Tropes vs. Women: #5 The Mystical Pregnancy

Tropes vs. Women is a six-part video series by Feminist Frequency that explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

The Mystical Pregnancy is a trope writers use to create drama and terror by invading, violating and exploiting women’s reproductive capabilities. Often these female characters have their ovaries harvested by aliens or serve as human incubators for demon spawn. Sometimes they are carrying the Messiah and other times Satan himself.

Special thanks to Laura Shapiro for her wealth of fannish knowledge and invaluable help with research on this video.

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**Full video transcript is available at

** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

by Anita Sarkeesian
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32 Comments Have Been Posted

Each pregnancy is a miracle

The mystical pregnancy is a trope for the same reason there is the archetypal hero and fart jokes are funny. Impressive things are impressive. Scary things are scary. Things that go on inside the human body with out our conscious control are miraculous, scary, impressive and sometimes funny.

There were some very fallacious arguments in this video. I think the context of ST:TNG was totally off. Data has been traumatized multiple times with no mention of that ever again. Riker almost got killed multiple times and you don't see him whining about it. There is no overall story arch in ST:TNG. It is exclusively episodic so they can be replayed with episodes missing or out of order. (Also the kid did die when the life form left his body. There is a shot of him dead and Dianna crying.)

Alien franchise is a great example of pregnancy horror. It happens to men and to women. The full ramifications get very deeply explored. Including when Newt is killed in 3 and when Ripley has to kill her clones in 4.

Finally, it is not just sci-fi or western theology that this is explored in. Pregnancy has always been a scary, fascinating miracle. Every culture has stories about it. It's not the trope or the archetype that's the problem. The problem is the culture. The archetype is reflecting the culture. I think it's silly to argue with a reflection when you can actually tackle the thing making the reflection with out hyperbole.

Thank you for making the

Thank you for making the points above; I didn't know how to do so neither concisely nor clearly enough.

I only want to add that stories, tropes, speculative fiction are all ways to explore our fears. Using this trope (or interpreting it when it is presented to us) can be a way to explore our fears about health, pregnancy, rape and the lack of control that is in all three. This can have its place without being inherently sinister.

Because we live in a male

<p>Because we live in a male dominated, patriarchal society where violence against women is an EPIDEMIC, the representations of women being violated on screen have different social implications then those of their male counterparts. Yes, occasionally male characters are violated but the social ramifications of that are worlds apart... plus, often the way men are violated on screen is different, the storylines are often written in a very stereotypically gendered way.</p>
<p><em>"Riker almost got killed multiple times and you don't see him whining about it." </em></p>
<p>Whining... really!? Dealing with emotional trauma is now whining? I'm not even going to humour that point because it is incredibly offensive to use such degrading language to talk about being emotionally expressive.</p>

Violence against women is actually rare in our society.

Certainly it is compared to violence against men. But let's assume that you're right and that representations of women being violated on screen have different social implications than those of their male counterparts. So what? If you include as "violations" being killed (and how is it not that?) then men being violated on screen is far more common. Why are the comparatively few cases of women being violated that horrible? Why is it permissible to show a redshirt a week dying by violence but not a mystical pregnancy per season or even per series?

But let's deal with how the violation of women in this particular way is dealt with. It's presented as absolutely evil. There is no case in fiction, other than perhaps the Bible where a mystical pregnancy is shown being done by a morally good character or characters for justifiable reasons. Groups that have killed thousands, even millions of your people, they can be negotiated with, those who impregnate without consent, they're beyond the pale. It's similar to the hullaballoo that greeted the kidnapping of girls by Bokon Haram, who had previously attacked a boy's school and just killed them all.

But it's bizarre how this counts as a trope AGAINST women when it's clearly a trope against patriarchy, or at least against elites that control women's reproduction. Every single instance of this trope might as well be sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Consider, a being, usually ostensibly male, although not always and sometimes it's ambiguous, makes a decision that a women is to reproduce. This is shown clearly to violate a woman's self-determination and to cause nothing but bad effects. How is that not a direct dig at the conservative "family values" of controlling women's reproduction? Or at least of not allowing them to control it?

"Whining... really!? Dealing with emotional trauma is now whining? I'm not even going to humour that point because it is incredibly offensive to use such degrading language to talk about being emotionally expressive."
I think he was using extreme language to make a point. No if you had almost being killed several times it's not "whining" to complain about it and the effect it's had on your mental health. But that's the point, in ST:TNG nobody does. If most of the crew can survive multiple traumatic effects with no noticeable psychological effects then making Troi suffer them after this event would mark it as even worse than anything that happened to them. That would make the pregnancy even more traumatic, which is what Sarkessian was complaining about in the first place.

