Are babies a fashion accessory? They are if you’re Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who recently “matched their models with tiny adorable eye candies” to promote their Autumn/Winter wardrobe at Milan Fashion Week. Called “Viva La Mamma”, the collection purported to be all about celebrating mothers – not real ones, obviously, who can’t afford designer clothes and require body fat to conceive in the first place, but imaginary ones, from Fashion Land, where all that matters is what looks good.
Sadly it is not known whether the babies featured in the show were vetted for authenticity. One would hope so since the designers have since made their opposition to “synthetic children” – those conceived through IVF and/or surrogacy – perfectly clear. According to the pair “the only family is the traditional one. No chemical offsprings and rented uterus: life has a natural flow, there are things that should not be changed.” Hear that, fashionistas? The timeless look for parenting is “fertile heterosexual”. Anything else is simply out.
It’s a position that has no logical justification. As a recent Cambridge University study has shown, children raised by same-sex couples or single parents fare just as well as those raised by heterosexual pairs. What matters is not the family structure itself but whether or not the environment is loving, secure and supportive. How a child is conceived is irrelevant to its future wellbeing. Just as “accidentally” does not mean “less wanted”, “not in the marital bed in the missionary position” does not mean “inauthentic”. You cannot get more real and unfathomable than new life. Every loving family is as vibrant and valuable as the next.
Then again, “the only family is the traditional one” never sounded like it was supposed to make sense in the first place. It’s one of those fashion-y pronouncements akin to “the only coat for this season is mannish” (there are plenty of other coats; we’re just not allowed to like them). When Dolce describes children as “synthetic” it’s as though he’s comparing a Louis Vuitton handbag to a Mullberry. He’s turning his nose up at something because it offends his sensibilities and since he’s an artist, we’re not meant to question why. “The traditional family” is your classic capsule wardrobe; anything else is too fussy and just won’t do. When Dolce refers to “semen chosen from a catalogue” you imagine him wrinkling his nose and thinking of Littlewood’s or Kay’s.
Perhaps we should care no more for D&G’s ignorant views than we do for their £5,000 dresses. They do, however, highlight more common prejudices about how families should be (we have the arrogance of fashion speak to thank for making them more explicit). It’s not just that same-sex parents are marginalised and othered (they are), nor that the “traditional family unit” is used to reinforce regressive ideas about sex roles (it is). It’s that all too often we focus on what looks right – the images that don’t offend us – and not what goes on behind closed doors.
That children are safe, loved and happy should be our highest priority yet we allow ourselves to be derailed by pointless debates about whether families need fathers or both parents should work. We ask ourselves, does my family look dysfunctional in this? Meanwhile there are far too many deeply unhappy children who aren’t getting the care they need, not because the symmetry is “off” – OMG! the pink/blue parent ratio has been disturbed! – but because parents are pushed into doing what looks best (I must stay with him for the children, I can’t ask for help) rather than being supported in doing what is best in the context of lives than no one else can live.
As with families, so too with debates, particularly internet-led ones. What is especially depressing about the D&G parenting debacle is that there is at least one discussion to be had, albeit not one that is dominated by the voices of super-rich white men. We might wince at the mention of “wombs for rent” but who is doing the dehumanising: the speaker or the people he critiques? We should be asking questions, not about whether “life has a natural flow”, but about the ethics of wealthy people outsourcing gestation, increasingly to poor women overseas. It is not a matter of whether such babies are “natural” (of course they are) but whether the human cost of such exchanges can be justified. In this instance it is impossible to talk about choice without also considering the constraints imposed by gender, class and race. It’s not a question of whether some rich white men find it an unappealing way to start a family and whereas others – Elton John, for instance – don’t. It’s not all about them, nor even their babies, yet here we have a spat in which the role of the gestational mother – again, a human being, not an accessory – has been completely erased. She just makes the picture too messy.
Many of us, feeling the pressure to look good bearing down on us, too, will decide that since we’ve plumped for Team Elton, we cannot be in any way critical of the routes by which people acquire the children they love. But to withdraw from any deeper analysis is, I think, to opt once again not to look behind closed doors. It’s to favour the neat family structure over the flesh and blood that supports it. If all human beings matter, we can’t afford to do that.