Let's call him "the seductive sperm donor," and maybe even declare him our new romantic hero. The subject of two movies and a new novel, this sexy beast of a character is anything but anonymous.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Shattuck, herself the author of a novel that features a sperm donor who comes into the life of the donees, talks about this recent phenomenon. From Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right to Jason Bateman in The Switch to the new Ruffalo-helmed show that's in talks to her own Perfect Life, the sperm donor is showing up and causing complications for all kinds of fictional families. Of course, as Shattuck points out, in most cases - and there are more and more - there is nowhere near this kind of drama.
In real life, the great majority of sperm donors and the families that they have helped create are not involved in some elaborate struggle over connection or inheritance. In real life, the new family structures enabled by sperm donation are increasingly common and unremarkable, un-fraught with tensions and evolutionary anxieties, possible pitfalls, and sexual incursions in reverse.
In fiction, the sperm donor tends to be a figure whom we regard with a certain bemusement. Whereas the egg donor or surrogate, in popular consciousness, is frequently hard-up, someone who makes a serious decision out of deep conviction or deep need, the sperm donor is sort of rakish, often a young guy who, after all, just needed to masturbate for ready cash. As such, characters like Ruffalo's, or Ted Danson in Made in America, or Stanley Tucci in A Modern Affair, are in a perfect position to become everyone's favorite archetype: the boy-man who wises up and accepts his responsibilities. Maybe even a romantic possibility! If, on the other hand, the donor is a Bateman-style platonic type who provides the DNA, he's a super-supportive friend. It's win-win, really - well, in fiction.
Writing of Ruffalo's Paul, Shattuck points out,
And most of all, he makes a plausibly charming "interloper" (as one of the characters calls him at the end of the movie), which is certainly not representative of the many, many sperm donors in "real" life, but is maybe at the heart of some subconscious anxiety we have about them. He is the kind of guy we can imagine charming his way into the type of modern family that sperm donations tend to factor in. Cholodenko's movie and my book both turn on the old-fashioned, time-tested trope of an outsider who insinuates himself into a domestic scene and wreaks havoc. As A. O. Scott wrote in his review of the movie in The New York Times, "nothing is more disruptive to domestic order than an unattached heterosexual man. In mid-19th-century America, anxiety about guys more or less like Paul drove movements for social and religious reform." And fueled the plots of many a Victorian novel, I might add.
Characters such as Paul, I'd venture, get a certain pass that we consciously or not would be unwilling to extend to a maternal figure, even an egg donor or a surrogate. In a recent episode of Louie, the main character attends a PTA meeting, where his meagre efforts are greeted with effusive praise. A mother, also attending her first meeting, is greeted with stony silence. A small moment, but one illustrative of the differing expectations for parents in our culture. It's something that's been remarked upon before, but in a sense the whole "sperm-donor-as-character" brings the issue into stark relief. On the one hand, as Cholodenko's film argues, a character like Ruffalo has forfeited his rights by not doing any of the parental heavy lifing. On the other, well, he doesn't have to do anything and so any bonding, any fatherly intervention, any affection seems twice as appealing and by extension his faults become twice as forgivable. After all, is there any situation when less is expected of a man? If the situation were reversed and it were a mother reappearing - even Amy Poehler's Baby Mama surrogate - this would be an even more complicated film. And think about it: the absent father is a dramatic staple, dating back to Victorian literature. Take that, remove the drama and what've you got? Apparently, a trend that we like. And when it becomes a subgenre on Harlequin - "Back in the Picture?" "Banking Beaux"? "Wild Oat Winners?" - we'll know it's official.
The Seductive Sperm Donor [Daily Beast]