The Pregnant Avatar: Seeing Oneself in C-Sections, Surrogates and Sonograms


This text was published in After Image’s 44th Volume

A quick Google search for “games for girls” yields a rather finite set of categories. There are cooking games, dress-up games, makeup games, shopping games, a few that feature household chores, childcare games, and pregnancy games. What exactly is a pregnancy game? How can the physical and emotional labor of forcing life into the world be conveyed as entertainment? Perhaps more pressingly, why does such a form of online engagement even exist?

Sifting through the hues of pink and purple that punctuate websites devoted to games for girls, I learned that pregnancy games are formulaic. Almost like recipes or the washing instructions on clothing tags, these games turn the travails of childbirth into a series of regimented and repetitive tasks. Through strictly enforced steps, the player may give the pregnant woman an ultrasound, send her a message, dress her in maternity clothes, or, quite ambitiously, perform a C-section.

I am interested in the way pregnancy games fit into understandings of gender and emotional labor in a world intimately linked through technological globalism. When young people identify with representations of pregnant women there are instructive qualities implied by the constructed game. When technologies allow for the projection of the self into virtual worlds, we become subject to the realities of that ulterior representation.

By enabling emotional identification with a rendered alternate experience, the avatar becomes an extension of perspective. Avatars, icons that represent particular people, are both intimately linked to the person they represent and formally estranged. Considering the subjective association young girls might have with avatars in pregnancy games, I wonder how a relationship to one’s own body might become representational during the lived experience of childbirth. In many ways childbirth forces a sensitivity to futurity, as the pregnant woman must think of how her present choices will affect her child’s future.

The pregnant female body becomes a representation, or symbol, of the child to be born. When people transfer the responsibilities and physicality of childbirth to a surrogate, the physical body of the woman carrying the unborn baby becomes even more like an avatar. When a mother proudly gazes upon a high-definition sonogram image, she has attained another virtual avatar for her unborn baby. New relationships formed through technology are paradoxical. They create possibilities for experiencing otherness but are limited by the inherent subjectivity that exists in building or entering any constructed world.

In the myriad of pregnancy games available, young players can select a number of culturally recognizable figures to act as their avatar. Elsa and her younger sister Anna from Frozen (2013, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) give birth; they sometimes have twins. Barbie has a baby. Cinderella is pregnant, as are Belle, Rapunzel, and Ariel—the mermaid. My Little Pony gets knocked up, so does a cartoon version of Beyoncé. Even a Minion from the Pixar film Despicable Me (2010, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud) is gendered and then impregnated. The characters that young people impersonate are available to be anesthetized, x-rayed, and put under the knife.

In these pregnancy games, the Barbies and princesses and My Little Ponies are unaffected by the act of giving birth. Predisposed to a fabricated loveliness, they sit in operating chairs beaming and blinking enormous eyes. Their lips are painted red, their hair is prom-queen perfect, and their gowns are pushed up to expose a belly. Before the C-Section is performed, some of these online games let the player give the pregnant cartoon a face mask or make-over. Never are their recognizable faces distorted by pain or fear.

One of the major steps in most of the games is the conduction of an ultrasound. After a curled-up cartoon baby is shown on the screen, the player makes an incision. Soon the same image of the baby miraculously floats above the mother’s belly. Something in the simplicity of the movement is particularly eerie. One can imagine the animator of the game selecting a preinstalled fade-in option, equating the process of birth to an aesthetic movement usually used in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations or car commercials.

I have two young cousins from Thailand. Before we were able to converse in English, I watched as they expertly searched for YouTube videos of Tinkerbell on their mother’s iPad. Hyper-accessible images and scenarios can be preverbal for children living after the onset of the internet. Before they were able to participate in American culture relationally or verbally, they could project themselves into the world through identification with the magical dispositions of impossibly formed cartoons.

Disney princesses and Barbies are cartoon caricatures of women, for the most part designed to represent the apex of androcentric desire. The use of these fantastical figures predisposes young players who already identify with these characters to project attachments and expectations into the game, endowing the play with an emotional poignancy. This can cause players to identify with the structurally limited iteration of femininity celebrated by patriarchal forces. We know all too well the way the world betrays young women. In The Female Complaint (2008) Lauren Berlant laments that “unlike other victims of generic social discrimination, women are expected to live with and desire the parties who have traditionally and institutionally denied them legitimacy and autonomy.”1 To attach a simplified version of childbirth to the already emotionally loaded image of Disney princesses is necessarily manipulative. While a young player of the game might emotionally identify with the woman giving birth, the games position the player as the doctor. From the perspective of a pair of sterilized and gloved hands, pregnancy looks simple. Seeing through the eyes of the doctor suggests a clean separation of mother and child. Hormonal changes, physical pain, postpartum depression—none of these bodily experiences are a part of the perspective.

