Across the breadth of fiction, the notion of male pregnancy has historically been played for laughs, terror or, most often, a combination of the two. The theatrical poster for the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Junior says a thousand words: doctor Danny DeVito stares through the fourth wall with a get-a-load-of-this-guy grin while Schwarzenegger looks to us, stunned, as if to ask how he could have landed himself in such a predicament. Even if these jokes ultimately make male frailty their butt, suggesting that a milestone of womanhood would be a man’s worst nightmare, they’re still jokes.
The new documentary Seahorse (which was produced in association with the Guardian) dares to take seriously a scenario heretofore portrayed as absurd. Back in our nonfictional world, there’s nothing particularly amusing about the heartfelt, draining struggle of trans man Freddy McConnell to conceive and deliver his own infant. Director Jeanie Finlay extends sincere empathy towards someone who won’t let gender get in the way of heeding the basic human impulse to create and nurture new life. That’s how Finlay wants us to see McConnell’s journey to fatherhood – a phenomenon as natural as the reproduction of the seahorse, in which male specimens carry and spawn their own young.
The friction in McConnell’s day-to-day comes from the disparity between his biologically hardwired drive to multiply, and the extraordinary medical measures that must be taken to make that dream real. He has had surgeries above the waist but not below it, enabling him to undergo an intense water-birthing procedure captured with frankness a couple notches short of Window Water Baby Moving. Before that, however, hewill need to get off the testosterone treatments that have brought him closer to reconciling his body with his identity. By the end of the film, McConnell chastises himself for his naivety at the outset of this journey, failing to realize that listening to his internal clock would ultimately lead him to “feel like a fucking alien”.
The question of what is or is not “normal” hangs over nearly every scene, heaviest in those showing McConnell explaining himself to his family and loved ones. He has trouble conveying that what might be uncommon doesn’t have to be abnormal, compounded by the fact that many people just don’t want to hear it. A contentious conversation with a conservative family member crystallizes an inward pain that films from cisgender directors and actors can only approximate. For Finlay, however, allowing McConnell to use his own words makes sense of a complicated process fraught with contradictions and paradoxes even for those not contending with a total destabilization of their personhood.
“This is a film about me having a baby, but what I feel like I’m going through isn’t me having a baby, or pregnancy,” McConnell explains. “It’s a much more fundamental sort of total loss of myself. I just want to close my eyes and be on the other side of this.” While feeling a twinge of regret and powering through it is a vital part of anybody’s pregnancy, the unique opposition McConnell faces amplifies these anxieties threefold. Even with unsureness being par for the course, it doesn’t help that he must constantly edit official forms by pen to read “all pregnant people” instead of “all pregnant women”.
Whatever misgivings McConnell may have harbored, they crumble as soon as he’s able to hold his child in his arms for the first time. New parents describe this moment with reverence bordering on the religious, an instant bond of the souls absent from any other component of human experience. Only then does it click that McConnell is exercising his right as a carbon-based organism by creating that connection. Finlay arranges a moving juxtaposition of her own footage with home videos from McConnell’s childhood, illustrating how he fits into a tradition that has cycled on and on since the dawn of time.
As Donald Trump continues to chip away at the protections for trans people, Finlay and McConnell jointly re-establish their paramount importance. McConnell’s entitled to the sum total of what life has to offer even if it’s expensive or overwhelming, simply because life offers it. Finlay includes multiple passages in which McConnell does nothing special – drawing a bath, having lunch, stressing– to situate his pregnancy within the quotidian and familiar. She’s trying to show how McConnell is both like anyone else and unlike most people, the core challenge of trans art that also seeks to address a non-trans audience. She doesn’t always know which side of that divide to come down on, but she recognizes that it’s there, which is more than can be said for most. We all share universals like hurt and hope, it’s just that their expression differs for McConnell. Like the act of childbirth itself, something that has happened trillions of times and yet always feels intimately personal, he’s one of us and one of a kind.
Seahorse is showing at the Tribeca film festival and will be released later this year