Published: Feb. 2, 2013 By

[1] Engineering a cure for the heteronormative family has become one of the signature missions of certain forms of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) in the twenty-first century.  Processes like artificial insemination and surrogacy are increasingly depicted in popular culture representations as commercial options for women (particularly career women) to fulfill the naturalized role of motherhood and build families conforming to contemporary norms of whiteness, middle-class status, and heterosexuality.  While the use of ARTs might enable new forms of kinship, identity building, and family formation, as many feminist scholars have pointed out, the increasing commercial availability of such technologies tends instead to shore up gendered norms and heteronormative family structures (Balsamo, Davis-Floyd, Kaplan and Squier).  The perception of ARTs as service to these norms is, in fact, so pervasive that even technologies not yet in place and ripe for imagining difference tend to be portrayed as disruptive forces of otherness that challenge the sanctity of the family, but they are usually absolved by producing the idealized infant.  Within these elements of contemporary reproductive discourse, the designer baby is a unique example of the ways in which fantasies about reproductive technologies negotiate these tensions between technological innovation and familial norms.

[2] While the notion of humans experimenting with human biology has appeared throughout history in various fictions and speculations, the 1990s heralded the appearance of the designer baby in cultural discourse, a term commonly employed in the mass media to describe the conception of infants according to particular parental and medical standards.  Biologist Colin Tudge defines the designer baby as a child “genetically engineered to a specification,” that would supposedly employ the now common processes of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) (Tudge).  While, as Tudge indicates, there are important scientific factors in designing children, the designer baby is also tied indelibly to certain elements of cultural fantasy in popular discourse.  Perhaps one of the most interesting qualities of the designer baby is its ability to blend scientific and popular discourses, as the series of popular medical books appearing on the topic since the 1990s indicates (Green, Sandel, Stock, Tudge).  The term “designer baby” is commonly referenced in major newspapers and on news sites (at least once a year since 1990 inThe Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post,and The Chicago Tribune), accompanied by articles that invariably cite medical doctors or specialists.  Several television documentaries have also appeared, meant to explain the ethical and medical issues involved in designing children to a popular audience (Who’s Afraid of Designer Babies, Frontline: Making Babies, Designer Babies: the Genetic Revolution).  Moreover, alongside its identity as a child “engineered to a specification,” the designer baby invokes medical standards for the healthy body, and with the use of PGD, is both criticized and valorized through its potential to eliminate various forms of disability (Snyder and Mitchell, Silver).

[3] In its position at the crux of medical and popular discourse, the designer baby has also played an important role in fictional narratives about ARTs.  Science fiction has dealt with the possible alien and alienating aspects of designing human beings irrevocably different from and possibly superior to our current norms (Gattaca, Dark Angel, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Splice).  Portrayals of the designer baby are also intimately concerned with the well-being of the heteronormative family, and often pose the figure of a genetically engineered infant or human being as paradoxically a threat to that unit as well as a saving grace (After AmyPicoult).

[4] Commonly idealized in popular culture, the image of the family wields a formidable normative force (Coontz, Stacey).  For Leonard Cassuto, “the family is supposed to be a variation on a productive marriage that features a husband, a wife, and children…that model long ago became a highly coercive ideal” (Cassuto 487).  The heteronormative nature of such “coercive ideals” is often intertwined with discourses of class and race that reify the long-standing white middle-class norm and omit, fetishize, or work to assimilate alternatives.  As a member of the family then, the figure of the designer baby works to simultaneously assimilate and exclude cultural, racial, and class minorities into what is often cast in public discourse as the white, middle-class, heteronormative ideal of reproduction.  The rhetoric surrounding these infants invites participation in the technology and ideology used to conceive and raise designer babies at the same time that it paradoxically sculpts an exclusionary body for them in the figure of the white, middle-class infant integrated into the heteronormative family.

