CJ Bruce, documentaries, Esme Chilton, film festivals, Freddy McConnell, Jeanie Finlay, LGBTQ, movies, New York City, pregnancy, reviews, Seahorse, transgender, Tribeca Film Festival
May 4, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jeanie Finlay
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.
The documentary “Seahorse,” which is about a pregnant transgender man, gets its name because male (not female) seahorses are the ones who carry and give birth to seahorse babies. The pregnant transgender man in “Seahorse” is Alfred “Freddy” McConnell, a 30-year-old office worker from England, who decides to become a parent and decides that getting pregnant is faster than going through the adoption process. Freddy (who identifies as a gay transgender man) has a live-in transgender boyfriend named CJ Bruce, who plans to help Freddy raise the child. With a ticking biological clock, Freddy goes through the process of medical fertilization, even though he dreads taking the female hormones that will help him get pregnant.
Freddy, who lived between the cities of London and Deal, says that he always wanted to be a parent, and he came out as transgender when he was in college. Raised primarily by a single mother, he describes her as “a massive extrovert with a family of introverts.” Freddy’s mother, Esme Chilton, is supportive of him being transgender. However, Freddy’s estranged father (who split from Freddy’s mother when Freddy was about 8 years old) is having a difficult time accepting that he has a transgender son, and Freddy is afraid to tell his father that he’s pregnant. Childhood photos of Freddy show him to be a tomboyish child. At an early age, Freddy said that he didn’t like to wear dresses and felt that he was trapped in the wrong gender.
Because Freddy is introverted and because his closest family member is supportive of him, “Seahorse” is a quiet movie that doesn’t have a lot of drama and conflict. His fertilization treatments don’t work right away, so he doesn’t get pregnant until halfway through the movie. Waiting this long in the movie to show Freddy finally becoming pregnant is a curious choice that director Jeanie Finlay made—and it has mixed results. On the one hand, it’s a realistic portrayal of how fertilization treatments are rarely effective the first time they are taken. But on the other hand, this is a documentary about a pregnant man, so it drags down the pace of the film to wait until the halfway mark of the movie to show his pregnancy. The process of choosing a sperm donor and the disappointment of failed IVF treatments should have absolutely been included in the film, but better editing would have put all of that in the first third of the movie, not let it go on and on for half of the film.
Freddy goes through a lot of personal angst due to the pregnancy’s effects on his hormones—but, for the most part, he’s not ostracized in his community (because he keeps his pregnancy such a secret) and there are no scenes of him getting strange stares from people. That’s because Freddy goes to great lengths to hide his pregnancy to the outside world. He still dresses as a man, but he wears baggier clothes so that it doesn’t look like he’s pregnant. At one point in the movie, he confesses that he hasn’t told his co-workers and male friends about his pregnancy, and he has taken a leave of absence from his job. In the later stages of the pregnancy, Freddy and his mother relocate to a fairly remote area in Spain, after she spontaneously buys a home there. It’s a convenient move, since Freddy doesn’t have to face any nosy neighbors he might have had in England.
Because Freddy feels like a man, he’s also dealing with the psychological issues of going to back to the feminine physical characteristics that he wanted to get away from as a transgender man. His hips have become rounder, and his breasts are starting to become bigger. As his body goes through these changes, Freddy says, “My appetite has plummeted, my libido has plummeted. I feel softer inside, and I want to talk about my feelings more.”
As Freddy says later in the movie, “If all men got pregnant, pregnancy would be taken more seriously.” Still, because he doesn’t want to have the female biological characteristics that come with pregnancy, he says, “I feel like a fucking alien.” Over a dinner gathering with his mother and some of her friends, the conversation gets a little uncomfortable when one of his mother’s female friends admits that she thinks transgender issues are confusing.
The biggest problem with “Seahorse” is that because the movie takes place in the context of a pregnant man who largely wants to keep his pregnancy a secret, there’s no bigger “real world” insight into what really happens when a transgender man gets pregnant and isn’t afraid to let everyone in his life know about it. Although it’s a much more difficult path to be completely open about this type of pregnancy rather than to keep it a secret, it would also be helpful for people to see a transgender man publicly take those brave steps during the pregnancy in order to lessen the stigma over this type of pregnancy.
Freddy is very isolated from people during his pregnancy; except for CJ, he’s rarely seen with people his own age in this documentary. Even though it’s great that Freddy’s mother thinks he’s “brave,” and she is “in awe of him” for being in this unusual situation, it would have been better to see the reactions of people in Freddy’s world outside his very small inner circle. It’s understandable that Freddy would be afraid to tell people about his pregnancy—and he certainly would have gotten some backlash and criticism from bigots—but his fear could have robbed him of finding out who are the truly compassionate people in his life. The people who accept him as a transgender man are also likely to accept him as a parent. Freddy gives birth at the end of the movie, but “Seahorse” feels almost like a “to be continued” film, because it remains to be seen how Freddy handles the challenges of raising his child, knowing that his unusual pregnancy has been documented for the world to see.
UPDATE: 1091 Media will release “Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth” (formerly titled “Seahorse”) in the U.S. on digital and VOD on June 16, 2020. The film was already released in the U.K. in 2019.