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Birth and Pop Culture: Alien Babies and Torture Pregnancies

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By Emjaybee


Birth of an alien baby to a human woman, from V, 1983.

(Note: some of the images in the linked video may be triggering to women who have suffered birth trauma or assault).

Via Sociological Images, which has had some excellent posts about pregnancybirth and reproduction, comes this video by Anita Sarkeesian about the trope of “Mystical Pregnancy” in our culture, especially in science fiction. By which she means, a human woman being impregnated by a sinister force, without her consent, and usually experiencing a traumatic birth of a monstrous/alien being in the process.



And although the Christian religion (and lots of other religions) generally portray a mystical conception and birth as a positive thing, the television depictions of women being forcibly impregnated by demons, monsters, or aliens are definitely not. 

Disturbingly, a high number of female characters on science fiction shows seemed doomed to experience a forced-pregnancy/birth plotline, to the point that it’s become a cliché.  No matter how tough and strong a female character is, it seems that television writers (most of them male) still feel a strange compulsion to demonstrate that she is uniquely fragile and susceptible to violation. 

Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about birth, trauma, and consent will definitely find these images disturbing, but also, fascinating in what they reveal. Ms. Sarkeesian calls out script writers for using monster/alien births as torture porn, and she’s right about that.  But when it comes to what motivates the writers and connects with the audience, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t also about the ambivalence we all feel at the common sight of a vulnerable laboring woman surrounded by technicians and machines, at their mercy, in pain, and without choices or consent. After all, most of the horror in these scenes comes not from the (often cheesy-looking) monstrous baby, but from the woman being tied down, trapped, helpless, hurt, and violated by the entire experience from conception onward.

What do you think, readers? Do you find it hard to watch shows with these kinds of plotlines?



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Reader Comments (7)

It's clever, but she neglects the most important difference between the Sci-Fi impregnation and The Annunciation (Immaculate Conception is something different - Google it!) - the very important difference being Mary had a choice. She was chosen, asked, and consented. She wasn't violated or taken advantage of in her femininity.

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Yeah...I was thinking the same thing about Jesus' conception & birth. Mary was chosen/asked...And willingly carried her "burden".

I do watch TV shoes with chicks in them & go, "How long before something pregnancy related happens to HER?" Tired story...

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaegan

What gave me a shudder was the pregnancy/birth in Twilight... I can't imagine what effect THAT had on the young women who read it...

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Anderson

Yes, Katherine, I would dub the Twilight birth Worst C-Section EVER. And it's definitely in this group.

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteremjaybee

That was an interesting video. I don't watch enough science fiction to have realized that this trope is very common. I do watch a couple of vampire shows, and if Sookie gets pregnant with some bizarre creature-baby on True Blood, I might have to stop watching. While there is an apparently possessed baby on that show, and the mother did try unsuccessfully to abort him because she knew he was the spawn of a serial killer (the birth itself was never shown), there was also a plot line where a human man (Jason) is raped by female werepanthers in an attempt to procreate with him. The writers of True Blood at least treat both sexes equally in the "forced procreation with evil beings" plotlines.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKK

Definitely an interesting video - certainly I've seen a show or two that has done this, but it's striking to realize just how common it is. Also very timely, as Doctor Who just did this (again, apparently - I'd forgotten that incident in Torchwood, although now that I recall it I find it sort of debatable as a "mystical pregnancy").

I think the analysis here could be a little more nuanced, though. The fact that this trope is so common tells you that it's mainly a cheap trick for drama, but it also reflects our current anxieties about reproductive freedom. Stories don't just shape our view of the world; our view of the world shapes the stories we tell. I would venture to say that most sci-fi and fantasy stories reflect the hopes and fears of the age that produces them. In a world where women increasingly feel that they do not have control over their own reproduction, is it any surprise that we have TV shows where women do not have control over their own reproduction? A freaky alien baby forced upon your space warrior is much more dramatic than a normal woman who can't get an abortion, and you don't have anti-choicers getting angry about you telling that story, either.

On the flip side, the mystical pregnancy sometimes reflects not the fears of the pro-choice woman, but the fears of the anti-choice person - the fear of a woman's power, the pleasure of seeing a woman afraid and subjugated, the realization of how much power you have over a woman when you take over her power to choose whether or not she has a baby, etc.

I can think of shows on both sides of that, I suppose. I think the situation with Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica is probably closest to the "making a point about modern society" side. That was an interesting situation: human-Cylon babies could only be created in love, so they could never impregnate the women they kidnapped to try to breed. A commentary on the importance of not forcing women to bring unloved, unwanted babies into the world, perhaps? The reproductive freedom theme was recurrent in BSG. There was that whole episode of whether they were going to allow abortion, for example. I do think that BSG consciously tried to explore themes relevant to us today.

Also, the recent occurrence on Doctor Who. I won't say too much about it because I don't want to spoil it for people, but I will say that it does at least avoid the "here on week, gone the next" issue cited in this video.

Anyway, to sum up, I think it's pretty appalling how common this trope is, and it's really blowing my mind to realize how common it is. I just wanted to make that point that sometimes it has a point, as a commentary and expression of our own anxieties about pregnancy and birth. But often it's just a crap move pulled for the drama.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBronwen

I loved the video! I think she is so right on. I've watched a lot of sci fi and it is painful to watch these geeks writing 'torture porn' as the sole interpretation of pregnancy/birth. So over it. It does just feed our birth fear culture.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnother Rachel
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