[5] In addition to the classed and raced characterization of family life, a less-discussed aspect of the heteronormative ideal often becomes an important element in narratives about designer babies: the able body.  While artificial insemination and surrogacy appear in narratives as vehicles to achieve domestic bliss, the qualities of design and perfection inherent in fantasies of genetic engineering necessarily encompass modes of disability, posing the designer baby as a preventative measure to the disabled body.  Thus, for example, in films like Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997), a dystopic future in which genetically designed humans form an elite class, and the naturally born “invalids” are relegated to menial labor with no hope of advance, the designer baby necessarily equals the designer body, marked by whiteness, but more explicitly by a healthy, perfected physique.  The designer baby, then, colors the heteronormative desire for family building with a distinctly ablist bent.  In some ways, this is exemplary of Robert McRuer’s assertion that “heteronormative epiphanies are repeatedly and often necessarily, able-bodied ones” (McRuer 13).  Along these lines, I would argue that the cultural figure of the designer baby forms a crucial site for the intersection of discourses that privilege the able body and the heteronormative family.

[6] In its paradoxical role as engineered cure for and threat to familial and bodily norms, the designer baby works as a significant figure in ART discourse.  In many ways, the designer baby functions within the process of “figuration,” which as Vivian Sobchack defines it, “entails the figure actively engaged in transforming the text and being itself transformed through its work” (Sobchack 148).  Because the designer baby is still largely a fictional figure (at least in its full realization as an infant designed to specifications of beauty, intelligence, and talent), it offers a unique opportunity for discursive analysis to unravel evolving cultural conceptions of bodily and familial norms as they respond to increasing medical innovation and intervention in human reproduction.  As a figure of fantasy, moreover, the designer baby is a flexible figure and one that may work to disrupt traditional genres associated with familial narratives that help to inform such norms.

[7] The most commonly acknowledged form of familial narrative, the melodrama, adds an interesting dimension to the status of the designer baby as figure and, I would argue, adjusts perceptions of these norms as the designer baby both disrupts and reaffirms them.  While “melodrama” has many varied and sometimes conflicting definitions, it is usually commonly recognized as concerned with the excessive, the emotional, and the familial (Gledhill, Brooks, Klinger, Singer).  Participation in this genre links the designer baby to cultural ideologies both supported and undermined by the genre.  As Laura Mulvey and Christine Gledhill claim, melodrama is marked by subversive tendencies that often undercut its subjects (like the heteronormative family) at the same time that the seem to uphold its values (Mulvey, Gledhill).  Moreover, the elements of pathos and victimization strongly aligned with melodramatic narratives (Gledhill, Elsaesser), are also emphasized by the figure of the designer baby (particularly in its incarnation as helpless infant or innocent child), as they may be tied to the disabled body (Garland-Thomson).  Finally, the nostalgic elements of melodrama, according to Peter Brooks, often result in a return to conservative values (Brooks), which, in designer baby narratives, are strongly linked to the maintenance of the heteronormative family structure.

[8] Two specific narratives vitally concerned with designing babies illustrate these issues and, I believe, open doors to examine the designer baby as a discursive figure alongside larger cultural elements of familial and able-bodied norms.  Alcante and Didier Pagot’s graphic novel Pride and Jodi Picoult’s novel, My Sister’s Keeper, published within one year of each other (2005 and 2004, respectively), both concern a child designed as a genetic match to cure an existing individual of leukemia (both children are also depicted as white and belonging to middle-class families).  By integrating the cancer narrative with the figure of the designer baby, these texts pose the disabled and the designed individual as threats to the cohesion of the family body. Within each story, these threats are neutralized by a sort of codependence; the disabled body is healed or eliminated through its connection with the designer baby, and the finale of the story champions a return to the norm of the white, middle-class family.  The designer baby ultimately serves as prosthesis both for the individual ailing body and the family body to which that individual belongs.  Just as Lennard Davis argues that the contemporary body “can only be completed by means of consumption” (Davis 27), these narratives conceive of a family body that must be completed by the consumption of reproductive technologies.  The designer baby, in these narratives and ultimately in most popular culture representations, serves as a curative for the heteronormative family, marshalling conservative values that support long existing sexual and able-bodied hierarchies.  The individual disabled body and the heteronormative family to which it belongs are characterized within these narratives by the necessity of consumption, firstly of medical processes used to design children to a specification, and secondly of the designer baby itself.

