Mpreg and Me

Junior (1994) / Titane (2021)

Titane (2021) | illustration by Tom Ralston

One of the most compelling pieces of body horror I’ve ever seen is a simple gif depicting the way a person’s organs rearrange to accommodate a fetus growing in their abdomen. The bladder is squashed, the liver buoys, the placenta balloons as if with helium. Even the lungs are lifted. It’s an endless loop lasting less than five seconds, and it’s better at scaring me than most movies.

I have always been terrified of becoming pregnant. Even before I knew I was trans, my period arriving a day or two late was mind melting, whether or not I had recently had sex. It’s not that trans men and transmasculine people don’t give birth; they can, and regularly do. I was a preteen when Thomas Beatie, whom tabloids declared “the first pregnant man,” showed up on the magazine stand in my hometown grocery store.

I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing. My only other cultural reference to trans men at the time, Chaz Bono, was also a mystery to me. Standing in front of glossy issues of People and USA Today while the cashier scanned items, all I saw were normal, natural men. A roadmap between me and them was beyond my imagination.

The refrain of “the first pregnant man” appeared to me again, years later, when I watched the film Junior (1994) for the first time. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a geneticist, Dr. Alex Hesse, who becomes pregnant. That’s the whole pitch. The image of Schwarzenegger with a swollen stomach is billed as absurd enough to carry the entire plot.

Part of the gag, admittedly, rests on the audience’s familiarity with Schwarzenegger himself. He’s made a living off of masculinity, iconic in his embodiment of a gendered ideal. The viewer can take comfort in the actor’s almost comical cisness, never having to confront the fallibility of the sex binary in full. 

Still, what’s so improbable about a man becoming pregnant that it constitutes a “first”? It’s alluring to set a precedent. Yet it’s also a claim that necessitates erasure. As Morgan M. Page writes, “People—trans and cis alike—rush to plant the flag of the very first, to mark the significance of the moment as being unlike anything that has ever occurred before….In order for trans people to be constantly discovered, we must be always and immediately cast off, forgotten.” 

A trans person, especially one in isolation from community, can easily feel as though they are the first person to ever experience transition. Our bodies can seem novel, even alien, in a background of overwhelming cisnormativity. It’s only through relationships with each other that we learn that what seems bizarre in isolation (itching nipples, shrinking feet, a total change in body odor) is actually almost boring in its commonness. 

Claiming a total lack of precedent doesn’t just erase us from history. It’s also fodder for our destruction in the present. It’s the claim that our healthcare is new, our surgeries experimental, that trans children didn’t exist until now. It’s the genocidal testimony of a lawmaker declaring she would rather have a dead daughter than a living son. If trans life is ‘new,’ if the procedures we need to survive are ‘uncertain,’ perhaps lawmakers could manage to go to sleep at night thinking the blood on their hands will wash away like a passing trend. 

Neither Thomas Beatie nor Alex Hesse represent a true first. I would certainly not be the first pregnant man either, nor the one thousandth. If I have any say in it, though, I will never be one at all.

When you tell someone you want to have a hysterectomy, they almost always ask, are you sure? Watching Junior, I see a vision of trans pregnancy that is, as Amanda Hess put it, “uncomfortable and confounding, [but] never degrading or grim.” I see the possibility for dignity, grace. It’s a vision I desperately wish to be real for all trans people who give birth. But still, it hasn’t done much to move my certainty about never wanting to join them.

I don’t know how to explain to people that I would not survive it.

Nothing would obliterate me more completely.

*

Junior opens with Alex, strait-laced and stony faced, embodying the masculine ideal of a stoic scientist. Along with Dr. Larry Arbogast (Danny DeVito), a OBGYN clinician, he has developed a fertility drug meant to reduce the chances of miscarriage—a development that stands to make them both a lot of money. When the pair fail to secure FDA approval for the drug, however, they decide to work outside the confines of ‘acceptable’ medical practice. In other words, like so many trans people, they DIY that shit.

It takes some convincing. Arbogast invokes Jonas Salk’s decision to test the polio vaccine on himself to suggest they implant an anonymously donated egg in Alex’s abdomen. Following an incredulous Alex through security and onto an airplane, Arbogast pitches with aplomb: “Is it possible? Who knows? Is it natural? So what.”

The (un)naturalness of trans bodies is often evoked as the justification for our destruction. We are unnatural because we modify/maim/make ourselves in opposition of our original configuration, whether designed by god or gametes. And what the state deems unnatural cannot survive. At the time of this writing, over 500 bills have been introduced across the country attempting to eradicate trans people from public life this year alone. Sex cannot be defined in a legislatively meaningful way, and yet the state insists, violently, on trying. 

When his pregnancy is eventually discovered by the university for which he works, Alex is declared “university property.” His employer arrives, police in tow, to assert ownership over his employee’s body. What does Alex say after slinging his boss into a cart of beakers? 

My body, my choice.

