My animated musical short Seedid intervenes in a discourse of unplanned pregnancy that constructs a spectacle of irresponsible female sexuality and bolsters both right-wing populist arguments for the retrogression of feminism and neoliberal justifications for cutting women’s reproductive services. Seedid evokes the moralising against female sexuality, the spectacle of pregnancy, and the freedom to choose not to give birth, and is one of three animated musical shorts I have made in relation to the topic of intergenerational intimate partner violence (or ‘domestic violence’). I devised what I have named the ‘Jingle-Doc’ form to represent through multimedia research the ‘cycle of violence’ involved in intergenerational domestic violence. Seedid meditates on vulnerable young motherhood. In particular, this writing focuses on reproductive coercion—which commonly co-occurs with intimate partner violence and is also linked to the ‘corrective rape’ of gender non-conforming women. As media outlets and commentators would often rather focus on the moral shortcomings of young women in their explanations of unplanned pregnancy fluctuations, Seedid provides a counter-narrative that constitutes awareness-raising activism.
The animated musical short Seedid evokes the struggle for bodily autonomy which already existed for young women before the recent upsurge in opposition from right-wing populism. Seedid takes what I have named the ‘Jingle-Doc’ form to side-step interests who oppose women’s reproductive freedom and would silence women’s voices. The ‘Jingle-Doc’ form avoids video interviews displaying ‘confessing victims’—whose specificity can engender dis-identification—and uses cartoon imagery to encourage greater identification (McCloud, 1993: 31).
Seedid is designed for a broad audience and does not depict intimate partner violence explicitly; rather, it evokes the difficulty of falling pregnant at a young and vulnerable age. Thus, Seedid serves as a portal for gaining insight into the issues, for which it serves as an introductory and performative surface. I started with the idea that the ambiguity or open-endedness of sound and melody might get through to audiences who might otherwise oppose a direct message of female autonomy. I hoped that such ambiguity might shield me from some of the backlash and ‘trolling’ endured by feminist writers and commentators—at least temporarily, while I developed my research.
First, I created a songscape and later added animated visuals, then combined these elements into what I later named a ‘Jingle-Doc’. The term ‘Jingle-Doc’ alludes to how these issues might otherwise be treated in a realistic documentary form, as well as to music’s ability to affect the memory of audiences, as advertising ‘jingles’ do. I also drew on sound theory from William Burroughs (2005) music theory from Phillip Ball (2010), musical multimedia theory from Nicholas Cook (1998), and performative social science theory from Gergen and Gergen (2010), as I experimented to find a form in which to present my research. For the purposes of this article, Seedid serves as a centrepiece for discussing the difficult contemporary landscape inhabited by young women seeking reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy in an atmosphere where moralising against young pregnant women occurs alongside reproductive coercion. I hope that Seedid can contribute to a sympathetic view of the young woman’s position while offsetting the condemnatory and paternalistic attitudes that flourish in an age of patriarchal right-wing populism.
2. Unplanned Pregnancy and Austerity Cuts
In 2015, under-18 pregnancy rates in England and Wales were at their lowest since 1969 (ONS, 2017). In 2013, when numbers were also falling, Polly Toynbee credited the drop to the United Kingdom’s 10-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy for England (TPS) launched by the Labour Government and run from 1999 to 2010 with the aims of joining up national and local efforts, improving sex and relationship counselling and access to contraception, and supporting young parents (Hadley et al., Reproductive Health 2016). However, in 2017 more conservative commentators and academics have credited the drop in under-18 conception rates to austerity, citing cuts of 70% to these services since 2008. Their analysis uses research from the American economist George Akerlof to conclude that better access to contraception results in riskier behaviour (Paton and Wright; The Independent, 2017).
A focus on teens is not new, perhaps because teen pregnancies are often unplanned, but it is worth examining the rationale that withholding education and services from women is for their own good. There are other matters to be considered besides sexual risk-taking when it comes to teen birth and abortion rates. For example, intimate partner violence (IPV) currently disproportionately affects young people aged 16–18 (Laville, 2011) and IPV and controlling behaviours frequently include reproductive coercion (Reuters 2015, in ACOG 2013, Miller et al., 2007). Practices including coercing a woman into becoming pregnant against her will—as a means of dominating and controlling her by enforcing traditional gender roles—are occurring but are not included in the narrative of the risky young woman. After being coerced into becoming pregnant, some abused partners are then coerced to terminate the pregnancy (Gottlieb, 2012), which is easier to do in privacy now that ‘morning-after pills’ are more readily available (Petter, 2017, Bedell, 2005).