[9] Because in the process of figuration the figure also reshapes and disrupts elements of the genre that it works within, however, the designer baby figure in melodramatic narratives participates in what I would term “technodrama.”  For the purposes of this essay, I use technodrama as a subset of the more familiar genre of melodrama, which combines elements of family, emotion, and nostalgia with a dependence upon technological innovation, particularly a reliance on ARTs to maintain the stability of more traditional melodramatic themes.  Technodrama, then, is marked by the central contradiction between the heterosexual family as a supposedly natural unit and the consumption of technology that is increasingly necessary to maintain that unit.

[10] Both Picoult and Alcante and Pagot’s texts are arguably within the genre of melodrama; that is, they utilize sensational and extreme stories concerned primarily with family issues to elicit particular emotional reactions from the reader.  At the same time, however, they are technodramatic, both in their nostalgia for pre bio-technology worlds and their dependence upon technological innovation, displayed here in the figure of the designer baby.  For E. Ann Kaplan, melodrama is implicitly tied to trauma, seeking “at once to reveal and to conceal the cultural traumas that gave rise to it” (Kaplan 309).  I argue that technodrama performs a similar function, aimed specifically at working through relatively new technologies and their roles in the social sphere.  On the one hand, the melodramatic aspects of Picoult and Alcante and Pagot’s narratives encourage nostalgia for an uncomplicated and idealized family structure threatened by the technological addition of the designer baby.  On the other hand, however, the infant is a necessary path to cure forms of disability also perceived to threaten the normative qualities of the family.  Thus, once the genetic material of the designer baby has served its purpose, so to speak, by curing disability, it is ultimately ejected from the text or integrated into the family, nevertheless leaving its mark upon the narrative.

My Sister’s Keeper: The Cunninghams get Cancer

[11] Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper poses the designer baby as a tool for normalization, aimed specifically at the disabled body, but also integrally tied to the well-being of the white, middle-class, heteronormative family.  The novel is a cancer narrative in which Anna Fitzgerald is conceived as a savior sibling, a genetic match for her older sister Kate, who is dying of leukemia.  In its multi-narrational form, however, giving voice alternately to each of the members of the family, the novel is expressly domestic and familial, and Jodi Picoult ultimately designates Kate’s individual disease as a family disease.  Because Kate is dying, the family body is also dying, as we become privy to marital problems between her mother and father, her brother’s predilection for arson, and her sister Anna’s discomfort with her own status as savior sibling, eventually tied up in a court case in which she sues for medical emancipation to avoid donating a kidney to Kate (although the reader does discover at the end of the novel that this action was influenced by Kate herself, who wants to stop being a burden on the family).

[12] By coupling the medical technology necessary to treat Kate’s illness and conceive Anna as a genetic match for her sister with strongly domestic and emotional family scenes, Picoult’s narrative emphasizes the importance of the designer baby as curative for disability while avoiding the unnatural nature of her conception.  Ultimately, however, Picoult formulates the domestic aspects of her text as contrary to the reproductive technology of designing children.  Having a designer baby in the family and Kate’s disease both become obstacles to a normal existence strongly desired by each member of the family (including Kate and Anna).  This normality, however, is problematic, as it depends heavily on discourses of class and ablism that privilege the heteronormative family structure.

[13] In My Sister’s KeeperPicoult articulates white, middle-class heteronormativity around the Fitzgerald family as a form of normality, tied implicitly to their social status and marked by nostalgic fantasy.  For example, Anna’s court appointed official for her medical emancipation case notes that “the Fitzgerald’s live in Upper Darby, in a house that could belong to any typical American family” (Picoult 149).  As a “typical” family, the Fitzgerald’s status is linked both to their neighborhood and to their ownership of a house, described as “well kept” and “carefully tended” despite Kate’s frequent trips to the hospital (Picoult 132).  In other words, the typicality of the Fitzgerald family is identified by their middle-class existence, the ownership of a house located in “Upper” Darby, which signifies a particular class status.  Illustrating Stephanie Coontz’s claims that various forms of media (including novels) tend to project aspects of middle-class white experience as “universal ‘trends’ or ‘facts’” (Coontz 6), the typical existence of the Fitzgeralds is linked to conditions of racial and class driven standards for normality.  The fact that the marriage of Brian and Sara forms a significant subplot also emphasizes the heterosexual nature of this family.  Kate’s disability becomes an obstacle to their romantic attachment, interrupting dates and ultimately distancing the husband and wife; problems that disappear once Kate has been healed and that ultimately cast the disabled child as an obstacle to marital bliss and to heterosexual union as the foundation of the normative family.