In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag warns that “Despite the illusion of giving understanding, what seeing through photographs really invites is an acquisitive relation to the world that nourishes aesthetic awareness and promotes emotional detachment.”2 The cognitive dissonance of the computer screen inundates the player with emotional neutrality toward childbirth. Pregnancy becomes understood as procedural, sterile, and distant. The game then replaces emotional distance with an abstract sense of fulfillment. With human complexity transformed by the game’s design, the images function in a virtual plane in which the experiential spectrum of childbirth is aesthetically minimized.

The sonogram, as an indication of “goal” in these games, demands attention. The sonogram is received as a representation inside of a representation. In contrast to the two-dimensional sonograms of real life that offer a striking contrast with three-dimensional reality, the games’ ultrasound machines render images of babies no different than the one that will later hover above the pregnant mothers’ bodies.
The sonogram portrays the fetus as outline. Masked in a time before the complexity of relationality and development begins to shape personality, the sonogram shows child as genetic image. Free from the realities of temporality, the sonogram is not yet imbued with character. Instead, the image allows for free association and projection. While sonograms have medical purposes, these pictures aesthetically remind me of the spirit photography of late nineteenth century America: they create an image that can be interpreted and given meaning without being constrained to actualities. The sonogram functions like an avatar. It is a representation that can be imaginatively customized by particular interpretation and preference.
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (2012) is an ethnographic collection of interviews with women involved in the rapidly expanding surrogacy market. In the field, Hochschild found an unquantifiable intimacy that often gets lost in market exchanges and global capitalism.

Particularly interesting is the relationship between surrogate mother and sonogram that she encountered. Leela, a woman Hochschild met in Anand, Gujarat, said that she thought of the baby she carried as her own because “I saw his hands and legs on the sonogram…To this day I feel I have three children and one of them I gave as a gift”3 The surrogate mother can become emotionally attached to the sonogram, using it as a tool of identification. The affective response allows for a sense of possession and a possibility to imagine the baby, which is inseparable from the mother’s own body, empathetically. Sonograms allow both mothers—the surrogate mother and the genetic mother—to see the baby as their own avatar. However, while the surrogate looks at the sonogram with emotional attachment, the genetic parents also consider it as a source of evaluation.

Here there actually is a sort of “game” involved in the image of the fetus. The surrogate has “won” if the baby is healthy. However, if the baby is miscarried or born with a disease, the surrogate will “lose,” and suffer the economic consequences. To the adopting parents, the less quantifiable elements of the surrogate’s “success” or “failure” at the “game” are estranged. The information comes remotely, often through a computer.

Games can create a space in the world that is not the world by rendering an alternate visual reality. Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests that is it only through tools that the world as we see it becomes “apparent to us.”4 Yet the tool or lens of imaginative thought in pregnancy games feels more like an instruction manual than a place for exploration. The parameters in this interpretation of the world are formulaic and foreclosed. Arrows appear on the screen and instruct the player precisely how to interact with the pregnant woman. If the player deviates from the procession of the game, the action is simply ignored. An impossible way of being in the world is virtually composed. There is no way to lose the game, and, in this, there is no way to resist its presentation of the world. The capacity for communication and empathy is partially foreclosed as the phenomenological distance between perception and the body grows.

Dr. Nayna Patel runs the Akanksha Infertility Clinic in Gujarat, which was the subject of the film Google Baby (2009, directed by Zippi Brand Frank). The film follows the story of an Israeli couple who were unable to pursue surrogacy because of the high expense and homophobia in local clinics. They contact Patel, who helps them remotely select a surrogate mother for a fraction of the cost. The couple ships a mixture of their sperm, as well as a friend’s egg donation, to India and face no personal questions from their removed partners in artificial insemination. Perhaps this global and remote way of obtaining a child mirrors what is demonstrated in the pregnancy game. A baby miraculously appears without the emotional or physical pains of pregnancy. The Akanksha Infertility Clinic functions in a Fordist model of production. The employees live, sleep, and eat at the clinic where their health is monitored. Once a woman agrees to become a surrogate, she must remain isolated in the clinic to ensure she refrains from sexual activity and follows the health stipulations the clinic requires. In the clinic, working as a surrogate means entering a virtual world, distinct from the rules, norms, and expectations that exist outside of it. For the duration of their pregnancy, the women are instructed to “think of your womb like a bag or a suitcase, carrying something that does not belong to you.” The surrogate mother becomes an avatar in service of the adopting parents. She is selected as a temporary body that can be partially inhabited through paid access.

