We Are All Mothers Now: Katie Tandy On Our Genetically-Modified Future
“When are you going to start a family?”
That was the first question neighbors asked when Katie Tandy moved into a new house with her partner. She doesn’t necessarily want kids, but she remembers the jolt that the question gave her, “Holy shit! I forget how it still can be just that reductive, and I start to feel, at least for a flash, like, is there something wrong with me? [...] Even if you aren’t examining these shadows, it still occupies a big place in the psyche.”
As a dogged consumer of dystopian science fiction, Tandy wondered, what would life look like without the expectation to bear a child? What would happen if anyone could fashion a child into being? The science is real and it’s here, but what should we do with it?
The 3GT playwright transforms these hypotheticals into a reality in her ten-minute play, All Mothers. Originally scheduled to premiere at Theme Night of 3GT’s New Works Festival in March of 2020, Tandy’s science-fiction universe bridges the pure and profane in a world where humanity departs from the burden of its bodies, “[O]ut of our ashes rose a tremendous new possibility: skin-birth,” describes the lead researcher of All Mothers, Dr. Li Lawrence, to a blinking recording light. With it, the systematic targeting of the most vulnerable populations cease. Birth rates, teenage pregnancies, and abortion numbers plummet. By 2080, genome editing technology, CRISPR and 3-D printing, are widespread. The key to this brave new world? Mass sterilization, “the great democratizer,” yet, within the abundance of scientific advancement comes global consequences after a black market fallout.
As a feminist, Tandy would like to throw her shoulder behind a world in which anyone on earth could be considered a mother along the exact same lines as a cis-born woman with a uterus. However, she also wonders if it really levels the playing field if no one can have children ‘naturally?’
“If you're someone for whom pregnancy, birth, and being a vessel is fundamentally human, removing that possibility of ‘nature’ starts to get really scary and erodes our very relationship to what it means to be alive. I really want people and especially women to examine their relationship to motherhood and their own mothers. And not to take for granted or take it as a given that there is something wrong with them or that they're not enough on their own. On the other hand, I also want to give space and honor those who feel like motherhood is part and parcel of their identity. But I think that we're scared to ask a lot of these questions, especially liberal women. There's a lot of purity tests around what it means to be a feminist.”
If a woman chooses to have children, then she succumbs to the cacophony of the patriarchy, but if she abstains, she’s asked, ‘If not now, when?’ The question becomes: how can we examine our own implicit biases of what a liberated life looks like?
Tandy interrogates these cultural echoes of motherhood while weaving the ideas on the frontlines of DNA stem cell research into the cultural fabric of a not-far off universe, “I discovered a true story of a wealthy English couple whose, not that long ago, beloved son died in a horrible motorcycle accident. They extracted sperm from his dead body and implanted the sperm in a surrogate and brought their grandchild to fruition.” The possibility of designer babies rewires the way that we conceive not only the limits of human life, but also consent and bodily autonomy. Tandy wonders, “Just because we can, does that mean that we should? Is our relentless pursuit of technologies scary or liberating?”
The play happily entangles itself in the moral ambiguities of these scientific advancements. One such innovation is the unibaby, an infant created from the cells of one person. In 2020, unibabies are largely theoretical, but in the world of All Mothers, they are commonplace.
“We just don't like the concept because it feels like cloning right? But public policy shouldn't be derived from people's opinions, it should be derived from the actual science. So in [All Mothers] they argue that unibabies — which is a pretty freaky term, but so be it — are actually much less ethically complicated than it is to get a sperm donor as a gay couple, because instead of simply dealing with yourself, you're triangulating with the lives of two other people. And there’s a lot of questions there — What are the ethics behind that? What role are they going to play? Financially? Psychologically? Whereas if it's just you, it's just you.”
Inspired by feminist philosophers like Luce Irigaray and the queer, surrealist, genre-fucking of Carmen Maria Machado, Tandy’s voice is at once ravenous, incisive, and tender. In her work across fictional and nonfictional mediums, the dark and delightful landscape of the human body is the physiological and political canvas that Tandy dissects.
Her relentless fascination with the body prompted Tandy, along with her creative partner, July Westhale, to launch PULP magazine, a multimedia sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights publication. The magazine is “by, for, and of the body,” Tandy writes and she adds, “And what is a fruit without pulp? The pulp contains the entirety of a fruit’s juice, its infinite sweetness.” The body defies language, and yet it so intertwined with our political world.
Whether within the science fiction world of All Mothers to Tandy’s essays on the bloody folklore of period sex to the taste of memory, she asks, how do we tend to one another? How can the body be a site of resistance as opposed to stigmatization? On her forthcoming memoir that braids stories from her youth with human physiology, Tandy says, “I wrestled my entire life with this nature of obligation and how we tend to it and these familial bonds — chosen or not — that we make with people, and how do we sever them? How do we love people? How much do you sacrifice for your own happiness and well being to perpetuate those connective tissues? And I think that's definitely something that haunts me, something that I turn around and around and around in all these relationships we create. Whether they're mother/child or lover/best friend, when does it become subjugation?”
“These questions are so complicated, and they require more nuance than we ever allow them,” Tandy remarks. Maybe by delving into the murky yet fruitful swamp of dystopia, we can unravel the stories we tell each other and ourselves about our bodies. And sometimes, ironically, within these uncanny places, we can be jolted into radical clarity.
3GT PLAYWRIGHT Katie Tandy is a playwright, essayist, and co-founding editor of PULP, an online arts and culture publication centering sex/uality and reproductive rights. Last spring she wrote and produced a modern rock musical adaptation of Ovid’s Pygmalion — renamed Galatea — at CounterPulse in San Francisco with her Oakland rock band The Shattucks. She lives and writes in the Oakland Hills.
3GT MARKETING ASSOCIATE HANNAH MEYER is a graduate of Muhlenberg College, and a director and dramaturg of new work with a background in marketing and public relations. In the Bay Area, she has worked with Magic Theatre, Playwrights Foundation, and SF Playhouse. Outside of theatre, Hannah is a writer whose work has appeared in Points in Case, The Well Mannered Grump, Baram House, MUSES, The Haven and elsewhere.