Privilege & Power: sifting through Born of Man and Could it be Magic? to better understand the networked hierarchies of gender, economic status, and race as they pertain to surrogacy and queer family making,
Gender Hierarchies: Tied up in this discussion of surrogacy and economic status, additional privileges structured around gender are difficult to disentangle. And this is not a new phenomenon by any means! Made visible in a passage from Euripides’ Hippolytos, which conflates two central aspects of what Maria Aline Seabra Ferreira refers to as “male autoreproduction”: “the creation of another human being and the dream of a world without women.”
Zeus, let me set you straight above women.
Men chase their glitter, but it’s all fake.
You were mistaken to flood our lives with them–
because if your purpose was to ensure
perpetuation of the human race
you could have by-passed women completely.
A better idea would be this–
To let prospective fathers
Come to your temples and pay you
In bronze, iron, or solid gold
For seeds which will flourish into men,
Each father paying for his sons
In proportion to his wealth and status.1
In this passage, men set themselves above women, longing for a system (perhaps predicting one) in which money allows them the privilege of a good birth. The result is a kind of fascist regime that has its own unfortunate and complicated history in terms of queer identities (to be explored in the next post). Gesturing back to Classical rhetoric as well, Corea also frames surrogate motherhood as a continuation of viewing women as vessels for men’s seed. Under this Aristotelian framework, “woman merely supplied matter which the active male principle formed and molded into a human being. Men played the major role in reproduction while woman served as the passive incubator of his seed” (221). While the present day does not necessarily still regard men as the “active” agents in the birthing process, vestigial threads of this way of thinking remain prominent in contemporary configurations of childbirth.
For starters, if surrogacy is now framed in industrialized terms like the “reproductive supermarket, with children being the final products, women remain trafficked in the same way that Gayle Rubin identified nearly fifty years ago (Corea 15).2 Within feminist debate, this economic slant takes on two trajectories. While some view surrogacy as a means of further exploiting women’s bodies, others perceive it as a means of extending the amount of control that they have over their own mean of reproduction, creating new opportunities for women to willfully enter into and benefit from this emerging marketplace. In the pivotal work on reproductive technologies, Mother Machine, Gena Corea views the proposed benefits within a larger structure of domination, however: “Proponents of surrogate motherhood insist that the woman’s will is interior, somehow independent of, and unaffected by the culture in which she lives. […] [T]hey assert that these are acts of individual will” (228). But Corea rejects this notion, drawing, for instance, on the common narrative of grief which many surrogate mothers experience after delivering their children. For Corea, these “increased opportunities” simply point to more ways in which women are subjected to gendered hierarchies.
These hierarchies are brought to light in dehumanizing ways. Viewed as vessels for the production of gay men’s future children, the role that surrogate mothers play in the rhetoric employed by gay men is often misogynistic and, at times, even violent. When his daughter’s playmate, for instance, inquires whether or not her grandma gave birth to her, Gamson writes that he found the idea “charmingly repulsive” (2). But why? What about a middle-aged woman giving birth is so distasteful? This small anecdote gestures to the wider history (to be covered in the earlier chapters of my dissertation) in which women are erased, done violence to, or simply dismissed by more powerful men.
This narrative is a common one, and it is only highlighted through the (often) all-male fantasies of queer utopias. Even in the entertaining (and, honestly, adorable) music video for “Genghis Khan” by Swedish indie pop band Miike Snow, the queered romance of a Bond-like spy and the villain who’s captured him comes at the cost of entirely replacing the villain’s doting wife, who reappears at the video’s conclusion, turned into a villain herself as she’s erased from the more traditional narrative. The family that was once hers is now his.
Despite the complexities of power and privilege that Gamson addresses, his own narrative is full of such instances in which women seem to be disadvantaged by the costs of surrogacy, from an ex-girlfriend who offered to be his surrogate mother (and whom Gamson later has to “sue,” albeit for mere legal reasons, in order to ensure the baby was his) to a woman (a stranger) who Gamson’s partner yells at after she inquires how the couple was able to have a child (and whom they later discover had been curious due to her own lifetime of longing for a child and being unable to conceive one herself).
Further examples of erasure abound on social media. Sifting through posts of popular Instagram accounts tagged with #gaydads depicts images exclusively of men. While this might be expected, what still surprises me is the near-complete lack of acknowledgement that these dads pay to the surrogate mothers that so often helped them in obtaining their families. Even more disturbing are the images in which these men appear. Photography for new mothers essentially constitutes a genre of its own, complete with its norms of poses and gestures. In searching through #gaydads, one finds that many of these men have mirrored this genre, reclining in hospital beds alongside their newborn or with their arms possessively around the pregnant belly of their surrogate. As seen in the image to the left, the headless belly simultaneously reflects the gay cultural staple of the Grindr torso while also erasing women from the narrative. Like the example from the music video above, what was hers is now his.
Gender privilege is far more visible in Born of Man than it is in Could it be Magic? And it is perhaps most visible in the direct dismissal of Fiona, the only substantial female character in the novel, who, despite conveying a complexity of her own, functions only as an annoyance to the narrator, who, upset by her very presence in his otherwise queer utopia, states, “[S]he never knows when she isn’t wanted” (38). While her erasure is here desired, it later becomes manifest; she dies soon after transferring her fetus to Kevin. In this process, she’s also portrayed as replaceable. Again, much like the villain’s wife in the music video mentioned above, the gay and bisexual men of this text view Fiona not only as interchangeable but as a poor substitute for queer maleness.
