Passive Females, Aggressive Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the constant push by so-called “pro-life” individuals to limit the ability of those with birth-capable bodies to control their reproductive health.  Ok, let’s be honest, I think about this stuff all the time but I read an article not long ago, the second such in the past year or so, that talks about the biology of human reproduction and the ways in which the gestating parent’s body literally fights for control, and survival, with the growing fetus pretty much from the second the thing is implanted.

The article, published on, essentially lays out the many ways in which human reproduction is anything but romantic, natural, or, especially, safe for those doing the gestating, and only instilled in me even further the idea that a fetus, until the person carrying it effectively gives it birth and, by so doing life, is nothing more than a parasite that will kill the person carrying it if it can, all in the name of its own survival.  Likely, this is largely–the article goes on to explain–due to evolution, which has caused these conditions to occur over many thousands of years in order to create humans with large brains, brains which require huge amounts of resources during the pregnancy stage in order to properly develop.

Further, the number of pregnancies successfully carried to implantation, and not even to term, is significantly lower than those which end up in the toilet every month, carried away by a menstrual cycle that is guarding the person’s health so rigidly it is literally safer for the person to bleed for 5-7 days than to carry a developing fetus anywhere other than (un)safely attached to the uterine lining where the parent’s body can keep a watchful eye on it.

This isn’t the miracle of life, it’s fucking war.

But the point I’m trying to make is that in a situation where the person’s body is actively trying to starve and stymie a fetus’ access to the parent’s resources, for so-called pro-life individuals to portray abortion as an act and allowing an unwanted fetus to gestate as simply allowing “nature” to take its course is not just hypocrisy but actually quite monstrous.  The act of gestating a child has become so dangerous to the human species that the parent’s body will fight tooth and nail to get rid of it because the alternative is being stripped of health and life one heartbeat at a time until the parent’s body is nothing more than an essenceless husk at the end of it.  I’m put in mind of the scene in Mad Max: Fury Road in which the lifeless fetus is cut out of Angharad’s dying body in order to take possession of a potential male offspring.  So-called pro-life individuals see only the poor dead fetus, so ripe with potential and life, while completely ignoring the life of the woman draining out on the dashboard, robbed of autonomy and made into just a vessel for someone else’s ambitions.

The passivity with which so-called pro-life individuals try to paint themselves is so aggressive, so demeaning to people with pregnancy-capable bodies.  It’s wrapped up in the false premise that pregnancy, the state of being pregnant, is a passive state, and any movement to change that state is an aggression, when, as the article referenced earlier ad nauseum shows, pregnancy is anything but a passive thing.  To end a pregnancy is less violent than the violence being enacted daily between parental body and fetus.  The article poses it as a sort of natural selection, that any embryo not strong enough, not fully implanted, must die in order to protect valuable resources, but when it comes to abortion, shouldn’t it be only the natural progression that the final say over the continued existence of a parasitic embryo lie with the one in whose body said embryo came to be?  And to take it further–because a lot of people are afraid of so-called late-stage abortion because suddenly the even-more-voracious parasite is bigger and has a face–shouldn’t the decision of whether to potentially sacrifice one’s own life in order to bring that squalling parasite into the world lie with the one, the only one, who will forced to give up their life for that to happen?

But this all plays into the idea that pregnancy-capable individuals–generally gendered female–be always passive, accepting of whatever comes to them, never taking what they want or in any way making demands on others, especially on cis males.  Besides being just wrong–not all pregnancy capable bodies are female–it feeds into cultural norms that are designed to privilege the cis male individual, which we can all identify as patriarchy.

