Carnegie Mellon University

Toxic Hope, Toxic Narratives: How Infertility Patients Counter Reproductive Myths Online

Author: Laura McCann

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2023

In this dissertation, I theorize discursive toxicity as an analytical framework that makes visible the otherwise ephemeral damage inflicted by wide-reaching yet pernicious health narratives. Like other toxins, toxic discourse causes damage as it circulates invisibly and as it repeatedly impacts and accumulates on bodies. This accrual, what rhetorical scholars might also call magnitude or intensity, creates an affective store of toxic discourse that begins to function normatively, controlling our behaviors as it sets cultural expectations for how gendered and racialized bodies should act reproductively. I develop this framework through a study of two online infertility communities, r/Infertility and Instagram. Repeated over and over both in these online infertility communities and in the academic literature studying infertility is that people living through infertility feel dismissed and discounted at every turn – in doctors' offices, at Christmas dinner, in line at the grocery store, walking through the park. Underlying these dismissive responses is the imperative to resolve infertility through hope.

This dissertation identifies and analyzes how infertility patients advocate for their medical and emotional wellbeing in response to what I call toxic hope narratives. These toxic narratives homogenize the lived experience of infertility by reducing infertility to reductive plotlines that include ceding control of the reproductive body by relaxing, affectively orienting to infertility by way of hope, and finally resolving infertility with the delayed, but assured, birth of a child. These plots represent an amalgamation of lay and medical discourse about reproduction that has coalesced into a more unified cultural understanding of infertility, what it represents, and importantly for this dissertation, how people should feel about it. My chapters investigate how everyday accounts of infertility interpret toxic hope narratives across private, public, and technical spheres of discourse and detail the damage these toxic discourses enact as they stick to and then accrue on infertile bodies. Each of my body chapters investigates toxicity and rhetoricity by studying rhetorical strategies at the level of arguments, vocabularies, and counternarratives.