Mothers’ compulsory little helpers

wehelpmommyI have a new intellectual crush on LA Times TV critic Mary McNamara. She’s a feminist who’s not afraid to bring the sass and the cheek like a blogger.  Check out the analysis she published today, inspired by her irritation at two television shows, Homeland and Jane the Virgin, headlined “The Tyranny of Maternity on TV.”  

Although two very different shows with different audiences, “they share a troubling and unexpected theme: Socially Enforced Motherhood.”  In other words, “despite their contrasting tone, form and intent, both shows insist that, deep down, every woman wants a child no matter the conditions, even when the woman in question has made it very clear that she does not feel this way at all.”

First, we have Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes,

For months, she denied the existence of the pregnancy, and then did not abort due mostly to psychological inertia and the writers’ need for her to have something nice to tell Brody just before his death. But Carrie never wanted the baby and, in fact, planned to put him or her up for adoption, a decision that shocked her sister, who then convinced her not to do this.

The same sister who, at the opening of Season 4, expressed intense frustration over the fact that Carrie still doesn’t want to be a mother. “You bring a child into this world, you take responsibility,” she says in the premiere, referring to the child Carrie, you know, wanted to put up for adoption. “There isn’t even a diagnosis for what’s wrong with you,” she adds, when Carrie fails to bond with baby Franny.

Yes, there is, it’s called Not Wanting to Have a Child. Something that might have been synonymous with insanity during the Inquisition but should not be so now.

Not that anyone told the writers, who could not resist throwing in a tempest-provoking scene in which Carrie contemplated drowning the baby. See? Insane.

The premise for Jane the Virgin is even more nonsensical:

“Jane the Virgin” opened Monday on the CW with a young woman so determined to avoid an unplanned pregnancy that she has remained a virgin into her 20s. At which point she is accidentally impregnated by a relationship-preoccupied OB/GYN! Hahahahahaha. A pregnant virgin! 

So funny. Almost as funny as the social and personal fallout of actual “accidents” at fertility clinics, which dominate the news even as “Jane the Virgin” premiered.

But it’s OK because the show is based on a popular telenovela, which means billboards wink and TV characters come to life, so all those humor-challenged feminists can just back off: This is just a “fairy tale,” and we know fairy tales have never been used to dictate social mores or control behavior.

Jane must decide to have this baby because otherwise there is no show. So this tragic accident/instance of heinous medical malpractice is presented as a Huge Gift, a corrective to her previous plan of, you know, establishing a career and generally controlling her own life.

In sum, “there are so many things wrong with this scenario, it’s hard to know where to begin.  First when did adoption become an evil to be avoided at all costs? (“Dear Adopted Kids: Sorry! Love, TV.”) Second, when did having a child under any circumstance become the most important and precious thing a woman could do?”

But here’s the best part.  She refuses to mobilize her own motherhood in defense of her analysis:  

A mother myself, I understand … wait, you know what? Never mind. The fact that I feel the need to use my own choices to establish legitimacy just proves my point. In a world teeming with overpopulation issues, too many of us still view women who don’t want to have children as broken and/or misguided.

They must hate children, have experienced great trauma or be irredeemably selfish; the best-case scenario is that they’re just not aware of how Truly Transcendent parenthood is and What They Will Miss if they don’t experience it themselves.

Busy day, gotta fly, but read the whole thing and have at it in the comments, especially if you’ve actually watched these shows (and I have not!)

21 thoughts on “Mothers’ compulsory little helpers

  1. I have not watched these shows, but I was just at a workshop on academic career planning where obligatory parenthood reigned supreme. I lost count of the number of times that “making time for having children” was mentioned as a seemingly universal priority for all of us.


  2. I think Maude’s story about her abortion was possible because people remembered in the mid-70s when abortion was illegal and therefore dangerous and potentially mutilating, if not always deadly.

    I saw the movie starring Jenny Slate about a comedian who has an abortion, and I liked it although I kept thinking about the abortion in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out in 1982 I believe. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, a sympathetic female protagonist, gets pregnant and then has an abortion rather matter-of-factly and it doesn’t become the whole plot (unlike Juno, for example). I was thinking, really? 30+ years and this is still seen as a daring thing?


  3. Not giving in to the “all women want children, even if they don’t,” trope is one of the best things about the send off for Sandra Oh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy last year. With one notable exception, it’s the men on that show with baby fever.


  4. Just want to echo Liz’s point about Cristina on Grey’s Anatomy — so nice to see a character who isn’t magically swayed into wanting a child or believing her life would be better with one.

    And also wanted to affirm GayProf’s point that if I hear one more work-life balance talk that assumes making time for kids is the biggest problem in my life or biggest obstacle to balance, I will…I don’t know…want throw things but grimace and stew silently? I totally get that having kids is hard, but life is hard, and plenty of non-kid related things makes it hard and, well, it would be nice if that were acknowledged from time to time.


  5. this is a threadjack but want to get the word to you, Historiann, that your blog is behaving super-weird for me these days… going to your home page ( ) shows the 9/29 post as the most recent. The daily archives seem to be updating but the monthly archives aren’t updating either. To get here I just guessed dates until I found an archive with a more recent post, e.g.

    I have cleared the history, looked for cookies,… it’s persistent. Anyone else having trouble? of course, those of you who are here obviously aren’t having trouble getting here… it’s readers out there who think you have not posted in 2 weeks who aren’t here.