*

As the film plays out, pregnancy opens up a chasm of yearning in Alex. A commercial playing up the pathos of parenthood makes him crumple, sobbing “she was daddy’s little girl” to an exasperated Arbogast. I can hear the echoes of parents ‘mourning’ their child’s transition, or even my own grief in the face of failing to be a daughter. White girlhood—that most guarded workshop of oppression—put asunder by surgery and cross-sex hormones. It’s textbook TERF logic. Daddy’s little girl was a daughter, a white child, and what could be worse than her growing up to be a man? A pregnant one, at that.

Arbogast and Alex’s scheme only requires him to make it through the first trimester, but when the time comes to end the treatment, Alex announces his intention to continue. He wants to carry to term—which is when Arbogast changes his tune: “This is totally against the natural order,” he says to Alex, incensed, and later, “If this gets out, it’s over. You’re a freak.”

What does it mean, exactly, to be against nature? Does it mean anything at all, and would it matter if it did?

Titane (2021) takes the accusation of unnatural pregnancy and elevates it to new, absurd heights. Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning film is spoken of as body horror for good reason (though she rejects the label). Its androgynous, murderous protagonist—whose ambiguous gender shifts from Alexia to Adrien over the course of the film, and who I will refer to as “A.” moving forward—becomes pregnant after having sex with a car. A. is played by Agathe Rousselle, in her feature film debut, with convincing grit. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Rousselle’s status as an unknown actor contributes to the sense that she is truly transgressing, crossing a line we’ve been told exists. A cis audience (here I can only speculate) may find something to fear in this alone: a body that refuses the delineations of sex, or even those between flesh and machine. 

Where Alex’s conception is clinical, coming by way of syringe to abdomen, A.’s is visceral, surreal. Both their body and the car’s rock in unbridled pleasure, the kind of fucking that doesn’t concern itself with anatomy. When A. discovers that they’ve become pregnant, they respond with equal passion: a long hairpin, used as a murder weapon just a few scenes before, becomes an abortive tool.

Watching A. penetrate themself to the point of writhing agony, it’s hard not to turn away. The camera angle and editing are merciless. The hairpin comes out slick with dark motor oil. A. is unsuccessful, pulled away by the call of their human lover, but the violence doesn’t stop. They kill all but one occupant of their lover’s home, an escapee who, crucially, compromises A’s identity as Alexia.

Escaping to an airport, A. spots their wanted poster on a digital placard, and on the opposite side of the sign, the aged-up rendering of a long missing child, Adrien. The two bear a passing resemblance, and A. hatches a quick plan. They enter a bathroom to transform: shearing off their hair and eyebrows, wrapping Ace bandages around their chest and stomach, and, in another moment of utter brutality, breaking their nose against the edge of the sink.

Sasha Geffen deftly identifies how this scene builds the foundation of a common trans trope: “The haircut, the binding, and even the brutalized flesh hew to a stereotypical image of a transmasculine character, someone who by trauma and circumstance has come into alignment with something felt deeply inside.” It’s a simple script culturally reproduced in everything from memoirs to magazine profiles, but under Ducournau’s direction, the playbook morphs. “As Alexia further adopts Adrien’s identity, the infrastructure that would scaffold such a trans narrative fractures at every turn.” 

Where Geffen notes subversion, other critics have been less charitable. Pointing to the same scene of transformation, as well as another character’s use of steroids, Jude Day argues that “Titane twists these milestones of transition—a beautiful, liberating experience for most trans people—making them painful and grotesque in service of its bent towards body horror.” Dry reads this as unforgivably transphobic, and yet goes so far as to describe A. as a crossdresser. What I see is a person desperate to live in a body no longer hospitable to them. I see someone a lot like myself. 

Transition can be by turns beautiful and liberating, painful and grotesque. You can see it in A.’s smile as they survey their work in the mirror, laughing while gore slicks their lips.

Bloodied, made over, and secretly pregnant, A. takes wary shelter in Adrien’s fireman father, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who is offered a DNA test to prove paternity. Staring through the glass window separating him from A., he refuses. Of course he would recognize his own son.

*

Hess, reflecting on pregnant men in film, writes that the image’s intent is often muddied, representing “the patriarchal domination of women, or maybe the cyclical nature of male violence, or maybe the surreal outer edge of psychological trauma.” Filmmakers have fumbled with the archetype in everything from Joan Rivers’s comedy Rabbit Test (1978) to Alex Garland’s horror Men (2022). Is a pregnant man funny? Terrifying? Offensive? Whichever it is, these films seem to say, he certainly can’t be real.

Mpreg, a popular fanfiction trope that depicts canonically male characters as pregnant, provides another outlet. Like fanfiction in general, mpreg stories range from the vanilla to the pornographic, and like the pregnant men of the silver screen, no one can seem to agree on what it means. Jon Heggestad, applying Jack Halberstam’s concept of ‘border wars’ to fanfiction about the 2010s TV series Teen Wolf, teases apart three common mpreg interpretations: as proxy for women, as proxy for cis gay men, and as literal trans men. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the final of these three interpretations, the existence of tangible trans men, is the least popular.

