This Metaphorical Bar ep 19: Pregnancy in Fiction

Content note: Body horror, vomiting

This episode originally recorded April 2019.


Who We Are

Karen: I’m Karen Healey, a writer and teacher in Christchurch New Zealand and I may have eaten my twin in the womb

Robyn: I’m Robyn Fleming, a writer and parent in Tucson, Arizona. I have been pregnant twice, which makes me the foremost expert in this podcast. 

Carla: I’m Carla M. Lee, an author, artist, and attorney in the Midwest USA, and I have never and will never be pregnant. I love everyone in this metaphorical bar.

What We’re Drinking

Robyn: Mountain Dew

Carla: UV Vodka white cake vodka shots and Arnold Palmer (half iced tea, half lemonade)

Karen: Artemis Thyme Lemon Tonic

Episode Summary

Topic: Pregnancy in Fiction

  • Karen had some dermoid cysts removed, and one of the more common ways they form is if you have absorbed your twin or triplets in the womb. Which also happens rather often, for that matter. She doesn’t intend to tell her mother that. (Karen’s mum doesn’t listen to the podcast because Karen says swears. No spoilers for her here.) She requested they give her the pieces so she can bury them.
  • Robyn: Much like our epic period podcast series, pregnancy in books is written in broad strokes and doesn’t reflect the multitudinous experience of pregnancy in real life. 
    • Few things in common: something growing inside you that eventually comes out. Otherwise, people experience it in different ways.
    • E.g., morning sickness usually written as happening in the morning and being delicate retching and not all that awful, but for a lot of people it either doesn’t happen or is absolutely terrible, it often isn’t in the morning, etc.
      • Robyn threw up every single day of both of her pregnancies. It was like having a cough with stuff coming out.
    • Pregnancy is weird and even for the same person no two are alike.
  • Karen: Reading Tale of Genji, and one of the literary features of the time is an indirectness around certain topics, including pregnancy. Reading an annotated translation that sometimes talks about how one of Genji’s many lovers is “feeling unwell” or is “unwell in the mornings” and that’s because she’s pregnant. Very interesting that the same signifier exists today as a thousand years ago.
    • Doesn’t recommend it, though. Sections are wonderful, but not all of it. Does recommend it as an accurate portrayal of an idealized court system and a superb aesthetic, at least in translation, capturing the transitory nature of beauty making it beautiful.
  • Karen: One of the reasons she never wants to be pregnant is that she doesn’t like being sick, but also pregnancy is frightening to her because there is something alien growing inside her. (Which is ironic that she maybe ate her own twin.)
  • Carla: That leads well into monstrous pregnancies, Rosemary’s Baby, the Alien series, etc.
  • Karen: Rosemary’s Baby, very famous movie by a rapist and she doesn’t teach it for that reason, but it does a great job of showing the monstrous pregnancy. Rosemary’s world becomes increasingly hallucinatory. The focus doesn’t concentrate on the delivery on the child, like many monstrous pregnancy stories do, but the actual monstrous pregnancy itself is the horror.
    • Carla: One interpretation that she finds interesting is the play around if there’s something evil inside you that changes you, do you also become evil.
    • Karen: The text says that she’s not monstrous, but it also has this obsessive fetus focus where everyone around her is more focused on the baby than her. The mother is vessel, the person carrying the baby is an incubator rather than a person. (Because women aren’t the only ones who carry babies.)
    • Robyn: This happens in benign ways in real life, too; there’s something reflexive that there’s something extra precious about the baby that needs to be protected even beyond the mother.
  • Carla: Alien, a series of sci-fi horror movies with a thing inside bodies that burst out, a very clear metaphor for pregnancy in some ways, has one specific scene she wants to talk about. In Prometheus, the main character is infected with an alien monster fetus and goes into the medical lab to have it removed, but the machine doesn’t have a setting for an abortion, just for cutting something from an abdomen region. Having the monster inside her is a violation in itself but the remove is also a violation, and even in sci-fi, there’s no room for the concerns of pregnant people, only the medical concerns of “men.”
  • Karen: After her cysts were removed, everyone was very careful to help her and let her rest, but after a labor or a cesarean delivery, the parent is then expected to care for an infant at the same time as healing, not just focusing on their own healing.
    • Carla: Ties back to the baby coming first? The parent’s body is cut open, is healing, and that comes second to what the baby needs, no matter what. And she finds it horrifying.
      • Robyn: Yes and no. For her and a fair amount of people who carry a pregnancy to term are eager to have the baby and want the baby and at some point after the baby becomes viable, you think the baby’s health is more important.
        • It’s interesting how it can change, though. She very much wanted children, but might have considered an abortion with the first child if there was something wrong that was incompatible with him living much after the birth. However, with the second pregnancy, if the second pregnancy endangered her health dramatically, she would choose the first baby because he was already there, and as much as she loved and wanted the potential of a second child, she had an intense need to love and protect her first child.
      • Not everyone has this calculation, and those who do don’t all make the same decision, and all of these things are fair.
    • Carla: She’s not heard much in the conversations around abortion for the health of the pregnant person that focuses on people outside, e.g., the health of other children versus the health of the pregnant person.
