Charlize Theron: champion of female autonomy

Originally published by LondonFUSE

Don’t be surprised if, come Halloween, the usual nurse hats and cat ears are replaced with engine grease and buzz cuts. 2015 has been the year of Mad Max: Fury Road and its unexpected hero, Imperator Furiosa, played to perfection by Charlize Theron. Take about 12 seconds on the internet and you will find a half-bajillion articles about the mighty feminism of a character so engaging that she made us forget to look at Tom Hardy.

Here at NetFlakes, we concern ourselves with the movies you could be watching at home, right now. As it turns out, Fury Road isn’t the first time that Charlize Theron has played a strong character, fighting for the agency of women to control their own bodies. Hell, it wasn’t even the third. In sampling some of Theron’s other work from her catalogue on Canadian Netflix, it’s clear that Furiosa wasn’t a fluke; she’s a continuation on a growing list of characters who refuse to let policy or politeness mandate their bodies.

Theron takes on roles that explicitly deal with female autonomy. The movies covered in this article weren’t narrowed down to best represent an actor whose roles express an ideology. They are the first three Theron movies I watched and, without exception, her characters are women of autonomous integrity who clear a path for other characters (and the audience) to recognize their own rights with regards to their bodies. Most importantly, the challenges these characters face are examples of the situations where the reclamation of autonomy is socially controversial and not without consequences. Yet, every time, it’s Theron’s character who ultimately decides what happens to her body.

Let it be known that this article is rife with spoilers.

Cider House Rules (1999)

When we meet Theron’s character, Candy, she is arriving at St. Cloud’s Orphanage, a safe-haven for orphans and pregnant women. Candy is one of these women and she comes to St. Cloud’s to seek out the head of the orphanage, a doctor with a well-earned reputation as a gentle, unjudging abortionist in an era where abortions are unquestionably illegal.

Candy isn’t a desperate case. Her pregnancy has occurred as a result of consensual sex with a long-term partner and doesn’t appear to have any complications. There are factors of secrecy and mild scandal at play but ultimately Candy is having an abortion because she just doesn’t want to have this unplanned pregnancy come to term. Neither Dr. Larch nor the film itself cast judgment on this decision. It’s accepted that this is a decision that Candy has the right to make.

Having experienced an abortion, Candy becomes a living example for another character, a woman who is struggling with her own pregnancy crisis. Rose is a co-worker of Candy’s who, as a victim of ongoing incestuous sexual abuse, has become pregnant by her own father. Once the pregnancy is discovered, it’s Candy who is able to coax Rose into acknowledging her abuse and admitting that she does not want to carry this baby. Candy’s experience in terminating a seemingly innocuous pregnancy creates a safe space for Rose to come to terms with her own decision. It helps Rose to understand that she is right to feel that she should be in control of who or what ends up inside of her body. And, if Candy can clear that path for Rose – a migrant, black victim of abuse in a pre-Civil Rights America, what choice do modern women have but to accept their own autonomy?

Aeon Flux (2005)

In the world of Aeon Flux, a disease has wiped out most of the human population. The cure for this disease rendered humanity infertile, a problem that found a temporary solution in a secret cloning project. Only a handful of people know that, for centuries, when someone dies, their DNA is recycled and injected into an unsuspecting couple.

By the time we meet Charlize Theron’s character, Aeon, the world’s shadowy government has discovered that the problem of infertility is being flushed naturally out of humanity’s DNA and that people are once again able to conceive naturally. Instead of allowing nature to run its course, the mostly male government chooses to maintain the status quo and begins a program of murdering women who become pregnant without their intervention.

Once Aeon pulls back the curtain on her world and realizes how little control its population—and especially its women—have over their bodies, she doesn’t hesitate to act. Without any guarantee of the survival of the human race, she destroys the cloning facility. It’s not a decision borne out of practicality or logic. It’s an ideological act that reclaims the agency of every woman on the planet.

The Road (2009)

Charlize Theron’s unnamed character, credited as “Woman,” is the only one of these characters in this film who has a child. But her claiming of control over herself isn’t about reproduction or “saving” the human race, it’s about death. “Woman” once lived in the world as we know it but she finds herself pregnant during an apocalypse. When she screams “Who could bring a child into a world like this?” during labour, it’s certainly not the first time a new parent has had that thought but it takes on a new level of tragedy in this now-post-apocalyptic wasteland.

It isn’t until years later that “Woman” makes a powerful claim of autonomy on her own body — when she decides to die. She has seen the world collapse around her and she recognizes that naive optimism and play-acting at a regular domestic family life won’t save her from the reality that she is living under a constant threat of being raped, killed, and eaten by other desperate survivors.

The Road is careful in its depiction of hope. There’s never any hint that there’s a future for the human race. Hope is limited to survival and the occasional relief of misery. When “Woman” accepts this reality, she opts out of it. Her suicide doesn’t stem from a moment of desperation, it’s an informed, conscious decision that she invites her family to share in.

When “Woman” talks to “Man,” she tries to sell him on the idea of them and their child dying together. In the chance that there is an afterlife, they would arrive together but even if there isn’t, she encourages the men in her life to recognize their own freedom to choose what happens to their bodies. She kills herself passively, leaving behind two bullets for her family in order to provide them with a swift, reliable method of ending their own lives, if they so choose. It’s her right as a person to end her own life but it’s a mother’s grace that empowers others with the knowledge that they have a choice to do the same. Like Candy in Cider House Rules, “Woman” becomes a symbol of choice whose primary consideration is her own autonomy.

And that’s what all of this has been about. Abortion, reproductive rights, and suicide are ongoing societal challenges but time and time again, Charlize Theron has given life to characters who represent choice and inspire others to take control of their own bodies. Whether you’re an orchard-worker, an assassin clone, an apocalyptic housewife, or a one-armed truck driver, you’re the only one in your body so you’re the one who gets to decide what you do with it.

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