Fetus Fetish on the Firing Line: A Conversation

by Akim Reinhardt and Jennifer Ballengee

Human embryo at 4 weeks
Human embryo at 4 weeks

First Discussant: For anti-abortion extremists, abortion is a fetish. It’s a symptom that covers a repressed, secret, and socially unacceptable desire. What desire? I’m not sure; it’s their fetish, not mine. But whatever it may be, it drives anti-abortion protestors to scream about saving lives, to hold up posters of fully-formed fetuses (rather than the mass of cells you see in an ultrasound at six weeks or so), and to demand that we save those unformed lives. However, those images of fully-formed fetuses are a lie. They are visual metaphors which, as metaphors do, compare two unlike things: “life” in its social, meaningful context, and the bare life of any cell mass, whether an amoeba, plant, worm, or human. The “sacred” aspect of the human—which lends it the claim to human rights, or gives it its meaning in punishment or execution or “life”—is not innate but imagined. However, if we were to admit that we’re a mass of cells like any other life form, then we’d all have to be vegetarians, or cannibals.

The Respondent: I agree that anti-abortion extremism is a fetish, a form of idolatry where supplicants worship a non-sentient globule for its spiritual and even magical powers. I call this the Fetus Fetish. It’s actually more of an embryo fetish, but I like alliterations. Perhaps it’s not surprising since the vast, vast majority of extremists are very religious and typically espouse Christian notions of a divinely formed soul within every human being upon conception, leading them to entangle embryos with ideas about the sacred. That seems pretty straightforward. What grabs me is your implication that anti-abortion extremism is grounded in a form of religious speciesism. That only by replacing honest observation and rational thought with supernatural religiosity could one conclude that a tiny collection of microscopic, embryonic cells is somehow more worthy of a sacred life than an adult chicken, or that even a twenty-week old fetus, which despite the miracles of modern medical technologies absolutely cannot live outside a woman’s womb, is somehow on a par with, much less the better of, an adult cow or pig or dog. All you have to do is look an adult dog or pig in the eye to recognize you’re dealing with a mature, highly developed, self-sustaining, thinking mammal whose existence has infinitely more in common with your own than does an embryo or early stage fetus. Yes, either eat all the animals or none of them; or at least use that dichotomy as a starting point for some deep thought about your place in the universe. Read more »

On the Limits Of Edgelord Comedy

by Omar Baig

Dave Chappelle grapples with the intractability of gender norms in The Closer: his most recent and final stand-up special for Netflix. Early into the set, Chappelle recounts the one-sided fight he had at a nightclub with a lesbian woman. When she interrupts his conversation with a female fan, Dave assumes they’re a jealous boyfriend. He deescalates the situation, however, once he realizes they are actually a jealous girlfriend; yet his unintentional misgendering only antagonizes her more. She reacts by squaring up in “a perfect southpaw stance” and throws the first punch. Chappelle reflexively dodges, then reacts in kind, by knocking “the toxic masculinity” out of her.

This, ladies and gentle-folx, is Edgelord comedy at its spiciest. Now, was it okay for Dave to misgender this woman, even unintentionally? No. Did Chappelle have to respond by, “softly and sweetly,” telling her: “Bitch, I’m about to slap the shit out of you!” Also, no. Yet was he justified in “tenderizing those titties like chicken cutlets,” in self-defense, once she threw that first punch? In my opinion, yes. This anecdote illustrates that toxic masculinity, like public acts of jealousy or public aggression, is not only limited to men. It also features two of The Closer’s recurring motifs: (1) Dave’s respect of others as reciprocal to their respect for his personal boundaries (i.e., irrespective of sexual or gender identity); or (2) by all the ways that performing informs his personal, social, and creative interactions. Read more »