Emma Stone defends ‘Poor Things’ nudity against suggestions she was a victim of the ‘male gaze’: ‘I think it takes away my agency’

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Since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last summer, “Poor Things” has sparked broad discussion and debate over its explicit content, which includes frank depictions of sex and full-frontal nudity.

“‘Poor Things’ comes across as a pretentious 14-year-old boy’s idea of female becoming, if that boy had a Criterion Channel subscription,” read one scathing review of the latest collaboration between director Yorgos Lanthimos and star and producer Emma Stone. “It’s bargain-basement humor with explicit sex that dares the audience to get turned on by the born-yesterday trope given flesh.”

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“The feting of ‘Poor Things’ – a heterosexual middle-aged man’s fantasy about nymphomania, with the flimsiest covering of ‘satire’ and a tagged-on message about female genital mutilation being ‘bad’ – merely confirms that feminism still has a long way to go,” read another slam of the film.

Based on the book by Alasdair Gray and adapted by Tony McNamara, “Poor Things” focuses on a woman named Bella Baxter (played by Stone), who dies by suicide and is reanimated with the brain of her unborn child by a Dr. Frankenstein-like scientist (Willem Dafoe). The film tracks Bella’s intellectual journey from child-like innocence to adolesce to adulthood, with Bella’s sexual awakening being a large part of her maturation process. 

Speaking to Olivia Colman – who co-starred with Stone in Lanthimos’ previous film, “The Favourite,” and won Best Actress – Stone said something that she found “challenging” about the response to “Poor Things” is how the critiques of its content and nudity have removed its producer and star from the equation.

“There’s been a lot of questions about, ‘Oh, this was a male writer and a male director, the male gaze in this situation – how does that feel?’ I think it takes away my agency here,” Stone said in the interview. “Because I am a producer. This is the story that we wanted to tell in the way we wanted to tell it. And so it feels a little strange to me to sort of have myself taken out of it, because I was acting in it as if I wasn’t a major voice there too or I was being told what to do.”

Stone said that while she knows women have been exploited by the male gaze before, that didn’t happen with “Poor Things.” 

“That does happen and is a huge systemic problem in so much of film and television, but here that was very much not the case,” she said.

 

Previously, Stone has talked about how important sex and nudity were to “Poor Things” as a storytelling device.

“[The sex] is obviously a huge part of her experience and her growth, as it is, I think, for most people in life,” Stone told BBC Radio 4. “So for the camera to sort of shy away from that, or to say like, ‘Okay, well, we’ll just cut all of this out because our society functions in a particular way,’ it felt like a lack of being honest about who Bella is.”

Stone later said that while she doesn’t personally want to be “naked all the time,” it was important in terms of the role. 

“I am someone who wants to honor the character as fully as I possibly can. That’s part of her journey,” she said.

“Poor Things” received rave reviews after its release last year and scored 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (where Stone is a nominee as producer), Best Actress for Stone, Best Director for Lanthimos, and Best Adapted Screenplay for McNamara. Stone, who won Best Drama Actress at the Golden Globes and Best Actress at the Critics Choice Awards, is currently predicted to win Best Actress at the Oscars over “Killers of the Flower Moon” star Lily Gladstone. Stone previously won Best Actress in 2017 for her performance in “La La Land.”

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