As an avid True Blood fan, I have my Sunday tradition of getting a fill of monsters. Interestingly, this continued once I came in to work on Monday morning and I saw the recently published article by Aimee Wilson, “Modernism, Monsters, and Margaret Sanger” on my desk. the title was catchy. I am a sucker for alliteration.
Cover of the November 1923 issue of the Birth Control Review.
Wilson’s paper critiques aesthetic autonomy and examines how it appears in the Birth Control Review, the monthly journal of the American Birth Control League, edited by Margaret Sanger between 1917-1928. In addition to providing the news of the birth control movement, the Review also published articles on birth control and related topics written by a wide range of scientists, scholars, and activists. Perhaps surprisingly, it also published fiction.
Now at first, I was surprised that fiction was written for the Birth Control Review. I really wondered what kinds of plots and characters would be created to convey some of the heavier themes of the birth control movement.
But then, I thought about the stories that were a part of True Blood. Though a majority of the appeal is the fantastical elements of the show, the audience is exposed to serious themes such as discrimination.
So, I read the two pieces of fiction that Wilson referenced in her paper: “On the Dump” by Rita Wellman and “The Magnet” by Mary Heaton Vorse.”
What was I able to extract?
These examples of fiction were written to cast the reader into the plight of a character who is struggling with their own physical body. The physical body wants to associate itself with the socially-accepted identity of the time while the mind wants to gain control.
This socially-accepted identity is that of a woman being a mother. Wilson describes the body as a machine, acting separately from the mind. This reproducing machine would leave women in the mercy of their bodies and unable to take control of their own bodies. Their bodies were seemingly betraying them.
Wilson examines this plight in terms of the autonomy of the maternal body and its association with science, specifically the technological advancement of birth control. Wilson structures the analyses around what she calls, a modernist conception narrative, which uses gothic features, such as neo-gothic vitalism, in order to depict the maternal body as “an organism with an autonomous will to reproduce.”
Whew! Let’s try to unpack that.
As I gathered from my reading of this article and references to other sources, aesthetic autonomy refers to the art object—in this case the fiction in the Birth Control Review— achieving independence from social, political, and historical forces given by the viewer or the reader. In a modernist conception narrative women attempt to reduce the autonomy of the maternal body from its position outside of the public sphere while also, trying to gain a greater independence. Wilson uses the poor women often depicted in the Birth Control Review’s stories as the individuals wrestling with the autonomy of their maternal bodies and seeking this independence. The independence in this case is the greater control over their reproduction.
In other words, think of the vampires in True Blood. In this example of fiction, there are characters that struggle with their physical body. Instead of reproduction, their struggle is an issue of thirst for human blood. What is the technological advancement that would let the vampires dissociate themselves from their public identity as bloodsuckers?
TrueBlood of course! Like birth control, the creation of TrueBlood would allow for vampires to gain control over their physical bodies and gain control over their thirst.
To further flesh out the modernist conception narrative, Wilson implements certain gothic features to her analyses. Neo-gothic vitalism relates to the mechanization of the maternal body and its autonomous decisions and desire to reproduce. Tying back into True Blood, this mechanization can be analogous to the vampires, as Wilson characterizes both as “pursuing a purpose unthinkingly and in a way that confuses the border between life and death.”
For women, the purpose is reproduction while for vampires it is fulfilling their thirst for human blood. The second part of this statement shows that women who have dominating maternal bodies are brought closer to death with the more life that they bring into the world.
In the case of vampires, I’m not so sure how this works. We could simply say that vampires are the walking dead who, if unable to control their physical thirst, will drink more and more life to remain the living dead. It’s kind of a stretch.
After I began to piece together the philosophical terms of modernism, I looked to the stories that Wilson presented in order to gain a better grasp on the connection between modernism, monsters and Margaret Sanger.
“On the Dump” published in the BCR in December or 1918.
“On the Dump” tells the story of a Mrs. Robinson returning home after grocery shopping. As she is walking through the tenement neighborhood, she spots something shiny on a dump heap. This sparkle reminds her of her wedding ring. These thoughts lead her to reflect on her current state of life. She realizes her disintegrating marriage, her unplanned pregnancy and the amplified poverty that will come with the birth of another child. Mrs. Robinson concludes that “the prize of life” is death. Suddenly she slips down towards the river below, barely catching herself on a tree stump. As she is dangling, something in her mind changes and she lets go. Too late she recognizes that she does not want to die this way but she drowns in the river, regardless.
