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.)
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.
Now 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.
And 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.
Unfortunately, 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.