The Silent Woman: Use Birth Control, Stay Attractive

UPDATE: April 2014 – I expanded upon this post and the historical background of the Disney film for my guest post over at Nursing Clio. Check out the lengthier version here.

I recently came across this amazing vintage video on “Family Planning,” produced by Disney in 1968, via Open Culture. 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 this particular cultural milieu (USA, late 1960s).

Of course there are a number of things that we can critique, (over)analyze, and comment on in this video – the racialized representations of “man” and the underlying positive-eugenics discourse suggesting population control, for example. However for the purposes of this post I want to limit my discussion to “the silent woman.” In this video she has two functions that caught my attention. 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 sparked my interest, given that it connects with my research on feminism and motherhood in 1920s Spain. I also see her as a silent embodiment of scare tactics that encourage women viewers to voluntarily embrace this passive, silent role within their families — all for their own “good.”

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, 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 “Maternidad y feminismo”. 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 novelist and journalist Carmen de Burgos). Yet much like this Disney video from the 1960s, the motives driving his arguments in favor of limiting reproduction are clearly tinted by patriarchal-glasses(!).

In the Disney video, the male narrator suggests that one of the benefits of limiting births with 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 Family Planning 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 ways in which others might benefit from female self-discipline. The Disney short – which does not include one female name in the opening credits – is a perfect example. And while this is clearly a “vintage” film, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our current society has moved beyond these 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.).

Remember, ladies:

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About rebeccambs

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Feminism, First-wave spanish feminism, Language, Science and Medicine, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Silent Woman: Use Birth Control, Stay Attractive

  1. Pingback: Pretty Women Use Birth Control – my guest post at Nursing Clio | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

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