Pregnancy: On Being a Monster

One of Teratology’s foundational pillars in the Middle Ages was how to avoid giving birth to a monster. Chapter eleven of Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels (1575) is called “An example of monsters that are formed, the mother having remained seated too long, having had her legs crossed, or having bound her belly too tight while she was pregnant”. While obstetric teratology in the medical field has remained focused on studying fetal deformities, specifically how to do avoid doing so, cultural teratology has recently shifted the focus to the monstrosity of pregnancy itself. Movies like Prevenge (2017), Rosemary’s Baby (1986), and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1986) focus more on the anxieties and physical transformation of the mother rather than on the developing fetus, soon to be born baby.

In Prevenge, Ruth is driven to kill people she deems guilty for the death of her boyfriend by the voice of the developing fetus. Scenes depict the protagonist in various states of mania and delusion punctuated by visions of a demonic woman mimicking a film she had watched. As the birth nears, her mania increases as she struggles to maintain her autonomous identity that has become conflated with “widow” and “mother”. The other two films depict the protagonists trying to maintain control over their own bodies as the pregnancy process has been co-opted by outside demonic forces. In many cultures, Western and Eastern, women in misogynistic cultures find that their bodies are even less their own once they become pregnant. What they ingest, how they move or position their bodies, how much they sleep, and all sorts of other aspects of their lives come under the scrutiny of partners, doctors, families, friends, and even strangers. If we accept Aristotle’s claim that women are deformed men, then the pregnant woman is even more so and subjected to more constraint for fear of what it is capable of.*

Thanks to feminism and the efforts of countless individuals, many women are now in a socioeconomic position independent of families and partners for whom they have traditionally relied on for survival. With this autonomy, they can now voice their anxieties, fears, and horror regarding pregnancy. Philosophers from Judith Thomson to Amy Mullin have questioned traditional models of pregnancy which tend to either trivialize the process phenomenologically, as if it had no bearing on the subject, or focus solely on the importance of children and childbearing as if the pregnant woman suddenly lost her subjectivity to the fetus. As more scholars and artists take up this subject, the experience of pregnancy qua the woman will become less taboo to discuss and more of its elements, monstrous and otherwise, will come to light.

*The Generation of Animals, Book 2, 737a: “For the female is like a deformity of the male and menstrual discharge is like semen, but unclean.”