Supernatural miracle pregnancies and the hatred of pregnant women

Feminist Frequency has a video essay on the supernatural miracle pregnancy, which has to be one of my most hated fantasy and SF tropes ever. Careful, the video may be triggering. At least it was for me. Found via Jay Lake in a roundabout way.

I really fucking hate this trope. Words can barely express how much I hate it. Nonetheless, I will use many words, quite a few of them rude, in order to describe how much I hate this trope. I will also spoil some books and TV shows, so if any of that bothers you, don’t look behind the cut.

Leaving the Bible and the supernatural miracle pregnancies in various other mythological traditions (Zeus was a supernatural serial impregnator) aside, I blame John Wyndham and The Midwich Cuckoos for the persistence of the trope in the modern SFF genre. And of course, Wyndham has to bring my other most hated trope into it as well, that of the evil child that is evil because it was born that way. And in fact, I have violently hated The Midwich Cuckoos, since I first saw the original film adaption as a teenager. Though to be fair, the novel is actually one of the more nuanced variations of the trope, because Wyndham at least addresses (obliquely, because such issues could not be discussed openly in 1957) the issue of abortion, as some of the affected women try to terminate the pregnancy or attempt suicide. Wyndham also hints that the affected women include a lesbian couple.

One might also blame Ira Levin and Rosemary’s Baby or at least Roman Polanski’s film adaption for the trope, but The Midwich Cuckoos predates Rosemary’s Baby by ten years. Though in conjunction with The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, Rosemary’s Baby suggests that Ira Levin had serious issues with women. Coincidentally, Rosemary’s Baby also shows how radically speculative fiction has changed since 1967. Because if Rosemary’s Baby were written today, it would be a paranormal romance complete with surprise pregnancy rather than a horror novel.

However, even though the origins of the trope are literary, the supernatural miracle pregnancy is most common in films and particular TV shows these days, as the video shows. Partly, this is because the supernatural miracle pregnancy is often used to cover up the real life pregnancy of an actress. This was the case in the X-Files, Xena, Angel and Stargate Atlantis examples in the video. But while I think it’s great that actresses are no longer given the choice between abortion and getting fired, when they get pregnant, I still don’t know why TV producers cannot integrate a pregnancy in a normal way, i.e. a female character has sex with a male character, whether it’s inside a relationship or a one-night-stand, and gets pregnant.

Indeed, that was what initially bothered me most about the supernatural miracle pregnancy trope, as evidenced in the stupid but not overly offensive example of Deanna Troi’s supernatural pregnancy in Star Trek: The Next Generation, namely that none of these pregnancies ever occurred the normal way, i.e. Deanna Troi was impregnated by a glowing ball of light than by Commander Riker or Lieutenant Worff, nor did they result in a an actual baby that stuck around for the rest of the series. Indeed, at the time (the Star Trek episode first aired around 1990) I viewed the supernatural miracle pregnancy as a subtype of the soap opera pregnancy, that is the tendency of female soap opera characters to find themselves unexpectedly pregnant (and not due to glowing balls of light), agonize over whether to have an abortion or not, finally to decide to have the baby only to experience a sudden miraculous miscarriage. That trope was incredibly common in the primetime soaps of the 1980s and 1990s, Dallas, Dynasty, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210 and the like, and it infuriated me a lot, because in real life unplanned pregnancies are not terminated by convenient miscarriages.

However, sometime around 2000, the supernatural miracle pregnancy trope not just detached itself from the unexpected soap opera pregnancy with convenient miscarriage trope, it also became incredibly and deeply offensive. Dana Scully was impregnated by aliens, had a hybrid baby with superpowers and had to give up the baby for adoption for some contrived reason literally three episodes from the end of The X-Files. Gabrielle gave birth to Rosemary’s baby, while Xena gave birth to a normal daughter (though the paternity was unclear as far as I recall), only to be frozen in time and the baby rapid aged to an annoying and villainous teenager. Sidney in Alias was tortured while pregnant and the actress was pregnant in real life while the scenes in question was filmed. The new Battlestar Galactica only had three possible storylines for women: they could get raped, they could get pregnant (usually forcibly) or they could get breastcancer. In at least one instance, a pregnant woman on Battlestar Galactica was brutally tortured on screen.

