Movies

Friday A/V Club: Eugenicsploitation

When reformers accept the premises of the system.

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Look! There it is! Tomorrow!

Alice Mason is a hard-working young woman ready to get married and start making babies. But the authorities think her family has bad blood—her parents are drunks, and her brothers are all either disabled or criminal—so the government orders Alice to submit to sterilization. She is saved only at the last minute, just before the surgeon's knife enters her body, when it is learned that she was a foster child and thus does not share her family's genes.

That's the plot of Tomorrow's Children, a 1934 exploitation flick whose YouTube page describes it as a "science fiction horror movie." Whoever posted it evidently doesn't know that eugenics laws existed in much of the country in the first half of the 20th century—indeed, some states didn't repeal them until the 1970s. This isn't a science-fiction film. It was set in the dystopian present, not a dystopian future.

The movie is clearly opposed to the status quo. At 31:45, a sympathetic character—the one doctor who dissents from the system—argues against sterilizing dangerous madmen. (Just lock 'em up instead, he says.) At 38:42, a criminal who has agreed to go under the knife in exchange for an early release mutters that the operation won't stop him from stealing (or from "packing a rod if I get caught in a jam"). And at 41:44, the aforementioned doctor argues to his boss that Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Poe might have been classified as "unfit" in their day.

But as is often the case when a story argues for reform, the movie accepts a lot of the premises of the system it's supposed to be challenging. Consider Alice's household, where the "family taint"—that's what the authorities call it—manifests itself in a dizzying range of ways: alcoholism, retardation, lame limbs, criminality. You get the impression that they've got the "something's going to go wrong" gene. (Maybe the movie is science fiction after all.) The fact that Alice isn't a blood relation provides a happy resolution for the plot, but it also leaves open the possibility that her sterilization really would have been in the public interest if she had been born to those parents.

I vant to drink your bloo— wait, sorry, wrong movie.

And then there's the sequence at 23:09, when a dangerous young man avoids sterilization because he comes from a wealthy, well-connected family. (We know he's dangerous because he decides to rip open a nurse's uniform right before he enters the courtroom. Also, his makeup makes him look like he wandered in from a vampire movie.) Maybe the aim is just to show how the system is stacked against the poor, but the effect is to suggest the real problem here is that the wrong people are being sterilized. Indeed, when the judge decides to let the rich boy breed, the same doctor who at other points argues against eugenics proclaims the decision the "lowest thing I've ever seen."

On a lighter note, be sure to check out the scene at 34:50 where we're told about the revivifying effects of a vasectomy. "It's said that if this operation is performed on an elderly man, it will rejuvenate his glands so that he may be able to enjoy life to a ripe old age!"

In one way, the movie reminds me of Anatole Litvak's 1948 picture The Snake Pit. Not in quality—Tomorrow's Children is cheaply made and clumsily acted, while The Snake Pit is a well-crafted feature with an A-list cast. But just as Tomorrow's Children is a critique of eugenics that ends up endorsing a lot of the eugenic worldview, The Snake Pit positions itself as an exposé of psychiatric abuses but winds up justifying electroshock and other invasive procedures as long as the doctor making the decisions is benevolent and liberal. Apparently, the filmmakers favored a kinder, gentler cukoo's nest.

Bonus link: This old article of mine discusses the origins of America's eugenics laws.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

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  1. “This isn’t a science-fiction film. It was set in the dystopian present, not a dystopian future.”

    That doesn’t mean it’s not a sci-fi film.

  2. It always cracks me up showing a liberal some of the things Margeret Sanger said on the subject of abortion.

    1. *and sterilization.

    2. Or what Holmes had to say about eugenics.

      1. Well, are you progressive or what? You want progress, don’t you?

    3. “We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population. And the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” ?Margaret Sanger, in a letter to eugenics leader Dr. Clarence Gamble

  3. I know Friday is movie review day Walker, but 1934? Isn’t that Bailey’s era?

  4. Is there an MST-3000 version? I don’t watch old cheesy movies unless they received the MST-3000 treatment.

    1. All anti-freedom propaganda should have an MST3K treatment.

  5. When the guy rips open a nurse’s uniform, do we get to see her cans? If not, im not interested.

    1. There is another uniform below the uniform.

      1. Of course she wears two sets of clothing at a time. She’s not a whore.

  6. “Whoever posted it evidently doesn’t know that eugenics laws existed in much of the country in the first half of the 20th century?indeed, some states didn’t repeal them until the 1970s.”

    Well, ‘some states’ were not in the US:
    “Between the years 1935 and 1975, 62,888 sterilizations were performed in Sweden as a result of two laws enacted in 1934 and 1941.”
    http://www.jstor.org/discover/…..4126006591

  7. I think it would be good if there were “libertarian-friendly eugenics.” After all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting people to be healthier and smarter, and to have fewer people with severe physical and mental issues. The problems seem to come down to: 1) the coercive aspect, and 2) incorrect beliefs about genetics.