In thinking about these juxtapositions of passivity/aggressivity, I’m minded of a novel I read recently (on audiobook, to be specific), by Emma Donoghue.  Her most recent novel, The Wonder portrays the experience of an English nurse, a Nightingale Nurse, to be specific, trained by the redoubtable pioneer of the profession herself, hired by a tiny Irish village to investigate the wondrous little girl in their midst who seems to subsist indefinitely without eating.  Now, this post is soon going to cross over both into the realm of Discussion of Actual Scenes in the Book (aka spoilers) and also pregnancy and sexuality specifically dealing with cis women.  I’ve done my best to keep this post as non-transphobic as I am capable till now, but as the subject matter of the novel specifically deals with cis-coded women, I will generally be talking about women and gendered cultural expectations around being women, so please just know that I’m not unaware of what’s happening, but to avoid complications I’ll use the gendered terms from the novel itself.  (I certainly understand that trans women and trans men are even more pressured to conform to cultural gender expectations and receive even more harassment.)  As to the spoilers, well, reader beware, I guess.  Or stop here and go read the book.

The Wonder deals with the parallel storylines of Lib Wright, a widowed nurse, and Anna O’Donnell, and eight-year-old girl who refuses to eat and has become a source of spiritual tourism for her community.  Lib has been hired to watch Anna and ascertain whether she is in fact eating from some hidden source, or to keep her from eating, or to prove she is a saint, depending on whom Lib meets during her two-week stay in the impoverished village.  Already this is ringing cultural bells–a little girl becomes famous for literally doing nothing, the only acceptable way for a female to gain notoriety.  Lib, on the other hand, is part of possibly the only profession remotely acceptable for a woman to have outside the home–taking care of others, mothering–even though to do it for money is a cultural indicator that Lib is used up, not good enough even to care for her own family, which the reader finds out is far too close to home for her.

Throughout her two-week stay in Ireland, Lib fights the opposing urges to nurture Anna and convince her to eat, and to conduct her watches as a strict experiment, reveling in the moment she foresees herself finding Anna out and proving that there is no such thing as manna from heaven upon which a little girl can sustain herself.  Lib wants science, not superstition, to be proven the authority–something all people who believe in reproductive autonomy can support–and yet for that to happen Lib must completely relegate Anna to the guardianship of people who have something to gain from her continued starvation, which runs completely counter to what Lib’s professional calling.  This internal conflict isn’t helped by the apparent inaction of Anna’s parents, who seem to revel in Anna’s wondrous behavior and treat her as though she were some sort of saint come to earth.  The aggressive passivity of Anna’s mother, in particular, is almost violent in its insistence that Lib, a representative of science and reason, is an enemy to be defeated through Mrs. O’Donnell’s faith alone.  Adding to all this is Lib’s own ignorance of Catholicism and treatment of the Irish she encounters; she looks at all of them as superstitious savages who continue in their poverty and malnutrition out of some perverse desire to follow their backwards religion, when in reality the post-Blight state of Ireland is anything but simple.

Lib’s ability to solve the mystery of Anna’s wonder is primarily the result, though, of her character arc as she meets various members of the community as well as an outsider–a newspaper reporter from Dublin who is both educated and intelligent–and comes to understand their position and why they act the way they do.  Lib grows as a character, is brought to see her own errors, and is then in a position to investigate the true mystery behind Anna’s situation.  Lib is that horror, the intelligent woman capable of thinking for herself and coming to logical conclusions, whom many of the so-called pro-life agenda seek to hobble, or in whom they don’t believe; they harbor such fear of those capable of pregnancy making their own choices about their bodies, and take the–un-asked-for–role of “my sister’s keeper,” seeking to take away choice before a choice can even be made, in case that choice runs counter to the aggressive and broken morality of those who value the unborn over the living.  Of course, as Lib learns, so does the reader.  The reader is exposed, through Lib’s interactions with Anna’s family, and eventually with Anna herself, that Anna’s wonder is a result of sexual abuse and the inaction of those who are supposed to care for her physical and emotional well-being–namely, her parents and her priest.  Anna is starving herself to get her brother into heaven, on the belief that reciting a particular prayer while fasting will release him from purgatory sooner.  The problem is that her dead brother is only in purgatory–or better, hell–because of the sins he committed against her.

