Sexualized Saturdays: Childbearing and Womanhood

Baby-having. It’s traditionally one of the societal markers of womanhood—women are supposed to have uteruses, and men aren’t, and if you’re a woman and fail to successfully grow a baby, for whatever reason, that makes you a failure at your gender.

I’m a cis woman, and society has told me from the get-go that one day I’ll be giving birth to the next generation. I spent the first eighteen or so years of my life plotting out elaborate (and often fandom-based) names for my future kids, and now today, when I tell people I don’t really know that I want children after all, I have to qualify it with a reassurance that I might change my mind—before they assure me that I will.

What this boils down to is gender essentialism. This method of thinking boils women down to what thousands of years of society says is woman’s defining trait, and sets that above everything else. Women who can’t have children are referred to as “barren”, a negatively connotated word which calls up desolate fields in which nothing living grows. (There’s no equally negatively connotated word for men—“sterile” just suggests cleanliness.)

Steven Moffat is so, so guilty of this.

Steven Moffat is so, so guilty of this.

It also moralizes the existence of women without uteruses or without the ability to bear children, making sterility into an issue of good and bad rather than just an apolitical medical condition. Trans women exist; they can’t bear children. Cis women who have had hysterectomies for personal or health reasons, or who are infertile for other reasons, can’t bear children. They are not any less worthwhile, or any less women, for this. Unfortunately, pop culture seems to disagree.

Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Orphan Black, and Series 7 of Doctor Who below the jump.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write my post about this week until I saw Age of Ultron, and it lit an almighty feminist fire under my ass. One of the most contentious parts of the movie among fandom was the appearance of a romantic relationship between Black Widow and the Hulk. I had seriously mixed feelings about this, but there was one scene in particular that made me mad. Between Ultron’s first attack and the Avengers’ final sally, they’re laying low at Hawkeye’s family’s house. Natasha and Bruce get into an argument, because Bruce is hemming and hawing about actually initiating a romance, and Natasha believes there’s no reason they should be wasting time when they could die any second. Bruce gestures to the house, indicating Hawkeye’s happy wife and children, and insists that even if the gamma radiation hadn’t sterilized him, he could never trust himself to have a family the way Clint does. Natasha’s guard drops, and she reveals that that doesn’t matter to her, because she can’t have children anyway. The Red Room sterilizes its graduates before letting them out into the world as a security measure. “Who’s the monster now?” she asks him.

aou nat bruceNow look, there are two ways you can look at this. The first, being fair, is that Natasha has gone through a lot of shit and brainwashing and likely has terrible self-perception of herself. She was made into a weapon by the Red Room, and struggles constantly with the weight of her past deeds—she’s got red in her ledger, if you recall. And without the ability to bear children, she feels like she can only ever destroy things, never create. Her inability to have kids is just another way she is not an average woman, and she resents that it sets her apart. The other way you could look at this is that it’s the narrative using Nat as the mouthpiece for a moral judgment, and I’m honestly inclined to believe it’s the latter. Why? Well, because there’s no rebuttal. When faced with this confession, Bruce doesn’t try to mollify her or scoff at the frankly ridiculous idea that an inability to have kids is even remotely equivalent to turning into a near-invincible green murderbeast whenever you lose your temper. He just looks at her like, wow, damn, we are both monsters.

amy and rory fightingAnd this isn’t the first time I’ve seen such emphasis placed on fertility or lack thereof. In Doctor Who, in the Series 7 premiere “Asylum of the Daleks”, we’re introduced to a Rory and Amy we barely recognize. After spending two seasons establishing exactly how much the Ponds love each other, the episode opens on the two of them arguing over divorce papers. It turns out that after all the experimentation Amy suffered during her pregnancy with Melody/River, she can no longer bear children, and because she knew Rory wanted kids, she pretended to grow apart from him so that he could find someone who could make him happy. Everyone knows, after all, that adoption and surrogacy don’t exist and there’s no way a family without a pair of breeding parents can have a child, right?

This is subverted in Orphan Black, however. It becomes clear in Season 2 that the real reason Rachel hates Sarah so much and wants her under Dyad’s control is that Sarah is the only clone to successfully have a child. Every single one of the other female clones is incapable of conceiving, and Rachel is devastated and baffled by the existence of a clone who can get pregnant—she wishes she had the ability to make that choice for herself. That Sarah has had the freedom to choose both to have a child, and, at some point in her past, to have an abortion, and Rachel has not, is unconscionable to Rachel, but it’s the choice she envies. And while Sarah’s reproductive abilities are of great interest to the govermental and religious powers that be in the show, the story doesn’t portray her fertility as the be-all end-all greatest thing about her. The other, infertile clones—which is how they were genetically programmed, by the way; Sarah was a design failure—get along fine without natural children. Alison has two adopted children, and Cosima has no interest in having any that we’ve seen.

kira sarah obUnfortunately, to my knowledge, this is the only pop culture example I can think of where this idea is subverted. This is where we see a problem: in portraying fertility as desirable and laudable, society demonizes the infertile. The portrayal of sterile women as consistently hateful or ashamed of their condition teaches real life women who can’t have children that they are broken, that they have failed at fulfilling some essential part of their identity. Cheerful sterility may not be every woman’s experience, but neither is cheerful fertility. Where is the representation of women who are happy to be free of the possibility of children (or hell, of ovarian cancer, or any number of other health risks that run tangent to owning a uterus)? We need to see women in our media who don’t, care of the narrative, consider themselves monsters, who don’t teach women like them to think the same of themselves.