Given the prevalence of reproductive coercion, backed by the threat and/or intimidation of intimate partner violence, the assumption that women’s risk-taking is the only explanation for teen pregnancies is problematic. In the case of the ‘Akerlof’ explanation, women are framed as objects who automatically become riskier the more freedom and education they have. The academics Paton and Wright’s analysis of cuts to teenage pregnancy programmes in The Independent newspaper emphasises that local authorities making larger cuts saw significantly bigger reductions in teenage conceptions, abortions and births (2017). However, a closer examination of Paton and Wright’s complete analysis in the Journal of Health Economics (published a month after The Independent article) shows that their argument relies on “data on sexually transmitted infections” based on the assumption that “infections should rise if risk-taking is greater” (2017: 136). Soon after Paton and Wright’s research was published in the Journal of Health Economics (2017), the American Government espoused a similar perspective, that providing contraceptives to women through health insurance “could promote ‘risky sexual behavior’ among some teenagers and young adults” (Pear, 2017).
3. Why Protest?
Women’s independence is being re-contested amid a rise of right-wing populism across Europe and emanating from the United States, further unsettling the climate for women’s reproductive freedom. Moreover, mainstream anti-feminist practices such as ‘slut-shaming’ work in tandem with deceptive ‘sexual strategy’ or ‘pick-up artistry’ to discredit women and take agency away from them. Furthermore, these ideologies cite female irrationality as the justification for dismissing women from reproductive agency, public life (Castells, 1997: 23) and even choosing their own intimate partners (Koziol, 2014). Contemporary right-wing populism harmonises with traditional religious fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism, which emphasise female reproductive cooperation as central to their success; indeed, the “waning of patriarchy” is seen as a reason to return to right-wing populist political ideologies globally (ibid.). Reinforcing traditional gender roles for women is also thought to reinforce masculine identity. Meanwhile, segments of the Men’s Rights movement seek to avoid financial responsibility for offspring, in a seeming backlash against the enforcement of child maintenance, much of which goes unpaid in the USA and the UK (Toynbee 2016, Pao 2015, Rees 2017).
While the focus on teen pregnancy is presumed to be about heterosexual relationships, lesbians may be even more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, because visible lesbians sometimes suffer ‘corrective rape’ to enforce heterosexuality (Robson, 2011: 259). Moreover, with increasing numbers of gender-fluid people, the birth-control regimes of previous generations might seem outdated to many, even if they are still necessary. Indeed, non-heterosexual women have been referred to as “sexual amateurs” (Robson, 2011: 271) because they are not as prepared for heterosexual intercourse. However, it is not only lesbians who are expected to take up traditional heterosexual gender roles for the sake of bolstering masculine identity: UK school students are experiencing misogynistic name-calling at higher rates (Parliament.UK 2016, Bulman, 2017) whether they are heterosexual, lesbian or gender-fluid. Echoing this toxic culture are threats of ‘corrective rape’ made towards female journalists, academics and activists online to silence their perspectives; and it has been noted that there is a habitual use of ‘Rape-glish’, a rhetoric named for “its near-pathological obsession with the imagery of sexual violence” (Jane, 2017).
In the UK, sex and relationships education (SRE) is set to become compulsory in all but faith schools (Sellgren 2017), but SRE has also been a site of contestation. For example, the group Christian Concern bemoans the lack of parental control in SRE (ibid.). Especially in the USA—where about half of all boys and girls receive no sex education before their first experience of sex (Wind, 2016)—conservative and populist voices have long preferred ignorance (or ‘innocence’) about sex over educational empowerment, especially for girls. Considering the rise in right-wing populism, opposition to ‘21st century’ relationships and sex education (Bloom, 2017) could be provoked by representations of companionate rather than patriarchal intimate partnerships. Comprehensive relationships and sex education from the perspective of companionate intimacy works against the ignorance, disguised as innocence, on which support for right-wing populism and justifications for neoliberal austerity cuts rest. As for the ‘Akerlof’ perspective, a more likely explanation is that the TPS investment from 1999 to 2008 (Hadley et al., 2016) has had a cumulative and lingering educational effect that helped to bring down teen pregnancy rates. In the USA at least, many more teens have been using the morning-after pill (Gajanan, 2015) so it is also likely that many pregnancies are ended without being recorded.
