JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

“The titles Antonia’s Line (poster above) and Conceiving Ada both point to the presumed centrality of conception and lineage in relation to female control and power.”

Antonia farming.

Women directors making films about strong women: Marleen Gorris, director of Antonia’s Line.

Sandra Goldbacker, director of The Governess.

Director of Conceiving Ada, Lynn Hersman Leeson, with Elvis.

The modern day story line in Conceiving Ada complicates the scenario, however, in that Emmy lives with Nick, a man who is marked as a body guy through his muscled physique and association with the working class (we see him welding and working as a bartender). The mind man in Emmy’s life is her elderly mentor, Sims, an ailing, disembodied figure (played by Timothy Leary, strongly associated with the late 60s phrase “expand your mind”) with whom she only interacts via video camera and monitor. The world of the mind is still privileged in Conceiving Ada, but in the modern day version it is not connected to sex although intriguingly it is connected with procreation.

The opening scene of the film shows Emmy and Nick making love in a highly conventional manner, after which Emmy immediately returns to work with her computer, prompting Nick to ask, “Now?” Emmy replies, “You inspire me,” in a tone more sarcastic than sincere. Nick is specifically banished from her intellectual domain (he is not allowed to touch her computer) and seems to primarily satisfy her physical needs which are totally separate from the exciting domain of her mind. Nick’s rivals are, as it were, Ada and Emmy’s commitment to her work. The opening sequence presents their lovemaking as little more than a pleasant distraction, not something that arises from or is connected to Emmy’s intellectual life, in contrast to the excitement of the sexual life between Rosina and Charles.

The emphasis on mind over body is complicated by the body guy, however, in that Nick impregnates Emmy and vehemently encourages her to have the child, an event that takes Conceiving Ada in a different direction from The Governess. Although initially reluctant, Emmy decides to keep the fetus and is shown as quite content with motherhood in the film’s closing scene. This occurrence seems to contradict the depiction of the Victorian woman Ada’s dilemma as an intellectual woman. Ada feels her three children stifle her ability to complete her work, and she speaks disparagingly of motherhood: “While there was a wish for an heir, there was no real desire for children.” At another point she remarks,

I don’t know how my children ever came out of me. They’re not what I wanted to come out of me. I don’t know them.

Ada’s elision from history is not a result of her collaborator’s duplicity but arises instead from the fact that she simply does not have time to complete her work due to family commitments:

I had no time to think and dream in peace...I was never independent of a pressure to do something I didn’t want to do...all my energy was spent on trying to resist other peoples’ manipulations.

Paradoxically, Emmy’s work becomes inextricably entwined with child-bearing. Because of a computer glitch involving a DNA chip, Emmy’s daughter, Claire, is born with Ada’s memory. Ada will now live on because of Emmy’s work with cyber-genetics and the fact that Claire will literally keep Ada alive and perhaps pass her on to future generations. In the final shot of the film, Emmy is shown happily caressing Claire as they watch Ada on the computer, implying that Emmy’s “real” contribution to society and the source of her power within society rests with her curly-haired beauty of a child. Emmy now spends time structuring Claire’s life, reminding her about her math homework, piano lessons and a baseball game and telling her that she only gets two hours a week to work on the “Ada” computer program. The film positions Emmy to redirect her energies away from the computer to her pregnancy in that her obsession with work is unhealthy. Her obstetrician says to her,

You’re going to have to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, fatty foods, strenuous exercise and working long extended hours has to stop.

When Emmy responds, “You’re sounding just like Nicholas,” the doctor replies, “You ought to listen to Nicholas a little bit.” This depiction supports the stereotypes of intellectuals as anti-social and focused on mental matters to the point of self-neglect. In addition, the emphasis on child-bearing in Conceiving Ada is disturbing at this historical moment.

Certain career fields have only readily been open to women in the West for around the last twenty-five years. Although women have succeeded in these previously male-dominated fields in record numbers, representations of women being excited about and enjoying their careers are nearly absent. Media have focused instead on career women having babies and/or expressing discontent with their life choices. Hollywood films have featured dysfunctional career women who must be brought under control and/or learn to be better mothers; these include Fatal Attraction (1987), Baby Boom (1987), Junior (1994), Disclosure (1994), One Fine Day (1996), The Horse Whisperer (1998), I Am Sam (2001), and Kate & Leopold (2001).

This notion of the subordination of career to childbearing is depicted also in Marleen Gorris’s 1995 film Antonia’s Line that sees women’s contribution to “the world” as a matter of passing on genes. Antonia raises a daughter as a single mother. The daughter, who becomes an artist, gets pregnant by a man she uses only for the purpose of conceiving and has a daughter. The third generation daughter matures into a brilliant mathematician/ musician who reluctantly decides to keep her fetus when impregnated by a childhood friend. Her daughter—the most beautiful of all with red, curly hair and pouty lips (similar in appearance to the actress who plays Claire in Conceiving Ada)—becomes a writer, the storyteller who documents Antonia’s life, the implication being that the very story we just watched may not have come into existence without such a long line of heirs.[2] The titles Antonia’s Line and Conceiving Ada both point to the presumed centrality of conception and lineage in relation to female control and power.

