“We have this cultural fetish of pregnancy being associated with femininity,” stated Quinn(all research participant names given are pseudonyms), one of my research participants who herself had experienced pregnancy as a genderqueer individual, during my interview with her. (Genderqueer individuals explicitly challenge gender norms and binaries. Some genderqueer individuals visually present themselves as androgynous, while others purposefully mix stereotypical masculine and feminine signifiers.) At first her statement seemed easy enough to agree with and accept as an everyday statement. Later, however, it continued to echo in my head when I thought back to the interview, and again after hearing the interview play back on the digital recorder, and read the transcript of the interview. I realized that while these words stemmed from Quinn’s being an academic—what non-academic would put the word “cultural” and “fetish” together, or even utter those two words individually?—but also that they came from her experience of pregnancy and motherhood as a queer masculine-appearing individual. Going into my (SSHRC-funded) doctoral research on butch lesbians, transmen, and genderqueer individuals’ expectations and experiences of infertility and pregnancy in British Columbia, I considered there to be a cultural expectation regarding pregnancy and femininity. Upon hearing Quinn’s words, I realized that the concept of “cultural fetish” is more appropriate. The experiences narrated to me, in my interviews with butch lesbians, transmen, and genderqueer individuals, were not just about a cultural expectations. Instead, they exemplified the West’s cultural obsession with feminine pregnancy being a cultural fetish.
When I first heard the words “cultural fetish” I dismissed the “fetish” aspect as hyperbole or a humorous use of words from someone in the queer community. It was only in my being reflexive of why I did that, and thinking about what came to my mind as “fetish” that I really heard was Quinn was saying. The word “fetish” is loaded with meanings. In the queer community, the word “fetish” often conjures up ideas and practices related to something that is sexually stimulating. To the general public, a “fetish” may be seen as an obsession. For anthropologists, “fetishes” are items or idols with supernatural or religious significance or powers. For Marx, “commodity fetishism” renders subjects and actions into objects with economic value. Put together, it is revealed that a cultural fetish is something that is valued not necessarily for its original use or for its base use or parts’ value, but something with added sexual, spiritual, aesthetic, or commodity (for commodity’s sake) value.
Thinking in this way, feminine pregnancy is a cultural fetish in mainstream Euro-American cultures. Women who are pregnant become pregnant bodies that are objectified and sexualized. Pregnant women and bodies are no longer private entities; instead, they are under the surveillance of both strangers and people they know. The view and treatment of pregnant women and their bodies is part of the larger cultural rendering of women into objects, whether it be through the medical and scientific discourse as “bodies that are waiting for babies” (Longhurst 2000: 460) or through popular culture’s display of women as sexually stimulating heroines in latex or leather skin-tight outfits as “fighting fuck toys” (Newsom 2011). Pregnant women/bodies are cherished icons, and understood to be fragile, and in need of protection (provided by men). The cultural value of pregnant women/bodies is both economic and beyond economic. Economically, pregnant women and bodies are a valuable commodity for use in advertizing and to advertizing to. Beyond economic value, pregnant women and bodies hold cultural value for their reproductive power. That power, however, is recognized as exclusively a feminine one. The cultural fetish is one not simply about pregnancy, but about feminine pregnancy.
Doing Masculine Pregnancy
While Thomas (“the pregnant man”) Beatie gained notoriety and publicity for his pregnancies (in 2008, 2009, and 2010)—being on Oprah, The Doctors, 20/20, and on the cover of People magazine—it was clear that he and his pregnancies did not fit within the cultural fetish related to pregnancy. Moreover, as was made clear through those I interviewed, and the questionnaire responses I acquired from butch lesbians, transmen, and genderqueer individuals, despite the publicity that Thomas Beatie acquired, our culture is still only able to recognize pregnancy as feminine. Our culture is only able to recognize the desire to experience pregnancy as a feminine one, despite Beatie saying that his desire was not a gendered one. Those I interviewed noted that instead of having a gendered yearning for pregnancy, that their longing stemmed from their love of children, a biological calling to reproduce, or simply an innate desire that could not be explained.
Moreover, the feminine-pregnancy fetish (as obsession) can make it impossible to see even what friends and family otherwise know to be true. Bryn told me that, “I’ve always been clear to my family and friends that I wanted kids.” Yet when she told her family she was pregnant, they took it as a sign that she was finally embracing femininity. Likewise, when she told her friends that she was pregnant, they often understood her to be saying that her (femme) girlfriend was pregnant, even when Bryn was visibly showing. Cathy, a butch lesbian, likewise informed me that her co-workers never recognized her as being pregnant, but rather as just gaining a beer belly. On the other hand, Bryn and Imogen were both recognized by strangers as being straight pregnant women. Imogen and her wife were often viewed as sisters, even as they walked down the street hand-in-hand. Undoubtedly part of this was the fact that Imogen and Bryn, at least sometimes, wore traditional maternity wear as opposed to larger sizes of “men’s” clothing.
The overtly frilly, floral, and “feminine” colored maternity wear that is available for purchase proved to be a challenge to those I spoke with. While some individuals found fit in wearing the larger sizes of the “men’s” clothes they usually wore, others turned (or tried to turn) to wearing the more common maternity clothes. Vanessa noted that, “it was like I was 11 again, and being forced into clothes that didn’t work, and I was so frustrated. I would scour the internet for shirts that would work.” Bryn worried about if her friends would still accept her as “butch,” and noted, “I think I was still in their [butch] club. I was stilling wearing a plaid shirt [just] extra, extra large.” Moreover, even when Cathy, Bryn, and Joy attempted to buy clothes at the maternity wear store, they were ignored by sales associates, obviously presenting a different look to what the employees were used to, even with a visibly expanding mid-section.
Breaking the Boundary and Cultural Fetish
Choosing and experiencing pregnancy as anything other than feminine is challenging, due to the cultural fetish surrounding feminine pregnancy. The fact that family, friends, and strangers could not acknowledge the reality that they were presented with illustrates this. In Canada (and the United States to a lesser extent, at least legally), we have come a long way to recognizing lesbian and gay parents, but it is important to note that sexuality and gender are different. Breaking gender boundaries and expectations related to pregnancy and parenting is undoubtedly not something that can be done in a short amount of time. Moreover, butch lesbians, transmen and genderqueer individuals are not the only ones to be uncomfortable in overtly “feminine” maternity ware. Undoubtedly, many heterosexual women are also repulsed by the obligatory feminine wear available to them when pregnant. Thus, I argue that the first part in creating change, and being more aware of the diverse experiences of pregnancy, is in consciously recognizing that “We have this cultural fetish of pregnancy being associated with femininity.”
Michelle Walks is a queer femme Momma and a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan campus) in Kelowna, BC. Michelle co-edited the anthology, An Anthropology of Mothering (Demeter Press 2011).