I know this is nit-picky -

I know this is nit-picky - but the Immaculate Conception was the conception of Mary - not Jesus. Yeah, it's a mystical pregnancy, but not the one mentioned in the video.

OH! How did I make it through

OH! How did I make it through all those Sunday School classes and never know that? Thanks for pointing it out.

It's a really common mistake.

It's a really common mistake. I think you have to survive Catholicism to pick up on that bit of dogma.

I actually looked it up,

I actually looked it up, there is a distinction between Protestant and Catholics on this term... but regardless of the debate, I think it's still applicable since I'm talking about Conceptions that are Immaculate... as a concept.

If you want an immaculate contraception...

... you have to have sex in the shower.

it's never nit-picky to ask

it's never nit-picky to ask for accuracy!

Thought I'd offer this

Thought I'd offer this prospective for what its worth. I grew up protestant/evangelical with a side of fundamentalist and the phrase "immaculate conception" was often used interchangeably with "virgin birth" to referred to the immaculate conception of Jesus - because that conception was said to be "immaculate" (in the sense of without sin) and also because the concept/doctrine of Mary's "immaculate conception" only exists within the Roman Catholic Church and not in Protestantism or the Bible.

I'm sorry. I hadn't realized

I'm sorry. I hadn't realized people got to pick terms and concepts from other religions and randomly decide what they mean - especially since, as you said, Immaculate Conception is not part of the bible or Protestantism. Just because people use terms interchangeably doesn't mean they actually are. The Immaculate Conception is from Catholic doctrine, and it means something specific. It is not the same as the Virgin Birth, and the terms are not interchangeable.

Now, excuse me - I'm off to let people know that bemused and amused really do mean the same thing, and that Alanis Morissette was absolutely using "ironic" correctly. I can apparently start calling things lame or gay as well, since hey - words only mean what I say they mean!

Well that was unnecessarily

Well that was unnecessarily assholish. I'm just pointing out that in different religious and spiritual traditions use terms differently and to mean different things. You might not like it but there are about 30 million evangelicals in the United States and many of them use the term to mean the conception of Jesus. So the term "immaculate conception" has come to mean something different - which is understandable especially they mostly know next to nothing about actual Catholicism. I remember going to fundy-church and hearing insane lectors on how all Catholics were going to burn in hell for worshiping "false ideals" - meaning Mary. All I'm saying is that meanings do transform, change and morph as terms move through cultural landscapes over time.

we're also seeing something

we're also seeing something similar with the bizzarre plotline from the last season of Doctor Who in which the Doctor seems to know that Amy is pregnant before she does. he runs a scan on her wihout her knowing, and then you find out that the "real' Amy is being held captive by "bad guys" while the fetus develops. then all of a sudden she gives birth to a half-human half-timelord baby. makes hardly any sense. Amy as a newlywed might ordinarily be happy to discover that she was pregnant, but under these wacko conditions she freaks out and the whole thing leads to a scary and triumphant rescue scene. the plotline seems to have been met with a giant "huh??" by fans because there was way too much crammed into the season finale to make sense of it.

i am not a fan of most fantasy/sci-fi shows so i had no idea thsi was such an established trope. thanks for putting words to why i was so uncomfortable with this storyline!

I think the writing around

I think the writing around this whole story arc is messy and full of holes, which makes me sad because I LOVE RIVER! As for Amy's pregnancy, at least it didn't appear that she was tortured, and that when we see her she's just about to enter into what appears to be natural labour. But ya, it's definitely floating around the Mystical Pregnancy realm.

Okay I am going to amend my

Okay I am going to amend my statement. It was clearly torture since she was locked up and had her mind put into a doppleganger and well ya... that is torture.

For the record,

For the record, Bolivia/Fauxlivia's pregnancy is not a mystical one. She got pregnant the old fashioned way; via intercourse with Peter.

She was just forcibly injected with a serum that would make her otherwise natural pregnancy complete itself VERY quickly.

Except that's not what happened.

This video has certainly

This video has certainly struck a nerve, but I've been feeling squicked about about these sci-fi pregnancies and couldn't figure out why. I loved the video (especially Anita's sheepish "yep"). It's almost as if the girls can only play if we agree to be turned into freakshows.

Just curious...

The video mentions not seeing enough meaningful pregnancies on TV where feelings are developed/explored.

Well, I tried to think of a meaningful pregnancy I saw on TV. Something that isn't reality TV, and shows how pregnancy can have a deep impact. This is hard because pregnancy is often used just to add drama to a show, or in order to create a sequel with the children in it.

The only example I could think of was Quinn Fabray's on Glee.

Can anyone come up with other examples?

There was Tami Taylor's

There was Tami Taylor's pregnancy on Friday Night Lights, and Brenda's during the last season of Six Feet Under. But after wracking my brain that's all I can come up with.

