Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Splice: The Horror of Having It All

This post contains spoilers.

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

That’s the question Clive, a genetic engineer, poses to his partner in both work and life, Elsa, regarding the possibility of having a child together. The rest of Splice goes on to answer that question, and the perspective is not an optimistic one.

While sporadically debating the pros and cons of making a baby the old fashioned way, the two scientists create a creature, eventually named “Dren,” by splicing genetic material from different animals – including human genes from Elsa, who becomes a de facto mother. Splice explores a number of fraught topics, including the politics of male-female relationships, the nature of motherhood, and the ethics of genetic engineering and abortion. One of the less explored topics, however, is what the film says about the working mother, specifically. While the waters are a bit murky on the subject, look at it in the right light and Splice could very well be a cautionary tale for the career woman considering motherhood.

From the outset, the film shows Elsa as an ambitious scientist who loves her job – and who loves her life exactly the way it is. Her boyfriend Clive is the one who wants to change things, gently but insistently prodding Elsa about altering their lives to make room for a baby. Elsa makes it clear that she’s not interested in doing so, stating, “I don’t want to bend my life to suit some third party that doesn’t even exist yet.” She also suggests they wait until they “crack male pregnancy,” suggesting that she may never be interested, for a variety of reasons. However, Clive continues to pester Elsa to change her mind. It’s apparent that Clive represents the good, “normal” man who wants expected things like a nuclear family, blissfully unaware of the lasting effects a child would have on his female partner’s body and career. Elsa represents the abnormal, and impliedly wrong, approach to living as a woman: putting herself before her womb.

Elsa takes the ultimate gamble when she inserts her own genetic material into the amalgam that is Dren. This presents the central conflict of Elsa’s character: her repressed desire to be a mother, and her larger desire to remain in control of her own life, body, and career. Splice goes on to suggest that these two desires are inherently incompatible, and further, that attempting to “have it all” is a punishable offense.

When it comes to pseudo-motherhood, Elsa can’t do anything right, at least in Clive’s opinion. At the beginning, he reprimands her for treating Dren “like a pet” rather than a specimen. Clive’s fear illustrates how stereotypically female attributes, such as the ability to nurture, are considered weaknesses in a male-dominated profession like science, and the work world in general. Elsa sees potential in Dren that reaches far beyond the original goals of the experiment, but the film only presents this new facet of her character as a negative. It makes Elsa emotional, and therefore a danger to the sterile work world she inhabits.

As Dren matures and becomes more volatile, she grows closer to Clive, who she begins to see as a potential mate (and, disturbingly, vice versa), and becomes resentful of Elsa’s restrictive presence. Clive remains critical of Elsa’s reactions to parenthood as she begins to shift from doting mother to controlling mother, suddenly finding her not maternal enough for his liking. Although we discover that Elsa has deep-seated issues with her own mother that hinder her ability to parent effectively, we also see that as the only parental figure left in the equation, she is obliged to become more and more domineering in order to keep their unauthorized experiment under wraps.

It’s at this point that Elsa becomes fundamentally unable to reconcile her roles as mother and scientist. Faced with a wild, fully grown Dren who doesn’t want to be told what to do, Elsa reestablishes control the only way she knows how: by force. She knocks Dren unconscious, ties her down, and surgically removes the stinger she has on her tail. Elsa then uses the stinger to synthesize the protein her team has been attempting to make all along. It is her greatest accomplishment, and also her coldest, most calculating moment, divorcing her entirely from the mother figure she once represented to Dren. It seems that in order to find success in her job, Elsa has to renounce her maternal side completely.

In the final act of Splice, Dren transitions from female to male (the final part of her life cycle, foreshadowed earlier in the film). Dren then rapes Elsa, for reasons left unexplained. Perhaps it’s simply Dren’s animal instinct, but it comes across as punishment; punishment for being too ambitious in realms not traditionally female (Elsa’s career, science), or punishment for not finding fulfillment in the roles women are “supposed” to find fulfillment (motherhood and wifedom). No matter how you splice it, the film does not treat Elsa’s nonconformance with much kindness or sympathy, and for better or worse it reads as a blaring warning sign to women like her: attempting to “have it all” can be deadly.

This post originally appeared as a post on Bitch Flicks.