    • Karen: New Zealand was going through abortion law reform discussions (ed. This episode recorded April 2019) because unlike in the US, there’s no right to abortion, and the number 1 reason people say they need to abort is mental health reason and part of that is the inability to take care of existing children along with a baby, the inability to afford a baby.
      • Carla: Note that while abortion is legal in the US, in practice, those rights have been chipped away such that there isn’t a way to exercise that right and it is continuing to be torn away.
  • Karen: One of the most famous literary pregnancies in recent years is Bella’s in the Twilight series. The way Meyer treats pregnancy in it are both repulsive and interesting to Karen in what they reveal about a certain view of the world.
    • Carla: Comes at it from the monstrous pregnancy angle in part because of the idea that certain female monsters can’t get pregnant (e.g., Leah the only female werewolf and she can’t get pregnant, so she can’t be a fated soulmate to carry on the bloodline so she becomes a protector instead, or Rosalie, one of the vampires who is obsessed with the fact she can’t have babies and focuses on protecting Bella’s pregnancy)
      • Carla: But also, Meyer writes really great body horror when it comes to the pregnancy, to the fetus eating Bella from the inside out, breaking her spine, it’s just a mess of horror imagery
      • Karen: She fades to black with sex but the immense violence of the pregnancy and the birth is amazing.
      • Carla: And for a vampire series, the actual violence is very low key (Karen: sanitized), the murders, etc., but then there is this horrific pregnancy and it is a whole lot.
    • Karen: Reading the Twilight series as a whole (which is fascinating), there is a strong presence in it of the idea that women have babies and if you don’t or can’t have babies, you aren’t a real woman. Leah and Rosalie both can’t have babies and are mean to Bella, which is supposed to make them bad people.
      • Karen: Adoption never passes anyone’s minds, it seems, actual pregnancy is the only way to be a mother, the baby has to come out of you for it to count, even though Rosalie is an adopted daughter of Esme and Carlisle and she thinks of them as her parents. 
          • Fuck the adoption /= real family trope. Fuck it.
        • Karen: As soon as Bella becomes pregnant, they become nice to her and protect her at all costs because she is going to have a child. Trying to stay away from the idea that this is a Mormon idea, but focusing on (a) real women have babies and (b) the baby is more important to everyone around the pregnant person than the pregnant person themself.
          • Robyn: I like to think my parents and husband would have chosen me over the spine-breaking baby.
            • Carla: Edward and Jacob both try to choose Bella over the spine-breaking baby, but they are presented as wrong.
              • Karen: And they can’t understand because they can’t be pregnant.
          • Carla: And then out of nowhere Bella suddenly wants this baby, a baby who communicates via touch. How much is it influencing her from the inside, which is terrifying.
        • Karen: Robyn, if you could pay in excess blood and pain and trauma and then sleep properly, skip the messy baby time, would you?
          • Robyn: Interesting, and ties to Lois McMaster Bujold and the uterine replicator, which is the underlying technology that changes everything in the world because it allows people not to have to carry babies.
            • Robyn did not have easy pregnancies, physically ill, but also off her bipolar meds as a choice with her doctor, and the birth trauma that her body was put through, but the experience of the pregnancy, the closeness she felt with the babies, and the experience of them as newborns, she would not trade that, but obviously it’s not true for everyone.
          • Karen: Would hella have a child if it could be grown for her in a handy container.
  • Robyn: Stay Awake vid by Laura Shapiro – fanvids are series of clips from one or more texts set to music; sometimes a celebration but sometimes also a metatextual construction themselves
    • Shapiro’s vid is about pregnancies in sci-fi tv shows and how none of them are good.
      • E.g., Aeryn Sun gets pregnant in Farscape and while the pregnancy is happy, terrible things happen to her because of it. 
      • E.g., Kira Nerys ends up carrying the baby after a transporter accident in Deep Space Nine.
      • In sci-fi tv, no one ever has just a neutral pregnancy. They are either monstrous pregnancies or wanted pregnancies that lead to terrible things happening.
      • E.g., Star Trek new series, first movie begins with pregnancy as the ship is getting ready to explode.
  • Karen: Bones’ pregnancy is weird because she’s a cultural anthropologist but when she gives birth, in a barn, she automatically gives birth on her back.
  • Karen: Actress pregnancies impacting tv shows. 
    • E.g., Leslie Knope in Parks & Rec, they hid the pregnancy the first time and the second time showed the pregnancy but then skipped ahead after the birth.
    • E.g., how shitty Joss Whedon treated Charisma Carpenter when she got pregnant during the filming of Angel, so he wrote the character a monstrous pregnancy and killed her off as punishment.
      • Robyn never finished the show because of this gross behavior.
      • Joss Whedon should never talk about feminism, women, reproductive health, nothing at all.
  • Future episodes will have to talk about mpreg, trans men pregnancies, pregnancy in romance, etc.
  • Robyn: End takeaway – if you’re going to write it, you should research it even if you’ve experienced it, and she’d like to see more of it happening just as a background thing.
    • Karen and Robyn wrote a little of that in The Empress of Timbra. The pregnancy is related to the plot, but it isn’t the main point of it, it’s closer to just a background thing.
  • Carla: Normalize pregnancies in fiction!

