Playing Against Type

Have you noticed the way infertile women are routinely portrayed as one-dimensional, downright pitiful creatures in TV and film?

It doesn’t matter what era the story takes place in. Swap out the costumes and look beyond the hair and makeup and the character is always the same distraught, hapless woman. Take a recent episode of Boardwalk Empire — a series set in the 1920s. It included a cameo appearance of Agent Nelson’s wife begging for a operation that might help her get pregnant (can you imagine the quality of fertility care in the prohibition era?)

Contemporary shows and movies are no different. There’s Big Love neighbor Pam Martin who admits to being infertile — and on anti-depressants.

And who can forget Jennifer Garner’s portrayal of a positively desperate, miserable uptight infertile woman in Juno?

The screenplay and TV series writers have proven themselves to be nothing short of lazy, unimaginative — narrow-minded even. They write infertile characters completely lacking in complexity, personality or any ability to adapt. The story line associated with infertile women might as well come out of the same stale fortune cookie: childless women are guaranteed a bleak, miserable future if they don’t become mothers.

Seriously? Is that all you’ve got?

MEMORANDUM
TO: HOLLYWOOD WRITERS
FROM: AN INFERTILE BUT OTHERWISE FEISTY, MULTI-FACETED WOMAN

Why so dull, so predictable with your infertility portrayals? How about leaving the stereotypes aside? Even cartoon* and ogre-based characters get to show off their layers.

Newsflash: Infertile woman operate at more than one speed. Emotional range? You are completely missing an opportunity here. Enough with the pity and damnation. Show some creativity already.

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Need a few good role models? Women without children are all over the place — playing against type!

Here’s a challenge for you Hollywood types: stretch yourselves, update those tired portrayals. Maybe surprise us for a change? There might be an Oscar or Emmy in it for you!

*Actually the only realistically infertile female portrayal I’ve ever seen was, briefly, in a cartoon — Ellie from the movie Up! In a few short scenes we see a character full of zip and spunk leveled by the loss and heartbreak. She despairs for a time then transforms, projecting a steely but dogged determination to regain her adventuresome self. (You can even become her fan on Facebook).

My review of UP!

I’m an easy mark when it comes to poignant stories – a regular waterworks. Books, films, commercials, magazine articles, blog entries – you name it – if the narrative contains even the remotest heart-tugging element, I can be found rummaging for a tissue.

One recent film left me especially verklempt as it evoked an all-too-familiar ache. So what was the movie behind the mangled tissue? Up.

Isn’t that a cartoon movie? Yes, it is, but it contains the story of Ellie and Carl, a tale that will melt even the hardest heart. For infertiles like me their story goes much, much deeper. (Fair warning to my fellow softies: The 3D film format offers the added challenge of wiping away tears and blowing one’s nose behind 3D glasses that also fog up one’s view.)

Here’s what I could see between nose blows…

With the lightest, endearing touch, the folks at Pixar devote the first few minutes of the film setting the scene for a love story that starts at a tender age and endures through thick and thin. In a montage with no dialogue, we see Ellie and Carl cavorting, laughing, picnicking and planning a life together. Then the sequences reveal a major life changing event. In one scene Ellie is painting a nursery, the next she’s being comforted by Carl in a doctor’s office. The killer frame, though, is when we see Ellie sitting almost zombie-like in a chair in the backyard. A once irrepressible spirit she is immobile, inconsolable. With just a few heart-stirring images, Pixar perfectly captured the loss felt by those of us who once joyfully set off to conceive only to be walloped by the unthinkable: infertility and all of the losses it inflicts.

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Resilient, Ellie and Carl forge ahead and we see an affection – a bond that was strong – grow even stronger as they lovingly look after each other in ways large and small. That’s just the first 10 minutes of the film. There’s much more to like in the remaining hour and a half with a heartfelt adventure that takes viewers along on a colorful, fantastic ride.

