Imagine heading out for a night of theater, only to end up chanting along with the rest of the audience: “We are the pro-life generation!” If you’re lucky enough to catch a performance of the currently touring MOM BABY GOD, you just might find yourself unexpectedly wrapped up in a “pro-life” slumber party, meeting all sorts of characters in this one-woman play.
Actor, playwright and reproductive-rights activist Madeline Burrows spent more than one year immersed in the anti-abortion movement, intent on learning about its supporters and what fuels them. Through research, interviews and attending pro-life conferences undercover, Burrows drew inspiration for MOM BABY GOD, a piece of true political theater. I recently chatted with Burrows about her creation, how it all came together and her experiences as an undercover anti-choicer.
For those who have yet to experience it, what can people expect at a viewing of MOM BABY GOD?
Think about going to your middle school or high school dance. There’s pop music playing, girls are furiously reapplying their lip gloss, boys are awkwardly trying to dance with said girls and the chaperones are going around trying to break everyone up. Now imagine that scenario in the context of a right-wing conference where young people are encouraged to wear purity rings, pledge their virginity for their future husband or wife and celebrate the closure of abortion clinics. MOM BABY GOD throws you into the world of the right-wing anti-abortion movement through the eyes of a teenage girl who is trying super hard to achieve the impossible “be sexy/don’t have sex” sexual culture available to young women in the U.S. It’s an immersive look into the anti-abortion movement, but it’s equally about the sexual culture and abstinence-only politics that go hand-in-hand with the politics of the anti-abortion movement. It’s very funny, very scary and very real.
How did you come up with the concept for MOM BABY GOD?
I conducted interviews and attended right-wing events as research for the play over the course of two years, so I had a lot of material to work with. The premise of the show is that you’re attending the Students for Life of America conference and at the conference’s culmination, attendees will help shut down the last abortion clinic in the state. I decided to give the show that kind of immersive framework because I didn’t want it to be a bunch of talking heads onstage. I wanted audiences to really get to know these characters, and to feel the same kind of urgency that I felt when I was attending these conferences and rallies.
Let’s talk more about your time immersed in the anti-choice youth movement. Did the folks you meet know you were conducting research?
Yes. I was in college at the time and my research was approved by the Institutional Review Board, so everyone I interviewed signed a waiver consenting to have their words used for the creation of a play about the pro-life movement 40 years after Roe v. Wade. I never had a fake identity or told people I was a pro-life activist, but I’m sure some people assumed that about me.
I definitely got a better understanding of the arguments and rhetoric of the movement, but not in the sense that it shifted my politics or made me more sympathetic to their movement’s goals as a whole. The more time I spent with them, the more fully I saw the tragedy on a human level of these politics—the way they affect young women, the shame-based understanding of sexuality they offer for young people. If anything it made me more committed to building the movement for reproductive justice.
You often hear that today’s youth are more complacent and less activist/involved in changing the world. Has that made it difficult for MBG to be taken seriously or a bit easier to have your voices heard amidst this supposed absence of activism?
I hear that all the time, too, and I don’t think this narrative of the “me” generation is true at all. You have a generation who are riddled with student debt, and a growing number of young people involved in campaigns to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour, or involved with campaigns against sexual violence on campuses, or against deportations. There’s a growing opt-out movement against standardized testing, sometimes led by high-school students. I think with the Occupy movement you saw the first explosion of that, and that sentiment hasn’t gone away. If young people were apathetic we wouldn’t consistently have sold-out shows with incredibly young audiences by theater’s standards. In touring the show, it’s been really inspiring to see how many people are angry about the attack on reproductive rights, looking for ways to organize against the backlash, and articulating a new politics around sexuality and reproductive justice. I think we’re at the beginning stages of rebuilding a movement around these issues, but it’s definitely there and it’s growing.
Do you have any advice for young women interested in forging their own path in a similar way?
Don’t let fear of failure guide your decisions. Ignore that voice in your head or in your life that tells you you’re not good enough. In high school my friends developed a saying called “PYOT”—put yourself out there. It became a mantra for us to do things that scared us. I think girls and women are taught by our society to be hyper-conscious of how others view us. There’s a lot of coded and outright sexism that tells us we’re not good enough, and we’re taught to have a lot of fear. Fear of being judged, fear of failure. But sometimes the best things come from taking risks and doing things that are way outside our comfort zone.
Check out the MOM BABY GOD website to learn more about the production and tour.
Avital Norman Nathman is a former teacher and lifelong learner turned freelance writer. Her work, which places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights, has been featured in Bitch magazine, The New York Times, CNN, and RH Reality Check. She blogs regularly at The Mamafesto, and her first book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, was published this year by Seal Press.