and the commodification of culture, especially in film. And since women's sexuality plays a big role in culture as commodity, women are portrayed as such intentionally.
Masculin Féminin begins from the male perspective, where our protagonist tells us that he has just finished military service. "Sixteen months without comfort, money, love, or leisure. Subjected to absolute authority twenty four hours a day... Just like modern society, in other words."
In the beginning, we are introduced to a young man named Paul, who is depicted as sensitive, despite our being prefaced by his stereotypical male experience.
Shortly thereafter, Godard narrates:
Paris today: what do young girls dream about? But which girls? The checkers at Simca who are too tired after work to make love? Eighteen year old manicurists and hairdressers whoring in posh hotels? Schoolgirls who know their Bergson and Sartre and nothing else because their parents shut them up at home? The average Frenchwoman doesn't exist.
Though I'm no authority on the subject, I believe this may be one of the earliest examples of postmodern thought and male feminism in popular culture.
Throughout the film, Paul engages with young female characters, often discussing their perspectives in an interview style. He asks each of them about three main topics: The war in Vietnam and/or communism, sex and/or birth control, and whether they've ever fallen in love. Through these questions, we learn that most women prefer not to discuss sex openly with a man, though none of the women overtly express any moral qualms over their implicit involvement in extramarital sex. The conversations also portray women as not having much of an opinion about politics, and yet every woman has varying opinions on the use of birth control. The underlying theme here expressly revisits an earlier narrative that the average Frenchwoman does not exist. This is also where the layman confuses Godard's female characters as chauvinistic portrayals of women, due to the absence of any political opinions in contrast to their ability to talk about love.
Godard applies Bertolt Brecht's theory of epic theater as a means to question the image, with slides that interrupt scenes in effort to remind the audience that they are watching a film. These seemingly non-sequitur slides are preceded by a parody sound of a gun shot, something one would hear in a John Wayne film, done in attempt to remove the suspension of disbelief required of the standard film audience. Perhaps the most effective use of this technique in the film is when Paul interviews, "Miss 19."
This scene begins with a slide that reads: DIALOGUE WITH A CONSUMER PRODUCT. Here Paul speaks to "Miss 19," who is something of an equivalent to a cross between Miss America and the official face of Seventeen Magazine. Done in an interview style, the audience is given the perspective of a 'typical girl.' Or perhaps, better, a typified girl that others aspire to be like, as is indicated with holding the status of "Miss 19."
When asked about birth control, Miss 19 seems embarrassed, though it is clear she is informed about the pill and other preventative measures. In regards to politics, Miss 19 displays a vague awareness of the war in Vietnam and overtly admits that she doesn't understand political party distinctions. This suggests that a woman who isn't necessarily interested in activism or sociopolitical matters still keeps herself up to date on issues regarding women's sexual freedom. It is unclear whether Miss 19 finds these topics important, though she is aware of them in a way that she is not about politics. Showing us this, Godard sheds light on an otherwise cryptic element of female culture: despite the absence of the "average woman," all modern women, regardless of their involvement with social or political affairs, knows enough about reproductive advancements to have a developed opinion on the subject and even take a stance.
In another part of the film, we learn through a female friend named Catherine-Isabelle, that Paul's girlfriend Madeline considers birth control 'shocking' and therefore doesn't use it. Catherine-Isabelle reveals that she herself uses a "thingamijig" that she received from their friend Elizabeth. The unnamed contraceptive had been brought to her from America by an employee of Air France. But Catherine-Isabelle tells us since Madeline doesn't use anything, she is afraid of becoming pregnant from Paul. Paul's response, "The idiot. I'm old enough to know better," is a typical uniformed response I've frequently heard from men. And it is an approach that, more often than not, ends just as the film ends, with an unwanted pregnancy.
Midway through the film, there is an indication that Madeline may be pregnant, though this is not confirmed until the abrupt shift in the final scene. Prior to confirming Madeline's pregnancy, Paul engages in a monologue where he considers the effect and purpose of his interviews:
Gradually I began to realize that such questions often distorted rather than reflected a collective mentality. My own lack of objectivity, even though unconscious, was inevitably matched by insincerity in those I questioned. Unaware of deceiving them, I may have been deceived, too. Why? Probably because such surveys tend to forget their real objective, seeking value judgments instead of observing behavior. I discovered that all these questions I was asking French people expressed an ideology of the past and not of the present. I had to remain vigilant; I had gleaned a few insights as guidelines. A philosopher is a man who pits his awareness against opinion. To be aware is to be open to the world. To be honest is to act as though time doesn't exist. To see life, to really see it, that is what wisdom means.
This monologue is followed by a jump cut to Catherine-Isabelle and Madeline at the police station. A voice off camera asks, "What happened?" Catherine-Isabelle explains that Paul had received money from his mother to buy an apartment for him and Madeline. She mentions a quarrel about where furniture will be arranged and then assumes that, in attempt to take a photo of the place, Paul must have backed up too far, falling to his death out the window. It is insinuated that the police believed the quarrel to have led to Paul jumping because Catherine-Isabelle says without being asked or told, "I won't believe it was suicide. It was a stupid accident." Next, Madeline is addressed by the officer. She confirms Catherine-Isabelle's account. The officer states that her friend Elizabeth told him that Madeline is pregnant, asking "What will you do?" to which Madeline replies, "I don't know… I'm not sure. I don't know... Elizabeth mentioned curtain rods... I'm not sure."
The abrupt change of mood in the final scene ends the film with the quintessential alternative to birth control. The film is over before we find out what Madeline decides, leaving the protagonist to remain charismatic if we allow her to, while effectively touching on the brutal alternative to the modern 'woman as object' sans birth control. Perhaps Godard kills Paul in order to avoid controversy around his inclusion of abortion in the film's discussion of reproductive freedom, allowing the audience to sympathize with Madeline. Though these days almost all women either know someone or are someone who has had a surgical or medical abortion, back then abortion still had to be performed either at home, or clandestine with a willing doctor. Even today, with considerable access to abortions, this choice is traumatic, socially stigmatized, and the most undesirable of all the reproductive options available. Still, many women choose not to use birth control and to engage in casual sex, and most, if not all women who've slept with men have experienced a pregnancy scare, using birth control or not.
Prior to effective methods of birth control, termination was the only option for avoiding an unwanted pregnancy. Various herbal abortifacients or fairly violent procedures had been administered on record as early as 1000 BCE. Since the 1960s western society has openly rejected normative values surrounding sex and marriage, perhaps due in part to the accessibility of birth control and later, abortions, but also because unmarried people have been sleeping with each other for centuries and were finally ready to admit it. Yet conservatives still find it necessary to impose regulations on reproductive freedom, and to make efforts to take away funding from public services for reproductive health.
It seems that in the US the alternative to birth control often ends up being abortion. Considering that giving a newborn up for adoption has lost popularity in more recent times, what compromises does a woman make if she births an unwanted child? When abortion isn't performed with an unwanted or unintentional pregnancy, the consequences are unclear. Allowing oneself this choice is essential to equality, and it seems that every woman, at the very least, prefers to plan a pregnancy in accordance with her own personal timeline. Even Miss 19, despite her wanting a child in the future, believes it to be important to live her life independently in her early youth. Plus some women prefer not to have children, and so should they be deprived of sex because of this?
At this point, when even religious people engage in extramarital sex, asking people to abstain from sexual activity is beyond foolish. So what then, if not birth control?
Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo, 2015
This article also appears on The Modern Review