Mother Time

One of the most profound social transformations imagined in Brave New World (1932) and Gattaca (1997) is the rejection of viviparous reproduction in favor of ectogenesis. In Huxley’s vision of a World State, “mother” becomes an incomprehensible, dirty word, “father” proves just as shameful, and the savage practice of natural birth repulses those exposed to it. If other than Linda, who doesn’t last long in this “brave new world,” Huxley gives us no mothers, this may not be the case in Andrew Niccol’s film. I see another narrative temporality at work in Gattaca’s fictional world, which Jay Clayton perceives as complexly negotiating “genome time” and the various dramas of the movie’s “story time” (Charles Dickens in Cyberspace,186). Offering an alternative to Jay’s reading of Jerome and his role in figuring the “threat of homosexuality,” I am interested in the film’s narrative of conception, gestation, (re)birth, and death in which Jerome—rather than supplying homoerotic tension—functions as Vincent’s mother.

The process of giving life to Vincent alters Jerome in a number of ways. He becomes domesticated, forced (however voluntarily) to stay at home and spend his time, not in personal pursuits, but in ceaseless preparations of his body for Vincent’s sustenance. These acts transpire in a time frame conceivable as a gestation period, tending toward the expectant scene of rebirth in the space vessel (complete, as Jay observes, with umbilical cord-like walkway). Finding in Vincent’s life dream his own cosmic purpose, Jerome fulfills a host of historically persistent, romanticized conventions of motherhood, the most prominent being his willingness—even desire—to sacrifice himself for his progeny. If at the stage of conception he oozes condescension, envy, selfishness, and carelessness, he increasingly becomes caring, loving, devoted, and prolific in his production of genetic samples. Most importantly, Vincent’s ultimate rebirth at story’s end means Jerome’s simultaneous demise. The liminal, tenuous, alternately glorious and grotesque dual subject phase of pregnancy ends in the death of the mother and the birth of the subject—the process we have been watching for most of the film. Jerome’s relative marginalization throughout the story helps produce our satisfaction with the resolution, for we are led to privilege Vincent’s will, not Jerome’s painstaking bodily and subjective sacrifice, as the guarantor of his heroic success. Both of these narrative temporalities work against “genome time,” yet, unsurprisingly, the former is far more palatable. (Notably, Jerome’s failed suicide attempt makes this pill even easier to swallow because it permits us to believe that he would have died anyway.)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that this reading is easily available to readers (In fact, this is the very problem I am hoping to highlight) or that it accounts for every aspect of Jerome’s characterization. It does not. I offer these ideas because they allow me to pose a series of questions I believe we must ask when considering the social implications of artificial and natural reproduction. The alternative realities imagined in these dystopias posit at once disturbingly conventional and refreshingly incongruous material for rethinking the signs and practices of motherhood (and fatherhood for that matter). What does it mean to be a mother? In “unreal” stories such as these, who are the mothers in practice, if not in name? Do we need them? If so, in what ways and forms? What happens when they are missing? Perhaps analyzing male, alternative, or partial mother figures like Jerome can help us fathom, and fashion, new ways of liberating women from the oppressive weight of maternity.



~ by bellonvandy on February 12, 2009.

One Response to “Mother Time”

  1. I had a serious problem with Jerome’s characterization, specifically the final moment which you and Jay both explore. The narrative of the film demands repeatedly that we understand Jerome as a person who deals with the burden of failed perfection, but in both the interpretations you offer, Jerome becomes allegorized – he becomes a symbol of something or other. True, he tried to kill himself once before, but are we expected to believe after all the effort and seeming inspiration he draws that he simply ends it? What’s more, the silver medal turning gold makes this an image of positivity or transcendence.

    I also have a problem with John’s suicide, but for completely different reasons.

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