Television's Baby Problem

“Can’t we have ONE representation on t.v. of women who want work and a relationship but don’t want to become baby-making machines? YEESH,” I grumbled to a friend over Google chat last May. I was up in arms over the Parks and Recreation season five finale, an episode that featured what my friend referred to as the “who-is-pregnant woman hunt.” Over the course of the finale, Andy discovers a positive pregnancy test and makes it his mission to question every female character on the show to find out who’s knocked up. Though the mother-to-be turns out to be Ron Swanson’s girlfriend Diane, the pregnancy hunt awakens the baby-making impulse in the show’s protagonist, Leslie Knope. For the first time to the audience’s knowledge, Leslie talks with her husband about the inevitable family they’ll eventually have.

“Leslie’s never even mentioned an interest in having children!” I bitched. “She seems so career-focused (not that you can’t want both a career and kids). But the whole start-a-family thing came out of nowhere! I know that relationship woes/marriage/babies are the traditional progression for most sitcoms, but I just kind of want to see ONE that doesn’t go that route.”

A year later, Leslie would end season six pregnant with triplets. I spent subsequent days ranting inarticulately about why this was a terrible decision on the part of the show’s writers, until the AV Club posted “The trouble with triplets: Leslie Knope’s babies and a problematic sitcom trend,” in which Libby Hill takes issue with Leslie’s career accomplishments being “retconned into being merely preparation for having children.”

In her essay, Hill also traces the evolution of the sitcom heroine and notes that, for characters like Leslie, who thrive in the workplace settings of their comedies, “the feminist struggle often gets murkier with these characters. Unlike their ’70s foremother, each of these characters ends up with (at least one) child by the end of their show’s run." We’re living in the “can women have it all” era but, as Hill posits, when it comes to television, “The question is, must women have it all.”

Last week, Homeland’s fourth season premiered with two episodes that brought viewers up to speed on events in the life of the show’s protagonist, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). After a couple of sometimes wobbly seasons, Homeland’s season three landed its ending: Though Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) had outlived his usefulness, his execution was gut-wrenching, and it finally freed Carrie from go-nowhere romantic storylines. This was a welcome change because what’s always been unique and, frankly, awesome about Carrie from day one is that she’s crazy-good at her job. Emphasis on the crazy—but the ability her bipolar disorder gives her to make connections no one else sees is exactly why she’s so good.

When the show was exploring the parallels between Carrie and Brody—who, after being held as a prisoner of war for eight years, was turned by al-Qaeda to perpetrate terrorist acts back in the U.S.—it was at its most interesting. But the show went a step further when Carrie and Brody became romantically entangled and, as a result, spun its wheels a bit. The writers seemed invested in this relationship, while as a viewer, I was drumming my fingers, waiting for each episode to get back to the good stuff.

Now in the wake of Brody’s death, Carrie still isn’t home-free: She’s got a Little Brody to contend with. By last Sunday’s second episode, the show seems to have decided how Carrie’s going to deal with motherhood; “Trylon and Perisphere” ended with Carrie taking a hardship posting with the CIA—a decision that any viewer understands is at least partly an excuse for Carrie to leave her infant daughter in the care of her (somewhat reluctant) sister.

I ought to be grateful. Presumably, with Carrie in Pakistan, the show will mostly dispense with the baby plot, save for a few U.S.-to-Pakistan Skype calls. So why am I not more excited about this depiction of a woman on television choosing career over family?

“A baby isn’t just a plot device,” Sonia Saraiya wrote last year in an AV Club recap of Homeland’s season three finale, “it’s a life-altering small person that will change everything.” Yet too often a baby is thrown into a plot as a device to demonstrate that when a female character puts career at the center of her life, she’s not only sacrificing family; she has to become the momentary villain as she chooses work over her offspring.