    But if modern genetics can show that someone (or a couple) will have a defective baby, would there be anything wrong with paying them to not have children? Certainly there wouldn’t be anything wrong with some sort of genetic fix.

    It’s too bad that Nazis and Progressives gave eugenics a bad name through coercion and misapplication.

    1. I think an interesting sci-fi premise would be a quasi-capitalist eugenics system where people are basically ageless and indefinitely fertile thanks to medical advances, so everyone is reversibly sterilized to hold population with a hard cap. Whenever some kicks it through accident, disease, etc., people can bid on the right to have a kid, and a good portion of the money is then used to educate the kid and get them started in the world.

      1. …”people can bid on the right to have a kid”…
        Who decides yes or no? Not sounding ‘capitalist’.

        1. Some problems with that premise.

          1. Infinitely fertile doesn’t mean infinitely reproducing. Get people wealthy enough that they don’t *need* kids to survive in old age off of and, surprisingly (not really – revealed preference), people stop having so many of them. Despite people saying they love kids, turns out most would not have them if they had thought things through beforehand.

          2. Paying a fuckton of money to the state to cover the cost of raising and educating the kid means that the people who are raising the kid gave someone else a fuckton of the money they’ll need to raise the kid.

          It’ll end up like modern governmental assistance – give the government a hundred dollars in taxes and they give you back 80 in benefits (after they take their cut. Better to not give the money away at all.

        2. It isn’t even remotely libertarian, since it’s assigning property rights to a commodity (breeding rights) artificially made scarce by violating some basic human rights. It’s about as libertarian as slavery. But it does use market forces to allocate that scarce commodity. The phrase “quasi-capitalist” was deliberately chosen.

    2. There *are* ‘libertarian-friendly eugenics’.

      Its called abortion, birth control, genetic analysis, and sex-selection.

      In the future we’ll be able to add direct genetic and germ-line modification, along with surgical augmentation.

      What make this ‘libertarian-friendly’ is that there’s no ‘eugenics authority’ specify what is and what is not ‘healthier and smarter’ and ‘physical and mental issues’.

      Beginning in the latter half of this century I would expect to see the human species splitting into multiple clades, eventually diverging far enough to limit inter-clade reproduction.

      But then I expect that a generation or two after that baseline humanity will be effectively extinct and all children will be ‘designer’.

      1. And of course if we allowed natural selection to work…

        1. Technically, natural selection is *always* working. We’re just changing the selection pressure.

  8. If I don’t post this, my troll card would be revoked.

    Four years before this movie, the Pope weighed in on the subject of eugenics:

    “68.Finally, that pernicious practice must be condemned which closely touches upon the natural right of man to enter matrimony but affects also in a real way the welfare of the offspring. For there are some who over solicitous for the cause of eugenics, not only give salutary counsel for more certainly procuring the strength and health of the future child – which, indeed, is not contrary to right reason – but put eugenics before aims of a higher order, and by public authority wish to prevent from marrying all those whom, even though naturally fit for marriage, they consider, according to the norms and conjectures of their investigations, would, through hereditary transmission, bring forth defective offspring. And more, they wish to legislate to deprive these of that natural faculty by medical action despite their unwillingness; and this they do not propose as an infliction of grave punishment under the authority of the state for a crime committed, not to prevent future crimes by guilty persons, but against every right and good they wish the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.

    1. “69. Those who act in this way are at fault in losing sight of the fact that the family is more sacred than the State and that men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for Heaven and eternity. Although often these individuals are to be dissuaded from entering into matrimony, certainly it is wrong to brand men with the stigma of crime because they contract marriage, on the ground that, despite the fact that they are in every respect capable of matrimony, they will give birth only to defective children, even though they use all care and diligence.”

      http://www.vatican.va/holy_fat…..ii_en.html

      1. The Pope – 1

        Holmes, Sanger, et. al. – 0

      2. Is it Christian doctrine that all souls must pass thru a stage of embodiment? That you can’t get to Heaven or Hell without 1st having been embodied? Is that another reason given for divine incarnation: that God himself couldn’t have gotten to Heaven without 1st living?

        1. Nope. I’m pretty sure God is exempt from all those rules.

          God is a special case exception.

          Just like ‘all things must have a beginning and the universe’s beginning is God’ – God himself does not require a beginning.

          Doubly so since it’d be hard for God to *be* in heaven before Christ’s ascension.

  9. Consider Alice’s household, where the “family taint”?that’s what the authorities call it?manifests itself in a dizzying range of ways: alcoholism, retardation, lame limbs, criminality

    My family taint manifests itself with fur and a distinctive odor.

  10. Alice Mason is a hard-working young woman ready to get married and start making babies. But the authorities think her family has bad blood?her parents are drunks, and her brothers are all either disabled or criminal?so the government orders Alice to submit to sterilization. She is saved only at the last minute, just before the surgeon’s knife enters her body, when it is learned that she was a foster child and thus does not share her family’s genes.

    So Arsenic & Old Lace ripped off this movie?

  11. I recognized from other movies a few of the actors, but couldn’t pick their names out from the credits.

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