[14] The typical nature of the Fitzgerald family is also marked, however, by efforts to achieve normality despite Kate’s illness, often heavily influenced by nostalgic desire.  One of the defining drives of the novel is to heal Kate and, through this healing, to return the family to a normal existence before one of its members was disabled by leukemia.  This normal existence is necessarily fictive, however; having a genetic disease, Kate’s body was abnormal from birth, and thus the time before her illness when the Fitzgeralds were an uncomplicated family never quite existed.  Anna herself encourages a simultaneous universalization of the Fitzgeralds as a normal family (white and middle-class) at the same time that she acknowledges the unreality of this prospect.  As she states, “Those Cunninghams they’re not so different from us” (Picoult 300).  Comparing her own family to the lovable, well-known, white and middle-class family ofHappy Days, a television show which portrayed a highly nostalgic image of family life in the 1950s, Anna struggles with the nostalgic nature of her own family, looking back to a time before Kate’s illness (and before the necessity of designer babies) and the way in which that fiction becomes a norm towards which the family constantly struggles.

[15] Sara, Kate and Anna’s mother, is both the gate-keeper of normality in Picoult’s novel and the most openly nostalgic character, a role which emphasizes maternal responsibility to combat the possibility of difference in technological progress in favor of naturalized, traditional family roles.  Sara’s position combines discourses of ablism and nostalgia in her efforts to provide healthy babies for the family.  Each of the chapters that Sara narrates is told as a flashback, harkening to significant moments of Kate’s illness and rarely focusing on Anna, even though Anna might be seen as the protagonist of the novel.  In other words, Sara is always looking backward, at the head of the search party for the time before, before Kate’s illness and before the abnormality of her family, which ultimately includes the existence of Anna as a genetically designed savior sibling.  During her pregnancy, Sara appears on a talk show with her husband, Brian, to discuss her groundbreaking choice to have a designer baby.  In a public interrogation of their decision, driven by emotional connection to their daughter Kate, both Brian and Sara work to place the abnormal figure of the designer baby into a normal conception of family life.  Asserting that they don’t want a “superbaby,” just a cure for their existing daughter, Sara claims that what she really wants is to one day tell her designer baby to “stop bugging her sister” (Picoult 123).  What becomes clear in the course of this interview, meant to highlight the difference of the designer baby, explicitly designated as the first of her kind, is that the parents and audience are intended to see the designer baby not as making the family more different, but as making it more normal.  Thus Sara’s intent and responsibility for creating a normal family rest strongly on her ability to produce and maintain normal children, and in the absence of these conditions, she looks back, longing for the moment when such a state was achievable.

[16] The standards of normality for the white, middle-class family are heavily imbued with nostalgia in Picoult’s novel, and this nostalgia is largely due to Kate’s disability, which is ultimately remedied by the incorporation of bodily materials from a designer baby.  In the process, however, Anna’s status as a designer baby and genetic match for her sister complicates her ability to form a separate identity, both for herself and within the family unit, tying her indelibly to Kate’s disability and the family’s inability to re-achieve normality.  Because individualism is a fundamental qualifier for American citizenship and identity (Shain), Anna’s ties to her sister complicate her ability to fulfill these discourses.  She acknowledges early in the story that “the only reason I was born was as a harvest crop for Kate” (Picoult 21).  “Harvest crop” is now a familiar term for organ donation and appears frequently in cloning narratives that pose clones as “body banks” for normal humans (IshiguroThe Island).  Moreover, Sara also establishes Anna’s familial identity as one necessarily tied to the well-being of Kate.  In a flashback, Sara describes how she feels as Anna’s birth nears: “I have not really considered the specifics of this child.  I have thought of this daughter only in terms of what she will be able to do for the daughter I already have” (Picoult 119).  Interestingly, then, Sara figures her children as caught up in a mode of Fordist mass production, created as interchangeable parts meant to ensure the functioning of a larger system.  But in this system, Kate becomes the focus for Sara because Kate’s illness is what prevents her family from being a normal one.  She conceives Anna to return her family to normality, and, by acting as prosthesis for Kate’s disabled body, Anna holds together the entire family.

