Despite many women choosing to be child-free, their on-screen counterparts continue to be defined by motherhood. Why?
When I think about how women are portrayed on-screen, the final image in the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill comes to mind.
In a montage laden with sentimentality, we are whisked through Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’ romantic life — culminating in a scene on a park bench. He is ensconced in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a fittingly-intellectual read for a professional bookseller. She is draped across his lap, cradling her pregnant belly and staring serenely at the group of children playing around them.
What is effectively communicated in a few seconds is embedded into women by popular culture from when they are little girls: motherhood is the completion of her journey.
And yet, we are living in a society where a growing proportion of women and their partners are choosing not to have children. In fact, in Australia, around a quarter of women will never have children — and child-free couples will become the most common family type by 2023.
So why do they so rarely exist on our screens?
In reality, there are many reasons for the trend toward childlessness. Obviously, fertility issues are a barrier for some women — but other factors include increasing financial instability, concern about climate change, career goals… or simply, you know, not wanting kids.
This demographic makes up a significant part of the population but you wouldn’t know it from watching movies and TV. We all know the longest-running drama in Hollywood is the tabloid-fabricated one where “Sad Jen” Aniston remained childless and unfulfilled after losing her husband Brad Pitt to the eternal mother figure Angelina Jolie, who would go on to have six children. Brad’s departure was made all the more tragic by robbing Jen of her childbearing years and thus of motherhood itself.
As she wrote for HuffPost, “The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”
On-screen, Jennifer Aniston has had children many times over — most famously of course in Friends, the sitcom that made her famous. That all three female characters ended the long-running series as mothers in various ways is only notable for how utterly commonplace this is.
Consider the final season baby boom in Parks and Recreation — even Leslie Knope herself winds up with triplets. Which would be fine if she didn’t have to utter these lines to her husband: “I realized something. Everything that we have been through… all of it has just been preparation for this.” Really, Leslie — feminist icon? Has your entire political career actually been in service of preparing for motherhood?
In How I Met Your Mother, Robin is staunchly child-free until she learns she can’t have kids, mourns her lost fertility, and ultimately becomes stepmother to Ted’s children. (Thus adhering to the “You’re a mother in other ways” refrain that child-free women are used to hearing…)
Throughout the show, Robin’s aversion to feelings and being “like a man” is a long-standing joke (don’t even get me started on the horrendous gender politics of HIMYM) as though having maternal feelings and having any feelings are one and the same for women. In Robin’s case, her childlessness is transformed from a conscious decision (Boo, hiss, no feelings!) to involuntary barrenness — because only a woman who isn’t really feminine wouldn’t want to be a mother.
The list goes on: Mindy from The Mindy Project, Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, even Ally McBeal has a teenage daughter unexpectedly show up to transform her into a mother… It is more difficult to think of a series that doesn’t have their central female character with a child before the finale.
Among the smattering of child-free women in popular TV shows and movies I grew up with, they tended to be presented as sexpots (Samantha from Sex And The City), fundamentally selfish people (Elaine from Seinfeld), or workaholics who’ve sacrificed family for a career.
Child-free women in movies are often also single and therefore lonely — or in couples where the relationship is represented as non-committal, lacking, or doomed. Think of While We’re Young where an older child-free couple desperately tries to hold onto their falling-apart marriage by hanging out with a young couple.
Countless romantic comedies create female characters whose single/child-free status is a marker of emotional immaturity — a barrier to be overcome on her journey to true adulthood. Accidental pregnancies become catalysts for otherwise career-minded women to have an epiphany about what’s really important in life and thus achieve fulfilment (yes, I’m looking at you Knocked Up.)
Even Bridget Jones, my generation’s ultimate spinster (ugh that word) heroine gets a whole movie in the trilogy devoted to her baby. Her happy ending with Mark Darcy still very much conforms to a traditional nuclear family.
Motherhood is viewed as a moral imperative — which means that women who are voluntarily child-free must be selfish, sad, or immature. I look around me and I see the child-free women I know living purposeful and rich lives. But I don’t see them when I turn on my television.
We need to tell more stories about childfree women and couples. A single woman whose character development isn’t dependent on her finding a man or having a child. A woman who meets a man (or woman) but this doesn’t lead to instant procreation. A woman whose childlessness is not depicted as a character flaw. A woman who enjoys close relationships with children not her own — and these don’t trigger any change in her decision to remain child-free. A couple who are committed to and enjoy each other’s company — and yet don’t want kids.
All these people exist in real life — and in growing numbers. Until we normalise happily child-free women on-screen, we will not reduce the stigma that is still attached to the almost 1 in 4 of us who will never have kids.
And for film and TV producers, there is an enormous opportunity to tap into an audience of millions of women who want to see stories that reflect their own experiences — and that allow female characters a happy ending that doesn’t revolve around having children.
Because when I watch the final scene of Notting Hill, I relate not to Julia Roberts pondering her future baby, but to Hugh Grant reading a book quietly and undisturbed in the park in the sunshine. And that is glorious enough.