But it’s the beginning of Up that will stay with me. I can’t think of the last time, if ever, I’ve seen a film, TV or short story that offered up an infertile couple as protagonists in a love story. It was oddly comforting to see such a little known, angst-inducing experience played out with such sensitivity and compassion on the big screen. It’s interesting, too, that it took the courage and creativity of animators to effectively convey a very personal heart-wrenching experience.

I can’t help but hope that Ellie and Carl’s vignette leads to greater sensitivity and compassion for those experiencing the much longer version in real life. Meanwhile, I’m Ellie to my Carl and like them, we share a profound love strengthened by loss.

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20 thoughts on “Playing Against Type

  1. I’m so glad you brought this up. I am also a Boardwalk Empire fan, but I see their portrayal of women with children and without to be wildly off the mark, based on history. The big problem in those days was over-reproduction. They feature glamorous showgirls who all have a child accessory whose tab is picked up by the rich men their sleeping with. In reality, ordinary women were overburdened with 5-10 kids, some of whom died in infancy, and mothers often died or had health ruined by too many births. Orphanages were full of abandoned children. Informal adoption by family, neighbors or friends was very common as there were so many abandoned children. Women who couldn’t or didn’t have kids were often considered lucky. This was the case in my often over-reproductive Catholic family.

    Women in those days often had abortion after abortion in order to limit their family size. This was true of many Catholic grandmothers I know. None of the hardship or reality of mothers nearly a century ago is presented here. Women seem to come and go as they please, when children really tied them down. This is true in Mad Men as well — I was a kid in an upper middle class suburb then and believe me, no one had a maid and went off horseback riding or on adulterous dates. Men consorted with childless women and preoccupied their wives with baby after baby. They are putting a modern fantasy spin on the past. I’m glad some people are speaking up about it!

  2. Lucy

    congratulations on excellent memorandum!

    All these stereotype roles really make me mad!

    And – I loved Ellie! I cried so much when I watched UP (the part about Ellie). Here is the best part for all who missed it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GroDErHIM_0

  3. Pamela

    So very true! My grandmother was one of 14 children — born in 1913 to Polish Catholics. There wasn’t much time for trips to Atlantic City. And I don’t recall my mother escaping at will when she had four children in five years.

  4. Pamela

    Just watched and got all verklempt — such a powerful few minutes of footage. Thanks for sharing the clip, Lucy…

  5. Lisa

    I don’t know what the non-mom equivalent of a rebel yell is, but I’m doing mine. What a great post. But forget the memo, write it yourself, sister! You know what we really look like. :-)

    I did happen to watch Julie and Julia over the weekend and I appreciated the way they dealt with her infertility. It was clear it was a deep-seated issue for her, but not the whole focus of her life. Thank goodness!

    Thanks for a great post (and for the shout out!)

  6. I agree. I found a lot of books were the same. The infertile woman was either neurotic, or more often (because let’s face it infertile characters are rarely put in a story in their own right), something happened and she got a baby in the end. I got so angry!

    The portrayal of Julia Child’s struggle, in Julie and Julia, was I thought quite nicely done. Not obvious, and definitely didn’t define her.

  7. Sam

    A memorable exception that comes to mind is Nicole Kidman as Lady Sarah Ashley in Australia – a portrayal that was poignant, well-rounded and wonderfully inspirational.

  8. Pamela

    Ah, yes! Lady Sarah was a poignant portrayal…thanks for the addition to the good examples!

  9. Sue

    Great post! I think I am most disturbed when writers have the male character leave the female character if she can’t give him a child. That is so wrong on so many levels.

    On the brighter side…there is a sitcom on CBS “Rules of Engagement” that portrays a couple dealing with infertily. It’s not mentioned in every show but I do like the way they put it out there and have dealt with the issue thus far. I’m curious to see where they take their story.

    “How I met your mother” is on right before and I was happy that the writers didn’t have the newlywed couple get pregnant on the first try and have them struggling a little. I know it’s going to happen in the storyline soon and honestly I’m dreading it a bit, but I’m glad they’re keeping it real.

    And I too LOVED Julie and Julia.