Looking for explicitly trans pregnant men in conventional fiction is difficult, though not non-existent: such characters are found in a short story by Callum Angus, as well as Kyle Lukoff’s middle grade novel, Different Kinds of Fruit. Andrew Joseph White recently announced a novel featuring a pregnant trans man forthcoming in 2025. Once again, I am reverting to “firsts.” Forget the first pregnant man, what’s the first story about a pregnant man? Looking for myself in the canon, I find that I am not immune from yearning for definitive precedent. 

* 

As pregnant men, neither Junior’s Alex nor Titane’s A. has access to a community of care. Alex poses as a woman in order to shelter in a health resort for expecting mothers in the film’s third act. He is nurtured, taught caretaking skills, comforted when he cries. All of this is only possible because the women believe him to be one of them. In the frame of a transmasculine reading, Alex must detransition to be cared for. 

It calls back to an earlier scene in Junior when Alex sits in the waiting room of Arbogast’s OB-GYN clinic. The other patients, all pregnant cis women, treat him with astounding normalcy, asking when he is due, what he will name the baby. The mundanity is what arrests me. I can’t remember how long it’s been since I saw a gynecologist, but what I can recall is breaking down into a shuddering panic the moment I could retreat back to the parking lot. The dignity extended to Alex within a medical institution built on cisness is an experience I have never known.

And yet, the scene is not quite how I just described. Arbogast, drinking from a cocktail of disgust and embarrassment, stage whispers to the women that Alex is experiencing a psychosomatic delusion. That he has only convinced himself he is pregnant in a break from reality. The women speak kindly to him, all the while continuing to believe in the impossibility of a pregnant man.

Not all the women’s responses in the movie are so placid. Upon learning not only of his pregnancy, but that the supposed “anonymously donated” egg was her own, Alex’s love interest, Dr. Diana Reddin (Emma Thompson), intones equal parts rage and disgust. She invokes the sanctity of her womanhood—of all womanhood—crying, “You think men don’t hold enough cards? You have to take this away from us as well?”

What exactly is lost when a man becomes pregnant instead of (or in addition to) a woman? If reproductive capacity is the crux of identity, the category of ‘woman’ falls apart against the slightest gust.

Of course, Diana comes around. This is a comedy, and everything must be happily wrapped up in under two hours, including the reinforcement of the nuclear family as an inherent good. The same can’t be said for A. 

Like Alex, A.’s difference is also apparent to the people around them. The other firemen under Vincent’s supervision ask each other, is this guy gay? “Retarded”? Either way, A. reads as pathetic to them, “like a TV special.” While everyone around them questions A.’s identity, both as a man and as Adrien, Vincent refuses to play the role of the rejecting parent we’ve been so primed to expect. Indeed, Geffen writes that “the more Adrien ‘fails’ his gender, the more Vincent insists upon his love.”

Only moments before A.’s towel falls, revealing their breasts and stomach (again, the discovery of a ‘deception’ by way of a naked trans body, another stronghold in stereotypical narratives), Vincent makes an almost rhapsodic promise. “I don’t care who you are. You’re my son. You’ll always be my son. Whoever you are.” When the towel does fall, he makes good on that promise, tenderly wrapping it back around his son.

The strange, intense love of a father, biological or not, does not prevent the inevitable. A. goes into labor. Their body is ribbed with the marks of binding, their skin pallid, tearing to reveal shining chrome underneath. A. dies in agony, and Vincent is left cradling the metal-streaked infant alone, whispering, “I’m here. I’m here.”

*

I was confiding my fears about trans genocide to a cis woman whom I like very much. These days, being alive in my transsexual body often feels like walking along the increasingly thin blade of a knife. My trans friends and I have conversations about fleeing, about firearms, about safehouses. We talk about mass death casually. I needed a cis person to hear me.

She listened kindly, then said “I understand. I felt the same way when we lost Roe.”

Did she consider that I, too, am a person who might need an abortion one day? I don’t know. I didn’t ask. When I’ve let my mind slide down the doom spiral of a pregnancy, it’s always been the thought of abortion that keeps me from falling apart completely. I don’t know what I would do if safe termination wasn’t an option. I don’t know how to explain to her that it would kill me, as it did A. That I too would take the nearest blade to my cervix, would burn down houses or break my nose, anything to not die in the way I’ve feared most.

Any yet—it’s been months since I received the required letters from psych professionals certifying I am not too delusional to operate on, and I still haven’t scheduled a consultation for a hysterectomy. The terror is so large, has been with me for so long. I don’t know what it would be like to live without it.

Hyster-, coming from the Greek hystéra, for womb. Hysteria, from hysterikós, “suffering in the womb.” I have suffered, like A., like Alex. I have considered my options, even the one presented to me by Junior; in the final scene, Alex insists to Arbogast that pregnancy “is the most wonderful experience for a man.” Maybe it is.

To remove my womb might not mean to remove my suffering. But I will not die like A.