This past spring, I held my dissertation prospectus meeting with the members of my committee. As my dissertation advisor told me beforehand, prospectus writing is odd because it’s not a “real” genre. There aren’t clear rules to it, and almost no one will see the end product. Nevertheless, I’m posting the finalized version of my prospectus below (final in that it’s the draft that my committee members and I ended up discussing; the shape of the dissertation has already shifted a bit through their helpful feedback and as I begin to actually write out my first chapters).
Noah Banes: You and your baby are university property now.
Alex Hesse: No, I’m not! My body, my choice.
– Junior (1994)
Although this confrontation from the 1994 film Junior culminates with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character shoving his would-be antagonist to the ground in a moment of empowerment, Dr. Alex Hesse has spent the last hour of the film (and his montaged pregnancy) fluctuating between scenes of terror and comedy. As perhaps the most recognizable example of a male pregnancy in the contemporary public sphere, Junior serves as an intuitive starting point for thinking about this literary motif, as well as for marking a shift in works of speculative fiction that views pregnant men less as symbolic abstraction and more as a means for representing the actual lived experiences of marginalized groups—the shift around which this dissertation is organized.
Going back at least as far as the Judeo-Christian creation story, the idea of man giving birth has appeared across a wide range of literary genres and forms. Only in the last forty years, however, has this figure moved from the realms of fable and science fiction to representations of imaginable and actual realities. In tracing this trajectory, my dissertation will be divided into two parts. The first part of this study offers a survey of fictional works that look to male pregnancy as literary motif.
The second part of this study follows this motif into contemporary and new media iterations, both literary and cultural, analyzing how emerging reproductive technologies and modes of family-making have extended earlier, figurative uses of male pregnancy while simultaneously shifting the very narratives that pregnant men tell. The main trajectory to which my dissertation looks (forward) to are the years between 1977 (the year in which the first baby successfully conceived through IVF was born) and the present (in which reproductive technologies continue to become more popular and more advanced).1
In offering a series of questions to frame my work, I’m aware that a good portion of my introduction will be taken up in drawing constraints around my object of study and providing clarification to the terms and definitions I’ll be using. Who counts as male? As men? What counts as reproduction? As pregnancy?2 From this framework, we might ask why this figure appears at all: How and why is this figure employed? Who wants male pregnancy? How have the answers to these questions shifted over time? And how have these shifts been tied up in material histories (through the proliferation of both contraceptive methods and reproductive technologies)? A third series of questions follows as we consider the effects of these earlier ones: What does male pregnancy mean for women? For men? For queer and genderqueer individuals? Along these lines, the nuclear family continues to give way to other forms of family making, and queer theorist Joshua Gamson questions to what extent this nuclear family ever truly existed as the dominant family structure. Accordingly, how does the pregnant man fit into our understanding of family?
Grounded as a literary study of speculative fiction, this dissertation will expand to consider other forms of media: film, TV, social media, fanfiction and other digitally-born texts. Paralleling the shift of the pregnant man from literary concept to (marginalized) reality, this study thus moves from older, more traditional forms of media and literature to newer forms. And while my own interventions reside more prominently among these contemporary works, I offer a number of methods by which one can bring old and new media into conversation with one another. As many of the more contemporary texts that I use are available mainly or solely in digital formats (especially the fanfiction texts and eBooks analyzed in Ch. 4), my work naturally looks to the continuities and asymmetries in these various forms and their respective modes of publication. In connection to (and afforded by) this digital shift, the readings of these texts will reflect a range of new literary methods (put forth by digital humanities scholars like Franco Moretti and Matthew Wilkens), bridging traditional close readings with newer, often experimental, methods of distance reading (e.g. macroanalysis and data visualizations).