Like Lib, Anna’s situation is a direct result of the actions of a male member of her family, but she has been blamed for it.  Nothing Anna could have done could have prevented her brother’s desire to rape her, just as nothing Lib could have done would have saved her newborn child and made it live, and thus her husband’s leaving her because, in his words, there was no reason to stay any longer.  Even when women are passive, they are forced to carry the blame for men’s actions.  Lib went to the Crimea and became a nurse, attempting to care for men injured in imperialist violence; Anna tried to starve herself.  Both were trying to atone for something they didn’t do, and for which they could never be redeemed in the eyes of their respective societies.

The events of The Wonder may not be identical to what happens today, in a modern society that still actively keeps women from exercising autonomy over their own bodies, but it is a stark illustration of the fact that women–and girls–will always be held responsible, will always be culpable for the actions of men, will always be expected to adhere to an enforced–and false–passivity, as long as women are considered second-class or not-the-default.  Being pregnant is not passive; to be and remain pregnant is the violent path, the way of force, the dangerous way to travel.  To end what can turn out to be the most perilous thing a person can do–is the path of least resistance.

Unless, that is, those who would prevent an abortion consider it a personal attack on themselves and their petty, interfering morality, just as Mrs. O’Donnell considered Lib’s attempts to find the cause of Anna’s starvation a personal attack on the righteousness of the entire family, on the Catholic church itself.  Lib only wanted Anna to do what was natural–to eat, to take care of herself, to find a way to live a good and normal life–just as every person capable of bearing a pregnancy should have the ability to make the natural choice about what is right for themselves and their bodies, independent of the self-righteous and holier-than-though guilt being heaped upon them by those who violently persist in confusing intrusiveness with saintliness.


Exceptional Joan

I don’t usually do this sort of thing.  Write about television or visual media.  I’m a book person.  I’m comfortable there.  But I suppose there’s a crossover, given that the writer for the most recent Elementary episode is Paul Cornell, whose fiction I’ve read and enjoyed here and there.  

Elementary is my favorite tv show.  It’s currently the only show I watch regularly and keep up with, as it comes out (online, 10pm is too late for me to stay up and watch it on the day).  One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Elementary is it’s ability to represent lots of different kinds of people, to never feel like it’s consciously excluding any one group.  It seems, instead, to make a conscious effort to include people from groups that are generally marginalized in mainstream media.  It’s not perfect, by any stretch, but it does seem to make an effort.

So, we’re back to this week’s episode, “You’ve Got Me, Who’s Got you?,” written by Paul Cornell and featuring a comic book hero as its main plot.  It was funny, don’t get me wrong, and enjoyable to watch the way Joan and Sherlock’s relationship seems to have really come to a point of mutual understanding and closeness.  

Except, where were all the other women?

Except for Joan’s friend running the charity for whom she’s doing the clothing drive, there are basically no other women in the entire episode with speaking parts.  Even Morland’s Russian seamstress doesn’t get a word in when he casually dismisses her so he can conduct his seedy business with Joan.

Bad enough this happens at all, but add to it the fact that the episode is about comic books and superheroes–two subjects that have been really, well, shitty, about their treatment of women characters and women in general–and overall I was left with a feeling that the creators of this episode just didn’t think women were necessary or belonged.  Which is a hell of a feeling to get about a show that up till now always made me feel welcome, whose main characters always cared about what happened to those generally left out.

Let’s break it down a little more, and really dig at what was so deflating about this episode.