4. The Spectacle of the Risky Young Woman
The silencing of women with threats of sexual violence and the shaming of women as objects relies heavily on the use of images of women. In both US and UK schools, it is common for female pupils to be ‘slut shamed’ by having intimate and private photos of themselves posted online as punishment on “Sket” (or whore) websites (Bulman, 2017). These displays work to visually re-brand human intimacies as objects, serving to justify voyeurism and fetishisation disguised as disciplinary paternalism. The debate about teen pregnancy also uses a discourse that allows the issue to be imagined voyeuristically—to be experienced as “an object of curiosity or contempt”, as Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines spectacle (Mish, 1998: 1129) and of risk. This focus on risk erases other factors from discussions of unwanted pregnancies, such as reproductive coercion as part of intimate partner violence. So all that is left is a spectacle of sexual risk and thus an opportunity for moralising. A sexualised world from which non-sexual considerations have been removed harmonises with Susan Sontag’s description of the pornographic—a rhetoric which “oversimplifies” and therefore leaves out other factors, both political and economic, contributing to “a particular ignorance” (Wendelin, 2012: 394, 376).
I am not claiming that the teen pregnancy debate is pornographic but rather that arguments relying heavily on a rhetoric of sexual risk-taking oversimplify and contribute to misunderstandings. In this case, the rhetoric serves right-wing populist patriarchy as well as neoliberal justifications for austerity cuts, but it does not serve the subjects of the debate. Back in 1885, during a public debate about contagious diseases among soldiers and prostitutes, the British philanthropist Josephine Butler wrote that British law’s treatment of underaged girls “reduced (them) to the level of an inanimate nuisance for political purposes” (quoted in Wendell, 2012: 382) and treated them as objects with “neither souls nor civil rights” (Butler, 1871: 176). Furthermore, the ground-breaking series in London’s Pall Mall Gazette that drew attention to the plight of underaged prostitutes, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’, has been criticised for ignoring their lowly socio-economic position (Wendelin, 2012: 375). Explanations for fluctuating numbers of teenage pregnancies that put the spotlight on sexual risk can also cause the debate to become “isolated from material economic realities” (ibid.). On a closer examination of Akerlof’s 1996 research, he and the other authors assume that ‘shotgun marriage’ is preferable to single parenthood (Akerlof et al., 1996). They also quote a father’s rights group, who rationalise that the free choice of women to physically end a pregnancy should also free men from financial responsibility for offspring (ibid., 281).
5. Reproductive Choice and Intergenerational Violence
ONA statistics indicate that poverty is strongly associated with teen births (Khomami, 2015) and although the numbers of conceptions, abortions and births are down, this is not an indication that we should stop providing services supporting those who would delay motherhood. For instance, the decision not to give birth is crucial in cases where homes would be places of threat and intimidation for the children born into them. IPV happens commonly to pregnant and postpartum women (Refuge.org) and pregnancy may be seen as a trigger for violence, yet this violence is disproportionately under-discussed and underrepresented.
Research shows that homes where a pregnancy is unwanted by the father are more likely to be violent environments for both mother and children (Miller et al., 2007; Jasinski, 2004: 54). Furthermore, the trauma of witnessing domestic violence in childhood has effects that not only linger into adulthood, but often become a part of family life in the next generation. For example, research has shown that over a third of children abused by a family member go on to be abused by a partner in adulthood (ONS, 2017); Jha, 2012) and many child witnesses become perpetrators of IPV in adulthood (Bulman, 2017). According to the NSPCC, recent reports show that children in the UK are witnessing domestic abuse at rates 77% higher than during the previous four years (Bulman, 2017). The US problem is similar, with available estimates of 1 in 15 children in the USA bearing witness to domestic violence (NCADV 2015). Given the evidence, it would seem that trouble is fomenting for these children and their future partners, generations and communities.
6. The ‘Jingle-Doc’ Form
My initial trepidation about addressing these issues through writing led me to experiment with the non-verbal potentialities of songscape; it was only later that I decided to add visuals. The songscape-making approach served as an opaque form of experimenting and documenting while freeing me temporarily from the moralising and contestation that words with political implications can attract. Also, written language seemed cold and blunt, likely to overdetermine to the point of distortion. I struggled to defer judgement while using words, which provided too narrow an accommodation for this exploration. I was gathering research results but lacked a unified form of articulation. Overwhelmed by this dilemma, I began making a songscape about an imagined unplanned pregnancy.
What I wanted was to be heard but not seen, in a way that some sound theorists refer to as acousmatic (Kane, 2012). I was also inspired by the memetic power of melody, its propensity for being remembered and also transmitted from one memory to another, a characteristic which the writer William Burroughs referred to as viral (Burroughs, 1970: 24). Moreover, I was helped in articulating music’s power for setting up and then violating expectations by the theorist Phillip Ball (2010: 323). Furthermore, since I intended my research to reach beyond academic audiences, I saw promise in using a performative approach, and this notion was validated by the theorists of Performative Social Science, Mary and Kenneth Gergen (2010).
