Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tripping on Tropes

I've decided I don't write enough about exciting topics like feminism and childbirth and religion.

So here's this video from Feminist Frequency on 'Tropes vs. Women: #5 The Mystical Pregnancy.' It's about how science fiction and fantasy shows have this thing that they do, where female characters will have mysterious and/or horrifying pregnancies involving aliens and genetic experiments and demonic possession and what not. Often, whatever it is is conveniently resolved within the course of a single show.

Basically, pregnancy is dramatic and makes for an exciting storyline, but having the characters actually raise a child would put a crimp in the show's style, so they have weird, quickly resolved pregnancies instead.

Near the end, the video mentions the case of the Virgin Mary as an early example of a mystical pregnancy.

The Unnecesarean, which addresses unnecessary cesarean section deliveries as well as representations of birth in popular culture, posted this video, and a couple of people commented to object that Mary's case was not a 'mystical pregnancy' trope because "Mary had a choice" and "Mary was chosen/asked."

Now if you want to argue that Mary's wasn't a mystical pregnancy in accordance with the trope because it doesn't match up with the usual quick resolution without lingering consequences for the female character, I'd be nodding thoughtfully along with you.

But I don't know if arguing that's it's fundamentally different on the 'consent' basis is going to help much.

I agree that if Mary was asked and did freely consent to bear Jesus, that makes it different from the trope, which almost invariably features things happening to women without their willing participation or, usually, even their knowledge, but I'm not sure we can really argue this based on the available text.

The King James just says that the angel showed up and says "behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS."

She asks how that can be since "I know not a man" and the angel says "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

So she's not exactly being asked if this is cool with her, she's just informed that it's going to happen. There is no suggestion that it's a choice on her part, or that she has been given any option to refuse.

She is told about it in advance, which is different from the examples in the video in that she at least understands what's happening, but advance warning does not necessarily equal a request for consent.

She of course famously says "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word," which certainly expresses agreement/consent to what she's been told is going to happen, but one could argue that when God tells you to do something, consent is meaningless.

God, who has ultimate power over everything, says it's going to happen!--what are you going to do, adjust reality?

To take it way far away from the starting point, imagine your boss says "from now on, we're going to be filling out all our timesheets electronically instead of on paper as we have been." You can complain about it, or you can do it with a good will and even think it's a great idea, but since you were informed that it was going to happen rather than consulted about it, you couldn't exactly be said to have a choice in the matter.

Also, since your boss is God, you can't even quit your job because there's nowhere else in the universe to work.

Seriously, we're talking about Mary's GOD. Your GOD says something is going to happen to you. Talk about a power differential.

Arguably, a human being can no more consent to the actions of an all-powerful god than a newborn infant can consent to the actions of its parents. Or a bunch of fruit flies consent to the actions of a scientist in a lab.

Consent means little unless a refusal without fear of punishment is possible. And it would seem likely that you cannot refuse your God, who is sending angels to tell you things and promising to make you pregnant against everything you know about human reproduction, and who has a long history of smiting people who don't do as he says, and expect that everything's going to be totally cool.

This fact is all over in religious thought, in the idea that we must humbly submit ourselves to God's will. Submission is key, and it is not consent.

It is not important that humans consent to God's will, it is important that they submit to it.

In old-school terms, we should submit because something terrible will happen to us if we don't (hence, I suppose, the term "a god-fearing person" as a positive descriptor: if you're properly afraid of God, you will also be a law-abiding and socially upstanding sort).

In many modern interpretations, we should submit not because we're terrified, but because God knows better than we do and only wants what's best for us. Here, it starts to make more sense to think of consenting. Now that God's not actively smiting people right and left for disobeying his commandments, it's possible to conceive of just declining to obey his will.

"No thanks, I think I'd rather not bear the Son of God. I was actually looking forward to bearing children with my human spouse. I particularly hope for some daughters."

Of course, this is a flawed presentation because we're often told that horrible things will still happen to us if we don't obey, just later on, in hell. Again, consent is meaningless if refusal without fear of retribution is impossible.

Therefore, however annoying it may seem to a Christian to have the Annunciation lumped in with modern fiction tropes, I don't think it's unfair to make the connection.

I would be more inclined to argue that it doesn't entirely fit because Mary's not a recurring character in an ongoing story who has a pregnancy happen to her and then moves on; she's more like a supporting character in another character's story who has a pregnancy happen to her and then spends the rest of her recorded history being renowned for it.

The mystical pregnancy is Mary's story, it's not just an episode in her TV show. Without it, she would be of no interest.

Nevertheless, as I said, I think it's a fair point for discussion. I obviously got some food for thought out of it myself.

Mmm...thought food.


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