Angel by that avowed feminist Joss Whedon is probably the worst offender. Cordelia not just suffers two supernatural pregnancies over the course of the series (and Darla experiences another one), the second supernatural pregnancy ends with a hugely pregnant Cordelia, played by an actress who was pregnant in real life at the time, being brutally attacked by the rest of the cast, her alleged friends and our heroes, and beaten so savagely that she goes into labour, gives birth to a fully grown Gina Torres and eventually ends up in a coma, while the “father” of the child keeps on pleading with our heroes to stop. I was only intermittently watching Angel by that point, but the brutal beating of a pregnant woman made me stop watching the show for good. I almost didn’t watch Bones – which is actually good and handled the pregnancies of two actresses well – because I never wanted to see David Boreanaz in anything ever again after having seen him beat a pregnant woman into a coma in Angel.

Nor was Angel the only show where a badly handled supernatural pregnancy was a dealbreaker for me. In fact, seeing spoiler photos of the second season Torchwood episode referenced in the video was the reason I stopped watching Torchwood. And unlike Angel, which I never particularly liked, Torchwood was my favourite show at the time. I’ve already gone into my issues with the frequency of marriage and pregnancy as a fate for female characters in Doctor Who and the spin-offs in general and Amy’s pregnancy in particular. But the Torchwood episode was a particular degree of offensive.

What happens is that Gwen, the supposed audience identification character, has a complete personality transplant between season 1 and 2 and suddenly decides to marry her loser boyfriend Rhys, even though the relationship was already on the rocks at the beginning of season 1 and only deteriorated throughout the season. During her hen night – and how come Gwen has a hen night, considering she doesn’t have any female friends? – Gwen is impregnated with the usual alien fetus and finds herself hugely pregnant with a potentially dangerous alien spawn on her wedding day. So far, so offensive. But what really pissed me off beyond belief is that producer, writer and creator Russell T. Davies called the Torchwood episode in question “hilariously funny” and the (male) interviewers at a major British genre magazine agreed.

A woman is about to marry a man she does not love, a man who had displayed controlling behaviour and serious abuse warning signs throughout season 1*. She is unsure about going through with the wedding, but her supposed friends and colleagues don’t support her, they only urge her on. She is raped on the eve of the wedding – and forced supernatural impregnation is rape – and finds herself pregnant, a pregnancy that may well endanger her life. And all this is “hilariously funny” to the writer and producer responsible for this shit?

Never mind that the discussion on various fan fora at the time clearly indicated that as far as many fans (men as well as women) were concerned, Gwen had it coming, because she had cheated on Rhys in season 1 and was therefore a slut who deserved to be raped and forcibly impregnated. Yes, Gwen hatred was (and probably still is) very virulent in Torchwood fandom, a fandom that is heavily female dominated. Add to that that the second female regular character, Toshiko, was also raped earlier in season 2, and that the rape of two female regulars in the same season bothered no one, while everybody was up in arms over the ambiguous sex spray scene in season 1 (which was not rape IMO) and you see why I could no longer watch a show I had once loved. Apparently, it got worse later on with our hero Captain Jack Harkness killing his own grandchild and several other children, while poor married Gwen gets pregnant again, this time the normal way, and has to keep the baby after threats by her jerk of a husband, even though she wants an abortion. So abortion is murder, but killing an already born child is okay as long as it helps to stop an alien invasion. Excuse me, while I throw up.

I’m still angry about this whole turn of events, because in season 1 Torchwood had so much potential to be a wonderful show, a potential that was never realized because the producers felt the need to pander to certain conservative viewers. Never mind that if the gender-bending, sexually liberated Torchwood we saw in season 1 had done a supernatural miracle pregnancy storyline, the victim would have been one of the male characters. Pregnant Ianto or pregnant Owen – now that would have been hilarious.

