Monday, January 03, 2011

The Radical Culture Corner Corner: Sex, Lies and Videotape Edition

We at chez Radical went to Black Swan last night, by far the most over-rated movie of the season.  You know you are really in trouble as a movie viewer when the character you like the most is the predator ballet master who just swaps in one prima for another, asserting that ballet skills are all well and good, but what really makes you a star is getting in touch with your inner f**k-bunny.  "Go home and touch yourself," he advises the Natalie Portman character, after a particularly uninspiring rehearsal.  Ho-kay!

Trying to come down off the dreadful high of that movie, I turned to the New York Times Magazine and found myself literally dumbstruck for the next half hour at the story of how Melanie Thernstrom solved the heartbreak of childlessness after five rounds of infertility treatments.  She and her husband bought some ova, had them fertilized with his sperm, hired two other women to carry the embryos to term, and now they have (wait for it) "twiblings."  There are many things to shriek about in this piece.  Here's a taste:

After our son, Kieran, was born, the hospital set up something called a supplemental nursing system by taping a tube to my breast so that the baby could suck to get the first milk — the caramel-thick colostrum — that Melissa expressed.

When the nurse put Kieran on my breast to feed, I was in a daze of ecstasy and so focused on the astonishing strength of his newborn fingers curled around mine, I hardly noticed. But by the time he was hungry again, I was coming out of the trance and wondered about whether this feeding system made sense.

The nurse urged me to stick with it. “We don’t want you to feel like you can’t nurse,” she said. I suddenly felt cross. Did she really think I couldn’t handle the reality that my body was not producing milk after it didn’t give birth to my baby? I knew she was trying to be supportive, but her concern made me feel diminished, as if she thought the truth of my infertility were unbearable (yet so easily disguised with plastic tubing). I looked down at my breasts, and they looked awfully small, whereas Melissa’s were enormous, dripping with fecundity, like a relic of a fertility goddess. I ditched the tube.

Please, read the whole story yourself.  It's just insane. 

The answer to childlessness is, of course, that if you have enough money in America you can do anything you want, but if you are poor you can't.  Like get an abortion.  But now everyone who gets an abortion is not just responsible for moral decline, but also for the fact that people like Thernstrom have to go out and make complicated arrangements to buy babies rather than just go to the BabyMart.  Ross Douthat (don't you just want to say Douche Hat?) follows up today on the editorial page with a plaintive appeal on behalf of the unborn and grave concerns that TV and media representations about unwanted pregnancy, in which the situation is almost uniformly resolved by the baby being carried to term, is covering up the reality that abortion is all too common in America.  Only four out of five pregnancies are carried to term, he laments, and no one knows it because of feel-good stories like Juno (in which a teenager gives birth, gives the baby away to a couple of her choice, and then returns to her life as if it never happened) and Madmen (in which the ever-luscious Joanie is pregnant by a man other than her husband and plans to pass it off next season as her old man's baby.)

So what is deceitfully good about these media fictions, you understand, is not just that the embryos will get to grow up into real fetuses and live, a ridiculously uncommon scenario in a country where we wade through fetuses just to get to the bus stop. It is that one woman will suppress the fact that she ever had a baby, and need massive amounts of therapy later; and a second woman is planning to live the rest of her life lying to her child and it's two fathers.

Douthat then goes on to lament the effects of the Pill, which cause women to "forget" to have babies until too late, and argue that it is just too bad that Thernstrom had to go through all those in vitro treatments, and then resort to renting other women's bodies to have babies for her, because if those selfish women who she does not know would just stop having abortions, she could have had their babies instead.

This idiocy reminds me of those economists and policymakers who think that if 500 men become unemployed in a Kansas City meat packing plant and a box factory opens outside Savannah that has 500 jobs, you should be able to just swap the unemployed workers into the new jobs.  Therefore, unemployment benefits are a bad idea because it will de-incentivize those fellas in Kansas City to take the box factory jobs.

Click here for the economists who won the Nobel prize for arguing persuasively that this is a stupid idea, as opposed to the rest of us who instinctively thought it was a stupid idea but couldn't say why.


Amy said...

I agree that the Thernstrom essay was over the top. One thought I had was when she said there weren't any babies to adopt I wondered if she actually meant white babies and whether they had considered adopting an older child of which I think there are plenty. I also wondered if she is related to Stephen Thernstrom

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I pretty much lost it with that essay when I read that adoption just wasn't all that easy anymore because those [clearly selfish people who can reproduce] were choosing to use birth control or have abortions. Laura at 11D has blogged about it really well

the rebel lettriste said...

That NYT Mag article was indeed insane. I too wanted to throttle Thernstrom and shout, "what about the foster system?"

But that contraption with the tube that facilitates breastfeeding? Those things are real. (Mothers of multiples frequently use them.)