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6 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Childbearing and Womanhood

  1. I felt like kicking over all the garbage cans in the house after the farmhouse scene with Bruce and Natasha. This was out of character for Widow and definitely out of line for women all over the world who cannot in fact reproduce or choose not to. Is not having any children supposed to make me less of a woman and more of a monster? Sure, she could also be referring to the fact that she was molded from childhood to become a cold and ruthless assassin. But no, she just HAD to throw in the ‘can’t-have-babies’ bit as if it’s the quality that truly defines her as a monster. The emotion in that scene is tense and heartfelt and major kudos to ScarJo for delivering it so well, but the context it ends up under…*shudder.* this just isn’t the Black Widow I fell in love with. And it crosses major lines with me. In addition, if you juxtapose Laura Barton with Natasha it pretty much hammers it in that Laura, with the husband and the kids and the all-American home, is the happy and complete woman, while the world-saving, beautiful, badass, on-the-road-to-redemption Natasha isn’t– by mere virtue of her inability to have children.

    • Yeah, if they were trying to just give us sad Nat backstory, the fact that they had this particular conversation against the backdrop of Laura’s happy home is awfully suspect. I just can’t get over how bad her characterization was.

  2. Totally agree here.

    I’m a Black woman. I feel very differently about this topic. I never wanted to have children and got the same response when I told people that. My response was to shut their s*** down about questioning my life choices and my family was fine with this, too.

    A few years ago, it turns out I would never have been able to have them anyway, for health reasons. I had to have an emergency hysterectomy and now can’t have them. I had a few emotions about it, but since I’m the queen of not doing what the world tells me to do or feeling the way the world tells me to feel about anything, I moved on. No big deal. You can’t change a situation that was never going to be changed.

    I hated that scene because I have encountered that exact attitude about not wanting kids. And now we have this new movement in society to call women who choose childlessness “selfish”. And crafting whole new laws to get around women deciding when they can have their own children. Now add the line in this movie and other films and you end up with a pervasive atmosphere that women must ” breed,breed,breed,” or be demonized.

    And lots not forget the racial angle here. This attitude exits within the same society that has forcibly sterilized WoC throughout the centuries, exploited and abused what children were had by WoC ( the law that removed children from the homes of Natives for example in order to Americanize them) and Black women are still diagnosed to have more hysterectomies than other groups of women, (in other words, sterilized).

    Black women have had the hardest time having control over their reproduction, let alone controlling the attitudes about who gets to do it, so you see why I have a different feeling about a pretty ,white girl, calling herself a monster because she can’t. I’m supposed to boohoo for Natasha, but if she were Black, there’s a certain contingent of people, who would think that’s perfectly fine. Throughout the history of this country WoC have been considered monstrous because we can.

    And I’m not listening to any of the people making excuses, that that’s not what she meant or said. Even if that’s not what she said specifically, her statement about her monstrousness was extremely ill timed.

  3. Reblogged this on mythicramblings and commented:
    While I’m recuperating from a week long family visit and the start of a new job, enjoy this little write up of the pitfalls of childlessness in The Avengers, Doctor Who, and Orphan Black. It’s a quick, short read with thoughtful comments. New post soon!

  4. I am in total agreement about Amy Pond. Everything she was allowed to do revolved around getting married and having babies (and went on to write children’s books, I believe?)

    I don’t agree about the Natasha bit. And it’s not even that I think her line about being a monster had more with how it was easier to kill people than about not having children, but more that I do actually think it was Natasha doing what Natasha does. It reminded me specifically of this exchange in CA:WS

    Natasha Romanoff: The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.
    Steve Rogers: That’s a tough way to live.
    Natasha Romanoff: It’s a good way not to die, though.
    Steve Rogers: You know, it’s kind of hard to trust someone when you don’t know who that someone really is.
    Natasha Romanoff: Yeah. Who do you want me to be?

    I think she found herself in a very serious conversation with someone she emphasizes with, saw him dealing with guilt about not being able to have children (something already alluded to with him in the first Avengers) so she said what she thought he’d want to hear. The one piece of truth about her that might free him from some guilt. That’s what I think. After that scene I just heard her saying “Who do you want me to be?” because I think that’s what she was doing. She was doing what she could to make someone she cared about feel better. Possibly even playing him an added level, because he probably wanted to tell her not being able to have children wasn’t a problem, but then he’d have to tell himself that too, in the process. I think she was alleviating his guilt and trying to push him into admitting to himself it wasn’t a big deal.

    All that being said, I have hope the hour or so Whedon had to cut from the movie better showed the meaning of that conversation. I admit I can understand why the closeness of those lines upset people, it just didn’t upset me, because I’m fairly certain Natasha was controlling the dialogue and using herself to manipulate someone, as she does.

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