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

Visual Rhetoric

ART company websites become like a handbook or instruction manual for audiences when one considers the verbal text that accompanies the visual imagery. Whether it offers sperm donation or non-sperm donation services, the language used and/or emphasized to claim audiences—especially if one doesn't look much beyond homepages (e.g. one doesn't look at "About Us" pages and "Philosophy" pages)—in ART company websites can be very general. McCloud’s (1994) concept amplification through simplification explains this rhetorical move. Amplification through simplification is where one "abstracts an image through cartooning" and an artist "is not so much eliminating details as focusing on specific details" (p.30). McCloud suggests that visual images with less detail can produce a more “universal identification” where audience members are more likely to envision themselves in the visual image (p. 36).  This rhetorical maneuver works with verbal text as well. The general language in the verbal text of ART company websites makes it possible for a more diverse audience to identify with a company’s services. Furthermore, if we consider the verbal language as acknowledging transformations in parenthood where biology and socialization are being separated, the language used by ART can be understood to hail any and everybody rather than only the dominant cultural parenting paradigm—heterosexual couples.

Xytex Corporation, for instance, “helps persons select a medically qualified donor… .” The Fertility Center of California offers their services to “physicians and fertility patients who require artificial insemination.”  Tiny Treasures “helps guide prospective parents and egg donors” and Northeast Assisted Fertility Group claims “we help all kinds of people.” The Gift of Surrogacy uses the term “Intended Parents” and second person as a way to hail a large audience.  Their “goal is to make sure that we are able to provide you with the best possible alternative.” Building Families, though they seem to deny single parents as a possibility, is still hailing a varied audience. They are "helping couples build the family of their dreams." Midwest Sperm Bank is, similarly, more specific and calls to "prospective mothers." To be fair, ART companies do also merge their vague language  with more specific language acknowledging that they cater to the needs of married, single, and LGBTQ parents. Conceptual Options, for instance, "Partners for Parenthood" and offers services for "clients across the globe who are married, single, or gay." Tiny Treasures, in their philosophy section writes, "Our agency works with a wide variety of clients, including single, gay, and lesbian Prospective Parents, as well as traditional couples." When such verbal text is coupled with ambiguous pictures ("ambiguous" because they may represent a variety of types of people), these pictures help create a bridge between verbal text and visual image.  For instance, a heterosexual man seeing a picture of a woman with a child might identify this as part of a possible family. A single woman might read this as another single woman and, thus, identify with the "persons" or "kinds of people" or "single" parents.

Through the use of extreme amplification through simplification or even a bit more specific verbal text, ART company websites can become less universal when visual imagery and visual culture are considered along with the types of pictures presented—especially when types of pictures are limited and/or do not connect well with verbal text. What happens when a user views pictures on ART company websites can be a chiasmus of the commonplace relationship between words and pictures. The commonplace is that a picture is worth a thousand words.  After all, a picture is a particular kind of text that when translated into verbal text takes a lot more explaining than showing the picture.  A picture operates in what J.L. Lemke (2004) describes as a topological way.  It makes meaning “by distinguishing variations of degree (rather than kind) along various continua of difference” (p. 79).  A verbal description instructing a mother on how to cradle a baby may not be enough for one to "get it."  A picture of such behavior, on the other hand, would show how all the parts—baby’s and mother’s—work together in cradling. The picture would show us variations in hand and body positions so one could understand how to cradle. 

With ART websites, rather, we can see how a word is worth a thousand pictures.  After all, when “all kinds of people” or the more specific "married, single, or gay" is translated into visual imagery the picture could, theoretically be of any persons or people seeking to become parents.  A word operates in what J.L. Lemke (2004) describes as a typological way.  It makes meaning by “classifying things into mutually exclusive categories” (p. 79). It assists an audience in recognizing and interpreting pictures and informs audiences they will probably find pictures of parenting behavior on the website. In other words, a lone visual image of a mother cradling a baby may not be enough for one to understand the purpose of the picture. A verbal description coupled with the visual image would describe the purpose of cradling—that it is good or comforts or quiets a baby. Without verbal text, the cradling picture might mean cannibalism.  Similarly, when an ART company website has a picture to go along with “kinds of persons” it instructs audiences about what sorts of pictures will be on the website. These instructions can rhetorically limit vision and prevent a word from being worth a thousand pictures when only certain types of pictures of "prospective parents" are presented.

There are exceptions to the commonplaces about words and visual images. For instance, a picture is worth a thousand words unless it is a picture of one word.picture of a word in a frame And a word is worth a thousand pictures unless it is a word of one pictureword of a picture in a frame. This is a picture of a word that creates a picture of a man.. However, these exceptions show important similarities between verbal text and visual text or words and pictures.  A word is composed of more than neutral letters to convey meaning. Visual culture, context, and choices in typeface, color, size, weight, impact how and what a word means; it shows how words are topological as well.

Pictures are more than neutral visual images.  As Linda Scott (1994) explains, "Images should not be interpreted as if pictorial signification as such is obvious or immaterial" and should be considered "conventional, [and] they should be explained by references to culture, not nature" (p. 270). Though it seems somewhat strange, it is possible to not only take him/her at his/her word, it is also possible to take him/her at his/her picture.  It is possible for a picture to be typological as evidence.  For instance, when coupled with the visual culture informing audiences about how to view a heterosexual couple in the United States, a picture of a woman embracing a man of similar age would fit in a category of heterosexual intimacy. A picture of a man embracing a man of similar age, in most contexts, would fit into a category of heterosexual friendship.  Pictures and words are culturally defined so that "both language and visual communication express meanings belonging to and structured by cultures in the one society and this results in considerable degree of congruence between the two" (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 17). But simultaneously "not everything that can be realized in language can also be realized by means of images, or vice versa (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 17).  Words and pictures aren’t exactly the same; however, they aren’t exactly different.

When the verbal text of ART company websites claims a general audience and/or a slightly more specific audience, which seems to imply diversity, it becomes an expectation for this audience to see visual representations reflecting such diversity—that an audience might see all kinds of family relationships and interactions. Even when "prospective mothers" is the audience, there could be a variety of picturings of what this means (e.g. heterosexual and LGBTQ couples could be pictured along with single mothers).  Although it is impossible to visually represent everybody and everything, there is an expectation that there will be a variety of visual representations of mothers and fathers and men and women performing in a number of ways. "Teaching Moms and Dads," then, takes the perspective that a word is worth 1,000 pictures.  If Castells is correct that family is being transformed then the “prospective parents” being hailed by these websites should reflect a variety of non-patriarchal pictures where mothering is performed by men and women and fathering is performed by women and men.  It follows Burke’s (1969) observation on rhetoric and repetition:

And often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reënforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill. (p. 26)

Though 1,000 pictures is beyond the scope of this study, numbers are important because when types of representations occur in limited ways and are presented more frequently than alternative representations, they instruct audiences in "normal" behavior and who is behaving "normally" through "dull daily reënforcement."  Individuals web searching for ART services clicking through ART company websites are instructed about gender roles and parenthood. The hailings of the verbal language—"you" or "prospective parent," "all kinds of people," "or audience— become less ambiguous when placed next to pictures. An audience is instructed about a particular ideology about family. When these pictures are present in more numbers, an audience is more likely to be taught that "traditional" family is "normal" and/or "correct" family. Non-traditional families are denied existence. In general, "Teaching Moms and Dads" shows trends in the visual rhetoric of ART company websites and describes the gender ideologies a person web searching for ART services will find.