Continuing this pattern of bricolage, the theories that I engage with throughout the course of this study mark an interdisciplinary approach that stretches across literary, new media, and queer and feminist studies. This interdisciplinary aspect is further informed by theories as diverse as historical materialism, reader-response, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and aesthetic theory. This is all to say that the overarching approach is, thus, a queer methodology that pushes against the constraints of any one, specific discipline or theory, reflecting the very Frankensteinian creatures that appear throughout many of the science fiction and magical realist texts that I’ll be exploring. This approach finds roots in the playful failure described by Jack Halberstam and the bad, queer readings of Tyler Bradway.3
Following the introduction of my dissertation, which will elaborate on the particularities and peculiarities of this framework, Chapter 1 will further address “who” and “what” counts regarding “pregnant men,” drawing constraints around this figure through a survey of both figurative and literal examples. While this survey will stretch back to early creation myths (looking to Adam, who—with God the Father’s assistance4—gave birth to Eve; Zeus, who hatched Athena from his head; and Loki, who became pregnant on a number of occasions thanks to his shape-shifting abilities), it will hone in on 19th and 20th century works of speculative fiction. Near the beginning of this period, male pregnancy might be located in the figures of Gothic (Romantic) monsters that resulted from men’s attempts to create life without the “natural” means of a female womb.5 By the end of the 20th century, cyborgian androids and AIs were popular figures in science fiction and were often depicted as the products of male generativity. Honing in on the examples of speculative fiction from the 19th-20th century, this section will highlight a prominent shift in viewing the pregnant man as part of scientific discourse, brought about by the emergent sciences of eugenics, embryology, and sexology.
The stories outlined in the survey above spread across multiple millenia; however, a few, distinct themes run throughout these works: the pregnant man as comedy, as women’s writing, and as bodily horror. In an analysis of early creation myths and the impact they had on later folktales, Roberto Zapperi has traced a misogynistic bent to tales of male pregnancy rooted in patriarchal religion. Setting these early tales in conversation with Simone de Beauvoir’s work on myths surrounding women, I hope to move the figure of the pregnant man into a larger cultural context, extending this analysis through additional works of feminist and queer theory. For example, in what ways do these early myths of queer reproduction extend depictions of the comic/tragic dichotomy historically built into narratives of non-heteronormative characters?6 Loki’s act of birthing an eight-legged horse, for instance, might be viewed as comic relief; Milton’s depiction of Satan’s offspring, on the other hand, suggests a reading that is far more bleak. The combination of animal and human form that Sin takes is unsettling7, and pregnancy is portrayed throughout Paradise Lost as grotesque and painful. Where can we find a “seriously positive” view of queer reproduction?8
As this survey of male pregnancy continues, Zapperi points to a number of 19th-century folktales that mark new and subversive acts of rewriting, as storytellers turn patriarchal figures on their heads and make them the literal butts of their jokes.9 At the same time, the misogynistic elements from earlier male pregnancy tales aren’t discarded, but rather repackaged in the monstrous (or abject) forms that inhabit a number of popular Victorian works. In these novels, men find ways of creating life without women through the aid of electricity, vivisection, and other modern technologies. The resulting fears, centered around “unnatural” modes of reproduction as men tamper with the normal order of things, is easily traced from works like Shelley’s Frankenstein and Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau10 into 20th-century cyberpunk fiction, where AI now embodies the same concerns in cyborgian forms. Cyborgs, in fact, shed light on male pregnancy from multiple directions. While N. Katherine Hayles has depicted the cyborg’s creation story as a male homoerotic narrative—following a man into solitude in order to produce and bond with his new AI11—Donna Haraway, Patricia MacCormack, and others have pointed out that paranoia surrounding the unstable gender constructions of the cyborg also play a central role in many of these stories. This fear is both a continuation and a reflection of earlier concerns surrounding what technology-enabled reproduction might mean.
This literary survey comes to a close at the same time that the new reproductive technology of IVF emerges. Part 2 looks to this shift in technology, the new possibilities that have opened up and the new forms of media by which these narratives are told. While many of the themes identified in Part 1 have direct parallels in the texts addressed in Part 2, IVF, surrogate mothers, transgender pregnant men, and increased representation of queer families offer new trajectories and conversations with which to engage. Part 2 traces this trajectory through a number of branching discourses portrayed in literature, film, and other forms of new media.
