We never tire of dystopian plot lines, or so it would seem from the abundance of books, movies, and television series that feature oppressive, futuristic regimes. According to the Encyclopedia for Science Fiction, dystopian stories point “fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction.” Dystopias vary in their agendas, of course, but an increasing number reveal a desperate fear of overpopulation. Different solutions to the problem arise, from a separate planet for the rich in Elysium, to death matches in The Hunger Games, to, most recently, the Child Allocation Act in the Netflix original movie What Happened to Monday. Protagonists are always fighting against governments and societies for the human right to live. Through this motif, Hollywood, maybe unintentionally, is defending a form of family life that is often under attack in today’s world.
The government policy in What Happened to Monday resembles the notorious one-child policy in China that lasted thirty-six years, with disastrous demographic and social consequences. In the film, families are allowed only one child to curb overpopulation. Any siblings found are frozen in the cryosleep, where they will remain until the world has room for them again. (Spoiler: the cryosleep is actually an incinerator.) The conceit of the movie is that a set of identical septuplets (played by actress Noomi Rapace and each named after one day of the week) must outwit the government by taking turns assuming a single identity. One day, Monday doesn’t come home, and the remaining siblings must solve the mystery of her disappearance.
China’s reproductive laws might seem foreign and horrific to Westerners, but in What Happened to Monday, they are portrayed as far closer to home. In fact, in the United States today, the average fertility rate is 1.84 births per woman. In the European Union it is 1.58, just a notch above China at 1.57. According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of white, educated women today have two children, the same number China now allows their citizens to have. Smaller families are the popular goal, possibly because, as the movie suggests, “smaller families, richer families.” Higher costs of living are often associated with lower birth rates. Here in the United States, even our supposedly pro-life President Trump discourages large families by eliminating personal exemptions in his tax plan.
Even off-screen, friends and strangers monitor each other to stay within the acceptable status quo when it comes to family size. Today, mothers and fathers of large families report being judged and questioned for their choices. As the youngest of six, I can attest to standing awkwardly by as friends have critiqued complete strangers for having “too many kids.” Large families are often seen as a mistake or as evidence of a lack of self-control on the part of parents. This notion too often translates into an attitude of cultural superiority. Both in popular culture and in society more broadly elites often negatively associate large families with members of orthodox religions, the poor, and non-white people. Some dystopian films like Elysium even depict non-white cultures as the overpopulating majority. By contrast, by making Western culture the site of the dystopian crisis, What Happened to Monday uses overpopulation as a buzzword to draw viewers, while addressing the real issue that plagues the film and our society: the devaluation of family life.
Given our culture’s attitude toward large families, it’s brave of Netflix to support a film like What Happened to Monday, where characters fight to keep a set of septuplets alive and declare, as one character does, that “seven minds are better than one.” Throughout the film the sisters acknowledge and affirm the importance and complexity of their special sibling relationship. The movie ends with the Child Allocation Act repealed, and Monday’s unborn twins saved. In the face of trauma, violence, and the remaining threat of overpopulation, family should still be a viable and valuable life choice.
While our culture touts “a woman’s right to choose,” What Happened to Monday shows us a bleak future where choice does not exist. Its dystopian model points out that perhaps we have less “choice” than we think we do. With real fears of overpopulation, climate change, and cultural pressures mounting, small families seem to be the only viable option. By showing large families in a positive light (albeit in a terrifying dystopia) What Happened to Monday reminds us that families come in many shapes and sizes. And after all, without life, there is no future at all.
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