[17] Finally, because Anna’s status as designer baby is formulated both as a marker of difference and a path to normality through her ability to cure Kate’s disability, she ultimately becomes a threat to the heteronormative family, one that is seemingly resolved in the final shocking events of the story.  After Anna has achieved medical emancipation, which would prevent her from donating a kidney to Kate and pave the way for her sister’s death, she herself becomes brain-dead in a car accident with her lawyer (brain-dead rather than fully dead to ensure that Kate will receive her life-saving kidney after all).  Picoult has commented on the surprising nature of her novel’s ending, when instead of finally consummating Kate’s long suffering decline to leukemia, the author kills off Anna.  She has adamantly defended the finale and was unhappy when the film version of My Sister’s Keeper switched things by killing Kate instead of Anna: “Having the ending changed would certainly not have been my choice.  I wrote the ending very intentionally because I wanted to leave the reader with a certain message” (“Jodi Picoult”).  Picoult is coy about revealing the “message” that she intended, leaving the reader to puzzle though the moral and emotional consequences of losing the designer baby whose kidney miraculously cures Kate’s cancer.

[18] My own interpretation partly leads back to the issues of nostalgia inherent in the story and their ties to ablism and the traditional family.  Anna is explicitly designated as the first designer baby in the world of the novel, a new form of child that threatens the family structure, but her death allows the Fitzgeralds to return to a normal state, without the addition of the genetically designed member.  In other words, the novel works to undue the possible difference of the technological other and the ways in which it might transform the nuclear family, instead emphasizing a seemingly more traditional and natural family body.  As Kate says in the concluding chapter of the novel (the only one which she narrates), “it’s that someone had to go, and Anna took my place” (Picoult 498).  In other words, faced with the certainty of death at the close of the story, Picoult chooses Anna to “take Kate’s place,” using Anna’s body to restore Kate to health and the family to a fairly normal existence that it should have had from the beginning (if Kate was never diagnosed with leukemia).  Thus, My Sister’s Keeperemphasizes the designer baby as a miracle cure for disability and thereby a vehicle to normality.  Ultimately, the designer baby is tied to the manipulation of disabled and family bodies in a way that leads to a particular, embodied standard of normality that reinforces and naturalizes the homogeneity of the heteronormative family.

[19] In its participation in the genre of melodrama, and ultimately, I would argue, in technodrama as well, My Sister’s Keeper implicitly acknowledges the necessity of reproductive technologies in the production of postmodern familial norms.  While the conclusion of the story ejects Anna in the melodramatic “deus ex machina” that provides a seemingly happy ending that is also deeply troubling (Klinger), the previous four hundred pages of the novel develop the designer baby as a sympathetic and humanized figure, particularly in its incarnation as a child.  Thus Picoult allows some possibility for familial difference in the inclusion of the technologically designed individual (who is perhaps not that different from Joanie Cunningham) at the same time that she excludes other forms of difference (racial, class, and sexual).  Furthermore, the novel also participates in technodrama through its dependence upon consumption of technologies for conditions of normality that overtly rely on intersections between disability and ARTs, a condition also central to Alcante and Didier Pagot’s Pride.

