Pretty Women Use Birth Control
Today’s blog post is by Rebecca M. Bender, who is an assistant professor of Spanish at Grinnell College. Her primary interests are 19th-20th century Spanish narrative, especially Spanish women’s literature of the 1920s; romanticism and realism, the Spanish and Hispanic Avant-Garde, and the Golden Age Theater and Prose. She writes about her academic interests at http://rebeccambender.wordpress.com/.
I recently came across this amazing vintage video “Family Planning,” produced by Disney in 1968. Do yourself a favor and take 10 minutes to watch it. In addition to the frivolous use of Donald Duck and the caricature of a “simple” heterosexual couple who appear clueless as to how babies are made, this short film provides us with a wealth of information regarding attitudes towards reproduction in the U.S., and abroad, during the late 1960s. After doing a bit of research, for example, I found out this film was produced for the Population Council, a non-profit organization created by John Rockefeller in 1952. While the goals of the organization were (are) to “improve the quality of people’s lives, to help make it possible for individuals everywhere to develop their full potential,” it is important to note that the Council also had origins in the American eugenics movement that promoted various forms of population control. Additionally, I also discovered that the short Disney propaganda film was largely intended for audiences in developing nations. It became especially popular in Chile, for example, where the title was “Planificación familiar.” Needless to say, it becomes quite problematic to consider the paternalist implications of a Disney video on population control – complete with racialized representations of male-female couples – being promoted and disseminated in developing nations.
There are certainly a number of things that we can critique, (over)analyze, and comment on in this video – the racialized representations of “man,” the underlying positive-eugenics discourse suggesting population control, and the privileging and reinforcing of heteronormative relationships. However, for the purposes of this post I want to limit my discussion to “the silent woman” in the video. If you weren’t able to watch the film, here is a brief description: an invisible male narrator explains to a male and female couple how family planning will increase the happiness and well-being of their family, as better health and increased material wealth result when fewer people share finite resources. However, only the man (husband) engages with this narrator, asking questions and voicing his comments and concerns. The woman (wife) says nothing, and only towards the very end of the video does she whisper her concerns in her husband’s ear… and HE then voices them to the narrator-instructor.
In my viewing of this film, I observed two important functions of this silent woman. First, she is the accessory that allows the “everyday man” to maintain power within both the private (family home) and public spheres. She does not voice an opinion, she stays at/within the home to take care of all their children, and she certainly does not talk about sex or reproduction. This is perhaps her most obvious, and most historically and culturally recognized, role. But her second function in this video is what caught my attention, given that it connects with my research on feminism and motherhood in 1920s Spain. I also see her as an embodiment of scare tactics that encourage women viewers to voluntarily embrace this passive, silent role within their families — all for their own “good.”
Given that this Disney short was created for global audiences in the sixties, and my own research focuses on early twentieth-century Spain, I am not suggesting a direct connection or influence. However, the involvement of the Population Council in the production of the film, and the Council’s association with eugenics and population control, does connect to a particular scientific and medical discourse on biology, reproduction, and eugenics that pervaded western European nations in the early-twentieth century. Specifically, the subtext of this video shares many similarities with the ideology that informed the research and writing of the well-respected Spanish endocrinologist, Dr. Gregorio Marañón, in the 1920s. Marañón’s controversial theories regarding intersexuality, masculinity, and femininity, were quite popular with the Spanish readership during this time, and historian Thomas F. Glick has described Marañón as “Spain’s authoritative voice on sexual matters” in the 1920s (see Glick’s informative article, “Sexual Reform, Psychoanalysis, and the Politics of Divorce in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s”).
In 1926, Marañón published a collection of essays entitled Tres ensayos sobre la vida sexual (Three essays on sexual life), and the longest of the three was titled “Maternidad y feminism.” While not explicitly advocating birth control, the doctor does argue in favor of “maternidad consciente,” a position that made him popular with some feminist-inclined women of the era (including Spanish novelist and journalist Carmen de Burgos). Yet much like this Disney short, the motives driving his arguments in favor of limiting reproduction were clearly tinted by patriarchal glasses!
In the Disney video, the male narrator suggests that one of the benefits of family planning is that the woman will work less and be healthier. At 6:05, we see a blue-gray image of a haggard, exhausted woman taking care of many children while performing all household duties. The narrator explains: “The woman will have too much to do. She will become tired and cross. Her health will suffer.” Appearing benevolent on the surface, this rhetoric harks back to 1920s Spain, in which “conscious maternity” was lauded for its potential to prevent adultery. ADULTERY!?!? Yes, adultery. You know, because if a woman is “tired,” “cross,” or appears older than her age due to birthing and raising many children, she certainly won’t be interested in sex… her husband will not be attracted to her… and thus he will “naturally” be forced to satisfy his sexual needs elsewhere. And what 1960s housewife would want to look like the depressing portrayal of the woman in the video?
Dr. Marañón employs this same tactic in his 1926 essays. The “poetic” lines he used to describe a woman with many children actually made me laugh the first time I read them:
“la madre, envejecida prematuramente, malhumorada, cuando no enferma y tererosa del tálamo […] pierda todo el encanto sexual para el esposo” / “the mother, prematurely aged, grumpy, when not sick or fearful of the marriage bed [...] loses all sexual appeal to her husband” (“Maternidad y feminismo” 96)
But this is no laughing matter! If we examine the 1960s family planning video, Marañón’s seemingly antiquated words clearly find new life. Even though the woman remains silent throughout the video, it is she who bears the brunt of the family planning responsibilities in order to make her husband happy. It is the silent woman who visits the doctor, the health service worker, and the medical clinic (8:00). It is she who will ultimately “take pills” (7:52). In the end, it appears as though the silent (ok… whispering like a chipmunk) woman convinces her husband to try family planning; he embraces her and casts a loving gaze upon both her and their children (9:00-35).
Considering the ways in which family planning and birth control have been discussed in different historical and cultural moments (in both “conservative” and “liberal” spaces), it’s important to recognize that public discussions of birth control are often less about a woman’s right to freely control her body, health, and sexual activity, and more about alternative underlying agendas. For example, this video’s emphasis on increasing a family’s health and well-being by way of accumulating material goods and fostering attractive physical appearances functions secondarily to promote capitalist ideology. Moreover, women’s individual desires and sexual agency are completely silenced, and women must instead take on the entirety of family-planning responsibilities, thus allowing others to benefit from female self-discipline. The Disney short – which does not include a single female name in the opening credits, by the way – is a perfect example of these tendencies. And while it is clearly a “vintage” film, that doesn’t necessarily mean our current society has moved beyond such critiques. In fact, we might even classify our modern-day media’s obsession with women’s post-pregnancy bodies as a further means of pressuring women to control their reproductive potential, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of those around them (husbands, public, modeling contracts, etc.).