Wellman included a second ending to her story. As Mrs. Robinson is falling, her pleas for help are answered by a birth control reformer who pulls her to safety.
Here, the presence of a “monster” can first be seen.
Image accompanying “On the Dump” in the December publication of the BCR in 1918.
Can you spot it?
The “monster” is Mrs. Robinson’s autonomous maternal body. Wilson describes this as the female body being an organism with an autonomous will to reproduce.
For Mrs. Robinson, her body and mind are separate. Her body has punished her with an undesired pregnancy. Her body takes control and the repeated reproduction only brings on “poverty, ignorance and war.”
The autonomy of Mrs. Robinson’s identity as a mother is a punishment. According to aesthetic autonomy, Mrs. Robinson, as a maternal body, is separate from the traditional political and social institutions that affect an individual’s identity.
But what does that mean?
Well, according to Rita Felski, an identity that is autonomous from the public sphere is autonomous from social change.
How could this be an achievement as aesthetic autonomy suggests?
This is the critique that Wilson focuses on; the reality that the aesthetic autonomy, when present in the birth control movement, is rather a punishment than an achievement.
In the instance of Wellman’s story, the aesthetic autonomy of being a mother has led to Mrs. Robinson’s death. She loses her life because her maternal body has too much life.
“The Magnet” published in the BCR in March of 1921.
The next story that Wilson uses to support her thesis, “The Magnet,” also concerns a tenement family.
The Telura family consists of Tony and his parents. At the beginning of the story, while Tony is playing with a magnet, he hears his mother’s screams from childbirth. Tony’s father, realizing that there is no way for him to support his family with another child, convinces himself that they are better off being sent to an asylum for widowed women and orphaned children. He therefore commits suicide.
But the family is left worse off by this decision. As his father lays dead under a sheet and his mother lays motionless in the bed, having become an “empty shell” after her body decided to reproduce again, the burden is left on Tony.
Again, the aesthetic autonomy, the ideal position of mothers to remain outside of the public sphere, is a punishment. Mrs. Telura, having been cursed with unwanted pregnancy, has also been cursed with incessant poverty and widowhood.
Like Mrs. Robinson’s body, Mrs. Telura’s body acts on its own accord. It is autonomous from her mind and control. It has left her plagued with continued hardship. Even from the description that Vorse gives of Mrs. Telura after she has given birth, there is a sense that she appears to be the walking dead.
Both women were unable to gain control of their maternal bodies and their reproduction. They both became states of death; Mrs. Robinson floating down the river and Mrs. Telura laying unmoving in her bed.
Like some of the vampires in True Blood, these women were made into monsters by the autonomy of their physical bodies.
The use of such pieces in publications such as the Birth Control Review, created a medium through which the significant impact the access to contraceptives on impoverished families could be discussed.
Both stories involve a specific reference to technological advancement.
The second ending that Wellman provides in “On the Dump,” Mrs. Robinson’s rescue by a birth control reformer, is an obvious attempt by Wellman to represent how birth control can save a woman; in this case from the death and torture of involuntary motherhood. The technological advancement in this case is the development of new methods of contraceptives. The narrative implies that a woman’s access to these contraceptive methods allow her to re-gain control over her body.
A public health nurse in New York visits a mother in slum district during the early 1900’s.
As for the story of the Telura family, the benefits of technological advancement are embodied in the magnet that Tony is holding.
Vorse’s story describes that as Tony is playing with the magnet, a nail nearby “leaps the gap.” Analogous to the spatial gap between the magnet and the nail is the emotional gap in Tony’s life due to the loss of his father and the current state of his mother. Vorse’s conclusion suggests that such a gap, or burden, can be avoided by technological advancements such as contraceptives.
With the engineering of TrueBlood, vampires are able to come out of hiding and live freely in the world as the beings that they are. TrueBlood allows them to quench their hunger without feeding on humans and gives them the choice to spend their time as they would like.
Working on this post has made me even more anxious to catch up with this season.