Pride: Cloning the Cure

[20] While Dider Pagot and Alcante’s graphic novel of political intrigue, Pride, might seem an odd bedfellow for Picoult’s domestic melodrama, their narratives are remarkably similar, casting the designer baby in the role of miracle cure able to heal the disabled body and the heteronormative family.  In Prideit is the President of the United States, Narcissus Shimmer, who is dying of leukemia, and he has himself secretly cloned in order to be cured by a bone marrow transfusion.  On the eve of his re-election, the clone is born, but his political opponent hires a muck-racking journalist who eventually finds the infant and, in the effort to retrieve a blood sample, nearly kills it.  The president ultimately decides to sacrifice his own life for the infant’s, donating vital organs to save it.  He himself dies just after his opponent is elected, and the baby, Adam, is adopted by his former driver and that man’s wife.  Shimmer’s position of political power and extensive resources that enable him to create a clone of himself are explicitly marked as white and upper-class, forming a similar racial and class background for the designer baby to that presented in Jodi Picoult’s novel.  Moreover, like My Sister’s Keeper,Pride designates the clone, Adam, as the first of his kind, holding the potential to reorganize public and domestic life.  Like Picoult, however, Alcante and Pagot neutralize that power by integrating the designer baby into the family, standardizing the able body and its contribution to the heteronormative family model.

[21] While My Sister’s Keeper works judiciously to reinforce the typical nature of the Fitzgeralds and the ways in which their normality suffers due to both Kate’s disability and Anna’s status as designer baby, Pride works ardently to emphasize the abnormal nature of the cloned infant, meant to save the president’s life.  The first panels of the story, for example, display the clone’s surrogate mother, surrounded by the stark metallic setting of the laboratory and the grasping figures of nurses and doctors who outnumber her three to one.  We begin with her labor in the top panel, but as the story proceeds, her face and figure are diminished by scrubs and skullcaps, and we end with the mirrored and intimidating glasses of the doctor himself, who has literally pulled the child from her womb with forceps.  These panels work forcefully to distance the infant from a normal family structure, and when the doctor murders the surrogate mother on the following page, its only links to family are left in President Shimmer, who has secretly ordered a clone of himself to cure his leukemia.

[22] Because the infant clone is genetically identical to the ailing President Shimmer, the distinction between the ill and healthy body is less pronounced in Pride than in My Sister’s Keeper, and the graphic novel neglects to explain why President Shimmer’s clone would not also be prey to the genetic disease of leukemia.  Cloning is still illegal in President Shimmer’s United States, so unlike the savior sibling of Picoult’s novel, the cloned infant is meant to be used and disposed of, as a doctor indicates, to leave no evidence of illegal activity.  Ultimately, however, Shimmer is unable to kill the infant and consume its marrow, and he instead flips the roles, donating his leukemic bodily materials to the child to save it from injuries incurred during an attempted kidnapping by a journalist.  Strangely enough then, the ill body becomes incorporated into the designer baby here, but this mingling of bodily materials nevertheless finally privileges the healthy body (at least for now) of the infant.

[23] While My Sister’s Keeper returns continuously to a familial nostalgia fueled by the desire, especially of the mother, for a time before Kate’s illness, and before disability and the designer baby disrupted the typical nature of the heteronormative family,Prideintertwines familial nostalgia with political nostalgia, placing the designer baby at the crux of family and nation.  Recalling Lauren Berlant’s assertions that the infantile citizen has become a central image of American politics, the infant clone signifies both the potential future of the President of the United States and the more generalized innocence of the American child (Berlant). ThroughoutPridePresident Shimmer is portrayed as a good politician, unwilling to resort to the same muck-racking tactics as his opponent, promoting programs for more ethical treatment of former convicts and safer laws for children, and even, in one panel, sitting directly under a portrait of “Honest Abe” Lincoln, linking him to a larger nostalgia for nation of uncorrupted politicians.  This, of course, is undermined by his secret creation of an illegal clone, but even that is driven by his desire to do “great things” for the country (Alcante and Pagot 12).  Compounded by his own family issues with a son who is not biologically his and a wife who never appears in the story, Shimmer’s political desires and his own efforts to maintain familial bonds are ultimately thwarted by the presence of a helpless infant clone.

