Teaching Moms and Dads to Perform the Family: Rhetoric and Assisted Reproductive Technology Websites


Castells is correct that ART is a transformative technology that can “separate socialization from parenting.”  In fact, ART can be likened to Butler’s (2004) ideas about gender and performativity.  She writes “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency” (p. 112).  Butler may well have written, “In reproducing gender, ART implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency.”  After all, ART uncouples sex from gender in how it offers reproductive “solutions” to a variety of non-traditional families. Reproduction, like drag, shows the rhetorical nature of reproduction through ART so that

In the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity. (Butler, 2004, p. 112)

In assisting customers in imagining their progeny, ART company websites do not reveal fabrication.  Instead gender is re-inscribed and merged to sex through the performances put forth through ART company websites visual imagery. Still, there are transformations occurring.  These transformations are not dramatic, but they are present.  They are tiny alternatives, which if used in greater numbers, can mean Transformation, can mean revolution.  Tiny transformations offer different instructions with regards to what it means to parent, to be a man, and to be a woman. 

As GG has shown, instructions for being an ART company website do not have to present a dichotomy between gender roles positing sperm as masculine and eggs or surrogacy as feminine.  What this website does particularly well, though by no means perfectly, is provide symmetry between men and women and their parenting performances. The notion of symmetry is powerful with regards to these pictures in ART contexts.  For instance, in GG, by having a nearly equal number of women and men snuggling and nuzzling is transformative in how it presents a different instruction manual, narrative, or truth for being a father.  Instead of creating instructions for fathers as teachers and players, more pictures of snuggling and nuzzling remind audiences that the behaviors of fathers and mothers are not so different; normal father behavior can include intimate performances.  Such equality in representation can also reveal—because it challenges traditional conservative ideologies of family—that these performances are not innate or biological.  They are cultural choices, which can be altered. In this sense GG reflects real change and social progress.

Another website which offers a transformative take on family is the surrogacy company, Building Families.  The pictures offered in this site are transformative in two ways.  First, though the site seems to represent heterosexual couples exclusively, the site complicates notions of family in their pictures.  Instead of Goffman’s the family, Building Families' families are composed of fathers, mothers, surrogates, and surrogate’s partners. Building Families’ pictures of surrogates reflect friendships between surrogates, recipients, and ART processes (see Figure 14).  Building Families shows a new sort of family relation, one that is public about ART. While the family in Building Families is often presented as nuclear and heterosexual, it is a new sort of tradition.  Besides being an active participant in the process the surrogate appears to act as a friend to recipients.  Social mothers and fathers are presented with the surrogate—though the father is usually still shown as protective.  These representations begin to re-define families so that they are less tied to innate biology and more to societal or cultural choices and practices.  Though it is not clear what surrogates participation in this family means following birth, these pictures complicate and begin to re-define parenthood.

Figure 14: New family

surrogate family pictured with non-surrogate family.
from Building Families

surrogate family pictured with non-surrogate family.
from Building Families
(read as hospital /clinic room
because of Gatch bed)

Building Families also displays a type of family picture, which is never found in any other ART company websites8.  Pictures of family are shown in hospital settings and exam rooms.  While it may not show the processes exactly, the pictures of hospitals and exam rooms de-emphasize the natural and emphasize cultural fabrication; such pictures reflect participation between the parties involved in these processes. These pictures show how the use of ART is often complex and includes a number of different actors.  While these pictures may be "gloss[ing] over the worldly motivations of women who rent their womb” (Diepenbrock, 2000, p. 116) with regards to social and economic conditions, Building Families does represent a different sort of truth about ART with its use of such contexts.

When context is present, most pictures of heterosexual families presented by ART company websites occur in nature settings.  These settings hide the before, in-between and after—the processes involved in the generation of families through ART or family, in general.  ART processes, as Sarah Franklin (1997) observes, are often concealed in verbal descriptions of IVF treatments. Franklin notes that a number of considerations are not communicated well in fertility clinic pamphlets explaining IVF to audiences. For instance, the pamphlets forget to include a number of aspects of IVF treatment including choosing an IVF program, initial medical work-up, ovulation induction (nasal sprays and ultra sound scans), egg aspirations (injections of hormones and surgical removal of up to thirty eggs), embryo transfer, and constant self-monitoring for cycles and arranging time off work, transport and finances (Franklin, 1997, p.109)9.

It seems that ART company websites' pictures of family function similarly to Franklin's observations about what pamphlets explaining IVF conceal. The pictures create what Hill (2004) describes as vivid information. Vivid information “takes the form of concrete and imagistic language, personal narratives, pictures, or first-hand experience” ( p. 31). In his summary of experiments on types of information, Hill notes that vivid information “will prompt emotional responses from the receiver” and "seems to be more persuasive than non-vivid information” (Hill, 2004, p. 31). Possessing pictures of families outside of clinics and hospitals is not really surprising; it is rhetorically obvious.  Of course, there will be more pictures of family outside of clinics and hospitals. These pictures are vivid examples of success, of products and relationships with products communicating the quality of the company. These pictures, however, naturalize ART. They work to conceal traditional families' "fabricated unity." Even pictures of the family where children are not present in non-clinical settings conceal processes. These childless families biomagically become families with children without entering a clinic or facility. Pictures of family in clinical and hospital contexts would present different and, I believe, fuller story to web searchers. In general, ART company websites pictures of family adhere rather than sever biology to societal/cultural practices so that performances of family are innate and "natural." Building Families inclusions of families in hospitals, however, is transformative and helps participants understand ART differently.