  10. Caroline Warner

    Thanks for including my audio narrative in this posting and so glad to see you have lots of interactive dialog and interest here. You are on it!! Appreciate the resource you provide. Caroline

  11. I am embarrassed to admit that I am addicted to 90210. I too noticed this same thing. They portrayed Annie’s new boss as a weird, infertility obsessed woman who wanted to use Annie for her eggs. I was hoping Annie’s character would do so for this woman, but Annie’s mother stepped in and forbad Annie from donating her eggs. Thank you for pointing this out! When will the media get it…hopefullyn E!/ Style’s Guiliana Rancic experience will shed some light for the media.

  12. Three movies just came to mind: The Other Boleyn Girl, The Dutchess and Marie Antoinette. I can’t imagine having the pressure of trying to produce an “male heir” on top of having infertility issues!

  13. Lu

    I agree with you about Hollywood making infertiles seem truly “barren” – both in womb and in spirit. We are hardly both! Before Trudy on Mad Men got pregnant, she struggled and her husband refused to think that it could be him with the problem.

    I also agree with Sue. Rules of Engagement and HIMYM is handling pregnancy struggles fairly accurately. I like that it’s part of the subplot and not something they are completely focused on.

    Loved your letter!

  14. I immediately fanned Ellie, who I adored in UP.

    Speaking of adoration, I’ve given you a “Cherry on Top” blog award. Visit my blog to pick it up!

  15. Kim

    Did anyone see the latest episode of CSI Miami? How sad was their portrayal of a woman struggling with infertility.

    An emotional shrew who, how dare her, could not be happy for her pregnant friend.

    I thought they would make her the perpetrator of the crime against the pregnant friend. But in the end the character was just scorned and marginalized.

    Please wake up Hollywood and get a clue
    before we turn you off completely!

    To Pamela – Thank you for another
    timely topic!

  16. Bea

    You are right – but some of your examples are interesting to me.

    Ellie is a good role model, although I cringed at the way the montage glossed over what must logically have been a much more prolonged period of healing. I kept thinking that, although it would have been hard to indicate any more complexity in the film, there would have been people in the audience thinking, “Now, why can’t my infertile friend just buck the hell up and get on with her life like Ellie?”

    As for Juno, I think I’d been over-prepped by the blogosphere. I actually found myself being more sympathetic to JG’s portrayal than I expected. It’s pretty common for infertility to wind you up tightly, at least during a certain phase of dealing with it, and I could really see how circumstances made her that way. But I guess not everybody would be able to.

    Bea

  17. Pamela

    Hi Bea,

    I wish there were more and better examples to offer up. The lack of choices alone says something.  Infertility impacts 10-12% of the population and yet we have but a handful of one dimensional characters and sub-subplots to reference.

    To amplify on the Ellie example — first, her entire life was depicted in a ~four minute series of images. That’s a challenge unto itself yet the vignette still captured the poignancy and emotion of a complex experience. I would hope any viewer had the basic intelligence to know that every aspect of her life — the joy and the pain was sped up.  What I particularly valued was the ability to reveal the subtle transition from naive girl to grounded woman who emerges from her heartbreak, picks up the pieces and rebuilds her life. The recovery time differs for all of us. The fact that the film’s producers included the subject matter at all in a respectful way was a victory I continue to celebrate. Our interpretations of significant life events is always colored by our own experience.

    As for JG’s portrayal, yes, infertility make us tighter than a drum, but her character actually seemed more of a cartoon than Ellie did. Even in my worst days I still had the ability to show a range of emotion and to be a whole person. It was as if the director told render her performance in one note: uptight.  I’ve seen her in other films, she clearly has the range.

    Perhaps in 2011 we’ll have more and better examples to explore.

  18. La Belette Rouge

    I can’t think of a specific example from a film or show that highlights this post and yet I know that you are right about this. I know each time I run across an “infertile” in the media that I almost always see the character as flat and incomplete.
    p.s. I REFUSED to see Juno. I knew I couldn’t take it!
    xoxo

  19. […] since the Pixar film Up! have I truly gushed over an animated film. The team deftly uses nuance, laughter and a soft touch […]

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