Seeing as pregnancy/childbirth are such common experiences, you'd think TV writers would be interested in speaking seriously to that experience. Apparently, not so much.

A more difficult question to

A more difficult question to answer would be finding examples in Sci-Fi/Fantasy that are meaningful.

The only one I can think of

The only one I can think of is from "Charmed," although, Piper's first baby did exercise his powers from the womb there wasn't anything sinister about it (in fact, his powers were actually helpful) and Piper got pregnant the usual way, after wanting a baby for several months.


I might put Starbuck's experience in BSG in that category (though she never actually carries a pregnancy). Her bodily autonomy is violated (ovaries harvested) as mentioned in the video. After the trauma she is even more violently anti-cylon. The part not mentioned in this video is later when she is presented with her supposed half cylon daughter. She is emphatically not the mothering type, which doesn't change, and she struggles with hating the girl for her origins and taking care of a young child in danger, bonding with her but still not knowing how to deal with a kid. Through the incident she goes through a serious and complex character arc. When she finds out the daughter isn't actually hers and she was lied to by the creepy manipulative cylon she goes into an angry unstable depressive state. She doesn't even know how to deal with all the emotions that have been brought up. I feel like her writing through this was raw and uncliched.

It actually really reminded me of a friend of mind who had an unwanted pregnancy, but was talked out of an abortion only to have a miscarriage later. She went through the same whiplash of wanted-not wanted, baby-no baby, what ifs. All of a sudden she didn't know who she was or what she wanted and it was difficult for a while, though she came out the other side stronger for it. When sci-fi can reference real life emotions and journeys is when it's at its most powerful. When something becomes a harmful cliche is when it is reductive and lazy, not respecting the character's emotional journey.

Aeryn's Pregnancy was not Mystical

Aeryn's child was conceived in the normal bow chika wow wow way. There was nothing magical about the baby. She was tortured while pregnant and the fandom had a bit of a hissy fit about it. However 100% not mystical (except Aeryn is actually not human so the incubation period is not human).

Other than that and the whole not getting the immaculate conception reference right. It is a very good point.

However 100% not mystical I

<i>However 100% not mystical </i>

I would say that being able to hold a fertilized egg for seven years, and then going from "not evidently pregnant" to "OMG about to drop the baby lookout here he comes" in 48 hours or so is... kinda mystical. One can claim that that's because of Sebacean biology, etc etc, but who invented the Sebacean biology? The writers. Which is Anita's point--these story choices are not biologically determined, they are chosen by the writers and producers of these shows.

So you get story after story in which female characters go from being interesting <i>people</i> to... mothers. And generally they become <i>only</i> mothers, as if their only importance in the storyline is their reproductive role, rather than as whatever they were before the pregnancy--pilot, soldier, detective, problem-solver, diplomat. Add to that the horror aspects of these pregnancies, and the implication appears to be: women are necessarily bound by their biology to become mothers, AND female reproduction is necessarily icky, horrifying, and traumatic--while at the same time the fulfillment of our biological NEED to become mothers.

It's profoundly disappointing.

Another infuriating trope

Another infuriating trope nailed, Anita - this video series has been great - thank you for doing it! I hate it when my favourite female characters (only the female ones) are forced to go through this invasive, torturous storyline. It's like they're being punished for thinking they were people and not just uteruses/vaginas. Starbuck's incarceration and surgery in the Cylon forced-birth farm really upset me (along with the women who didn't escape Starbuck's potential fate): why must our strong, badass female characters' bodies get invaded and tortured like this? Scriptwriters seem to like reminding us that they can reduce all women to a uterus/vagina that can be forcibly possessed by someone else.

If, as you say, pregnancy was handled with some sensitivity towards what it might mean to be a woman in a world where bodily autonomy is not something you necessarily have, that would be interesting. But mystical pregnancy is not the female equivalent of being nearly killed (or being incarcerated, or being tortured!), it's the female equivalent of mystical pregnancy! Just because a lot of women can get regular-pregnant, does not mean we have to be the ones always getting mystical-pregnant. Come on, my body is no more ripe for impregnating by a shiny blue ball of spacelight than any average guy's!

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Not confined to women

I would just like to add that the mystical pregnancy is not limited to women. Several male scifi characters have become pregnant in the same manners as those inflicted on women:

Charles Trip Tucker - Star Trek Enterprise (zapped by woman feeding him jello-like water, then boom! preggers)

Mork- Mork and Mindy (lays an egg)

Curtis- Misfits (not sure if this truly counts, Curtis has the ability to change into a woman at will and after some experimentation- which I will leave up to you to figure out or watch the show- accidentally impregnates himself)

There's more but I think the list is sufficient evidence. I just wanted to show that it isn't a one-sided thing.

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