Nadya Suleman: Drag Mom and/or Social Menace

Curator's Note

Although so much has already been said about Nadya Suleman in the popular press (and I’m sure there is no shortage of academics busy drafting even more thoughtful stuff), I thought I’d raise the so-called “Octo-mom” here because I have found her situation and the reaction to her very troubling.  To be clear, I’m not troubled by her “irresponsible” decision to implant 6 embryos at a time when she was single, in graduate school, living with her mother, and taking care of the 6 children she already had.  (I’m not saying that that wasn’t irresponsible, just that I’m not all that troubled by it.) I suppose I am a little concerned about the consequences for the children (though my built-up immunity to “think-about-the-children” pleas dulls my concern on that front…you can only cry wolf so many times). No, what’s bothering me are the implications of her queer story for my convenient notion of queer citizenship (who do I/“we” think count as a queer citizen?) and the inevitably messy nature of queer politics (what are the ways in which my value systems are aligned with heternormativity after all? just where do I draw the line between queerness that is “acceptable” and not?)       On the one hand, I read Nadya Suleman and the anger her undisciplined breeding has unleashed with a good deal of queer pleasure.  Can we call her a drag mom?  Her situation functions as a gross parody of the excessive over-valuation of motherhood and reproduction.  And the anger over the assumed burden she and her family will place on the social safety net can be used to expose heteronormativity’s ideological blindspot to the ways all reproduction is a social burden and all families are dependent on the support of the wider village. And as someone whose biological clock has never ticked, I queerly enjoy extending the pathologizing discourse used to explain/contain her decisions to parenthood in general.  On the other hand, I find less queer pleasure in her pro-life, religiously inspired defense (“the sanctity of life made me do it”).  And at a time when the environmental consequences of our growing human population threatens the lives of billions, I can only revel in my intellectual queer reading so long before I think her decisions were just “wrong” and ask my self “Can I bring myself to argue for her inalienable right to reproduce as part of some queer political agenda”? That the answer was “no” points out the contingency of politics and the unsettling place that forces us to live in. After all, what is the unreasonable line I think she has crossed and why do I draw that line there (rather than, as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh likely would, at a place that would indict lesbian couples or teenagers on welfare).   We all have our blindspots, double standards, and strategic ambiguities. 

Although I could have posted almost any clip from the recent media obsession, I chose this moment from Oprah, which cites the Dateline interview, because its pathologization of her desires and my agreement with it makes me very unsettled as a gay man in a culture where same-sex sexual desires had once been treated similarly.    

Comments

Dana Heller's picture

Interesting post, Ron, and

Interesting post, Ron, and thanks for framing the "Octo-mom" horror narrative in these critical terms.  Arguably, the "horror" behind the story is that Suleman exposes the fact that ALL maternity is drag maternity.  I mean, the attack of Octo-mom (just wait until she teams up with Godzilla!) totally denaturalizes the natural, or lays bare the myths of biological essentialism, the primitive contrivance of the oedipal triad, the irrelevance of sex itself—very queer, indeed!  And an affront to oedipal citizenship!

And queerer still is that Suleman has two dads: the "good" dad, who admits on Oprah that his daughter is off balance; and the "bad" dad, or the dead-beat doctor who implanted the embryos, in the absence of any biological father, and is now accused of irresponsible behavior as well. 

 And can we talk about the "trace" of Angelina Jolie that haunts the entire affair? 

So, while I find the situation somewhat unsettling, the ubiquitous media presence of Suleman is a provocative reminder that maternity, like gender and sex, is only legible in its excess.

 

 

good stuff

Interesting take on this, Ron, esp. that you take up the ambivalences endemic to drag, queer pleasures, and thoughts on kids.  Suleman signifies as Lee Edelman’s reproductive futurism taken to a macabre level — so excessive that it underscores just how excessive motherhood and the reproductive imperative can be more generally — as Dana points out, above. 

