Last Friday I read the article"America, "Fat," the fetus" by Lauren Berlant. I previously reviewed her excellent book, "Cruel Optimism" which explored our unrelenting attachment to things that we know hurt us. I was very excited to start something else by her. In this article she examines how the fetus was notionally removed from the protection of the mother to become a symbol embodying the perfect citizen and as, "a vehicle for the production of national culture."
Berlant uses a number of popular sources to trace the emancipation of the fetus from the tyranny of the mother's body and the accompanying rise in anti-abortion rhetoric. She explores how this schism translated into changing advice for the mother to be and increasing judgmental social practices in order to police what the mother puts in her body. The mother herself can no longer be trusted to protect the fetus on her own. The woman carries the nation, so the nation must concern itself with the contents of the mother.
Berlant also explores how the obsession with the fetus is a symbolic statement of the heterosexuality of the nation. (Only loving heterosexuals in a long term committed relationships who own a dog and station wagon can have children right?) She also explore the over lapping social spaces of the fat body and the pregnant body. "For the person who speaks for two has no privacy. The person who takes on the model of fat agency is entirely public and yet also represents a mystical or magical interiority. More surface, more depth, more dimensionality: the fat subject has explicitly and paradoxically given up control and become a stereotype of compulsive, helpless choosing of selflessness and an excess of the self." By being fat, either in our excess or creation of life, she argues that we are seen to be giving ourselves over for public consumption.
One section I found really interesting was her discussion about the 1965 Life Magazine pictures of the fetus before birth. For the first time others were allowed into the womb. Once others could see, they began to comment and the connection between the mother and fetus was no longer private. Furthermore, she shows that these pictures were used to suggest that life began not at birth, but far earlier, especially with the lighting and magnification that were used to make the fetuses look more "baby like" and with images that took up the whole frame, like a portrait. I had this book and I remember looking at it when I was pregnant. The publication of these pictures in a popular magazine suggested that the fetus is, "...the tabula rasa of consumer nationalism, as an object consumed and as a citizen recast." The fetus could be free of the mother.
Berlant then explores a couple of the most famous anti-abortion videos and notes how the authoritative style of these productions where a white man, Dr or celebrity, narrates over a montage of horrors, including both the aborted fetus and images of war, poverty and societal degradation. Not only does abortion kill the child, but it risks the very fabric of the good life. Thus all citizen are exhorted to rise up and take custody of the fetal body or else live with the resulting horrors. (These bodies she notes are always white.) I really appreciated this context that this article provided on the American anti-abortion story. I love her use of popular references and her easy style, together these make her work very readable. Furthermore, the addendum includes her thoughts on a video of her nephew and how this constructed citizen story was played out within the life of her family. This provided a very nice translation of the theory into everyday life.