Only—a film by South Korean director Takashi Doscher that was initially released in the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27,2019 and subsequently opened for public viewing in March 2020, is placed in the genre of romantic Sci-fi. The categorisation appears ironic, especially when looked at from a post-pandemic global lens — quarantine and sterilisation protocols, the mistrust of other human beings and the simultaneous desire to be alone yet feeling lonely, are all too fresh in our collective memory as Only takes us along several such instances.
The film struck a chord not just for its contemporaneous content, but for the age-old overarching metaphors it represented. The plot is simple— a disease caused by meteor showers wipes off the female population world-wide and government agencies along with bounty-hunters are out to seek the few women alive, to use their ovaries to repopulate the world. The protagonists are a young couple, Will and Ava – geographic location unspecified – who manage to stay hidden and healthy for more than a year basically through the efforts of Will, played by Leslie Odom Jr. who goes to unusual lengths to protect Ava, played by Freida Pinto, from being snatched for reproductive purposes. At this point, it is worthwhile to review the expert opinions on the film which appear to be quite polarised. While some found the film misogynist, others could feel the “powerful and transcendent” love within Only.
Throughout history of civilisations, overt attempts to corral women for their safekeeping, often, if not always, had the covert agenda of controlling their bodies, in the name of purity of race, religion, nation or whatever strange cause the patriarchy had come up with. The Hindu customs in India have at various instances glorified Sati, Jauhar, honour killing etc. to forestall a woman, rather a womb, from being appropriated by the “others”.
Only is noteworthy because the director has actually stated the obvious, in the guise of the dystopian! The polarised opinions too are representative of the duality of violence at the core of the principle of “protecting” the body of a woman. Just like in the reel life, in real too, women are subjected to public abomination and then kept confined, sometimes forcibly sometimes in the garb of “care” and “concern”, by the same patriarchal structures. In Only, Will, the young man who tries to keep his partner Ava safe from the disease and the dystopian, against her express wishes, is therefore unambiguously both the protector from and perpetrator of violence, albeit in the guise of love.
Without entering into the complexities of reproductive politics, one might say most major world religions consider abortion/contraception to be unnatural, even immoral. Some archaic systems continue to worship fertility as sacred and fecundity of their land, cattle, women remain a ritual desire in all pastoral and agricultural communities. The logical consequence is that, women who cannot or will not give birth are projected as useless/unnatural/evil. Yet, the glorification of the womb has proven to be a double-edged sword for women: her primary role of birthing and nurturing relegating her to the private space of “home”. Her public appearance is made redundant, even dangerous, as capture of women and cattle was/is a historically ritualistic assertion of dominance of one clan/group over another.
In the post industrialised Western world, women have entered the public sphere and their attempts to gain control over their bodies are often met with religious, societal even physical repercussions like rape, mutilation, murder. Scientific theories postulated in Victorian England clearly spelt out the theory of ‘separate spheres’ which basically says it is natural for men to be aggressive, independent, ambitious and insensitive because they have to manoeuvre in the public space, while women are more likely to be docile, emotional and unstable as their minds and bodies are dominated by their reproductive organs.
Further, any kind of stress on their brain or body could drain away their energy rendering them to become sterile, weak and even insane – a pitiful condition expressed by the term “hysteria” which originates from the Greek word for uterus, hystera.
Manu, the lawgiver of Hindus, had said that women needed supervision throughout their lives – she will live under her father/guardian before marriage, husband after marriage and her son in her old age. Henry Maudsley, the eminent Victorian psychiatrist and no less prone to misogyny than Manu, dictated that the reproductive process demanded all the energy a woman could muster and if spent in any other way like education etc., would undermine her raison d’etre. Thus, women exist for the reason of childbearing and should be kept “safe” — also the plotline of Only in a nutshell.
It is interesting to note how refined sensibilities were gradually transforming forcible incarceration of the female body and deprecation of her mental and intellectual faculties, into an ideology of women’s welfare. Juvenile Spectator of 1810 wrote “Females from infancy to age are in a state of subjection, nor ought they to consider it a misfortune, on the contrary, it should convince them they are the objects of fondest solicitude,” (cited in Katherine Moore, Victorian Wives, New York, 1985, Introduction, p xiv.). We have come a long way since then, whether women will be defined by the reductionist notions of Manu and Maudsley or whether they would continue to be much more than their wombs, rendering Only forever to the genre of science fiction, remains to be seen.
Dr Sarmila Sarkar is the associate professor of History at Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College, Kolkata. She can be found on Facebook.
Featured image source: Hollywood Reporter