My recent posts about Film4 FrightFest came to a bit of an abrupt end a few weeks ago with my thoughts on Day 3 and the remake of Maniac. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d only attended for three days when truth be told I was there for the entire weekend. It’s not that I didn’t have fun on the final two days, hell, going to the pub with the fabulous Soska sisters (directors of Dead Hooker In A Trunk and American Mary) was absolutely terrific! Watching the beautiful remastered version of horror classic Bride of Frankenstein in a very small and intimate screen was also really special. But it was one of the shorts that played in the short film showcase during Day Four that really got to me. And I mean really.
See, horror isn’t all about werewolves, vampires, zombies or mutated monsters, nor the metaphors that they have all stood for over the past decades. Horror includes real horror; abuse, serial killers, suffering, depression, sadomasochism, real life experiences that people go through. And this years FrightFest included a short called Tokophobia, a little short that bought a personal horror of mine a little too close to home.
Tokophobia is the fear of childbirth and pregnancy. My name is Lydia and I have tokophobia. It’s not that I don’t want children, part of me would love to be a mother one day, but I really don’t want children. There is no way on this Earth that I will ever give birth naturally to a child. And no, it’s not some feminist/sexually political idea about wanting to keep a tight cervix (which believe it or not is a question I have genuinely been asked in the past as to the reason why I’m so hung up on it), it’s something that I do not want to ever go through. Yeah it looks painful but there’s a little bit more to it than having to go through the intense pain and maybe (or maybe not) receiving strong painkillers.
As someone who has had issues with eating disorders in the past, the idea of a baby developing and growing inside me in a parasitic way whilst my body changes and my weight increases absolutely terrifies me. That might sound a bit stupid, but as someone who has previously scrutinised themselves constantly for hours a day, weighed themselves daily and even missed half of my sixth form years at school so I didn’t have to be around other people (who I thought were skinnier and more beautiful than me), pregnancy in my view is an excuse for me to relapse. As someone who has only just managed to cope with weighing themselves weekly after nine years of daily dilemmas on the scales, those last six months or so of pregnancy are something that fills my stomach with nausea and causes my heart rate to increase (something happening right now as I write). It’s not as if it’s ‘socially acceptable’ to watch what you eat whilst you’re pregnant, your unborn child is your top priority. But at the same time I don’t want to lose my own personal identity in the transformation of becoming and being seen as a mother.
And it’s not just a fear of getting fat. It’s a fear of physically and mentally changing into something that I feel would be damaging to my mental health. It’s not just the worry of having an eating disorder relapse, it’s the concern about developing depression both during and after. That and anxiety is something that I’ve been dealing with since I was eleven, thirteen years later at twenty-four it’s still proving to be a bit of a problem at times. I’m petrified that I will be susceptible to change for the worse when my body is going through such a change. Not only that, but I’ve read numerous articles about depression being hereditary. Add that worry to all the others and the situation isn’t exactly helped. Then as someone who used to have really bad acne as a kid all the way through to my teens (and being bullied pretty badly for being different at primary school because of it and as an early teen), the thought of gaining stretch marks everywhere and watching my skin get worse whilst I can’t take tablets to keep it at bay gives me instant panic. Then there’s the sleepless nights, waddling along like a penguin, swollen ankles, back discomfort, morning sickness, hormones going all over the place, not being able to have a proper shit sometimes… Yeah, I choose to not go through that because quite frankly the right to choose isn’t as black and white as have a child or have an abortion. Not that it’s easy to admit it. The feeling that I may let down my family, my future partner, my gender and be despised by women who just think it’s irrational and incomprehensible is also terrifying. I completely understand that, to a lot of people, the fact that I willingly choose to reject something so inherently specific and biological (some might even argue inevitable) to my sex is more than they are willing to try to understand, let alone acknowledge.
Which brings me to my problems with Tokophobia. Directed and written by someone I am really fond of and lucky to call a friend, the short left me full of nothing but anger and offense. So, for those that haven’t seen it or haven’t heard about it, here’s the basic gist. The film is about a woman who, after finding out she’s pregnant, decides to self administer an abortion. And that’s it. It’s gritty, it’s blunt, it’s incredibly uncompromising but it’s also very superficial and empty. I’m not someone who believes that all films should have a ‘proper’ narrative, ending etc. but Tokophobia placed nothing it showed on-screen in context. I’ve only mentioned some of my issues, and whilst I’ve laid myself a little too bare for everyone to read, I’ve held a hell of a lot back. As a person, I felt incredibly undermined. As someone with tokophobia, I felt that the filmmakers were nothing but psychologically, emotionally and psychosexually ignorant towards the subject. The film starts, the lead finds out she’s pregnant and then gets on with getting rid of it. Abortion is a socially and personally complex issue, and my major gripe was that the film presented the character almost as a villain due to a lack of any reasoning or attempt at understanding. It made me feel like I was a bad person for feeling the way I do, something which, whilst I don’t expect any of you to understand or sympathise with me on, I’ m certainly not sorry for.
That said, it’s refreshing to see a film like Tokophobia played at a festival and generate the discussion it did. Film is a powerful and important medium and anyone who disagrees with that would be stupid to. The fact that in this instance it was used to highlight an issue that isn’t spoken of often (I have never read anything in any women’s magazines about it which you might assume would be a forum for it to be discussed) and is very gender centric is rather interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that it was written and directed by three men, an incredibly superficial and one-sided point of view on something that they will never fully experience, and not just to the degree that they depicted. After walking out of the cinema once it had finished, it was also interesting to note the responses it generated amongst those who had watched it. Every woman I spoke to (which I am aware is not every woman who saw it then or has since at other festivals and is certainly not reflective of the whole female audience who do eventually see it, let alone an entire gender population) unanimously hated it and agreed that it appeared to be horror for the sake of ‘shocking horror’. Men on the other hand seemed mixed. A few I spoke to were also offended whilst some others readily admitted that they thought it was good because as a man they could never fully sympathise or comprehend an experience that they are biologically excluded from (and in that sense I mean being pregnant and giving birth). My issues with it aside (which also include a very strong sense of guilt and sadness as I want to like something that my friend has done, I do actually feel terrible writing badly about it), the film is well-edited and directed and works as a short. I have no problem with a film that generates discussion, thought and education, and in that instance if you get a chance to watch it, I highly recommend that you do. If you are very easily offended however, I’d stay away.
And after all of that, the only thing I have left to say is congratulations to my friend and those others involved in making the short for using the medium to create something challenging and being given the opportunity to share it with different audiences around the world. I might not have overly liked it, but I’m still able to detach myself enough from it to say I’m proud of you all!