Barren and Dangerous
In the thriller du jour The Girl on the Train, a kind of Rashômon for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, three female perspectives compete for our attention and sympathy. At its core, Rachel (Emily Blunt) enacts her onscreen alcoholism via smudged eye makeup and artfully blurred tracking shots; tragedy and confusion have enveloped her life in the wake of her estrangement from her husband Tom (Justin Theroux). The camera’s perspective, and our own, moves lackadaisically between Rachel and Anna, the blonde, impossibly well-coiffed mistress-turned-bride that displaced her; also vying for Tom’s attention is the equally blonde though sometimes-messily-coiffed Megan. The movie’s muted colors do their best to imbue a tony New York suburb with menace.
Meanwhile, in the recently released Christine, the film’s focus is laser-sharp from the first shot: Rebecca Hall, playing Christine Chubbuck, the eponymous heroine, conceals a tempest of emotion behind her dark eyes and sculpted jaw. Chubbuck was a local-news presenter who committed suicide live on camera in 1974. The film takes its time to develop its main character, attempting, over the course of some two hours, to flesh out a portrait of a bony, bitter beauty on the brink of doom. Hall’s crooked smile and taut bearing do much to convey a woman whose complex inner life is moving out of sync with her personal and professional worlds.
And yet built into the foundations of both new movies—the messy thriller and the art flick—is a thesis as old as the Bible or older: nothing good can come of a barren woman.
In The Girl on the Train, Rachel’s personal problems, from her vodka-filled CamelBak and slurped martinis, to her alienation from her former spouse, can be traced to her infertility, which caused her relationship with Tom to crumble. The two are pictured, in flashback, in a sterile white fertility clinic, bemoaning that they can’t afford another round of IVF; smash-cut to the present, and Rachel is staring woozily out a train window, drawn to obsession by her palpable longing for a normal family life. In a movie fronted by three strong actresses, which nonetheless only narrowly passes the Bechdel test, the truth that sets the titular train rolling is that Rachel’s infertility creates a barrier between her and the rest of the world.
Christine, meanwhile—in many ways a better film, which attempts with some tenacity to excavate the inner life of the enigmatic Chubbuck—stumbles onto the same apparent truth. In the days leading up to her death, Christine discovers that an ovarian cyst may compromise her fertility; she is a virgin, but dreams of having a family. “I want to have a baby” is one of the last things she says in earnest, after a failed date with a co-worker, before resolving to enact her own death on live television.
Chubbuck’s suicide is improbably the subject of two feature films this year, forty-two years after the fact, but it is remarkable enough to warrant the Hollywood treatment. In addition to the undeniably grotesque circumstance of broadcasting one’s one death live on air, the prologue Chubbuck chose for the act was pointed social commentary. “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color,” she said, before bringing the gun up to the nape of her neck, “We bring you another first—an attempted suicide.” A typed report on the desk in front of her, recovered smeared with gore, was a detailed newscast of her own dying moments.
Christine’s dissatisfaction with the direction of the news station is a running motif in the movie—she dislikes sleaze and wants substance—but it’s clear that her social isolation, virginity, and barrenness are more potent forces in her decline. More time is given to an X-ray of an ovarian cyst than any books she may have read in the months before her death; her aberrant attempts to romantically connect with a co-worker eclipse all sentiment she may have held about the direction of society in general. While her suicide was and remains a shocking and desperate act, filled with recrimination at the sensationalized nature of news and consumption, the male filmmakers laid her personal despair squarely at the feet of her unfulfilled, unfulfillable womanhood.
The director is happy to leave us stewing in the possibility that infertility and a murderous psychopath of a husband are equal scourges in any woman’s life.
While the source material for the film—and the primary body of work available on Chubbuck’s life—was a 5,000-odd-word article from the Washington Post written shortly after her death, in which Chubbuck’s own mother calls her a “spinster,” the film has diverged enough from this account (erasing siblings, shuffling friendships) to warrant more radical digressions. (Chubbuck’s surviving brother was not consulted in the making of the film.)
Moreover, while Tom, the husband in The Girl on the Train, is revealed to be a much more fully realized scoundrel than someone who simply left his barren wife for more fertile ground (he is an abusive wretch with sexual and violent compulsions), for the first three-quarters of the movie we are led to believe that Rachel’s drunken downspiral can be blamed solely on her uncooperative uterus. Whether this is clever misdirection or willful deceit on the part of the filmmaker, he is happy to leave us stewing in the possibility that infertility and a murderous psychopath of a husband are equal scourges in any woman’s life.
In the Bible, barrenness in women is linked to their mirth and ensures the embodiment of their shame. Consider Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who laughed at God when confronted with the notion that she might give birth at an advanced age, and died before her son was wed, as punishment. There is Michal, the wife of King David, who chastened him for dancing down a public street, and whose womb was forcibly closed for her impudence. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was cursed with barrenness until she prayed with sufficient fervor; even then, as she moved her lips silently, the priest Eli thought she was drunk in the house of God.
In Christine and The Girl on the Train, barrenness is less punishment than inducement to tragedy and violence. The woman wielding the murder weapon is not the one cradling an infant in her arms; it is the woman who, incapable of motherhood, must direct her fearful energy to other ends. From the Bronze Age until today, these narratives suggest that the uninhabited womb has all the destructive power of an unexploded bomb.