[24] Though Pride focuses more on political intrigue than the domestic conditions of President Shimmer, family does play an important role throughout the story.  Furthermore, while the child is not represented as part of a family body through most of the story, the president, lacking a traditional family of his own, works to incorporate the infant into familial sentiment.  The president’s son, Dennis, who we learn in the course of the story is not biologically related to him, lives in Paris, outside of Shimmer’s political jurisdiction, and in one set of panels, we see Dennis trying to speak to his father, and then attempting suicide after he is rejected in favor of Shimmer’s political engagements.  The president attends a press conference, outlining his policies in full, square panels, while those showing his son, hanging up the phone, then overdosing on pills while drinking alcohol, are thin rectangles, pushed and pressured into small spaces by his father’s political career.

[25] Dennis ends up in a coma, and with an important debate two days away, the president is unable to see him in Paris, opting instead to visit his infant clone, housed in an incubator at a secret facility due to premature birth.  During the visit, the infant looks visibly disabled, and just as Dennis is weakened by depression and addiction, the clone is pictured as intensely fragile, housed within an incubator, his arm and foot covered by bandages, wires surrounding and extruding from his small frame.  Earlier in the story, the incubator housing the clone emanated a blue glow, emphasizing his qualities as savior for the president and the technological strangeness in which he was conceived.  As Shimmer visits the infant after Dennis’s attempted suicide, however, the glow of the incubator is a warmer red.  As Shimmer approaches the infant, he looks concerned and comforts the child by placing his hands inside the incubator in rubber gloves, tears appearing in his eyes.  Here, as in My Sister’s Keeper, the reader is encouraged to have an emotional connection with the designer baby and to recognize the connection between Shimmer and the infant as one of a familial nature.  The cloned baby becomes a sort of surrogate son in this scene, and it is this very relation to the baby that threatens Shimmer’s ability to take its marrow (which would cost it its life) and return to a normal existence.

[26] Shimmer’s decision to donate his own vital organs to the infant child returns to the question of the designer baby as a curative for disability.  While the clone was initially created to cure Shimmer’s leukemia through the donation of materials that would result in its death, Alcante and Pagot choose to end the story with the infant, rather than with the politician ultimately corrupted by one of the seven deadly sins: Pride.  At the close of the story, after the president’s death, Adam is adopted by Shimmer’s former driver, Liffey, who has communicated to the president that it “was [his] dream” to have children, but he is unable to (Alcante and Pagot 16).  Liffey becomes privy to the true identity of the clone in the course of the story, but reveals in the final panels that his wife has no idea of the child’s scientific origins.  The president’s choice to leave the clone with a normal, middle-class couple (not in the political limelight that has disrupted Shimmer’s own family) returns to the heteronormative family as the proper place for the designer baby.  Thus at the close of the story, the able body of the infant signals an able-bodied futurity (although because it is a clone, it may be subject to the same genetic disease as Shimmer).  Moreover, its connection to a family, and especially to a mother who believes Adam is a normal child, reinforces the designer baby both as a possible curative for disability (even though Adam does not cure the president, his ability to do so is never questioned), and as a solution for the ailing heteronormative family. 

[27] Ultimately, Shimmer sacrifices his own life for that of the child, and when Adam is finally adopted (and we first learn the cloned infant has a name), the family becomes the means for Adam to life a normal life.  Thus the integration of the clone into society, and particularly into the domestic unit of the family, seemingly neutralizes the threats of difference it might contain as the first clone.  The final panels show Adam with his adoptive parents, a seemingly normal child, dressed for winter and cooed over by his mother.  The final panel makes this a less than tidy ending, however, by including a picture of Adam smiling mysteriously at a narcissus flower.  The ellipses after the bold, capitalized “THE END…” (Alcante and Pagot 48), also suggest that there is more to this story that we are not privy to in this volume.  What Alcante and Pagot do make clear, however, is that the President himself is now deceased after donating his own organs and blood to the child so that it might live, and that Adam is part of a loving family, given to Liffey after he told the president about his troubles adopting a child that he and his wife wished for dearly.