  6. Ha ha. When I saw the title and graphic, I thought the post was going to be about whether or not children are paid to help around the house.

    I have been investigating what “family friendly” means in a policy context at my uni and discovered yesterday that our parental leave policy explicitly links “primary parent” and “mother” (except for adoption). Why does that even come up as a thing to affirm?

    FWIW, I was the birth parent but not the primary parent in our household.

    Also, I had a problem like Sal’s. I switched to a different browser.


  7. I’m in touch with my blogmeister about this–I’ve heard that it’s been giving people trouble in FireFox, but I checked it in FF and it looked OK to me. I will let you know what I hear.


  8. My blogmeister said it was probably a combination of browser and server issues. He’s cleared out the cache so the current blog should load properly. Let me know if any others of you are still experiencing problems!


  9. This is why I love The Big Bang Theory with Bernadette, the successful scientist partner of engineer Howard. When he said he wanted children, she was leery and explained that she didn’t want to stay home with kids, not now and not ever, but he was welcome to do so. Then Howard brought out a condom!

    Speaking of abortion as a subject, are you planning to read and review Pollitt’s “Pro”? I know that I’m planning to read it as soon as I have a serious break. Just the news coverage has me excited to see someone challenge the “we all agree that abortion is a tragedy” narrative.


  10. I don’t know if I’ll review it on-blog, but I do want to read it. I saw a strongly positive notice about the book on Slate last week.

    Great example from BBT, but is the choice really between staying home with children full-time or not having them at all? I mean, hello, day care? Most middle-class people can and must find a way to care for children while also holding down a job.


  11. The “primary parent” issue seems like it could get in the way of gender equality just by presuming that it isn’t a shared duty. My university’s policy for graduate student is that the “primary parent” can get up to 8 weeks of leave, and it’s non-gender specific. OK, good job not assuming it’s a woman’s duty, but why on earth can’t the leave be shared?

    I’ve never seen either of these shows, but the Jane the Virgin premise is deeply disturbing to me.


  12. I kind of doubt whether Elizabeth Logan, who used to irk Professor Kingsfield in _The Paper Chase_ so much you could hear it in the way he spat out her name in Q and A, would have trafficked too much with any of these issues. If the series had ever progressed beyond “Season Four,” when the guy took the job at the white shoe firm instead of the Prof’s endowed chair, (which it didn’t), we might have found out, though. I’ve never knowingly watched anything that denominated itself in portentious conceits like “Season Four.”

    On the software issues, I haven’t checked lately, but the last time I did, Historiann, on the Explorer browser the latest episode I could get was c. August 6, when you signed off for the Snake River. On the archive side, I could get all but the most recent post, but never the current one. But since I went over to Chrome to read this blog, these problems went away. I correlated it with big dumb update changes at my university’s tech center, but it also came up in a few other contexts.


  13. Well, primary parent was irrelevant for us anyway. We had only the federally mandated unpaid parental leave. I wanted to go back to work sooner rather than later but it was also a necessity.


  14. So, I watched Jane the Virgin and it is a bit (not much) more subtle than McNamara suggests. Jane is a virgin for religious reasons and because her mother got pregnant at 16 and Jane didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. Jane then gets inseminated by accident and finds out she is pregnant. The first episode revolves around her trying to decide what to do. Her mother buys her an abortionafacient, and tells her it’s good to have choice. Her fiance wants her to abort. Her grandmother wants her to keep it, but her reasons are complicated – as she had told the the 16yr old mother to abort but now Jane is the centre of her life, and thinks a new baby will also work out. I’m interested that nobody gives a religious anti-abortion excuse given that Jane’s virginity is related to her Catholicism (that seems logical to me). The devastatingly handsome biological father, who it had previously been established that Jane fancies, only has one sperm sample and her abortion will ruin his chances of fatherhood. But when she tells him she is aborting he doesn’t tell her this. His adulterous wife ensures Jane learns this and tells her they want to take it if she gives birth. At the end of episode one, she has decided to have the baby but to give it up to the father. Her fiance agrees to stay with her on these grounds. So, I think it did a good coverage on the gamut of options and there wasn’t a lot of baggage around abortion particularly – although she does choose to have it. I think an academic critique would go something like the show was making an attempt to show balance around the question of choice, but that the narrative structure (she needs to remain pregnant for the show to exist), underpinned with a general cultural discomfort around abortion and even adoption, undermined this intention in the execution of the show.


  15. Thanks for that update, FA–you’re right, it sounds more subtle and complex in its exploration of choices for Jane, although as you say, the narrative structure demands that there’s really only one choice she can make, which in fact means no choice at all.

    The crazy notion that adoption is somehow abusive or neglectful seems really out there. Original sin is making a huge comeback, apparently!


  16. I cleared my cache on Firefox and now your bloggie is working like a charm.

    *****SPOILER ALERT*******

    OK, Historiann, I didn’t want to say this in class, but I thought the baby-bathing scene was a big message about Carrie taking part in water boarding, something that is new for her as station chief in Kandahar. Remember in the first scene of episode 1 she casually refers to having done two interrogations that day?

    And I think part of it is that she disidentifies with motherhood; the other part is that for that second her compartments broke down and it felt like madness. She knows she is a dangerous person to be around.


  17. No way am I gonna watch any of this teevee gibberish, but how the fucken fucke do you get accidentally inseminated by an Ob/Gyn??


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.