Is anyone else struck how the kids, as specific individuals, so often fall out of focus in this discussion?  They haunt it but only as some overarching concern about what harms may befall them at some point in the future — a kind of spectre empty of any specific reference.  I keep thinking of James Kincaid’s work, how "the child" becomes a discursive space, emptied out of meaning, only signifying in terms of what culture wants it to be….  Which brings me to Ron’s point about finding some queer pleasure in her — admittedly, I do too, but I’m a big fan of the macabre.  Are their queer pleasures in the kids too?  Can we imagine it as being somehow (or in certain moments, etc.) fun/interesting/queer to be raised by a mom who would orchestrate this whole thing? 

Dana Luciano's picture

the void, the feeling of emptiness

Thanks for posting that, Ron, and for pushing us to think more about a case about which I, too, feel a great deal of ambivalence. I’ve actually been avoiding thinking much about this story; at the time, I paid only enough attention to note the chorus rising across my generally pro-choice, pro-queer networks of friends and acquaintances, which sounded, on the whole, something like “Ewwwwww,” followed by irate grumbling about responsibility and moderation. I can’t say I didn’t share this visceral reaction. On the other hand, my partner and I were told by our health insurers, not long ago, that as would-be lesbian mothers, we did not merit coverage because we were “infertile by choice” (there was an actual medical infertility condition involved, but our lesbianism apparently trumped it)—which I guess puts us on the same side of the line as Suleman, in opposition to the “legitimately” fertility challenged, undermining their plight with our illegitimate and excessive desires to breed.

Regarding that excess: I like Dana’s and Hollis’s comments on the way this spectacle infests “ordinary” parenthood. Hollis invoked Edelman, which reminded me that a key part of his argument is the projection of narcissism onto the figure of the queer, as against the altruism of the repro-nomative. But in the clip from Oprah, Suleman, though she starts out with the usual parenting-as-altruistic line, also cops to the self-centered nature of her desire to (multi) parent in order to cover over the “void” inside, and it is that exposure itself, and her attempt to universalize it, that Oprah can’t handle.

Karen Tongson's picture

Thanks, Ron, for bringing

Thanks, Ron, for bringing some perspetive to "Octo-mom" (the name is such a Barnum & Bailey throwback). I have to admit that this is one tabloid scandale I’ve wilfully avoided, despite my omniverous appetite for all things pop. I suppose it has something to do with what Ron has described above as a queer "ick factor"to something like excessive reproductivity. (I’m struggling to remember dredge from my memory who actually theorized the term "ick factor"—viz. lesbianism—in queer theory back in the 80s.)  Without veering too far off topic, maybe my lack of interest has something to do with the fact that I’m an only child and that my immediately family has only been "minimally reproductive" according to most standards. We tend to be more fixated on ersatz forms of kinship (often involving pets). Anyway, I digress…

The conversation about Edelman and Kincaid, made me think about a recent seminar discussion among some of my graduate students about whether or not all forms of reproductivity can necessarily, and for the purposes of an oppositional queer politics, be classsified as "normative" They very astutely pointed out figures like "the welfare mom" or even the working single mom (a la Murphy Brown) who are considered aberrant reproducers (as Dana  L has classified Suleman and queer parents like herself), and "abusive" for bringing children into the world without normative familial and/or financial apparatuses already in place. And yet the romance of the hetero couple with their child persists—even Brit and K-Fed were scripted far too long in the tabloids as a functioning couple "for the sake of the kids."  Meanwhile, a figure like Angelina Jolie is both adored and derided for collecting kids from around the world and making a few with Brad Pitt. Perhaps all this is to say that there has been a proliferation of representations of reproductivity in the tabloids in the past 5 years or so. Celebrity babies, "Stars with their Kids" and "celebrity kid playdates" accompany accounts of the villainous Octo-Mom. Though the "culture of life" seems to have spread, the question about what lives are worth living—what lives have value—has only intensified.

Karen Tongson | University of Southern California | www.ohindustry.com

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