First, Joan’s friend.  It’s great when we get to see aspects of Joan’s personal life, especially her friends who are women because she’s so constantly surrounded by men in the course of her work.  But the friend just happens to be the manager of a charity designed to help the disadvantaged–a very feminized form of work for the public good, especially compared to the very masculinized “heroes” we meet later on–and she’s the passive recipient of a huge amount of money from Moreland, who has a really bad history with women and is later revealed to have made the donation pretty much to manipulate Joan.  Oh yeah, and the clothing donation Joan is dropping off at the point happens to come from Everyone, in an embarrassing episode in which Sherlock forces them all to strip in his living room, and who is front and center in the shot while he’s explaining it all to Joan?  Of course, it’s a woman in black bra and underwear, who just happens to be very attractive, especially in comparison with the overweight and otherwise “undesirable” men she’s with.  And of course she’s the only woman.  Fun times.

After the revelation of the murder, we meet Joan and Sherlock in the waiting area of Superlative Comics, and Joan reveals that she knows a lot more than Sherlock’s recently acquired knowledge of all the Superlative heroes because her brother was a comic nerd.  Yeah.  Joan couldn’t possibly be a geek, and even though she’s not even claiming the title she’s put through the classic geek girl test, and by her partner no less.  Maybe the show’s creators just thought it was a clever way to “introduce” the Superlative brand, but it comes off as another example of a woman taking on the emotional labor of knowing everything about the activities of the men in their lives, while getting none of the rewards.

Of course, all the people Joan and Sherlock talk to at Superlative are men, because a woman couldn’t possibly be a writer for a comic, and definitely not in charge of anything so important as a publishing house.  A woman may have been glimpsed walking around the Superlative offices, but she was probably just getting coffee or something.  

Let’s talk about overall plot.  Plot A comes down, basically, to the fragile masculinity of the grandson of the Midnight Ranger comic’s creator (the superhero impersonated by the murdered “hero” of Greenpoint).  This is in counterpoint to the “heroes” themselves, who are typical representatives of masculinity you find in action movies–their physical prowess, particularly–which they use directly to stop crimes.  I practically laughed out loud when half the crimes were saving poor hapless women from purse snatchers.  The grandson and murderer, by contrast, only has an arsenal of weapons, and is characterized basically as a physical coward who just wants what everyone else has.

While all of this is happening, Moreland Holmes is trying to use the guilt and sense of obligation that women are socialized to feel towards anyone ever doing anything nice for them in order to get Joan–not just to work for him–but to have sympathy for him.  Moreland wants her to understand that he is not only wronged in business, but sorely misunderstood by his son, who really ought to just get over all that stuff with his mother anyway.  Moreland thinks, and wants everyone to think, that he is always in the right.  Joan’s secrecy about her meetings with Moreland didn’t feel right with her current relationship with Sherlock; she was portrayed as some version of a sneaking or cheating spouse; she’s like a woman expected to always get clearance from the man in her life, going against his wishes in poorly contrived scene after poorly contrived scene.

Joan’s decision to use the real mole to her advantage is in character with her previous actions and willingness to be more cutthroat than Sherlock, however because of the way it was staged I worry that it will not only go sour somehow, but the fact that it does go wrong will be used to put Joan in her place sometime in the future, to pull her back from the level of near-professional-equality she has achieved with Sherlock.  Once again, as long as Joan is supporting Sherlock, she’s fine.  When she oversteps her bounds, that’s when we have to start expecting punishment.  Just look what happened when she cheated on Sherlock with his brother.  She got kidnapped and almost killed.  

All in all, this episode gave the distinct impression that women have a defined role in this world, and it certainly doesn’t overlap with the affairs or interests of men.  Women are meant to be quiet, to be decorative, to fill their time in charitable activities, but above all not to presume they are owed equal place with men.  Joan was just one more example of the exceptional woman whose expertise is trotted out when it’s convenient or needed to verify the place of some man in her life and to serve his ends, and whatever experiences she has, whatever knowledge she has acquired, must first be vetted by a man before it can be accepted as real.  

And then there are all the intersectional casting issues with this episode, which I don’t even think I’m qualified to get into here.

Anyway, yes, I love this show, but this episode was terribly problematic.