In fact, supernatural miracle pregnancy storylines are not just stupid and offensive, they also reveal a deep and disturbing hatred of women, particularly pregnant women. Take a look at some of the examples above – pregnant women – often played by real life pregnant actresses – tortured on screen, beaten half to death, raped and forcibly impregnated as a joke, because the slut had it coming – and tell me that it doesn’t show a deep-seated hatred of women and the fact that they can bear children. Womb envy, anyone? In many of the cases, I hope that this hatred of women, particularly pregnant women, is unconscious – especially since at least one of the writers in question in an outspoken feminist and several of the shows in question have women on the writing staff. But it’s bloody disturbing anyway.

There’s another dimension, too. Visual representations of the supernatural miracle pregnancy trope tend to be extremely bloody and disturbing, even when no torture is involved, and have very little connection to the actual process of pregnancy and childbirth – probably because the usually male writers have zero idea how pregnancy and childbirth work in real life.

Not that women writers are necessarily better. Breaking Dawn has a deeply disturbing example of a supernatural miracle pregnancy and Stephenie Meyer is not just a woman but a mother, i.e. someone who should know that babies don’t normally break their mother’s bones and bite their way out of the womb. I shudder to think how many young girls have their view of pregnancy and childbirth warped by reading Breaking Dawn or by watching the Doctor have a relationship with the grown up baby daughter of his companion or by watching a rape and forced pregnancy played for laughs or by seeing a pregnant woman nearly beaten to death on TV.

Let’s not forget that childbirth has become so medicalized and detached from normal life in our modern western society that the overwhelming majority of people will get their impressions of childbirth and to some degree pregnancy from films, books and TV shows. Now do you honestly want young people to have their view of pregnancy and childbirth determined by the various supernatural miracle pregnancies on speculative TV or by the surprise oops pregnancies so common in certain romance subgenres?

Are there any examples that get it right? Genre fiction has several good examples of dealing with pregnancy and childbirth. Genre television not so much. The pregnancy of the Aeryn Sun character towards the end of Farscape was handled fairly well, even though the little floating muppet critter got to act as a surrogate halfway through. And in the final episode of Misfits, my new favourite genre show, one of the regulars hooks up with a pregnant teenager. The girl got pregnant the normal way, no aliens or other entities involved, the boy she hooks up with is not the father (and he knows it, too). The birth itself is somewhat gross, but the entire plot is still very touching. Basically, the show gives the young man in question, a kid from a broken family who was kicked out by his mother and is homeless, what he wants most in life, namely a family of his own. And the fact that he wants a family has been foreshadowed pretty much throughout the series.

So yes, it is possible to handle pregnancy well. So there’s really no excuse for the supernatural miracle pregnancy in all its offensive glory.

*Take a look at this list of relationship abuse warning signs and tell me that they don’t describe Rhys from Torchwood. In fact, I thought that they only kept the Rhys character around after season 1, even resurrecting him after he had been killed off, because they planned to do a domestic abuse storyline in season 2. I guess I expected too much of the production team.

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10 Responses to Supernatural miracle pregnancies and the hatred of pregnant women

  1. Foz Meadows says:

    Great post by Cora Buhlert on the problematic nature of supernatural miracle pregnancy plots. http://t.co/ANyuTI9

  2. Foz Meadows says:

    Awesome post. I think I’ve repressed the awfulness of the Cordelia pregnancy plotline from Angel, because I don’t remember the beating; I just remember that it made no sense. This trope irks me deeply; I actually blogged about it from a different angle a while ago – the Immortal Child problem.
    (http://fozmeadows.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/immortal-children/)

    • Cora says:

      I recall the sheer awfulness of the Cordelia pregnancy storyline so vividly, because I remember sitting in front of the TV with my mouth wide open, thinking “I can’t believe they’re doing this.” Leaving aside that having your alleged heroes savagely beat a pregnant woman is hugely problematic and not likely to make a sympathize with your characters, what made it even more problematic was that the actress was pregnant in real life (as were several other actress subjected to supernatural pregnancy and “Let’s torture pregnant women” storylines) and I imagine that playing such a storyline must have been highly upsetting for the actress. In fact, in the case of Cordelia it almost seemed as if the production team were punishing the actress for daring to become pregnant. You’re also right that the plotline made no sense whatsoever. This was also the point where Angel went from a show I watched on occasion to something I switched off immediately, if I accidentally came across a rerun.

