Zika Redux: Resurfacing Old Tropes in a New Virus

Just over a year ago, reports started to emerge out of Brazil of a spike in cases of fever and rashes. Doctors and researchers in the area identified the culprit as the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that is mostly asymptomatic, presenting the above-mentioned symptoms only about 20% of the time. However, it was not until a surge of cases of microcephaly – a serious condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads – that Zika really captured the world’s attention.

All of a sudden, pregnant women and women who were thinking of becoming pregnant throughout Brazil became the face and the “problem” of Zika – and mostly poor women, at that. Through the trope of the pregnant woman’s body, Zika implanted itself in the dark imagination of the West. In this brief review, we want to call attention to the ways in which the Zika virus lives as a cultural concept, both drawing on long held tropes of women’s bodies, and how it is used to deploy specific and culturally constructed understandings of risk and threat.

It goes without saying that Zika is a threat to pregnant women, and helping women protect themselves from the virus in danger zones is important. As medical anthropologists, though, we are interested in the intersection of the biological and the cultural, of the physiological and the social. As the Zika “epidemic” played throughout the media in the last several months, we have become increasingly attuned to the ways in which the discourse around Zika jumped the boundaries of the purely biological and played into larger social discourses around controlling women’s bodies.

Women’s bodies have long been constructed as sources of risk, threat, and danger. Right from the depictions of Eve in the Garden of Eden to the Salem witch trials, or the fears around miscegenation centered on the hyper-sexualization of African American women, female bodies have been characterized as mysterious and unstable. This is particularly true of women’s fertility, often deemed as something powerful and unknown (to men) that needs to be controlled. Consequently, in Brazil, where the most poignant and tragic effects of Zika have rested with pregnant women and their babies, the old and familiar narratives of women’s bodies have re-emerged as this “new” virus has its day in the media spotlight, taking the place of SARS, Ebola, and bird flu as the new viral contamination of threat.

What happens, then, when we resituate the response to Zika in a larger history of women’s bodies as a site of control and intervention? In Brazil, women’s bodies and women’s fertility have emerged on the frontline of the response to this epidemic. Pregnant women have been told to stay indoors, and it has been recommended that women not get pregnant. Women who do get pregnant are implicitly shamed for their irresponsibility in doing so – as if they alone are responsible for their condition and the state of their child. Here, women’s bodies are both fetishized and infantilized at the same time. Moreover, women – as the bearers of microcephalic babies – become the face of its blame.

Women’s fertility and reproductive capabilities have, of course, long been at the center of paternalistic and state interventions. Discourses of “family planning,” particularly in the developing world, have a long history of conceptualizing women (and poor women, more generally) as being producers of too many babies: people whose fertility is too high, who are not civilized enough to control their own bodies and sexuality. The histories of this behavior are long.

In the past, zealousness of family planning has led to many abuses: eugenic policies such as the forced sterilization of (poor and/or non-white) women. In the US, family planning initially targeted African Americans living in inner cities. In the 1960s, as countries in the Global South decolonized and were the subjects of development efforts from the West, controlling women’s fertility was justified through a discourse of economic development; less babies meant, to the Western eye (a patriarchal gaze if there ever was one), fewer mouths to feed and less poverty. This emphasis on women’s bodies as the source of national economic prosperity would find its apogee of expression in the Chinese one-child policy.

This logic and discourse began to shift towards the late part of the twentieth century, when greater emphasis began to be placed on the health advantages for women and children instead of economic benefits for nations. Fertility became reframed as a health “problem” instead of an economic one.

With Zika, narratives of control and intervention on women’s bodies and fertility have re-emerged. The panic that this virus, and others like it, inspires always seeks someone to blame. In HIV, it was gay (and often non-white) men; in SARS, it was the tubercular immigrant who infiltrated the sanitized West; with Zika, women, and poor women at that, have become the frame of reference. Their bodies and their fertility must be controlled – for their own good and for the good of the nation.

These narratives end up putting the blame on women, while disregarding the conditions in which they live. When the Brazilian government asks women, especially those in their first trimester, to stay inside their homes, preferably in air-conditioned spaces, the conditions of daily precarity in which they live – which makes taking time off work financially impossible and air-conditioned houses a luxury – are forgotten.

Women’s bodies are blamed for the continued expansion of the Zika virus, while pervasive inequality and long-standing paternalistic interventions into women’s fertility are ignored.

As researchers and designers in health, what Zika forces us to do is pay attention to the hidden lives of disease and illness as biological entities, as viruses get transmutated into social concepts, narratives, and relationships between the have’s and have not’s. Zika’s ability to dig up old tropes of women’s bodies as risky and threatening, as sites in need of control and intervention by others, reminds us that diseases live far beyond the boundaries of the biological; that they form not just a physiological entity
that must be vaccinated against in the body, but that they also form a social phantom image that is entirely harder to vaccinate against – and whose effects live long after the virus itself has gone.

the author

Dr. Marc Lafleur

Dr. Marc Lafleur is VP, medical anthropology at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.

the author

Nadine Hare

Nadine Hare is a resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.