Undoubtedly, society has changed dramatically since the days when a crowd of parents brought their all-white infants to be weighed and measured by doctors during the Illinois State Fair’s “better baby contest” in 1931. Eugenics laws and popular beliefs at that time held to the notion that mental, behavioral, and other human aptitudes were tied to particular racial or physical types and that by controlling who had children better people could literally be bred. Another WBEZ slogan reads: “You’re an interesting person. Pass it on. Like, literally. Through your DNA.” Although a WBEZ employee explained that the ads were meant to be “satirical” and “irreverent,” the notion that qualities that make someone interesting reside in their DNA connects to the violent and racist history of eugenics and speaks to the continuation of the erroneous and dangerous idea that our genes are our destiny.
Though the forced sterilization of people imagined “unfit” for reproduction seems a thing of the past, the continued importance of genetics as an imagined predictor of a person’s possibilities remains powerful today. Advances in the fields of reproductive medicine and genetic research have made it possible for many to have children. However, with the statistical trend in the USA towards having children later in life and the association of the older age of parents with a higher percentage of DNA abnormalities, prenatal testing regimes have meant that expecting a child has become a source of great anxiety and worry for many. Disability rights advocates and the writings and lives of people who have autism, Asperger’s or Down syndrome and a range of other disabilities have demonstrated how equally meaningful their lives are. The only sure thing is that our negative associations about genetic differences do adversely affect these children’s future possibilities—no matter how imaginative, intelligent, and interesting they in fact are. And this is no laughing matter.
Furthermore, WBEZ’s call for “interesting people to hook up with interesting people and make more interesting people” may reflect contemporary dating culture; yet, the exhortation to make babies by doing so is deeply problematic in a moment when diseases from unprotected sex can kill you. The message to hook up, have sex, and have babies may be made tongue-in-cheek, but it takes on weight when considered in relation to health campaigns urging people to have protected sex and the fight for sexual education for all youths. A recent Department of Health and Human Services report notes that teenage pregnancies today are “29.4 births for every 1,000 adolescent females ages 15–19,” a decrease of 50 percent from what these figures were in 1991. This downward trend is anything but secure when hooking up and having kids is the message young folks are getting from public radio ads today.
Another campaign slogan reads, “Hey Interesting People, get a room already. And then put a crib in it.” This further suggests that one’s status as an interesting person resides in a capacity to procreate. This is clearly offensive to the many who struggle to have children but have been unsuccessful and who may never have biological children. The heteronormative image of a family that the campaign assumes is offensive as well to many in the LGBTQ community even as the issue of what a family is has been at the center of contemporary social struggles. Moreover, it ignores the queer and heterosexual couples as well as single parent households who have formed families with adopted children. Declining marriage rates, rising divorce rates, and political and economic migration patterns are some of the factors splitting, splicing, and transforming families across the globe; yet, our image and imagination of family remains wedded to a romantic vision more akin to the fictive television clan of “Leave it to Beaver” than that of the more representative—if highly sanitized—examples of “Modern Family.”
WBEZ’s campaign does not explicitly define whom it imagines as interesting. What they do profess is that the qualities that make one interesting can be passed on to one’s children. While many would dismiss the notion that “interestingness” is a matter solely of genetics, prevalent models of parenting in American culture demand that responsible parents push children to develop and demonstrate their exceptionalism. This drive to develop qualities that will make a child stand out most often means that after a long day of school children are engaged in tutoring, dance, music, art, sports, or other activities. While children often find these enjoyable, parents have largely become the keepers of children’s schedules and their chauffeurs from activity to activity rather than their friends or role models. Many parents and children need to schedule playdates in order to see their friends. Full-time parents/chauffeurs and afterschool programs are privileges that few children have available to them but are nonetheless assumed to be a necessary part of the package that will allow a child to excel. Yet rather than try to guide children along a course we set out for them or try to shape them in our own “interesting” image, we would do well to reflect on the individual and social outcomes of a parenting culture built on the pressure to produce exceptional children.
Furthermore, while feminist struggles have transformed gender relations, creating the possibility for more women to enroll in college and to enter the labor force, the WBEZ ad campaign implies that our society continues to value a woman’s worth through her capacity to give birth. This problematic perception that reduces a woman to her womb persists despite the fact that our nation’s birthrate is at its lowest ever and more people are choosing not to have children. For many women and men, moreover, the decision not to have a child or to wait until later in life is less a willful choice than a reflection of the high degree of economic uncertainty that young adults currently face. The possibility of getting a room and putting a crib in it eludes the great majority of US households. For those dealing with precarious employment, housing, and healthcare options, the quarter of a million dollars that it takes to raise a child today through the age of seventeen—before any college costs—presents a real burden that complicates if not limits the possibility of many to become parents.
“Do it. For Chicago,” implores WBEZ. Yet what does Chicago do for children and parents? The closing of 50 public schools in Chicago this year and six mental health clinics last year made evident the uncertainty of social support to help raise one’s children. Meanwhile, homicides affecting largely young men in Black and brown communities topped 500 last year. Furthermore, the shortfall of around $100 billion in the state’s pension system threatens the future of workers whether born in 1952, today, or in 2032. Financial, physical, and emotional safety affects children and parents alike and is a matter that stretches beyond the confines of any particular home or even the privileged individuals that WBEZ imagines as being able to choose to do it. The satirical humor of these ads trivializes the struggles of parents and children fighting to survive and make ends meet; it also makes evident the wide gulf that separates the on-the-ground struggles of entire communities from the advantaged individuals of the “curious class” that this $400,000 ad campaign addresses and whose resources afford them the space to laugh.
I could not laugh but I did feel the need to scream out. After all, while I saw the advertisings at CTA train stations in Oak Park and in multiple locations on the streets along Milwaukee Avenue on the North Side, I did not see one of these in Pilsen and wondered if any were present on the South Side beyond the boundaries of Hyde Park? If indeed confined to the more affluent, white sections of the city, WBEZ’s incitement for people to hook up and have more children certainly takes on a different color in relation to the common negative theme in the mainstream media of absentee fathers in Black communities in Chicago.
Reflecting on these advertisings also reminded me of another very important lesson, namely that the value of a child does not reside only in the adult they are going to become, but is also found in the child they are today. Interested only in future listeners, WBEZ’s campaign could only imagine the value of a newborn child as measured by the radio listener they were to be twenty years from now. While the notion that “children are the future” is a common refrain in our society, a friend reminded me that this greatly devalues the worth that children and youth have in the present and can be a way to silence their voices and perspectives. So, although I have stopped listening to WBEZ, what they have taught me is to be a more active and intentional listener to the voice and perspective of my seven year-old, who is as curious and as interesting as anyone despite facing the increasingly common challenges of having divorced parents whose search for steady employment has forced her to be uprooted repeatedly and to live far away from one of us for long periods.