Chapter 2 looks to how IVF and other reproductive technologies have influenced the representation of male pregnancy in mainstream cultural works. Comedy and horror come to a head once more in the film Junior, the focal point of this chapter. While complicit with the misogyny of earlier creation myths, the film also offers queer readings of gender and family structure12, before ultimately aligning with heteronormative repronarratives.13 Gothic strands appear in scenes of horror, most notably in a nightmare of Dr. Hesse’s, in which he wakes in a hospital bed to the sight of a beautiful nurse who presents him with the child he’s supposedly just given birth to—a grotesque monster with the shape of a newborn but Schwarzenegger’s own adult face glaring back at him. It’s unclear what one is to make of this nightmare: is it a jump scare or a punchline? Both? Using Sianne Ngai’s aesthetic category of “zany,” I consider how Dr. Hesse epitomizes the play between these two concepts, continuing along the trajectory of earlier fictional works that I’ve mentioned while introducing new strains of contemporary science (upon which the film was based). Bringing in other examples from popular works of television and film that point to this horror/humor bind, this chapter ultimately asks what this precarious balancing between horror and humor, science and fiction means for the depiction of male pregnancy, gender, and sexuality.14
Chapter 3 looks to the pregnant man as a recurring theme in a number of queer discourses. In Familiar Perversions, Liz Montegary asks, “How, in such a short span of time, have we gone from queers dying in the streets at the height of the AIDS crisis to queers raising children and buying family homes in the age of marriage equality?” These widely divergent experiences are expressed and conflated in the idea of male pregnancy as its been expressed in works featuring explicitly queer characters. In works like Stephen Gray’s Born of Man (1989) and Paul Magrs’s Could It Be Magic? (1998), for example, male pregnancy is represented as both as a method for creating queer families and as an analogy that explores the discourse surrounding AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s.
These dual trajectories continue in more recent works like Matt Riddlehoover’s film, Paternity Leave (2015). In the film, gay men have begun gestating giving birth to biological children of their own, a phenomenon that the film refers to as an “epidemic.” Despite this (problematic?) nod to AIDS discourse, the emphasis in this film rests more heavily on the potential that male pregnancy might stand in for a new normalcy, ushering in a new age of queer families and the increased opportunities among gay men to create biological families through surrogacy. The film does away with the middleman (so to speak) and, like the novels that went before it, relies on active and passive erasures of birth mothers and midwives in order to highlight this queer dynamic. According to Riddlehoover, the film was in conversation with the issues of marriage equality that were in the limelight during the time of writing and production, and—as such—“the film is politically bent towards seeing a same-sex couple through a more ‘traditional’ romantic comedy lens.”15 The erasure of women’s experiences that results from this normalizing tactic raises concerns about who loses when assimilating is placed at the top of the “gay agenda” (cf. Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal).