Overall, Judy Wajcman (1994) describes the naturalizing process of ideological systems in her discussion of reproductive technologies, gender, and the flaws in technological determinism.  She writes, "Preferences for different artifacts are the result of a set of social arrangements that reflect men's power in the wider society. Patriarchal social relations are thus built into technology" (p.155). Her analysis describes the socio-cultural choices that were made which led to the development or preference of one reproductive technology or artifact over another. Wajcman, for instance, argues that societal values of inheritance privileged the development of technologies, like IVF, that ensure offspring are genetically related to the husband.  In ART company websites, a visual privilege is occurring. The transactional processes showcased in the visual imagery privilege certain ways of being parents over others. In other words, patriarchal relations built into the technologies (i.e. the learned and cultural behaviors) of parenthood or being parents. In a manner similar to Haas's description of how communication practices in online fertility support communities is still often "a reflection of patriarchal domination, where women's identities are fragmented and minimized" (Haas, 2009, p. 77) ART company websites fragment parenting possibilities into stereotypical parenting behaviors. Men act as fathers, as teachers, and are involved in action.  Women act as mothers, whose primary activity is to snuggle and nuzzle—to nurture.

Building families, however, refuses to deny artificial processes in their presentations of parenthood. Even if these are idealized presentations of surrogate and parent participation, they are present.  They instruct audiences about a new kind of parenthood. For instance, Building Families' imagery complicates traditional conceptions of motherhood. The biomagical connection between mothers is complicated through the surrogate, multiple family participation (i.e. it appears that surrogate families rather than exclusively the surrogates themselves participate in the processes), and hospital settings.  Perhaps, these pictures offer a way to see gender’s imitative and artificial qualities and the possibilities ART offers for deconstructing gender.

Pictures of parenting and family presented on ART company websites transfer natural gender performances onto artificial ART processes and continue to conflate biology with societal/cultural conceptions of parenting where women are nurturers and involved more with their children while men are active and not necessarily nurturing.  And the heterosexual patriarchal family continues to rule.  ART company rhetoric is still powered by the same "traditional" gender stereotypes of fathers, mothers, men, women, and family. Still, there is some hope remaining for Castells’s reading of ART's transformative possibilities. GG and Building Families’ rhetoric begins to provide alternative instructions for fathers, mothers, men, women, and family.  These tiny transformations not only begin to muddy traditional roles of parenthood, they begin to clear the path for understanding and considering family as something less bound to heterosexual norms and more bound to individual choice.

By using the handbook and instruction metaphor, this study shows how ART company websites' semiotic choices—the rhetorical choices in types of pictures or the sorts of transactions between these actors (moms, dads, families, and children) in these pictures—orchestrate how audiences engage with their websites. They produce information about family for audiences who participate in these sites reading and navigating through them. While not direct instructions like verbal text, the visual rhetorical choices of men with children, women with children, and families teach recipients what it means to mother, father, and be a family. This study takes seriously the importance of visual image as a teacher. 

Moreover, the use of the handbook as metaphor for how visual imagery on ART company websites and websites, in general, instructs us, continues the work by scholars like Anne Ruggles Gere, Kathleen Blake Yancey, and Ericsson and Muhlhauser (2010) who recognize and emphasize the importance of the "extracurriculum of composition" or the places outside of the classroom where writing develops (Gere, 1994) and students develop "new composition" skills in digital communication (Yancey, 2004). "Teaching Moms and Dads" shows how the visual imagery on a website is part of an audience's extra-curriculum.  The metaphor, finally, changes the common focus of rhetoric from persuasion to education.  While certainly both are related, the instruction or education metaphor can help us (researchers, teachers, and students) better understand how visual images are symbolic systems, cultural systems, and not natural systems.  These systems teach us to see things in particular ways that result in the foreclosure of some visual possibilities and the opening of others.  Instead of asking ourselves about how something persuades or what it persuades us to do, it might be more effective to ask ourselves how something teaches us and what it teaches us to be.

8 There are a couple of company websites, which picture doctors (they wear lab coats and stethoscopes) snuggling, nuzzling, and playing with children. These seem idealized and do not reflect ART processes like Building Families does. There are also a couple of company websites which may present pictures of surrogate mothers with intended or post-birth mothers; however, these relationships are not as clear as the relationships Building Families establishes and could be interpreted, for example, as surrogate mothers together or a mother with a doula.

9 A number of ART companies do have descriptions of processes and treatments accompanied with diagrams and visual images of surgeries. However, analysis of these descriptions and visual imagery is beyond the scope of this study.