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?


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.