Another concern regarding erasure stems from the lack of transgender men’s experiences of being pregnant. While the image of the pregnant man stands in for new opportunities available to cis gay men, rarely do these depictions map onto other queer identities, such as the lived experiences of FTM men. While this appears to be the case in the works highlighted in this chapter, transgender men’s pregnancies are made hypervisible elsewhere. As reproductive technologies and hormone therapy allow trans men to better plan for biological families of their own, their experiences are often highly publicized, as in the case of Thomas Beatie’s pregnancy, which was followed by a new wave of sensationalized journalism16 that critiqued trans men’s bodies while simultaneously demanding their visibility.17
Connected to newly (under)represented concerns regarding visibility and opportunity for different kinds of queer families, conversations around the antisocial turn of queer theory have taken a new direction. Suggested by Leo Bersani and popularized by Lee Edelman, antisocial queer theory posits that a queer politics is one that would dissociate itself from dominant narratives focused on heterosexuality, traditional marriage, and nuclear families. Rather than building a case for why queers should be allowed at the table, antisocial theorists explore how embracing positions of marginality might upend current power structures. In Joshua Gamson’s words, “Seeking to be assimilated into the-way-things-are does nothing to change the way things are.”18 Queer folks who do “assimilate” are often accused of producing a kind of homonormativity, an imitation of heteronormativity that allows more “acceptable” forms of homosexuality to reap many of the privileges afforded by heterosexuality.19 By considering who is granted access to these options, who gets to be (or has to be) displayed as the face of these new family structures, and how these stories are framed, I’ll use the charge of homonormativity as both an accurate critique and an invalid construction of these family structures.20
While tied to contemporary literary works and media coverage, this chapter will expand to consider how both of these figures (the gay biological father via surrogacy and the pregnant trans man) have been depicted over various social media platforms. Both of the phenomenons mentioned above can be seen through popular Instagram accounts, with gay dads erasing women from the story of biological reproduction through a neoliberal depiction of queer futurity and pregnant trans men unveiling their bodies for public scrutiny. José Esteban Muñoz’s work on queer utopia will play an important role in sifting through and rethinking the challenges and complexities of these fraught depictions of queer futurity.
Ch. 4 will then return to the cyborg, not in terms of how this figure represents fears surrounding technology and gender (as dealt with in Ch. 1 and 2), but in thinking about how cyborgian forms of writing take shape in representations of male pregnancy through mpreg21 fanfiction and original works made largely available through digital publishing. Extending the subversive and redemptive mode of storytelling found in many of the folktales mentioned by Zapperi, I’ll look to the way mpreg has allowed writers a mode of reclaiming narratives that often lacked an outlet in the past. Following the lead of fanfic scholars such as Kristina Busse, Catherine Driscoll, and Mary C. Ingram-Waters, this chapter will weave literary and cultural studies together. Through close readings of the texts and interviews with some of their authors, I’ll explore what trends are most evident in this niche genre and why. A preliminary search on Google Trends, for example, reveals that mpreg appears most often in connection to specific literary and cultural universes.22 What are the patterns that emerge? Why are Naruto (an adolescent ninja at the center of a Japanese manga series), Harry Potter (the boy wizard from J.K. Rowling’s franchise), and Thor (the Norse thunder god and the Marvel Comics superhero) the first figures that appear as “related topics”? How are these characters connected? Why have fans chosen them as their most popular mpreg dads?
Fanfic depends upon already existing works, so how do the original mpreg texts (separate from any already-established fan universe) published through Amazon’s marketplace reflect trends from the more prevalent fan-based works? Here, my intervention marks a unique approach to the genre of mpreg, as many fan fiction scholars have commented on the function of the male pregnancy trope in fan communities, but have not extended this analysis to the works of mpreg eBook romance writers and the communities that have sprung up not around a specific fandom, but the trope and genre itself. This analysis will look primarily to eBooks available through Amazon’s marketplace, as it is the main site of sale for these commercial, digital works,23 incorporating both publication information24 and author interviews. Through my analysis of these works, I’ll again look to what recurring motifs mean in connection to the longer history of pregnant men. Why, for example, do so many original mpreg titles center around gay werewolves? What larger genre does mpreg fit into? And who do these stories give voice to?25
I’ll be utilizing distance reading methods in this chapter as I look for patterns in the tags provided by authors of both fanfic and original content available through Amazon’s Kindle Store. This macroanalysis will reflect what Matthew Wilkens posits as the most useful aspect of distance reading—its ability to account for “more.” With more books in existence than anyone is able to get through, how can we really begin to grasp what’s available (let alone analyze it)? Wilkens’s focus is on canonical texts, which he argues are both problematic in their framing and in the size of their corpora. Despite how many works are kept out, he still finds that canons are generally too large to work with in terms of traditional close readings. In an analysis of mpreg fanfiction and e-text, this problem is magnified in that there is no canon, i.e., no agreed upon set of works to even begin with. Where should one start when there is no common starting place? Distance reading (with the help of traditional close reading) can help to address this lack of shared knowledge.
