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"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Review: Nobody's Baby But Mine

Nobody's Baby But Mine Nobody's Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the second novel that I’ve read by contemporary romance legend Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and I’m finding it even harder to tolerate than the last. The first book in the series was frustrating because it felt twisted and unrealistic in how it depicted/distorted sexism in the workplace. This book might be worse. It portrays offenses against bodily autonomy and consent in a flippant ways— as though it's bad form but nothing one should hold a real grudge over. It enrages me not because it's “politically incorrect,” which appears to be Susan Elizabeth’s brand—she even uses the term in the text, and the story centers on a baby-hungry career woman who manipulates a celebrity athlete into impregnating her (how edgy). That’s bad enough, but the real issue is that she heaps abuse on this man. Making her a heroine after that manages to be aggressively anti-feminist (a woman wanting to have a baby on her own is portrayed as crazy, misguided and selfish).

Jane, the putative heroine of sorts, is a socially awkward physicist and former child scientific prodigy with a ticking biological clock, Cal the hero/victim an aging NFL quarterback. She decides to have a baby with him by any means necessary, consent be damned. The central premise, a woman chooses a man to father her child based on his perceived lack of intelligence is ridiculously condescending. Jane, condescends to her lover. The book condescends to its readers and women who've apparently lost their way in the modern world.

The way Jane goes about it also makes the sexual acts themselves into abuse. Jane coerces Cal while he repeatedly rebuffs her advances. And when he tries to engage her in the act so that it’s more mutual and enjoyable, she rebuffs him, making the sex humiliating for him. Even though that’s not her aim, that is clearly the effect. It doesn’t matter that she is just protecting herself. She’s using him as a tool and that is the definition of exploitation. This could be a negative case study in moral philosophy.

This made me think about a moral reasoning class I took as an undergraduate. What stood out most was Kant's concept of the categorical imperative.
Kant's formulation of humanity, the second section of the Categorical Imperative, states that as an end in itself humans are required never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but always, additionally, as ends in themselves.

This entire premise is that Jane uses Cal Bonner as a means to an end, which is bad enough, but even as she is doing that she does nothing to minimize the harm she inflicts on him. That’s why this drives me crazy. She says she’s driven to do this by wanting a baby so badly, and the fact that the baby needs to have genes that run counter to her own for its own good, so that the child won’t suffer the outsider status and social isolation she did. No matter how faulty that logic is at least it’s genuine. But she could still have tried to find someone to participate in this of their own free will.

Making matters far worse, it wouldn’t cost her anything but her own neuroses to treat Cal as a full human being during the process. And that, the sexual humiliation and insult she heaps on Cal during their two initial encounters plus the harm she does him by making him feel he’s potentially doing harm to her during the acts, that’s gratuitous. This is not a trivial harm. And yet somehow she’s still ultimately painted as a cute and quirky heroine.

This is not cute. Forced reproduction isn't funny. In another novel, this would be the key act that defines the villain (see Long Shot for one example).

The fact that I really haven't seen any critique of the forced procreation and sexual humiliation in this book compounds my disturbance with this book. As a feminist (and as a human being), my concern about someone being denied bodily autonomy is not something I take on and throw off at will depending on the identity of the victim.

The bottom line? Nobody’s Baby But Mine makes Jane into a heroine, abuser and the object of scorn at the same time. Why take a social phenomenon— career woman wants to have a baby on her own— and distort is this far from reality in this ugly a way? Is it just because that makes for good conflict and conflict means drama, equals compelling storytelling? Or is there an attempt to discredit the social phenomenon? Or do they just not see it that way? Does women doing grotesque things to men really not seem grotesque to Phillips and her fans?

Other issue: Casual racism. Not a fan!
When she learns Cal isn't the dim bulb she assumed he was just because he's an athlete, Jane worried their child will be freakishly smart and not fit in like she did growing up. Her solution: She’s going to move to a "primitive" part of Africa to keep her child away from people. Seriously:
She couldn’t let that happen. She’d die before she’d permit her child to suffer as she’d suffered. She’d move away! She’d take the baby to Africa, some remote and primitive part of the continent. She’d educate the child herself so that her precious little one would never know the cruelty of other children.

Because of course there are no people who count in "remote and primitive" Africa. That's it. I'm done here.

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