Mentioned in the Episode

  • Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Alien series, particularly Prometheus
  • Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Stay Awake vid by Laura Shapiro 
  • Farscape
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Parks and Rec
  • Bones
  • Angel and Joss Whedon’s treatment of Charisma Carpenter
  • The Empress of Timbra by Karen Healey and Robyn Fleming

Ask your friendly neighbourhood bartender 

Joe: What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done and did it have a long-term result?

Robyn: Probably the most spur-of-the-moment thing I’ve done is get a haircut. Closest to a should-I/shouldn’t-I is the first erotic romance story she wrote. Karen dared her to do it, she thought she couldn’t, and then she wrote it and it got published, her first publication.

Karen: Teaching in Japan, when Christmas rolled around (which is her big family holiday), she was down about missing it, and then spontaneously took time off and went home to surprise her family. Excellent memories from it still and though it impacted her finances for awhile after, she has never regretted it.

Carla: Went to work as a nanny one summer for a friend she made through fandom and it lead to her reconnecting with her partner and just fully impacted the person she’s become all these years later (ed. 20 years later as of the publication of this episode in 2020).  No regrets, best spontaneous decision ever.

Karen: Takeaway: Do more spontaneous things.

Find Us Online

Carla: @carlamlee on TwitterTumblrInstagram
Karen: @kehealey on Twitter, @karenhealey on Tumblr, and
Robyn: @robyn_writing on Twitter

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