[28] Alcante and Pagot’s graphic novel participates more openly in possibilities of difference that the designer baby entails, but this narrative also contains strong technodramatic elements, driven by nostalgia for a pre-biotechnological world and uncomplicated national politics that are specifically marked by conservative privileging of whiteness, middle-class status, and ablism.  Moreover, the political aspects of this narrative foreground one of the ideological functions of melodrama (and technodrama as well) by, as Laura Mulvey argues, “working certain contradictions through to the surface” (Mulvey 79).  The seeming contradiction of nostalgia and traditional family structures alongside technology and new forms of human beings becomes a fundamental axis for the figure of the designer baby.  Viewing this narrative through the lens of technodrama, characterized specifically by this contradiction, also brings to light the ways in which the intersections between assisted reproductive technologies and issues of disability inform basic concepts of individual and familial identity.

Conclusion: Evolving Humans, Evolving Genres

[29] Like My Sister’s KeeperPride also uses the designer baby as an engineered cure for the heteronormative family.  The mingling of the bodily materials of the designer baby and the genetic original is a necessary step in the progress of the narratives, which makes the survivor stronger, curing him and her of genetic abnormalities, and enabling them to have a healthy, strong body.  Both use the family as a normative heuristic to repair the damage caused by the difference and newness of the designer baby, whose purpose is ultimately to recreate the power of that family in the future.  These narratives focus on the designer baby as a fledgling figure that because of its technological creation, requiring the intervention of the world outside the nuclear family in the extended involvement of medical professionals, is able to play out the fear of public interference on the supposedly private entity of the family.  This masks the actual political function of the family as a normative unit in American society.  While I am not suggesting that these two texts offer a comprehensive picture of the designer baby, their difference in form and authorship attests to the ways in which this figure has permeated contemporary culture andI would argue, to its dependence upon certain discourses of disability that ultimately intertwine the designer baby and the disabled body.

[30] The multiple intersections between the designer baby, the disabled body, and the heteronormative family work simultaneously to bolster and challenge cultural norms surrounding these figures.  Particularly as an infant or child, the designer baby has the power, as Vivian Sobchack explains of children in melodramatic horror and science fiction films, “to authorize the family” (Sobchack 155).  Moreover, it has the power to ensure the continuance of the heteronormative family structure into the future (Edelman).  Just as the designer baby relies upon the idealization attached to the figure of the child in general, however, it is also specifically marked by assumed goals of genetic engineering that engage medical standards for the able body.  The designer baby thus serves as a site for the production of bodily and familial norms, but in a far from uncomplicated manner.

[31] As a discursive figure, the designer baby serves as an important point of reference for some of these intersections, and I believe further exploration of technodrama as a generic form may provide one avenue to more deeply examine ties between ARTs and disability.  Because the designer baby is still largely an exclusionary figure (represented almost exclusively as white, middle-class, and able-bodied), the tendency in fictional representations is towards reaffirming conservative values and heteronormative family structures.  In its status as miracle cure, however, the designer baby also depends heavily on the presence of disability and, as in other melodramatic forms, subverts the independence and functioning of the family that, in the twenty-first century, requires the consumption of ARTs to maintain normative status.  Susan Squier has argued that fiction forms an important cultural arena for the negotiation of cultural attitudes towards scientific and medical innovation (Squier).  I would agree that the ways in which fictional narratives manipulate existing generic forms (like those in melodrama) to accommodate technological innovation reveal cultural ideologies at the same time that they actively produce new ones.

[32] It would be disingenuous to claim that designer babies do not offer new forms of familial organization, identity building, and affective ties, which I believe, is part of the use of critically examining the designer baby as a discursive figure and one that adjusts traditional conceptions of genre as well.  Intersections between disability and designer babies, as well as ARTs in general, deserve more critical attention, particularly in the realms of feminist and disability scholarship.  Exploring how this figure manipulates traditional melodramatic modes into technodramatic ones, marked by conservative and nostalgic social values at the same time that those modes depend upon innovation and consumption of technologies to complete individual and family bodies, can serve as one productive area in which to open this dialogue.


My thanks to Scott Herring, Brenda Weber, Jonathan Cohn, Alexis Wilson, Ann Kibbey, and the anonymous readers at Genders for their enlightening and inspiring feedback on various versions of this essay.  Thanks also to Adrian Scherger for his ongoing support.

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