As a preview of the direction that the many questions I’ve posed in the last three paragraphs might take, I’d like to propose two hypotheses. First, in the midst of stories filled with hierarchized male characters (and the problematic power dynamics they exhibit), cyborgian writing practices emerge as women writers find new outlets, dynamics, and audiences in mpreg fiction for telling what has traditionally been thought of as feminine and domestic tales of pregnancy and motherhood. Second, online publishing offers these narratives new forms of interaction, the weight of which has yet to be grappled with. What does it mean, for instance, that the bestselling mpreg work26 was published in March of this year and recently reached the ranking of #897 in Amazon’s Kindle Store’s list of Best Sellers, whereas a Pulitzer-Prize-winning text, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, published ten years ago ranks at #20,027. What does this say about the publishing industry? About online readers? Is it even reasonable to suggest a comparison be made at all?
This dissertation will conclude by placing these different forms of representation, enabled by the figure of the pregnant man, into conversation with one another. As I’m not sure what I’ll find yet, I’ll use this space meant for a conclusion in my prospectus to instead highlight the questions currently residing at the center of this work that will, most likely, resurface here: What does the pregnant man symbolize? How has this meaning changed over time? What’s the significance of this change? Who “gets” to be represented by the pregnant man? What does this representation “allow”? Looking for answers to these questions in works categorized under genres of myths, science fiction, and magical realism will allow me to position myself as a literary scholar of 19th-20th century works of speculative fiction, focusing on queer, feminist and digital texts and approaches to both old and new forms of media.
- In 2000, Jean Baudrillard observed that biotechnological modes of reproduction had ushered in a second phase of sexual liberation (marked by reproduction’s being freed from sex; the first phase freed sex from reproduction), and certainly the possibilities that this new phase has ushered in have only expanded since then. As noted below, queer theorists like Lee Edelman will later rally around this idea. Others, like Shulamith Firestone, have been more hesitant in welcoming this shift in reproductive technologies, viewing them as new modes to perpetuate the same gendered divisions of labor “inherent” in the biological family (1970). ↩
- As the answers to these questions create clearer parameters around the subject of my study, they will also indicate a number of figures and ideas that fall outside the scope of my project. ↩
- Jack Halberstam has suggested that scholars should invest more in not being taken seriously. While many of the ideas explored in this dissertation drive home serious points of visibility and respect for marginalized groups, I also take the time to follow Halberstam’s lead in approaching my subject with an openness to losing my way. Indeed, as a lesson to be learned from the antisocial turn in queer theory (discussed below), one sometimes must hope “to lose one’s way.” Tyler Bradway, reflecting this method, suggests that to read queerly means to read badly, i.e., to “not conform to the protocols of critical reading and other hegemonic, institutionally sanctioned, and socially approved modes of ‘good reading.’”
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011, p. 6.