Indeed, there have been various inspirations for my choice to employ sound to amalgamate this research, including Toni Morrison’s description in The Bluest Eye (1970) of the impossibly complex and contradictory character ‘Cholly’, of whom the narrator says “only a musician” could make sense (159). The term ‘Jingle-Doc’ was also partially inspired by the propagandistic documentary short films in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1960). Furthermore, the idea that documentary-like ethnography or autobiography might be performative or opaque was nurtured by Zora Hurston’s humorous and playful autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Also validating my experimental approach was Nicholas Cook’s characterisation of The Rite of Spring in Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia—“ethnography masquerading as fantasy”—in which he references both the animated “tribal dances” and Stravinsky’s music in Fantasia’s Rite of Spring segment (Cook, 1998: 199). John Drever also links acousmatic music, such as soundscapes based on participant observation or archival studies, to ethnography, noting that “ethnography embraces the subjective sensuous experience of the researcher” (2002: 23).
As I neared completion of my songscape, I thought it seemed unlikely that it would attract an audience on its own. So, I began playing with a lone dancing figure I had been animating. As I contemplated the imagined, unplanned pregnancy that had inspired my songscape, I transformed this lone dancing figure into a pregnant and vulnerable young woman. With the addition of the animations, the visual took up a place of dominance. Meaning also became more specific; however, I wanted to leave meaning open enough to accommodate audience autonomy: while on the one hand there is a visual spectacle of a pregnant young girl, with the moral judgements this might evoke, on the other hand there is an invitation to contemplate and sympathise with a human dilemma and the choice not to give birth. The cartoon aesthetic widens the audience of the message beyond those who have experienced unwanted pregnancy and its consequences themselves—offering a “universal” invitation to identify with the subjects depicted (McCloud, 1993: 31).
With my simple set of shapes, I also found that small transformations have meaningful impact, such as the ‘growing’ pink circle representing pregnancy, as well as the addition of long hair representing increased femininity. Furthermore, I found that changes in the colour of the figures as well as changes in dance style could suggest gender ambiguity. Although I was not consciously imposing a schema, the change from a pink- to a blue-outlined figure and also the change from pastel background to a polarised view (dark-but-glowing) could be seen as warm and nurturing colours transforming to cool and cerebral ones. Also, the change in dance style by the figure, from slow and balletic to more vigorous and less formal, could signify movement towards androgyny, inter-sexuality or asexuality. Especially in a cultural environment of right-wing populism and the ethnonationalism it entails, Seedid problematises a version of femininity which is overdetermined by a universal and continuous responsibility for giving birth.
In this written commentary, I have analysed a contemporary neoliberal justification for austerity cuts to women’s services, and found underlying assumptions about female sexual risk-taking. Such a narrow framing of the issue omits other important factors, such as reproductive coercion, and impedes the continued improvements needed for public health and wellbeing. As those involved in the teen pregnancy debate would often rather focus on the moral shortcomings of young women in their explanations of unplanned pregnancy rate fluctuations, counter-narratives are needed, and it is my hope that Seedid contributes such a counter-narrative to this discourse.
In an atmosphere that relentlessly silences feminist voices, my caution influenced a search for an oblique means of expression, and my subsequent development of the ‘Jingle-Doc’ form that Seedid takes. Seedid is intended as a gentle carrier for my research, enabling its conveyance in a multi-coded way, suited to various levels of reception and engagement among potential listener-viewers. I hope that Seedid will help to destabilise a neoliberal discourse of unplanned pregnancy as a spectacle of irresponsible and irrational female sexuality. It is my hope that Seedid contributes a testimony to the value of reproductive freedom and its need for protection. It is also my ambition that Seedid can reach listener-viewers who are not usually open to feminist messages. In using the ‘Jingle-Doc’ form to evoke the moralising against female sexuality, the spectacle of pregnancy, and the freedom to choose not to give birth, I intend to make this spectacle strange and to contribute a helpful disruption of the stereotype of riskiness. Finally, I hope that Seedid may serve as a centrepiece for discussing these issues in a non-judgemental way, helping to raise awareness.
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Shannon Magness is a researcher using digital video, music making and animating tools to explore and present research—first, on ethno-religious nationalism in the non-fiction film U Know Them By Their Fruit (2013); and now on intergenerational intimate partner violence in musical, animated ‘Jingle-Docs’.
© Shanon Magness
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.