And I know someone who adopted a baby and used one of those contraptions along with a lot of drugs to lactate so that she could nurse her daughter. Apparently you have to pump all day long for 3 months to generate anything.

Historiann said...

I too wondered like Amy if this Thernstrom is related to the couple Gore Vidal used to call "the Therns" (Stephen and Abigail.) How awful for bourgeois couples that working-class women and teenagers no longer feed their need for a supply of suitably adorable infants.

Thernstrom's article is just a highbrow version of the desperate dating "reality" shows in which women debase themselves in pursuit of heteronormativity and conformity to patriarchal expectations. I have to say, just looking at the photo of her family on the top of the article: she's a good-looking woman, whereas her husband is NOT a dude I'd choose to have my children genetically related to.

(I'm just sayin'. Looks to me like she was desperate for the whole package of marriage-n-baby carriage. And it just makes me sad, not happy, to read a story like hers.)

Tenured Radical said...

She is the daughter of the Therns. Yes, Amy, I think there weren't any white babies who hadn't been born to people who were on the edge in some way.

A great adoption story that lays out the big area that many upper class white hets don't want to go is Dan Savage's The Kid. His son was born to a homeless teen.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

don't you just want to say Douche Hat?

Amanda Marcotte refers to the sniveling little jeezus-freake pope-knob-polishing motherfucker Douchehat. That slimy fucken sleazy greasy slimeball makes my skin crawl worse than fucken scabies.

Winifred S. said...

As someone who briefly looked into donating an egg, I was disgusted that she didn't mention the physical toll those treatments take. (It is covered in detail in the blog post ADM linked to.)

I for one am looking forward to the article in two years about the difficulty of XYZ parenting trend when you have 2 kids and 8 different parents.

Anonymous said...

How mature, TR, to make fun of someone's name if you don't like what he says, rather than deal maturely with his argument.
And CPP, as is his wont, once again substitutes invective for reasoned argument -- hope he doesn't do the same at work!
Looks like some folks, no matter how "mature" they become, never really leave the third-grade playground behind.


Knitting Clio said...

Great post, TR, but you get a demerit for using the ableist word "insane" ;-)

Tenured Radical said...

JDB: So true. Although I think I do both -- I deal with the substance of his argument immaturely, by mocking him and bringing in Nobel-Prize winning economists.

KC: Damn! You are right. Cruising the post trying to find it, my feeling is that idiocy probably belongs in the same bag. Here's my question, though (and maybe we will meet at AHA to discuss it) -- is it possible to be insane in a good way, aka queer? I realize that isn't how I used it, but it strikes me that sanity may be as utterly useless a concept as normal.

BPM said...

The persistent craptacularity of the Thernstroms make a persuasive case that banning 'corruption of blood' was a big mistake.

Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

Just to follow up, the mother featured in the NYTMag article answered some of the same questions raised here (and on the NYT discussion forums).

Her husband in fact has an AA adopted sibling and they had experience with the foster system.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing.

DrGunPowderPlot said...

I actually stayed up late last night to finish that craptastic article and then couldn't sleep bc I was so angry. Just another article in the NYT about how difficult it is to be a wealthy white woman whose life will simply not be complete without a BABY. Ugh ugh and ugh. I simply do not believe that it's that hard to adopt (although, admittedly, I've never tried). Where I live, there are a LOT of adopted kids, mostly from China. And these are not wealthy families doing this, just people who want bigger families.

I am going to start calling these kids "genetically modified babies."

Liz in Ypsilanti said...

I started reading the piece last evening and found myself overwhelmed by the "ick" factor. I got married at 36 to the first man I ever seriously dated. At some point around age 40, I realized that we were going to be childless because fertility wasn't happening naturally, and every alternative (including the foster care system) seemed to have an entry fee starting at about $10,000. (When you factor in our tiny house that would need modifying to accommodate people beyond the teeny-tiny size, yes, the foster care system had an entry fee.)

I wept, I lamented, and then I figured out other ways of being generative. I increased my volunteer work, took up quilting, and Hubby and I increased our charitable giving. At 50, I feel wistful about not being a mother, but I can look back at a productive and interesting decade.

When I read articles like the Twiblings piece, I really feel sorry for the people who, because of their laser focus, miss out on so much other richness. I'm not saying that the author is wrong, and I'm right; I'm just repeating what my high school debate coach (RIP) used to say, "Those who say there are two sides to every question are being narrow minded."

Tenured Radical said...

I agree Liz -- of course there is an entry fee for fostering & adoption, and that's important. I think you put your finger on exactly what bugged me (other than the extraordinary sense of social and financial privilege in the piece *and* assuming that a woman's right to choose is abrogating some other woman's right to rear.) It is this: the assumption that there is no higher calling than parenting, and that people who have access to that "truth" are entitled to anything they need to realize it.

