We Need to Be Seen

Tessa Gratton’s The Queens of Innis Lear is a beautifully written book, an intriguing take on Shakespeare’s King Lear with lush, descriptive prose, complex characters, and complicated relationships. Gratton throws out the pure moral blacks and whites of the original and paints her cast in various shades of gray, showing us a Cordelia (Elia) who lacks self-esteem and the courage of her convictions, at least initially — of all the characters, she undergoes the most change — and a Goneril (Gaela) and Regan who have pretty darn good reasons to hate their father. Plus, the sisters’ late mother, scarcely mentioned by Shakespeare, becomes an important figure in this retelling. The book deserves more attention than it has heretofore gotten.

But one element trampolined on my last nerve.

Of all the characters, Gaela, the eldest sister, is the least capable of love, the most driven by hate, the one we’re meant to sympathize with the least. And she doesn’t want children. Regan is desperate for children, and Elia paints them into her picture of her future, but Gaela’s determination never to procreate moves her to undergo a magical equivalent of a tubal ligation. This might not be so bad, if the procedure weren’t described specifically as burning the womanhood out of her body. In seeking to avoid pregnancy, Gaela is turning her back on Womanhood itself, because real women, feminine women, have (or at least want) children.

This started me thinking: how often have I seen, in any form of fiction, a positive portrayal of a woman who says no to motherhood? A woman who knows she isn’t cut out for it and doesn’t end up changing her mind to please someone else?

Among the TV shows I watch, I can think of only one example: Maggie Sawyer, Alex Danvers’ erstwhile love interest on Supergirl. She stated outright that she wasn’t interested in having kids and wasn’t about to change her mind, and she wasn’t demonized for it. Unfortunately, this aspect of her character was used to set up a conflict with Alex that would facilitate Maggie’s (Floriana Lima) departure from the show. Alex, despite an initial effort, in the end couldn’t abandon her dreams of motherhood in order to stay with Maggie, and since Alex, not Maggie, is a regular main character, she gets most of the audience’s sympathy when they break up. Maggie, rather than providing sustained representation of a happily childfree woman, turns out to be a temporary blip on the show’s radar.

Among regular characters, main characters, who is there? Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of women who opt out of motherhood, but where their representation in fiction is concerned, we’re stuck in the mud. Creators of art and literature still blithely assume that being a mother is an inevitable part of being a woman — or at least a good woman, as rejecting motherhood continues to be a key component of female villainy. If you’re a fictional woman and you say you don’t want children, you will either “learn better” by the end of your story, be reviled as an ice queen, or, like Maggie Sawyer, get your heart broken and subsequently get kicked out of the story.

Others have noticed the problem and have started asking questions. In “Why Aren’t We Seeing More Child-free Women On-Screen?” Claire Harris opens with the example of the final shot in the movie Notting Hill, which shows Hugh Grant sitting on a park bench reading a book while a hugely pregnant Julia Roberts reclines beside him. “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.” She notes that while the demographic of childfree women is growing, “you wouldn’t know it from watching movies and TV,” and cites numerous examples of pregnancy plots thrown into the finales of popular series. “Motherhood is viewed as a moral imperative — which means that women who are voluntary child-free must be selfish, sad, or immature.”

Maxine Trump, in “Notes from a Childfree TV and Film Lover,” opens with its central questions: “If you don’t see us, do we not exist? Where have all the childfree heroes gone?” (I honestly can’t remember there having been any — or at least not many enough to count.) The recurrent pattern with women characters who express reluctance to have children, she states, is to show them rethinking their stance over the course of their narrative arcs and embracing motherhood at the end. “This is something childfree folks are presented with all the time: that we just aren’t in our right mind, and eventually we will come around and change it.” Now that I think about it, perhaps it was better that Maggie Sawyer left Supergirl when she did; otherwise, she might well have gone the same way as Bernadette and Penny in The Big Bang Theory, two women who had previously stated they didn’t want children but end up pregnant at the close of their stories.

Lindsay Pugh shoots from the hip with the title of her article: “Television’s Representation of Childfree Women Sucks.” She opens with one somewhat positive example of a vocally childfree woman who isn’t vilified, Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) on Grey’s Anatomy. Yet Christina is an exception, she notes, while the rule is to depict childfree women as falling into one or more of three archetypes: the “smug asshole” who sneers contemptuously at parents and parenting (e.g. Kim Cattrall’s Samantha in Sex and the City), the “unfit mother” (e.g. Jane Curtin’s Mary Albright in Third Rock from the Sun), and the “successful career woman who is so obsessed with work that she doesn’t have time for children” (e.g. Portia de Rossi’s Nelle Porter in Ally McBeal). “I want society to celebrate unorthodox choices,” she concludes. “Instead of embracing the hive mind, we would all be better off expanding the possibilities of what happiness might look like.” Agreed, Ms. Pugh. Heartily agreed.

Our popular culture needs to reconcile itself to the existence of childfree women. (I say women, because men are not judged for saying no to parenthood to the same extent that women are.) We’re not all child-haters. We don’t all sneer at parenthood. We aren’t all workaholics after big bucks and prestige. And despite what the apparent fear of us might indicate, we don’t threaten the fabric of society. There will always be many women who embrace motherhood of their own will and volition, without the emotional blackmail of movies, television, and books. Mothering and nonmothering women can coexist. It’s past time we started seeing that in fiction.

One of my favorite authors, Juliet Marillier — most of whose novels celebrate women in traditional roles as healers, lore-keepers, and mothers — is at work on a new series, Warrior Bards, the first two books of which are already out (The Harp of Kings and A Dance With Fate). The central heroine, unusually for Marillier, is a tall, muscular fighting woman who also plays a mean whistle. Toward the end of the second book, she tells her love interest that she doesn’t want children. No underlying trauma that makes her unfit, no putdown of motherhood in general — she simply makes it clear that path isn’t for her. I paused in my reading to pump my fist.

Please, Ms. Marillier, in the name of all that is holy, don’t make her change her mind.