Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Feel Good Surrogacy?

The New Normal Tackles ARTs with Light-Hearted Banter

Screenwriter, director, and producer Ryan Murphy frivolously dealt with assisted reproduction technologies in Glee when Sue Sylvester used frozen eggs to become pregnant. Now he’s at it again in his new NBC comedy, The New Normal. This time, the plot hinges on surrogacy.

The pilot opens with an extremely sweet video in which one of the main characters, Bryan, talks to his future child, explaining how badly he/she is wanted. The best part of the show can be wrapped up with his teary line, “Oh god, I think I would just die if you call me Daddy.” Within these first minutes, the show successfully makes the case that gay men (whether they’re biological fathers or not) can be great and loving parents. Considering that this is still something for which many gay couples have to fight (and the fact that Utah actually banned the show), there is a lot to admire in presenting this as “normal.”

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It’s almost enough to make one overlook the tired stereotypes of every character in the show.

The gay couple’s relationship, almost sickeningly perfect, is dramatically contrasted with the female characters' complete failure at family formation. Goldie, the woman who becomes Bryan and his partner David’s surrogate, got pregnant at fifteen and spent years living with her deadbeat, cheating boyfriend. Goldie’s grandmother, a loud-mouthed bigot who also appears frequently on the show, credits her overt homophobia to her marriage to a man who turned out to be having affairs with men.

Goldie’s character fits the archetype of the American surrogate: she’s a young, healthy, sweet, pretty blond from the Midwest who, because of the cards life has dealt her, is down on her luck and searching for a way out and up. 

The relationship that emerges between the couple and Goldie is another stereotype – this one of an ideal, with nothing but mutual understanding and respect between them. Goldie has specifically asked to carry a gay couple’s child due to her belief that “a family is family. And love is love.” And while she helps Bryan and David fulfill their dream of starting a family, the $35,000 they’re offering gives her the financial ability to go to law school and fulfill her own dreams. It is clear that the three of them will be close throughout the pregnancy and that the parents-to-be are invested in Goldie’s well-being as well as that of their baby.

As recent news reports demonstrate, however, not all surrogates fare as well. The danger of this rosy portrayal is that it downplays the risks real women face when they enter a surrogacy agreement. Many couples go abroad to hire surrogates in order to save on costs, which leads to a markedly different situation from the one portrayed in the show. In these cases, bonding between parents-to-be and a surrogate is purposefully stunted to keep the arrangement in the commercial realm and to minimize personal attachments. Such dynamics arguably dehumanize women acting as surrogates, as their bodies are viewed only as a vehicle to produce an end product. In some cases, women must agree to give up control over their living conditions and medical decisions in order to be hired as a surrogate. People with 35 grand to spare may be able to buy their way out of the sleazy or unpleasant parts of real-world surrogacy, but that is a luxury only available to some.

The New Normal also trivializes the long and fraught process many gay couples go through to have a child. It pegs the decision to have a baby on Bryan’s realization that he “wants to have baby clothes. And a baby to wear them.” He and David pick an egg donor by clicking through photos of carefully pre-selected women in a “platinum” egg donor database, choosing one entirely for her looks. And the perfect surrogate lands at their doorstep and gets pregnant instantly. 

Huffington Post blogger and gay parent Frank Bua had high hopes for the show but couldn’t stomach the false portrayal of the situation he went through himself:

"This looks nothing like my life, or the lives of dozens of gay parents whom my partner and I count as friends. We have waited years to create our families, jumped through legal hurdles as if doing so were an Olympic sport, fought our employers for equal childcare leave, and even paid for our surrogate's birth-related insurance because our own health plans refused to cover them. We also considered adoption as an equally viable alternative to surrogacy."

Such thoughtful consideration is notably missing from The New Normal. As any comedy necessitates obstacles, I’m sure Bryan and David will have a fair share come their way. But I doubt I’ll make it through this rose-tinted view of ease and “normalcy” to find out.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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