Earlier this week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell withdrew support for a bill that would require women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds. McDonnell backed down due to public outrage over the idea that the GOP (you know, the party who don’t like government intervention in people’s lives … only their vaginas) felt it had the right to enforce a medically unnecessary, highly invasive procedure that is somewhat akin to state-sanctioned rape, and that – hypocritically for a proposal from the party opposed to state healthcare – turns doctors into servants of the state before they are servants of their patients. McDonnell stepping away from the bill might sound like a victory for rationality, but it’s hardly a resounding one, as the bill seems fated to end up looking like several other ultrasound laws, “only” requiring an external, abdominal ultrasound.
Given the disgusting and very literal invasion of women’s bodies that this bill represents, it may seem somewhat crass and/or beside the point to use the ultrasound bill to discuss audience theory, but as I’ll argue, what this bill and its abdominal-only brethren say about women as audiences and as citizens is every bit as disturbing as the acts of physical invasion that have justifiably come under fire. Virginia’s Republican Party didn’t seem to care about the means (the ultrasound), only the ends (women as audiences of ultrasound pics), but those ends require as much criticism as the repulsive means.
Advocates of such bills argue that the ultrasound will offer a woman “more information” so that she can make “a reasoned choice,” but what they’re clearly relying on is the idea that when a woman sees a picture of the fetus, she will fall in love with it, maternal instincts will magically kick in, and she’ll now see it as a human being that needs her protection and a “Mommy’s Sweetie” layette from Babies ‘R’ Us. This is a remarkably naïve notion of how audiences work. Or, rather, it’s third person effects in operation, wherein one’s own reaction to an item of media is trusted to be sophisticated, whereas a worried-about other’s is not. Here, women are imagined to be that third person (itself posting the normative “us” as men), and to be a simpler audience, one whose hormones and feminine frailty lead to having more reliably passive, simplistic, and easily-engineered responses to media.
Let’s get something straight, though: ultrasounds don’t necessarily make a fetus look all that human-like. Here’s an example (published with approval of the mother):
Now, maybe your Rorschach-reading skills are better than mine, or maybe you’re more adoring of all things baby, and you therefore look at the above picture and see a cute little baby. Personally, it looks like an alien to me. Republican ultrasound bills believe, though, that women will all be overcome by the babyness of such images, and they don’t consider that maybe a woman will look at such a picture and think of her fetus as even less of a human being, as intruding and unwanted.
The bill therefore seems as well-considered as might one that requires women seeking abortions to read a poem from a Hallmark New Baby card (“Babies are a blessing …”). Or perhaps anyone seeking a divorce will soon need first to attend statewide viewing sessions of When Harry Met Sally? Or maybe Gitmo will soon start a program of showing photos of happy picnicking families with Labrador puppies to suspected terrorists as a way to “turn” them.
But the bills don’t just betray a belief in women as simple audiences; they go a step further in encouraging the state to take advantage of the supposedly doltish female audience and engineer their responses. The Virginia bill came under heavy fire (as it should have) because of how physically invasive it was. But behind all the ultrasound bills is the idea that the government could or should determine and design women’s media exposure, not simply in the tried-and-true fashion of censoring this or that, but by dictating that they must look at certain images. Welcome to Clockwork Orange. Programs for drunk drivers and others found guilty of certain crimes have long paved a path of requiring audiencehood, but we’re seeing an expansion of said path to allow for forced media consumption by those whose life choices worry the state. The notion behind such bills is that the state will determine what media women need to watch, listen to, or look at (once again, by the party that says it doesn’t like government involvement in people’s lives).
In doing so, the bills attempt to stigmatize behavior that isn’t illegal, but that the GOP would like to see as illegal, thereby creating a second tier of citizens who haven’t actually violated any standing law but whose current actions supposedly require monitoring and then disciplining through media exposure. They tell us that one group of citizens needs extra surveillance and attention. No surprise, given the misogyny of many other bills and statements of late, that this group is women (as rendered clear by bills designed satirically to instead put men in the cross-hairs, such as a Georgian proposal to criminalize vasectomies, for instance, or another that would require that men seeking Viagra be subjected to prostate exams). And thus while the conception of how state, media, female audience member, and citizen are related that undergirds this bill may seem of less immediate importance to us as feminists than the invasive nature of the procedure, I’d pose that this conception needs as much resistance and criticism inasmuch as it opens up yet more ways to legalize women’s inferior status. The belief in the passive audience isn’t “just” a theory – here it’s become the precept to repressive policy.