Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Where are my children? — a female filmmaker talks about abortion in 1916

What can we expect from a film that starts with a warning that it is about birth control, and then it presents the gates of Heaven full of kids’ souls wanting to be born? What can we wait when these kids are classified as “accidental”, “unwanted” and “brought by prayer”? What can we wait when, at three and a half minutes, we discover that the lead believes in eugenics (!?!)? It’s difficult to judge “Where are my children?” — not only because of anachronism and the almost abysmal difference between the society we have now and what there was back then. It’s difficult to judge it because director Lois Weber’s intentions were good, but the result was odd.

A doctor carrying books on family planning is judged by “indecency” — a situation inspired by a real case from 1915. The public at the court and the jury are made exclusively by white males. One of them is attorney Richard Walton (Tyrone Power Sr, the father of the popular 1940s actor), an eugenics enthusiast and also a man who dreams about having a big family.

At the same time, the attorney’s wife, Mrs. Walton (Helen Riaume, Tyrone’s wife in real life who was often credited as Mrs Tyrone Power) recommends a doctor to a friend who wants to “escape motherhood”. Even today, while men are discussing about subjects and actions that have nothing to do with them, women are having abortions. Mrs. Walton even sees family planning as a good thing — but only if it is used by the poor!

The fear of needing a clandestine abortion is evident, and there is even a woman that hides her face while she is at the clinic. This is a representation of something that really happens. On the other side, we have a bizarre and overly-sentimental idea that the aborted fetus’ soul goes back to Heaven with a snake mark, representing its inferior status.

Later, Mrs. Walton recommends the doctor once again, but to her brother, who impregnated the maid’s daughter. In this case, however, there is an unexpected twist: the girl dies after the clandestine abortion, and the doctor is taken to court to Mr. Walton himself. The attorney is in shock when he finds out his wife recommended the doctor’s services because she had already used them a few times.

There are, obviously, some misconceptions about motherhood, misconceptions we’re still fighting against. Motherhood is portrayed as a gift from God, a gift that only pure women can experience. The woman who doesn’t want children is seen as selfish or a “social butterfly”. All of this is ironic when we find out that director Lois Weber herself didn’t have children.

If the central idea of the film, as shown in the warning before the exhibition, is to deal with birth control and family planning, the film does it right to a certain point: if the Waltons simply had had a dialogue, he would know that she didn’t want to have children. Adding dialogue as a form of birth control is valid, but complicated in patriarchal contexts, like the year 1916 and, unfortunately, some families even today.

But what is the message of “Where are my children”? Abortion shouldn’t be considered a birth control. For the film, this is valid only for rich people. The poor may have access to contraception — but not to abortion, please. Yes, the film manages to be, at the same time, antiabortion and pro-contraceptives. It gets it right when dealing with birth control, although it uses eugenics as a point, but gets everything wrong when it condemns abortion.

But remember: in 1916 things were somewhat different. Although it has blurred morals, technically the movie is good, with some scenes using double exposure special effects. Lois Weber used to make films about social issues, just like Dorothy Davenport. Her best known film is “Suspense”, from 1913. Lois was a great filmmaker, a creative mind who knew the filmmaking techniques very well but who, in “Where are my children?” gets lost in her thesis. At least she gave the start to a discussion on family planning — a dialogue that was ignored by Hollywood until 60 years after the opening of “Where are my children?”

We can’t deny that we’ve come far, but we must keep fighting so those that want to bring back the mentality of 1916 do not win.

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