Mpreg stories often end with “babies ever after,” even as marginalized groups in society buck that messaging. Is mpreg complicit—and can it escape?
Mpreg is a bit of a niche, but its fans tend to be real fanatics, if you know what I mean. In turn, they tend to have some specific demands of the “genre.”
The Tangled Web of Morality and Science
One of those demands, often unspoken, is that a character (usually one of the leads) is going to undergo a pregnancy.
I’ve discussed before how that leads to some pussyfooting around abortion within mpreg. We end up a bit like Harlequin romance novels. Even in the event of an accident, the heroines never even think about abortion.
This is a holdover from Christian attitudes—and political ones—that push anti-abortion ideology. These attitudes are, actually, rather modern, arising in the 1800s and continuing through the 1900s.
Before that, people policed abortion less, even though the Catholic Church had strictures against it. In Christian theology in the medieval period, the soul of a child didn’t enter until the fifth month of pregnancy. An early term miscarriage was not a sin and the baby didn’t go to hell for not receiving baptism. This makes sense as many pregnancies end in miscarriage before twelve weeks. With this explanation, you’re saving many a grieving mother-to-be more guilt and shame.
But it also paves the way for early term abortion, which, without medical intervention, can look like a miscarriage. Even into the 19th century, midwives, herbalists, and druggists sold products to “restore the blood.” This opaque language meant that any woman could use it if her cycle happened to be out, for any reason—but there was an implicit understanding that these products were abortifacients.
The Co-opting of Pregnancy and Childbirth
As pregnancy and childbirth became more medicalized, anti-abortion laws became stricter. Technological advances have given rise to earlier detection and more understanding of fetal development. At the same time, much of the anti-abortion movement builds on this. Proponents now argue that a heartbeat—which starts as early as six weeks—is reason enough to suggest abortion is murder.
The anti-abortion stance ties back to patriarchal-capitalist social structures more than morality. Anti-abortion factions, for example, often argue that it’s immoral to cause suffering to the fetus while ignoring any potential maternal suffering due. They also tend to ignore quality of life for the child; supposedly, every child is precious, but children can live in squalor and poverty. Arguably, that situation could be avoided more often if people had easier access to birth control and abortion.
Thus, when our Harlequin heroines don’t even consider abortion, they push a very particular ideology. That same attitude can crop up in mpreg, perhaps even unintentionally, as writers attempt to meet audience expectations. As readers, we often expect a pregnancy carried out on the page if the story is mpreg. Surprise pregnancies, accidental pregnancies, secret pregnancies—all then tend to get carried out without much discussion of abortion. The character, no matter how shocked or surprised or ill-equipped for children they are, tends to come around.
Harlequin romances also tend to be knee-deep in another political stance that mpreg audiences and authors should be on the lookout for: biological essentialism.
What Is Biological Essentialism?
You’ve probably run across a romance where the author describes the hero as a real “man’s man,” or having a masculine scent or just being the embodiment of raw masculinity. By contrast, the author uses stereotypically feminine terms to describe the heroine. Even if she bucks some stereotypes, the author goes to great lengths to assure us she’s “all woman.”
Often, this is merely authors replicating what they’ve seen in other books. But it’s also a kind of transphobia, and it has links to what’s known as biological essentialism.
Biological essentialism is the assumption that XX phenotype humans all look or act in a particular way, while all XY humans are different. Thus, the idea that a man has “a masculine scent” or is just all “raw masculinity” comes down to the fact he is an XY phenotype human. An XX phenotype human just isn’t going to be able to exude raw masculinity, because it’s not in her DNA.
Bioessentialism Is Oppressive—to Everyone
This attitude is … a big problem, but the “GC” or “TERF” ideologues often push it. (I hesitate to call it feminism. It seeks to chain the very people it’s meant to free to their DNA as destiny.) The idea assumes that DNA literally encodes gender identities, and nothing can ever change them.
This is transphobia 101, of course, but the problem goes deeper. If DNA encodes certain traits, it’s difficult to either change or deny them. So the idea that “women” can’t be good at sports or that their brains simply can’t handle math becomes very difficult to evade. An XX phenotype human who is good at sports or math becomes an anomaly, an outlier—and there may be something potentially wrong with her.
The Case of Caster Semenya
Semenya is biologically female, but she produces high levels of testosterone. Semenya is and amazing runner, but various governing bodies have banned her. Her performance is too masculine. If she wishes to compete, they demand she sign up as a man or take drugs to lower her testosterone levels.
Semenya is not (to the best of my knowledge) trans or intersex. Yet these governing bodies have put her between classes, because her natural body does not conform to ideals of femininity. That hardly seems right, and that’s precisely because it’s wrong. It’s an easy way to see how bioessentialism eventually hurts everyone, even the people it claims to help.
As noted, this essentialism makes its way into other arenas. There are assumptions that XX phenotype humans simply aren’t good at math, which isn’t true. (Female students outperform their male counterparts on a regular basis.) The biological essentialist also believes that women are more emotional or irrational. Believing that makes it much easier to dismiss women’s opinions everywhere from classrooms to parliaments to laboratories.