Later, Henno, distraught by his inability to have sex with women, finally finds he is able to with Fiona. But when the other characters catch him in the act, he excitedly tells the narrator that it was the narrator and Kev’s drag performance from earlier that cured him. “It was you two turned me on,” he announces, still in the act itself, entwined with Fiona, whom he regards as “a real woman” (54). Drag returns to the narrative when Kev disguises himself as a woman, passing as the narrator’s wife in order to discreetly make his checkups at the hospital (104). To the narrator, he states that he (Henno) “made an honest woman out of me” (105). While these anecdotes queer gender, they simultaneously erase what was once deemed solely women’s experience and, in so doing, (violently) erase women from the narrative altogether.
Racial Hierarchies: Lastly, Born of Man also drastically highlights the racial hierarchies rooted in who is given access to reproductive technologies. While Could it be Magic? points to these inequalities as well through asymptomatic readings (all of the main characters in this novel are white); Born of Man makes this facet far more central to its narrative. Before queerness is ever even mentioned in the text, the narrator recounts coming across a black infant who had been abandoned on his farm. After asking around and finding none of his farmhands would claim it, he returns to the infant, whom he discovers is beyond saving. While the novel thus starts with the death of a black child, it celebrates the idea of a (white) gay futurity. Quoting from one of the journalists eagerly reporting on Kevin’s pregnancy, the narrator writes, “The fact that his contribution to peace and prosperity will be a white child, whereas all others are black…etc” (149). Evident in this ellipsis is a disregard for both black people and their collective futurity. And while the way in which the child maps onto the nation in this novel set in Apartheid-era South Africa is evident, similar narratives extend throughout the Western world and the U.S.
Returning to Gena Corea’s work on reproductive technology, she dedicates a full chapter3 of Mother Machine to tracing how women have historically been coerced into surrogate mothering. The starkest example of this history may be in the treatment of Black women during American slavery, who were regarded not as mothers, but as “breeders” (272). And while neoliberal society may be doing its best to place distance between the past and the present, these racial inequalities persist today. This is perhaps most visible in the 2009 documentary Google Baby, which portrays a number of affluent, white, gay men in Israel as they streamline the surrogacy process for cost efficiency. Using a blonde U.S. egg donor, they then implant the fetuses into Indian surrogate mothers. Watching these Indian women give birth to one white child after the next, Corea’s 1985 prediction—“[t]he international traffic in women is about to expand”—seems all too accurate (245).
Yet, while antisocial theory’s rejection of assimilation with those already in power can be employed as a means of race critique, others have regarded antisocial theory itself as buoyed by racial privilege. Jose Esteban Muñoz, for example, refers to the “antirelational turn in queer theory” as “the gay white man’s last stand” (825). Explaining this claim in a footnote, he goes on to write, “I do not mean all gay white men in queer studies. More precisely, I am referring to gay white male scholars who imagine sexuality as a discrete category that can be abstracted and isolated from other antagonisms in the social, which include race and gender” (826). Jane Ward picks up this thread in a direct critique of Edelman’s rejection of futurity, writing, “Edelman fails to engage the now voluminous body of theorizing by queer feminists of color, wherein political resistance is deeply tied to futurity, or to the politics of ‘not yet’” (235). Here, both attention to the networks of hierarchy that are at play as well as further consideration of “alternative” narratives are called for (and by “alternative” narratives, I lamely mean “not-the-dominant-white-narratives” that are usually offered).
Indeed, it seems that a rejection of queer family-making on the grounds of assimilating to current racial hierarchies misses the fact that the majority of queer parents aren’t white. According to a study of the 2000 census, African American and Latino men in same-sex couples were “four times as likely to be raising children as their white male counterparts” (Montegary 8). Similar results were discovered in a 2011 study published by the Williams’ Institute, which concluded “[C]hildrearing is substantially higher among racial/ethnic minorities. Also, among individuals in same-sex couples who did not finish high school, 43% are raising children, and 20% of children raised by same-sex couples live in poverty.”4 Commenting on this study, however, Jane Ward writes that these narratives are perhaps overwritten by more costly ones of reproductive technology, as “many queers of color are raising their brothers’ and sisters’ children, children from a partner’s previous heterosexual marriage, or queer kids in need of care and shelter” (236). In other words, these narratives (which look to queer futurity although rarely through the aid of surrogacy) are generally excluded from the politics of respectability.
Yet these realities are rarely reflected—even hinted at—in the fictional accounts of queer family making. While this further highlights the number of inequalities at work in surrogacy pregnancies, they also point to ways in which this trope works to explore other, more complicated facets of queer futurity.
- Maria Aline Seabra Ferreira. I Am the Other: Literary Negotiations of Human Cloning. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005, p. 112. ↩
- Gayle Rubin. “The Traffic of Women.” 1975. ↩
- Ch. 14: “Breeding Brothels: A Caste of Childbearers” ↩
- Jane Ward. “Radical Experiments Involving Innocent Children: Locating Parenthood in Queer Utopia.” A Critical Inquiry into Queer Utopias, edited by Angela Jones, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 231-244, p. 236. ↩