And I think the evidence is overwhelming: they wanted the bio connection desperately.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

And CPP, as is his wont, once again substitutes invective for reasoned argument -- hope he doesn't do the same at work!

Dude, you erroneously conclude that I am "substituting" invective for reasoned argument, because--as usual--you assume that everyone else suffers from the same rhetorical and intellectual atrophy as you. As I have explained to you a number of times before, your abject failure to accurately perceive what is happening around you is a *you* problem.

Historiann said...

"the assumption that there is no higher calling than parenting, and that people who have access to that "truth" are entitled to anything they need to realize it."

That is really very well put. It sums it all up perfectly in my view.

Big Dog said... opposed to the rest of us who instinctively thought it was a stupid idea but couldn't say why."

And that last bit in the article just made me LOL...the recognition of how you feel about almost all those idiots who win nobel prizes for the obvious!

Knitting Clio said...

Sure, let's discuss this at AHA -- better yet, why not attend the panel on disability/tribute to Paul Longmore on Friday afternoon?

As to your question, as the young folks say, it's complicated. Some persons with mental illness claim words like "nut" and "crazy" in the same way as the LGBT community uses "queer". However, it's not appropriate for someone outside this group to use it. Make sense?

Anonymous said...

I'm disgusted by the Thernstrom piece.

This situation sucks on so many levels.

As in, I am even more disgusted by US institutions and domestic policies that are structured as if everyone is (or should remain) a young, healthy, affluent person with no caregiving obligations and no concern other than advancing the interests of their employer.

People in many other affluent democracies do not have to postpone having children until it is too late; some people delay because they want to be sure they can responsibly handle the costs and coordination of child care, education, health, and other expenses that we here in the best nation on earth consider the burden of the individual household.

Oh wait--silly me, I forgot--it's all about individual choices! Some people just made foolish personal choices. Like wanting a career AND a family. You can't have both. Especially you gals.

Nonetheless, there's hope for the insistent breeder types: if you are good, and work really, really hard, AND if you or your partner make it big financially, you just might be able to buy your way in, even if your biological clock has expired.

Good grief.

LouMac said...

Thanks for your post - it's a salutary antidote to the Thernstrom essay, which is just one more instantiation of the upper-class pronatalist culture that so gets under my skin. Well, it ultimately just makes me sad. The media would have us believe that even (or especially) women who have all kinds of privilege, only feel like they are really giving back when they biologically create another person for that purpose. I swear, women are in an ideological backlash that's so prolonged we don't feel it any more.

Dormouse said...

I'm surprised by the level of vitriol directed at Thernstrom here. I read the essay. She looked into adoption extensively and found that her age and medical conditions would make it almost impossible for her to be accepted as an adoptive parent.

And what's wrong, actually, with wanting your children to be as biologically "yours" as possible (in Thernstrom's case, that meant biologically her husband's and not hers)? That's a fairly natural human urge.

It really bothers me how much anger and judgment is directed at women who use reproductive technologies or work with donors and surrogates. Why should they have to adopt? Why should they have to redirect their energies into non-child-related fields and just suck it up? No one is demanding that of women who CAN reproduce biologically. Why do we demand that only of women who are victims of a medical condition and/or women who are older and trying to conceive?

It seems like its own weird kind of sexism to me. How DARE this women with a lot of money use it to make herself a childrearing experience that closely matches what she would have experienced if she had been able to have children biologically? Well, actually, why is that all that bad?

(I'm well aware of the issues surrounding surrogacy and egg donation, but let's leave that out of the discussion for a minute, because not everyone here attacking Thernstrom seems to be coming from that direction.)

MissLaura said...

THANK YOU for the judgment on Black Swan. Though I personally think it was the worst movie I've seen in...gosh, at least a year. And I saw Valentine's Day and Hot Tub Time Machine.

Having seen Black Swan yesterday -- or most of it, since I walked out about 15 minutes before the end -- I'm still actively angry about all the good reviews of it I read.

meg said...

Did you notice that none of the subsequently published letters to the editor about this article contained any ounce of criticism?? I was freaked out when I read this article, worrying about the effect on the twiblings as they grow up if this level of maternal focus persists throughout their life

Frogprof said...

I usually find myself sympathetic to this blog, but not so much here. I guess that I'm just not that quick to judge. Infertility takes a deep emotional toll and while adoption is indeed an option, it's certainly not a simple one. In fact there are no simple options options for infertile couples: they are prodded, drugged, subjected to humiliating tests and interviews, judged by family members, priests, etc... and the list goes on. Yes many of them are "privileged," but so most of the readers of this blog--gay, straight, male, female, tenured, and untenured--and I don't see any shortage of complaints and grievances here.

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