Bradway, Tyler. Queer Experimental Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, p. v. ↩
- While I point here to a masculinized depiction of God, common in contemporary Western discourse, there are a number of other terms used for this figure in the Hebrew and Christian Bible, which lend themselves to alternative readings of gender. For example, in Genesis 1:26-27, God is implied to be both male and female, while Hosea 13:8 finds God likened to a mother bear. Part of this chapter, however, will be dedicated to a tradition of specifically masculine depictions of God creating life. ↩
- Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility explores literary works that depict futures in which women have happily rejected their reproductive capacities. My work is set in conversation with Lothian’s work, as the texts I explore offer somewhat of a mirror-image to those that Lothian analyzes. ↩
- This dichotomy has also historically been represented in queer narratives (i.e., the gay male character as the funny sidekick or the tragic victim). ↩
- Another take on this hybrid-monster will appear with the figure of the cyborg. ↩
- Spoiler: Ch. 3. ↩
- “Literal” in the sense that many of these tales depict pregnant men giving birth rectally. ↩
- In addition to these novels, this section might bring in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula as other horrifying examples of male generativity. Shaw’s Pygmalion, on the other hand, might be noted in juxtaposition to these works, as a farce that makes a return both to early creation myths and to the repetition of the comic/tragic dichotomy (now slightly tweaked to be represented as comic/horror). ↩
- How does Hayles’s reading fit into the frequency by which the AIs that men create are given female form (cf. Ex Machina, Konstruktor, Zoe)? Patricia MacCormack argues that these cyborgs are never to be read as “real” women. ↩
- As Dr. Diana Reddin, Emma Thompson plays a foil to the impregnated and effeminized Schwarzenegger, making her carry out a protective role to Schwarzenegger and their unborn child. At the same time, Danny DeVito, as Dr. Larry Arbogast, impregnates Schwarzenegger with a long, phallic needle in the privacy of his bedroom. ↩
- Coined by Michael Warner, “repronarrative” describes a story that culminates in reproductive futurity. ↩
- Other examples will include male pregnancies featured in productions like Star Trek: Enterprise, Alien, Sense8, and Dr. Who, all of which fit nicely into the genre of science fiction. ↩
- Riddlehoover, Matt. Personal interview. 19 May 2014. ↩
- This sensationalism may be one way in which transgender men’s experiences do map onto the stories covered in this chapter. ↩
- Furthermore, trans men who have become pregnant often find themselves at the center of a new kind of border war (the term that Jack Halberstam has used to describe the ideological differences between butch women and trans men): at the same time that groups of cis-women on online parenting forums unite around the idea that trans men are appropriating a unique female experience, other gender essentialists insist that a pregnant person must be female. Through a series of documentaries produced in the last two decades (A Pregnant Man, Pregnant Dad, A Womb of Their Own, and Google Baby), I hope to shed light on the narratives and conversations produced both by gay couples who choose to have biological children and trans men who have become pregnant. ↩
- Gamson’s own story is one that I look forward to analyzing, as he’s a queer theorist who’s chosen to have biological children. In his self-reflexive work, he sides with antisocial theory, wrestling with the many privileges of his own position.
Gamson, Joshua, Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship. NYU Press, 2017, p. 88. ↩
- Lisa Duggan is generally credited for coining this usage of the term “homonormativity.”
Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Beacon Press, 2004.
Liz Montegary refers to this discourse through the lens of a politics of respectability. ↩
- This intersectional critique will also look to race, class, and national belonging. For example, how does the privilege of male generativity relate to the nation-state? (Gray’s Born of Man focuses on this question as the events of the novel unfold in the midst of South African apartheid.) ↩
- “Mpreg,” short for “male pregnancy,” is not only a trope to be found in these stories, but also the subgenre in which they’re categorized. ↩
- “Google Trends.” Google Trends, https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=mpreg&geo=US. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019. ↩
- There are currently well over 2,000 mpreg titles available for purchase through Amazon’s Kindle Store. ↩
- As only some information is available through Amazon regarding the statistics of their publications, I’ll also look to author blogs and tracker sites for clearer context about these works. Amazon (like the rest of the publishing world) is notoriously stingy with the data they offer regarding sales. This section, then, will also take a deep dive into better understanding this industry and the algorithms behind the numbers that they do offer. ↩
- While earlier depictions of pregnant men were often critiqued as appropriations of women’s experiences, fan communities often argue that the (predominantly cis-female) writers of mpreg works are appropriating the bodies of gay and/or trans men. ↩
- I’ve updated this since the earlier prospectus. Keeping track of these rankings has been fascinating. The statistic above references Liam Kingsley’s Knot the Sheriff, reflecting data made available shortly after its publication on March 1, 2019. While these rankings are surprising, they’re somewhat misleading; this chapter will break down what they really mean and will consider why Amazon might be skewing the numbers in such a way that enables an mpreg work to appear more popular than a Pulitzer-winning novel. ↩