Monday, September 13, 2010

The Politics of Fiction

On a recent date night my beau and I took in a showing of Jennifer Aniston’s new movie, The Switch. Anticipating lighter fare, I was shocked when, during the opening credits, the line “Based on the short story ‘Baster’ by Jeffrey Eugenides” flashed across the screen. I’m a big fan of both Eugenides and Aniston, but somehow seeing them in the same pop cultural arena was jarring.

As many people are probably now aware, when promoting the movie, Jenifer Aniston came under scrutiny from conservative news anchor Bill O’Reilly for supporting her character’s decision to be artificially inseminated and raise a child without the father. Her comment that “Women are realizing more and more that you don't have to settle, [you] don't have to fiddle with a man to have that child,” was met with O’Reilly’s claim that that mindset is “destructive to our society,”—a pretty bold claim even for someone known for bold claims.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally dug up Eugenides original story this past weekend, to find that it paints a considerably more controversial picture. In Eugenides’s tale, the female protagonist has aborted three naturally conceived children in her early adulthood. Furthermore, the male character played by Jason Bateman in the movie here knowingly switches his sperm in for the donor’s without any intention of raising the child. The last line of this male character’s narration muses on the fact that, after imagining for years what his child would like, now that he knows “I could only wave goodbye.”

Eugenides’s story was written a full fourteen years ago and didn’t sound the alarms for naysayers like poor J.A.’s comments did. Though the story first appeared in The New Yorker, which is a fairly liberal publication (it formally endorsed John Kerry in the 2004 election and Barack Obama in 2008), with a circulation of over a million copies in 2009, it can hardly be considered a niche market, or terribly extreme in its views. Is literary fiction just expected to push the envelope in fostering progressive ideas and thus free of criticism from the political commentators of the world? Is literature a full fourteen years ahead of the mainstream Hollywood film industry in terms of the issues it’s willing to tackle or, perhaps more importantly, that its consumers will let it tackle without backlash?

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