*Trigger warning: miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy, abortion*
As is the case for pretty much anyone, Netflix has become one of my best friends during this second lockdown. I can live vicariously through someone in pre-Covid New York who meets new people every day? Sign me up. My account is probably stressing out because soon I’ll have gone through everything that passes the Bechdel test.
For those who are unfamiliar with this term, Alison Bechdel has set up three simple questions to determine how much a movie/show perpetuates sexism:
1. Are there two or more named women?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. Do they talk about something other than men?
It’s surprising how few movies and shows ‘pass’ this test.
So what I watch already tends to go into a feminist direction. And yet I’ve been noticing a trope that I haven’t ever heard or read about before – one of the main female characters:
- learns of an unplanned pregnancy.
- doesn’t know whether to terminate it.
- goes to an abortion clinic, but isn’t “able to do it“/”can’t do it” (the terms termination or abortion are rarely ever used).
- accepts her future life as a mother.
After a period of grief, her storyline continues as it could have without the pregnancy.
So what’s the problem with stories like this, there must be plenty of women* in the world who’ve experienced something similar, right? As with any trope – and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so famously said – the problem lies in this story becoming the single story. In this case, it becomes problematic when stories of miscarriage are only told along the above-mentioned lines. When unwanted pregnancies either end like this or with the mother deciding to have the child and suddenly discovering her maternal instincts. When stories of abortion either end like this or with the woman regretting her choice for a long time to come.
But why would production companies even be drawn towards this trope? Multiple answers to this question are possible, but I believe it’s because it provides digestable ‘solutions’ to several controversial topics.
First, this is one of the only ways of introducing the character development coming from an unwanted pregancy without actually having to touch on the topics of unwanted birth or the unwanted role of a parent, both of which still come with a lot of sexism. The plotline can be used but doesn’t have to be fully followed through in all its complications.
Second, the filmmakers can hereby avoid tackling abortion in any way that challenges or confirms the misogynist attitudes surrounding it. Terminating a pregnancy is still a decision that female characters either don’t make or that is regretted and becomes the main cause of distress in the movie. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only ever seen one character deciding to terminate a pregnancy without regret or guilt (in the Canadian film La femme de mon frère by Monia Chokri), and even there this decision was presented more as a testament to the main character’s immaturity that needed to be fixed.
And third, this way of showing a miscarriage doesn’t have to go into most of the depths of such an event. Instead, the miscarriage is almost presented as a blessing in disguise, ‘saving’ the character both from the fate of being a mother and from getting an abortion. She doesn’t have to make a decision and can therefore not be accused of any wrongdoing.
There are, of course, much more grim interpretations possible. The miscarriage could even be seen as the punishment for merely having thought about abortion, for example. Still, I don’t think this is the case most of the time because the trope often appears in feminist (at least to some degree) shows such as The Bold Type or Four More Shots Please. It would be quite far from their values to have such a reasoning.
This trope – like all sexist tropes – can do serious damage. None of the really hard-hitting stuff about abortion, miscarriage or unwanted parenthood actually gets discussed. These topics still remain somewhat of a taboo. Simultaneously, it diminishes the very real implications of such events. And not even the women* whose fate actually happens to follow this storyline gain anything from this ‘representation’. Instead, their experience comes to be seen as a blessing in disguise and, consequently, their struggles aren’t taken as seriously anymore.
Now, I don’t think any of this is intentional. But it does have consequences and it is quite lazy writing. It’s just rather unoriginal and fills up time more than anything else. After fighting for representation of unwanted pregnancy, pregnancy termination and miscarriage, we simply cannot let this become the new single story. If not for a less sexist world then at least for more original stories.