The Kids Are All Right and Perils of Sperm Donors

How can a family resist a man who shows up years later wanting to get to know his kids? Jessica Shattuck on the charming middle-aged interlopers invading movies—and families.

What is it about the sperm donor that we find so intriguing? A few weeks ago we were confronted with the disheveled helplessness of Mark Ruffalo trying to connect with his biological legacy in The Kids Are All Right and now the specter of Jason Bateman waving a turkey baster in The Switch is soon-to-be found at a cineplexes near you.

[Mark Ruffalo] is the Trojan horse whose seeds of disorder have already penetrated the stronghold, now comes the invasion—or seduction—that would, historically, have come to begin with.

When I first heard that Mark Ruffalo was playing the part of a sperm donor who resurfaces in the lives of his biological children in Lisa Cholodenko’s movie The Kids Are All Right, my first thought was “of course.” I can’t say I had Ruffalo in mind when I was writing my own novel ( Perfect Life) about a sperm donor who wants to be back in his genetic offspring's life but when people ask me what actor I would choose to play such a character—and at readings people always do—Mark Ruffalo is top of the list. Apparently I am not alone in seeing the actor as perfect for a role like this: in addition to playing the part in Cholodenko’s movie he is rumored to be in talks with HBO about a pilot on the same theme.

Which raises the question: what exactly is there about Mark Ruffalo that embodies some cultural vision of a sperm donor? And what is that vision?

For one thing Ruffalo is sexy in a sort of real-person, middle-aged way, and middle age is the primary realm in which sperm donors factor (and sperm, no matter how it’s obtained, is inseparable from sex—so sexiness seems relevant despite the fact that, when it comes to a donor, it actually isn’t).

For another, he excels at playing characters that rebel against the demands of adult male responsibilities; he is plausible as someone who likes the idea of having children but doesn’t want the grind of parenthood, especially fatherhood with all of its attendant expectations (breadwinning and disciplining and, most of all, monogamy). Both Neil, the sperm donor in my book, and Paul, Mark Ruffalo’s character in The Kids Are All Right, are contemporary Peter Pans who seem to want to remain teenagers (or, more likely, college students) forever. Both characters are still, in their late 30s (or even 40s?), unmarried and otherwise childless, as if frozen in some sort of “sperm donor” role forever.

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.

There’s obviously a biological basis for the traditional cross-cultural suspicion of a good looking, unattached, interloper: the fear of infidelity, cuckoldry, or, at its most stripped down, the insertion of outside genetic material into a given gene-pool. Which represents a kind of evolutionarily mandated taboo.

Only the funny thing is, when the interloper is a sperm donor, that taboo has already been broken—his outsider’s biological material has been not only accepted but invited into the gene pool. But it’s almost as if we have too many thousands of years of history lined up against this concept to take the “no strings attached” arrangement that sperm banks offer at face value. We're somehow drawn to the idea that if the outside sperm didn't enter the family unit through infidelity or invasion, it must lead to it.

And that’s where Paul, the character Mark Ruffalo plays in Kids, and Neil Banks, the sperm donor character in my book, come in. They arrive to carry out a kind of upset in reverse. They are the Trojan horses whose seeds of disorder have already penetrated the stronghold, now comes the invasion—or seduction—that would, historically, have come to begin with.

What struck me as most important watching The Kids Are All Right was that, in the end, the socially constructed family unit proves stronger than any biological claim Paul has on the kids. The donor’s biological connection proves almost a red herring—an elusive and ultimately almost irrelevant link. Paul and Neil are merely plot devices in the end—interlopers with a compelling entrée that serves as a foil for the strength of the deeper, non-biological family ties.

Which, of course reflects reality. 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.

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These are left to literature and film to imagine and explore—and to Mark Ruffalo to act out.

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Jessica Shattuck is the author of The Hazards of Good Breeding , a New York Times Notable Book and a Winship/PEN Award finalist. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Believer, Wired, Mother Jones, and Glamour, among other publications. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.