This isn’t to say biological essentialism is a-okay for men either. Men suffer from assumptions about how DNA encodes aggression. If a man isn’t aggressive, he’s a “beta,” a chump, or, at worst, “a sissy.”
How Does Biological Essentialism Come Into Play in Mpreg?
You’d think that mpreg, since it involves one man becoming pregnant and often a gay relationship, would be about as far removed from biological essentialism as can be. After all, biological essentialism takes the stance that having a womb and childbearing is unique to XX phenotype humans, and, given that, that it’s unique to women.
So, in mpreg, we have men getting knocked up and giving birth. That suggests some lie in biological essentialism. XX-phenotype humans can be men is one argument (which is often the case for omegaverse) or childbearing is not something unique to XX-phenotype humans.
Either which way, you’d think we’re getting away from the biological essentialism. And, in some ways, you’d be right.
Biological essentialism comes creeping back in, though, often through discussion of why those same men don’t even think about an abortion.
Omegaverse Is Particularly Guilty
Omegaverse stories tend to be the best examples of this phenomenon. The omega is sweet and submissive and—often—longing to have children. The omega is perfectly adapted to bearing children. Even the omega who is surprised by an accidental pregnancy often comes around to having children. And we get those “aww” moments where the male omega realizes he loves his child very much.
It’s not wrong to want “aw” moments—they’re cute and fuzzy and feel-good. But the way they often come about is loaded, couched deeply in that biological essentialism.
Of course the omega loves his child; it’s literally in his DNA to become soft and mushy and a good caretaker. Of course the omega secretly wants to have children, even if he outwardly denies it.
That’s just biological impulse, after all.
The Grain of Truth
There is some truth to the idea that there are biological impulses to have children and to care for them. That said, there’s a question about how much any of that links to one sex designation or another.
For example, our social scripts say it’s women who want babies. Women are baby-obsessed! They’re always the ones who want kids in a relationship. It’s going to be the man who has cold feet and isn’t sure.
In reality, many people of all sex and gender identities experience ambivalence about children. There are two interesting facts to note here, though:
- Women, more often than not, are more ambivalent than their male partners.
- Men, more often than not, are more open to having children than their female partners.
A lot of this is true because of how society splits roles between men and women. For men, having children is a sign of sexual prowess and virility. Society also calls on them to do less in terms of carework, so a child often represents more of a financial burden to the man than anything.
Why Women Have Mixed Feelings about Kids
For women, the picture is more complicated. We have many scripts telling us that wives and mothers are the only roles that make women feel fulfilled. People often suggest to women that they’ll “change their minds” on not having kids. And people often suggest that women do indeed want babies, that they have this mushy biological impulse to have children.
Yet women also realize they carry the larger part of the burden. They, first, must undergo pregnancy (unless using a surrogate or adopting, costly processes that are not accessible to everyone). Then they’re usually expected to take on the brunt of the parenting role, including staying up at night with the baby (especially if breastfeeding), taking time off work, and then providing more care as the child grows—from taking days off when the kid is sick to carting the kid around to after-school soccer practice.
Mom is always asked to sacrifice more of herself. Most women know other women who have become mothers, who are constantly tired, exhausted, and unfulfilled. Many women are frustrated because they feel they have to choose between their children and their jobs.
Men Have Caring Instincts Too
Let’s make no mistake here: there is a biological impulse to have children. Reproduction is, after all, the end goal of almost any living organism; reproduction guarantees genetic immortality.
Yet this impulse is common across male and female members of the species. It’s not solely a “woman thing,” nor is it solely a guy thing. And having mushy feelings or wanting to care for a child is not solely a male or female thing, because humans are incredibly social creatures.
So, in humans, all sexes are usually invested in raising their children and are invested in having them.
Where we run into problems is the assumption that these emotions link to a set of sex organs. Our male omega in an omegaverse story is often painted as developing these feelings not on account of being human but by virtue of having a womb.
That’s a pretty loaded assumption to make, but it’s short-hand and an easy way to get a reluctant male character from point A to point B (where A is freaking out and B is acceptance).
And it’s short-hand because biological essentialism is so pervasive in our society.
But biological essentialism is limiting—not just in that it is horrifically transphobic (which should be reason enough to strike it from our viewpoints). Biological essentialism harms everyone—man or woman, cis or trans, and beyond the binaries as well.
How Can Mpreg Escape It?
The first step is likely recognizing biological essentialism and doing the work to counteract the viewpoint in our own lives. We are likely not going to get every writer to stop including biological essentialist statements in their work any time soon. But as readers, we can recognize it when it shows up in the media we’re consuming. We can learn to see it, name it, and from there, dismantle it.
For writers, that same work must also be done. In turn, we should also learn to recognize when what we’re writing might have a biological essentialist bent to it.
From there, we can learn to curb those impulses, to cut back on essentialist statements. That’s not to say we sometimes won’t lean on them (especially if we have a character who believes something along these lines), but there’s always a way of working around them. Of ensuring that we’re deconstructing these attitudes and challenging them, questioning them.
That, in turn, ensures we’ll do better not only by our audiences but by even ourselves. Because while biological essentialism is in play, we’re all beholden to its strictures and ideals. Deconstructing it, challenging it, will help to set us free.