The Victorian mathematician Ada asks if Emmy intends to save her and Emmy replies that she’s found a way to clone Ada’s memory so she can take her rightful place in history. From her deathbed, Ada says that she doesn’t want to colonize Emmy with her essence, but Emmy ignores Ada’s wishes and proceeds with a cyber-genetic experiment that gives her daughter Ada’s memory, voice and spirit. Ada’s essence will be saved by the child Emmy has produced, implying that a human body is needed for a history to be perpetuated.

Claire’s importance is further emphasized by Nick’s inexplicable disappearance from the narrative; Emmy and Claire sit in front of the computer in the way that Emmy and Nick had done previously. With the privileging of Claire’s character, the mind/body dichotomy in Conceiving Ada is specifically couched in terms of ideas/people, a notion that is reflected by the film’s title itself. Emmy is conceiving of Ada—re-inventing, re-formulating, re-envisioning her—through her ideas and work, and she has literally conceived Ada with the birth of Claire. Claire’s existence in many ways supplants the importance of Emmy’s work. Not only is Ada carried on by Claire, but Emmy too, in that Claire is learning mathematics and computer programming like her mother.

The manner in which Conceiving Ada ends with the delighted woman’s devotion to her daughter contrasts sharply with the ending of The Governess where the woman steals the lens, seizes the means of photographic production, and sets up a business for herself (leaving the Cavendish’s young daughter she was hired to tutor). Although the two films may seem similar in depicting their heroines’s intellectual aspirations and sexuality, the narratives in fact are quite different. Conceiving Ada celebrates woman as mother and the mother-daughter bond (ironic in light of Ada’s story) while The Governess celebrates woman as independent, using her mind and her skills to accomplish her goals rather than relying on a future generation. The irony of Leeson’s representation of motherhood is that she as writer/producer/director resurrects Ada Lovelace through documenting her historical achievements in this film. Thus Conceiving Ada itself poses an alternative to literal genetic inheritance.

The two films are ultimately similar in that a mind/body dichotomy is maintained through the representation of male characters. The appeal of the powerful male intellectuals is undercut while the body guys are depicted more favorably. Rosina rejects Charles who betrays rather than mentors her when he sits before her camera and says, “I’m in your hands, Miss DaSilva. Do with me what you will.” Similarly, in Conceiving Ada, Sims has no body and the other intellectuals Ada has relationships with fail to successfully mentor her. On the other hand, The Governess suggests that Rosina may have erred in rejecting body guy Henry. As previously mentioned, the last image of Henry shows him collapsing in grief over Rosina’s departure as he emerges from the sea nude. The image of his romantic suffering accentuates the attractiveness of his youthful, nude, well-toned body. This could have been Rosina’s.

When Nick temporarily leaves in Conceiving Ada, Emmy is shown as distraught, unable to work, and delighted when her man returns. Also, Nick shops for groceries, cooks, serves meals and generally looks out for Emmy’s health. Emmy is even indebted to Nick in that his meddling with the computer to sabotage her work (out of concern for her health) serendipitously produces the outcome for which Emmy is looking. And of course, he is half-responsible for conceiving the beloved Claire. Although body guy Nick may be living elsewhere at the film’s close, his role as a father and non-intellectual is depicted as crucial for their daughter’s mental health. Emmy tells Claire that Nick will be coming later to take her to a baseball game, and she must do this to live a “normal childhood.” The body guy is “the man for the job” sexually, socially, and spiritually.[3]

In Conceiving Ada, a mind/body polarity is also affirmed by Emmy’s visual presentation. Emmy begins the film with flowing, red, wavy hair, but in a gesture to protest being pregnant, she herself cuts it off into a short, boxy, less flattering style. At the film’s close, Emmy wears her hair long again and her facial beauty is accentuated with more make-up than she has previously worn. In fact, the return of her beauty is presented in a particularly dramatic manner. After Emmy parks the motorcycle she’s been riding, she and Claire sit at a computer. As they sit, Emmy still wears a helmet, but then removes it, shaking her long hair to loosen it fashion-model style. Although this scene—the narrative’s denouement—emphasizes the mother and daughter’s shared immersion in the computer as a source of pleasure and fulfillment (Claire can’t wait to work on Emmy’s computer program), the final image of them emphasizes their physical attractiveness. Emmy and Claire nearly face the camera in a tight medium shot that is eventually freeze-framed. Their gaze at the off-screen computer monitor becomes a moment for film spectators to marvel over their resemblance to each other and their beauty. Thus, Emmy’s conventional attractiveness and her motherhood locate her firmly within the domain of the body and traditional femininity.

Compared to Conceiving Ada, The Governess may seem to cross the mind/body dichotomy in presenting female accomplishment and satisfaction, but it also maintains the split in two ways. First, as we have noted, at the end of the film, Rosina appears to have abandoned bodily pleasures, sublimating them entirely to her work. If she once knew interrelated mind/body pleasures, she now seems to have lost sexual pleasure. Ironically, the very nature of her work reinstates an ideas/people dichotomy. Rosina insists on using the camera and photographic processes to capture and fix the images of people as opposed to Charles’ insisting on using the camera only to document items for scientific research.

Directors Goldbacher, Leeson, and Gorris all associate their heroines with functions of permanence and immortality, be it through giving birth to children who embody the future or capturing images of bodies on film for the future. The Governess at least poses an alternative to both traditional notions of immortality and a body/mind separation by linking curiosity and intellectual pursuit to the site of the body—the locus of traditional sexuality—thus opening a space to explore imaginative, alternative sexualities.

To endnotes and bibliography


To beginningPrint versionJC 45Jump Cut home