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Film Review: Seahorse - The Dad who Gave Birth

23 September 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1016

In a world where our sex tells us nothing about our gender – where we can be anyone and be in relationships with anyone – how do we make sense of ourselves? The image of a pregnant male seems the perfect embodiment of this social anxiety. Biology and gender are uncoupled. What we are left with is an open question – how do we conceive new models of identity when anything is biologically possible?

The BBC documentary Seahorse, by artist and filmmaker Jeanie Finlay, explores this question. It follows Freddy McConnell, a male-identifying gay trans man, on his journey through conception, gestation and childbirth. The story stays close to Freddy's experience, not shying away from and, in fact, lingering in the multiple moments of physical and emotional discomfort; not only hormone injections and labour, but also confusion and sadness as Freddy tries to find the emotional support he needs. We discover that, when biology no longer provides the answer to questions of identity, we require new social models to help us understand who we are.

'Do you have a partner who can support you through this?' the obstetrician asks Freddy in one of his first consultations to discuss his hormone therapy. 'Yes, I have lots of people supporting me'. It is not only Freddy's biology that deviates from the average – his social universe is different too – something that the world of infertility treatment does not seem to cater for. Medicine is not the only arena where Freddy feels misplaced. Much of the documentary is an exploration of how Freddy tries to find his place, to find the social networks that will support him. His co-parenting relationship with his friend, CJ, is one example.

Freddy describes his relationship with CJ as several relationships 'condensed into one'. They are friends, occasionally sexual partners and close in a way that only 'trans people can be'. We see how they negotiate their relationship, looking to the models of parenthood they know. They buy a bed that they plan on sharing, they do their hospital visits together, they watch the pregnancy test together as it shows up negative. We see how the ambivalence of the relationship is eventually resolved – they decide to be friends, but only after CJ unexpectedly breaks their co-parenting agreement and leaves Freddy totally isolated. There are no support networks for a man in Freddy's position, there are no precedents of relationships to look to.

Freddy's struggle for social support is also expressed in his relationships with women. This is the group he feels compelled to look to for solidarity and advice as the birth approaches. But at a dinner with his mum's friends, he seems very much on the outskirts as he tries to interject in their conversations about maternity wear. I found Freddy's grappling with his female identity especially striking. How he is distressed by his increasingly female physique but sticks to it as a means to an end. How having a female body does not mean you relate to other women.

This is an especially powerful challenge to the way in which women have historically been closely associated with and reduced to their body’s reproductive capacity. From 'womanly curves' to connote childbearing potential, to the 'natural' desire to bear children - women's biology is still often used to assert a narrow conception of the woman as a reproductive vessel. Freddy does not fit this mould. He relates to women in some ways – but when he does it is for their strength, his mother is his rock, or simply by default, because the men in his life seem to have rejected him. Nothing about Freddy's identity is common-sense, none of it is explained by his biology.

Through an intimate telling of Freddy's story, Finlay contests any assumed connection between physiology, the biological facts of his reproductive sex, and his gender identity. Freddy exists on the margins of these naturalised categories – male, female, even as a trans man his decision to bear a child makes him a small minority. This isolates him, makes him anxious, depressed. While we dwell in Freddy's discomfort, there is also an impulse, on Freddy's part and the part of the filmmaker, to try to find identity models that Freddy can relate to. Perhaps his mother, who is the 'strongest woman he knows'? Or an actor in a photograph, who he had a crush on as a child but also aspired to as an embodiment of masculinity? The title of the documentary is 'Seahorse', a model in biology for the childbearing male; perhaps some solace for Freddy that there are 'natural' analogies for the model of reproduction he is enacting but, perhaps, also not the point of the film she has made?

This is where my critique of the documentary lies. Having done the careful work of showing us the ambiguities that punctuate Freddy's childbearing experience, having laid out the complexity of the relationship between the 'natural' and socially, culturally constructed dimensions of his gender identity, Finlay seems to resort to a nice and tidy, 'romantic' resolution. And where better to find it than in a paradigm we all hold dear – the 'natural' connection a parent feels to their genetically related child. Freddy tells the camera, as he nurses his child, how he has given up on trying to be a 'normal' parent, that he has embraced, by implication, his marginal identity. By presenting the resolution as the outcome of Freddy's personal coming-of-age journey, the documentary diverges from the complicated, social problem it has outlined. The problem of Freddy's alienation and lack of support seems to be resolved as Freddy becomes the picture of maternal serenity. A more satisfying ending, to me, would have showed us how the new models of sociality that Freddy has fought to create might work, and to challenge our current social order to accommodate them.

As it stands, Seahorse does not, in my opinion, fulfil its potential to show us the complexity of gender. The neat resolution skirts over the fact that this trans man's life will continue to be difficult and fails to direct the challenge of thinking about how that could be different to the appropriate audience – that is, to us all. Nonetheless, this slightly problematic resolution should serve as an imperative to draw on new scientific possibilities to reinvent what we consider to be the norm.

24 May 2021 - by Liam Davis 
What makes a family? What was once probably a simple question to answer can now be complicated (or 'queered'). There are now various models of family to consider, which departs from the 'traditional' ideal of a married, cisgender man and woman with biogenetic children...
23 November 2020 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
A trans man who gave birth has lost his last chance in the UK legal system to be registered as his child's father on the birth certificate...
19 October 2020 - by Javier Bautista 
Surrogacy has given queer couples the opportunity to have a biological child, expanding ideas about the paths to parenthood...
7 September 2020 - by David Gollancz 
The Court of Appeal upheld the High Court's conclusion that legislation requires a trans man who gave birth to a son after receiving a gender recognition certificate, to be registered as the child's mother
15 June 2020 - by Emma Bunting 
When starting his transition, doctors told Freddy McConnell he would never be able to have children. Five years later, he gave birth to his son Jack...
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