A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream. Directed by Stephanie Welch. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2017. 106 minutes.

Amá. Directed by Lorna Tucker. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2018. 74 minutes.

Reviewed by Natalie Lira

One of the principal objectives in all of my courses, from Mexican American History to Race and the Politics of Reproduction, is to challenge the way my students understand and engage with ostensibly common-sense notions of race and gender. This is not easy. Teaching them that race, for example, is not based in biology but is instead a social construct used to organize and justify social hierarchies, comes with its challenges. Some students are quick to recognize this concept and identify how it works to naturalize notions of inferiority, as well as how it is enlisted to justify unequal and often violent state policies. Others, however, are hard-pressed to believe that something they understand as biological is, in fact, political. More often than not, these students cite science in their claims that race and gender are of the body, connote inherent difference, and are understandable, even if misguided, ways of organizing society. The two films reviewed herein provide both types of students important lessons in how categories of difference like race and gender have become common sense, how they work to structure relationships of power, and the ways they’ve been used to justify a number of historical injustices.

Stephanie Welch’s A Dangerous Idea: Eugenics, Genetics and the American Dream is a clear and thorough examination of the role that science has played in fueling racial and gendered ideologies of difference and inferiority in the United States. The film interrogates theories of biological determinism and their impact on social policy. Zeroing in on the “myth of the gene,” it shows how scientific ideas about genetics, and later, DNA, became avenues for not only understanding human biology but also explaining and justifying social inequality, especially in relation to race, gender, and class. Revealing interviews with award-winning biologists illuminate how some scientists expounded upon their studies of DNA—a single component of the cell—to argue that there is a biological basis for gender inequality and poverty and that Black and Latinx Americans are inherently intellectually inferior. Experts in the same scientific fields, including feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard, join historians and anthropologists in the film to debunk these claims. The human genome project, they explain, disproved the notion that genetic differences align with racial categories. They also make clear that the role of genetics in human difference and behavior is often overstated and much more complicated than simple heredity. In sum, the film tackles the longstanding belief that social differences and inequality are in our genes.

A Dangerous Idea deconstructs discourses about genetics and DNA that came out of the mid-twentieth century, placing them in a larger historical context and locating them on a continuum of assertions of biological determinism that date back to the late nineteenth century and the science of eugenics. The result is a clear illustration of how science has been used as a tool to rationalize social hierarchies and justify discriminatory and violent social policies throughout American history. The film makes necessary connections between this line of thinking and slavery, nativism, and white supremacy writ large. Importantly, A Dangerous Idea also reveals how biological determinism persists in the American political landscape across party lines and how these notions continue to shape social policy. Welch’s film serves as a useful tool for teaching students about the ways difference and inequality get mapped onto biology.

Given the length, educators will have to screen the film in one long seminar or across multiple class sessions, but because topics are presented in sections it can be split up easily. The film would pair nicely with standard readings on the social construction of race like Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s classic work or Dorothy Robert’s and Alondra Nelson’s books on race and DNA.1

Whereas A Dangerous Idea exposes the role that science plays in legitimizing social inequality, Lorna Tucker’s Amá provides necessary insight about how these ideas have been used to justify state violence. Amá follows the moving story of Jean Whitehorse, a Navajo woman who survived the various twentieth-century federal projects meant to manage and eliminate Native people and culture in the United States, including boarding schools, relocation programs, and sterilization abuse. A historian in her own right and recounting her own forced sterilization, Whitehorse expertly weaves the impact of these state programs on individuals into the larger context of Native American experiences of settler violence and deception endured by her grandparents, her tribe, and other indigenous people in what is now the United States and Canada. This intersection of the personal and the political not only teaches us about sterilization abuse in North America but also details the ways that it exists as an extension of multiple historical and ongoing efforts to diminish Native sovereignty.

Amá locates Whitehorse’s experience of forced sterilization as part of federally funded population control efforts through a fascinating interview with physician Reimert Ravenholt, one of the architects of these efforts. In the 1960s, Ravenholt and his colleagues were convinced that birth control was the key to alleviating poverty. While Ravenholt makes no explicit connection between poverty and genetics, his interview echoes a notion brought out in A Dangerous Idea: that unequal social conditions like poverty can be solved through the proper management of individuals, ignoring structural issues that cause inequality and highlighting inferior genes, culture, or behavior as the problem. By 1968, the federal government allocated $37.5 million to programs that sought to address poverty through reproductive constraint. This thinking shaped physicians’ practices at the federally established Indian Health Service. A report discussed in the film revealed that thousands of women were coerced into sterilization or were sterilized without their knowledge. Beyond not being able to have the number of children they wanted, which in and of itself was a personal and cultural blow, many women who experienced sterilization abuse stayed silent because of shame or embarrassment. Many in the film also tied these experiences to future problems with drugs, alcohol, and intimate partner violence. 

Tucker’s Amá illustrates the devastation settler colonialism wrought, but it also features a long and continuing history of Native American survival and activism. Throughout the film we witness Whitehorse becoming involved in the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz Island, reconnecting with Navajo history and cultural practices, and eventually breaking her silence around her experience of sterilization. The film also features prominent Comanche activist Charon Asetoyer, one of the founders of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center. Whitehorse, Asetoyer, and other Native women draw poignant connections between reproductive rights, Native sovereignty, and contemporary movements like activism against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The film ends with a clear call to action, asking viewers to sign a petition demanding an apology from the US government for sterilizing Native women. This film would be an asset in lessons on Native American history and reproductive justice. I would pair it with work by Andrea Smith and Barbara Gurr or screen it alongside another great film on abortion rights, Young Lakota.2 Amá is an incredibly rich film that, like A Dangerous Idea, offers educators a powerful text for lessons on how ideas about race and gender are mobilized to implement and justify state violence.

1 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1994); Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New Press, 2012); Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

2 Barbara Gurr, Reproductive Justice: The Politics of Health Care for Native American Women (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Young Lakota, directed by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt (New York: Incite Pictures/Cine Qua Non, 2013), 83 minutes. See also Gurr’s review of films about reproductive justice in Films for the Feminist Classroom (7, no. 1 [2016]).

Natalie Lira is an interdisciplinary scholar and assistant professor in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current research explores the ways that histories of racial and reproductive justice intersect. She is the author of The Threat of the Feeble Mind: Race, Disability, and Reproduction in California’s Pacific Colony (University of California Press, forthcoming). You can find her work in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies and the American Journal of Public Health.