The mother of all outrage magnets

As critics heap hate on Nadya Suleman's reproductive choices, it's becoming clear this isn't just about her.

Published February 13, 2009 7:30PM (EST)

Nadya Suleman is the new Sarah Palin. By which I mean no one will stop talking about her, so I feel obligated to write about her even though it seems both more polite and less maddening to ignore her. Also, even though I don't know the woman and sincerely doubt I'd enjoy hanging out with her, I find myself feeling protective of her just because so much of the vitriol she's absorbing these days is clearly a response to her being a woman who's transgressed cultural norms.

The recently released photos of Suleman's enormous belly, taken a few days before she gave birth to the octuplets, have created yet more buzz around the beleaguered mom, as has a new family Web site on which she asks for donations. You couldn't ask for a better combination for whipping up indignant opinions from strangers -- she wants your money and there are pictures of her looking kinda freakish! But some of those opinions say a whole lot more about the people sharing them than they do about Suleman. Anahad O'Connor at the New York Times's Lede blog quotes Suleman's publicist as saying, "She's had death threats, we've had death threats, and there have been many that have been so ugly that if they don't suggest death they suggest someone so sick that you would be fearful of them." O'Connor adds that the "unprintable messages mentioned wood chippers, bombings, and other allusions to violence." The printable one included this heartwarming thought: "The best thing that could happen to those kids is if they get taken away from her or if they die."

The really scary stuff might just be from a few anonymous nuts, but check out Tina Brown's response to the photos of hugely preggo Suleman. After bizarrely suggesting that her own decision to publish the infamous 1990 Vanity Fair cover featuring a naked and pregnant Demi Moore is indirectly responsible for Suleman's photos -- because no pregnant woman ever thought to get a picture of her expanding belly before that? -- Brown goes off on Suleman's "delinquency," her " freeloading on disability," her " reckless conduct" (which, according to that sentence, actually caused disabilities in some of Suleman's children; I suppose that's true, insofar as the children would not have disabilities if they did not exist), and oh yes, her "duvet lips." Because the critique just wouldn't be complete without a shot at Suleman's appearance.

Or, you know, at her innocent children. Brown punctures Suleman's (presumed) dreams of being the next Angelina Jolie with this classist, ableist gem: "Who's going to want to do photo spreads on eight socially-deprived adolescents with learning disabilities raised by a crazy mother?"

Wow. Suleman, like Palin, has become a target for such stunningly vicious invective, I can't help thinking, "Oof, lay off!" even though I'm personally loath to defend her. I do think the doctor who implanted all those embryos behaved beyond unethically, and I think it's fair to question the wisdom -- even the mental health -- of anyone choosing to take on 14 young children at once, with very limited resources. But those points and questions have already been raised and debated more than sufficiently by now. As this story drags on and the published opinions about Suleman's choices become more nakedly hateful, it becomes increasingly obvious that this is no longer really about one woman who has a lot of kids; this is about our culture's expectations of poor families, women of color, single moms and women who exercise their reproductive freedom in unpopular ways. Whatever you think Suleman's choices say about her, I know I'm a whole lot more disturbed by what the cruel, bigoted, violent responses to those choices say about our society.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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