“Trylon and Perisphere” finds tiny Franny Brody thrust upon her mother by a sister who seems convinced that if Carrie just spends some time with her baby, she’ll discover her maternal instinct. Instead, each scene between Carrie and Franny seems designed to give Carrie (and viewers) a chance to close the Brody chapter—and to demonstrate what a bad mother Carrie would be. In one scene, she allows her mother to reminisce about Papa Brody, admitting that she tried to be happy when she learned she was pregnant, though “with his being gone can’t remember why I had you.” In another harrowing scene, Carrie comes this close to drowning her daughter during a routine bath. When Carrie departs for Pakistan with a tearful but sterile goodbye to baby, she’s not so much choosing career over family, the show seems to say, but admitting her ineptitude.

In August, Huffington Post ran a piece by Bri Seely (“What It Really Feels Like to Be a Child-Free Woman”), who—having no desire to raise children—recounted asking to be sterilized year after year, only to be told by doctors, “You’ll change your mind.” This is the overwhelming response to most women who say they want child-free lives. “You don’t know what you want,” we’re told again and again. “You’re too young to make that decision, you’ll think differently when you’re older.”

Television perpetuates this depreciation of a woman’s agency when it takes away a female character’s ability to even make this decision. As a career-oriented CIA agent who also lives with a disorder that has genetic component, it seems unlikely that Homeland’s Carrie would put “have a baby” at the top of her list of life goals. Yet she has unprotected sex—of course—and ends up pregnant—of course. And, this being television, there’s no question of abortion; on T.V., women rarely have the option of terminating a pregnancy, especially if they’re the protagonist of the show. (This is less true on cable, and if the character in question is an unmarried adolescent or young woman, she’s more often allowed to consider, or even have, an abortion.)

Likewise, at the end of Mad Men’s first season, the character who would come to represent the breaker of glass ceilings, the ur-career-woman, Peggy Olsen, naturally ends up pregnant. It’s a rite of passage, the show seems to say, that she must weather before she can earn the right to a career. Mad Men’s second season deals with the fallout of this pregnancy. Like Carrie, Peggy gives her baby up; Peggy also suffers the stigma of being a “loose” woman as her family accuses her of seducing the man who knocked her up and the priest at her church urges her to confess her sins. While a modern perspective on the show’s 1960s morals allows viewers to sympathize with Peggy’s predicament, in the world of the show Peggy nevertheless becomes something of a momentary villain for choosing career over family.

A baby doesn’t even have to enter the picture, though, for a woman’s agency to be taken away. How I Met Your Mother’s career-oriented Robin Scherbatsky is adamant about not wanting kids, a position that contributes to the end of her relationship with Ted and that remains consistent throughout the show—until season seven’s twelfth episode, in which Robin first believes she is pregnant, then discovers that not only is she not having a baby; she’s infertile. Once again, choice is quickly taken out of the picture. Robin’s reaction to the news that she can’t have a baby is to grieve, a natural reaction for a lot of women—including some who have never wanted children—but given the circumstances and the character’s history, it’s hard not to see this as another version of “you’ll change your mind some day.” Either you will change your mind, the message seems to be, or the decision not to will be taken away from you.

There’s room on television for all kinds of stories—for every story, including Robin’s, Peggy’s, and Carrie’s. And there’s room for a story like Donna’s: Jenny Slate’s character from the charming movie Obvious Child may or may not ultimately want children, but when she discovers she’s pregnant, she makes a decision that puts career (and independence) over family. She makes the decision, and she’s not punished for it or made to look villainous.

But that’s film. Television isn’t quite there yet. And on T.V., all too often, a baby is a plot device. It’s the culmination of an all-too-familiar trajectory. No matter how little a female character’s initial story arc might have to do with babies, in most shows, once the writers run out of ideas, she’s going to find herself faced with a pregnancy. Isn’t the simple inevitability of that progression one more way television seems to say that a woman just isn’t interesting enough outside of her childbearing abilities to sustain an audience’s interest? On T.V., it isn’t enough to work for the CIA, become the most powerful woman in an advertising agency, or have a fulfilling career in journalism. On T.V., women can have the whole pie—career, relationship, and baby—but they can’t opt for just one slice.