“The Pod Generation” Explores the Power of Reproductive Freedom
Posted On August 12, 2023
My first labor was extremely traumatic. After a relatively easy pregnancy, my daughter decided to come four days early and began kicking her way out of my belly. After a few scary and painful hours, we had an emergency c-section and were subsequently presented with a beautiful and healthy baby girl. Other than the emotional scars and an incision on my lower abdomen, we were both fine. After my second c-section, I decided that as much as I loved my children, I never wanted to have my body cut open again and was done with the child-bearing phase of my life. I often joke that I might change my mind if I could somehow afford a surrogate or grow a baby outside of my own body. I wouldn’t mind having another child, but I never want to be pregnant again. Sophie Barthes’s film The Pod Generation explores this possibility in a futuristic world where technological advances allow couples to outsource their gestation to pastel smart pods. It’s a fascinating thought experiment that turns everything we know about pregnancy and motherhood on its head.
Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) live in a near future world dominated by artificial intelligence. She’s a high-powered executive whose company will subsidize an appointment at The Womb Center, an exclusive facility offering to conceive, host, and birth a baby entirely independent from the mother’s body. Rachel accepts this employment perk mostly out of obligation while Alvy, a botanist and staunch naturophile, feels uncomfortable with the artificial process. As their baby grows, Rachel and Alvy find themselves reacting to pregnancy in unpredictable ways. He finds touching ways to bond with the pod while she struggles to reconcile her current life with the expectations of motherhood. With the due date looming, Rachel and Alvy begin to sour on the Womb Center’s controlling policies and find themselves battling with the corporation over the expensive pod and their baby trapped inside it.
Clarke and Ejiofor anchor the film as the skeptically expectant couple. Supportive, but conflicted, these relatable partners provide the perfect conduit into this brave new world. Rosalie Craig is Linda Wozcheck, the serene and supportive Womb Center director whose care and concern turn on a dime when her authority is questioned. A solid supporting cast fills out the edges of this faux-enlightened community, but the real star of the film is the blissfully sterile world created by Barthes. With everything running on algorithms, Rachel and Alvy float through a world designed for maximum bliss. Though dismissed by his students, Alvy’s treasured plants provide the perfect amount of natural beauty amidst the softly banal decor filled with pleasing holograms, automated gadgets, and apple-esque smart technology. These advancements ultimately prove to be problematic, but it’s tempting to long for a life made easier by helpful machines designed to assist with every conceivable task.
The Pod Generation at first seems like a feminist’s dream. Women are revered for their ability to create life and technology has advanced so far that they can create a female embryo using Rache’s own cells, fully eliminating the need for men. This pod also allows fathers to bear the burden of pregnancy, caring for the fetus and bonding with it in the same way pregnant mothers do. But as the film goes on, we find that technological advancements do not solve the human part of the equation. With the patriarchy flipped on its head, women now find themselves in positions of unquestioned power and detached from the role of caregiver. While this may be liberating to some, society seems to have drifted too far in the opposite direction. Rachel still faces limited ideas about what a good mother should be. Designed to offer women choices, these pods wind up stripping away their humanity.
When Rachel first tours the womb center, the chipper Ms. Wozcheck insists that no woman can be completely free until she has full control of her reproductive system. In a world after the Dobbs decision revoked the nationwide right to abortion, this has never felt more true. Rachel can now safely give birth without altering her own body. Not only this, but she will raise her child in a world fully supportive of her needs. Or at least that’s how it appears on the surface. Rachel makes an appointment to have a baby after her boss intimates that she’ll be passed over for a promotion if she doesn’t. With her bliss levels and productivity constantly monitored, Rachel’s success rests on her ability to project the perfect image of female achievement. She’s not only expected to have it all, she must earnestly want it all too.
It would be easy to interpret The Pod Generation as a testament to unmedicated birth. Rachel is admonished from using the word “artificial” to describe her remote pregnancy while Alvy longs to have a “natural” child. While this capitalist corporation may overstep its own mission statement, pod technology does offer exciting new options. Same sex couples can now begin families on their own terms. Women can become mothers without jeopardizing their own health. Fathers have the opportunity to experience pregnancy and bond with the baby in utero while mothers can focus on their work without the physical woes of gestation. The Womb Center does offer unprecedented flexibility to new parents. Unfortunately this comes at a steep price which few families can afford to pay. In fact the program’s flaws all stem from capitalist instincts, an eerie parallel to the current political landscape.
As draconian laws limiting reproductive freedom sweep through the US, the questions presented by The Pod Generation feel more urgent than ever. Though she provides few answers, Barthes’s film shows the dangers of imposing corporate greed (or political agendas) over the natural process of birth. Technological advancements designed to improve childbirth only help if parents have the ability to reject them without shame or consequence. By showing another type of prenatal control, The Pod Generation makes a powerful statement about reproductive freedom and the importance of trusting pregnant people to choose what’s best for their own bodies.
Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.