      I also agree with you on how problematic the rapidly aging and/or immortal child trope is. Partly this may be due to the logistical problems of filming with babies and young children because of the strict child protection laws (which is a good thing, we don’t want child actors pumped full of drugs to keep them performing, as was standard in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s), though you don’t have that problem with fiction. But the underlying assumption is that motherhood, babies and small children are inherently boring and that life only becomes interesting again at 16. And this is very problematic indeed, because it plants the assumption in the minds of countless young girls (and boys for that matter) that marriage (since a wedding is usually “the end”) and having children means the end of any interesting or relevant life, which leads to a very screwed up view of relationships. I don’t even exclude myself there.

  3. Mark says:

    I watched the first three seasons of Torchwood over the course of the last three or for months, and while I think that it’s still better than most of the other TV shows of this genre, I sometimes stopped watching it for weeks after particularly awful episodes, and the one you mention was one of them (btw, Cyber Girl was the first episode where this happened). Not because of a general feminist/political problem with that trope (I see your point, though), but simply because this was a horribly bad piece of storytelling and remarkably unfunny. I actually think that I have a narrative problem with pregrancy as a story device in genre fiction. It almost always doesn’t work for me.

    I actually enjoyed the third season. I liked the compressed five day story arc and it felt more consistent than the first two seasons, at least if you forget everything that happened in the first two seasons (consistency in characterization, as you point out, is really not a strength of this series).

    Mark

    • Cora says:

      I’m in the minority of people who actually liked the Cyberwoman episode in spite of obvious flaws. The main problem with the Cyberwoman episode is that it is a very strange mixture of an emotionally intense storyline and some genuinely suspenseful moments coupled with unfortunate costume design, a guest star who is not a very good actress and some ropey CGI in the pterodactyl versus Cyberwoman scene. Though I actually like the fact that the pterodactyl got to do something for once. The pterodactyl pet was such a cool idea that was never really exploited.

      The main thing I liked about Torchwood in season 1 were the five main characters (well, four of them. Toshiko never really had a character) and their interplay, which carried the show through some rough patches and not particularly original storylines for me. I also liked the fact that the storylines were mostly fairly small scale – not the sort of save the universe or at least the world scenarios found in Doctor Who – that the team lost on occasion and the very Welsh feeling. Seasons 2 and 3 destroyed pretty much everything I had liked about the show by completely changing many of the characters (Owen and Gwen are pretty much unrecognizable and much less likable in season 2, Jack is an arsehole, what little character Toshiko gains is not very likable, only Ianto is fairly consistent, but then he isn’t much of a presence), bringing in the completely superfluous Martha character from Doctor Who (and Martha in Doctor Who was actually likable, while Martha in Torchwood is just annoying), increasing the presence of the narrative deadweight Rhys and that police office pal of Gwen’s, giving Jack a very unbelievable backstory and finally killing off most of the team, including my favourite character, in completely senseless ways. The Welsh content also gets less and less as the series progressed, season 3 was almost entirely set in London, season 4 in the USA.

      I actually liked the monster of the week format, not everything has to be an arc plot. But I wouldn’t have watched season 3 anyway, because Torchwood without Toshiko and particularly Owen is no longer Torchwood. Never mind that killing children for the supposed greater good is a huge personal deal breaker for me, as is child killer Jack. Plus, they still fail to kill off Rhys. It also seems to me that the people who liked season 3 generally dislike seasons 1 and 2 and vice versa.

      I watched Torchwood to see Jack, Owen, Gwen, Ianto and Toshiko deal with aliens, timerifts and mostly their own lives and relationships. I don’t want to see jack killing children nor do I want to see Jack, a Gwen rendered unrecognizable by plastic surgery and some American substitute characters deal with a cliched “death takes a holiday” plot, as apparently happens in season 4.

      Too bad, because there was so much potential.

  4. Kevin Veale says:

    RT @fozmeadows: Great post by Cora Buhlert on the problematic nature of supernatural miracle pregnancy plots. http://tinyurl.com/3cdhfnz

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