Patel gives each of her clients the opportunity to customize the woman who will work as their surrogate. Assured that all the women are completely healthy, those acquiring the services of a surrogate can make cosmetic and cultural selections. Just as the pregnancy games allow young girls to project personality onto the cartoon body of a Barbie or Disney princess, adopting parents can imagine a personality for their surrogate based on simple categorical information. One woman’s file is shown in Google Baby and she is quantified as: “complexion-wheatish, caste-Hindu, education-uneducated.” None of this information seems obviously necessary to disclose., How would the woman’s skin color, level of education, or caste affect the life of the baby? Why do people purchasing surrogacy services want this information? Perhaps it is because it allows the adopting parents to visualize the woman, and her foreign world, who will represent their bodies in the process of childbirth.
The ability to customize a surrogate is paralleled in the popular “sponsor a child” charity structure. People visit a website and personalize preferences for the child they would like to support. Like a video game avatar, a birthday can be chosen, as well as a sex, hair color, and age. These customized specifications remind me of my mother’s World of Warcraft character. For $9.99 a month, she existed as an elf with milky-blue skin that could shape-shift into a bear. In the game, the politics of physical qualifiers can be suspended as arbitrary preferences. However, when similarly structured opportunities for customization are presented in real-world relationships, the problematic elements of selective representation become more pronounced.

The skin color of a surrogate mother defines how often she works, but it is up to the whim of families purchasing her services what skin color is desirable. This is the economic consequence of existing as avatar rather than “player.” Will it be “wheatish” or “cardboard?”; will Jasmine or Cinderella receive a C-section?
The 2010 Tamil film Enthiran, directed by Shankar Shanmugam is about a Frankensteinian scientist who creates a super intelligent robot in his image. Sixty-five-year-old actor Rajinikanth plays both the creator and his monster, which in itself is a technological feat of visual manipulation and careful editing. The film is primarily an extensive computer-generated imagery (CGI) shot of a robot destroying cities and performing cloning acrobatics. Most of this absurd action film has no place in this discussion, but one scene set in a birthing room fits well with the dialogue of this essay.

Rajnikanth’s fictional girlfriend is desperately trying to become a nurse specializing in female reproductive health despite her terrible grades and failing test scores. The robot becomes her personal study aid, memorizing her textbooks and silently dictating answers into a small headset during her exams. On a visit to the pregnancy clinic where she is training, the two encounter a medical emergency. A woman has gone into labor prematurely and both her life and that of her unborn child are threatened. Asserting himself, the robot brushes past the female head of the hospital, who insists that an emergency C-section must be performed. The robot silences her and informs the room that the baby will be born in an old-fashioned and traditional way.

The robot then proceeds to essentially pry the woman’s hip bones open. The sequence is disturbing both because of the incredible pain it enacts on the female body and because of the suggestion that women’s health should remain traditional even as medical technology becomes more advanced. From the very male robot’s place of advanced knowledge, he can prescribe scientific regression for specifically female medical problems. Gendered knowledge is disguised as utopian futurism. Empowered constructions of technology, which already come from a privileged and predominately male position, are falsely erasing alternate perspectives from the project of development.

Before the violent arrival of her child, the woman at the clinic is delighted to see the artificial sonogram which the robot displays for her. It is the representation of the virtual child that helps the woman get through the extreme pain she experienced. The technologically rendered image distracts the pregnant mother from her emotional and physical present. The sonogram represents an end “goal” of pregnancy. Once again represented like a game, pregnancy becomes a process toward birth in the film. Almost as if the woman were a race car driver hurtling dangerously around corners, the movement toward a final goal emphasizes outcome over process.

The young player carving the cartoon body in the pregnancy games does so perfunctorily while a Barbie or Disney princess smiles and bats her eyelashes. Complacently, control rather than emotional fluctuations are experienced as a virtual knowledge of childbirth is constructed. It has been said many times that video games marketed to young boys encourage violence and desensitize the young brain to violence. It is equally likely that online pregnancy games teach girls to distance themselves from their bodies. Building on this impulse, these games suggest a future possibility—that if one is wealthy and white, like many of the cartoon princesses, the emotional and physical labors of pregnancy can be outsourced.

Though the complexities of pregnancy are edited out of the imagined world, the virtualization of pregnancy does not transcend the confines and realities of the gendered body. Instead, the virtual world performs a masking, erasing space for the discussion of actual inequality by presenting an image of technological utopia. In the future promised by these representations, people are disembodied. As life and technology increasingly intersect, the body can be more easily objectified and categorized into component parts. The capacity for customizing services online as global technology advances is bad for female bodies that have been historically repressed, is dangerous to the structurally impoverished, and is likely to intensify identification based on skin color.

To project oneself into another body expands personal scope and stretches the limitations of physical embodiment. However, the capacity to suspend reality and enter a virtual sphere is not without a material foundation. Though avatars allow for a temporary transcendence of condition, they also demand a physical surrogate host. Be it the silicon mined from the earth to construct computers, the workers assembling iPhones in Foxconn Technology Group’s factories, or the body of a surrogate mother, the virtual does not exist outside of the power dynamics and social constructions that govern the actual. The desire to reproduce oneself in another body, a desire that motivates many to have children, has to be borne physically.

NOTES 1. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 242. 2. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977), 111. 3. Arlie Russell Hochschild The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2012), 98. 4. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 4.