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The Evolution of Fertility in Media

Jun 3, 2020 | 0 comments

In today’s hyper-connected world, there are resources galore for almost every aspect of infertility– how to find the right doctor, message boards and support groups, and an inside look of the tolls and taxes of the journey portrayed in film and television. Sadly, this was not always the case. Until recently, infertility and its treatment were only spoken of quietly, in hushed tones behind closed doors. Many felt that it was a part of their lives that not only could not be spoken about in public, much less openly explored for others to view on their screens.

Thankfully, with research, openness, and time, infertility has made its way into our discussions and streamlined media. We’ve come a long way from fertility complications being just the stuff of science fiction, and we are ever-evolving still. 

The Barren, Wicked Woman

Let’s face it upfront– when it came to addressing infertility in film’s earlier years, we dropped the ball more often than not. While what we now recognize as misogyny ran rampant in movies until the last few decades, we can see an unsettling underlying theme: if you can not naturally conceive a child, you’re probably insane or a degenerate because of it.

In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, based on the 1962 play of the same name), older couple George and Martha spend a drunken night practically torturing their guests, a younger couple new to the town. They mock and ridicule the younger wife, who is only referred to as Honey, after her husband Nick confides that she suffered from a “hysterical pregnancy” (now called a false pregnancy, were someone displays the symptoms of pregnancy without actually conceiving) and essentially “tricked” him into marrying her. Honey later confesses that she never wanted a child to begin with, but felt immense pressure to have a baby to preserve her relationship. Her vulnerability and justifiable concern is downplayed considerably as she is shown writhing on the ground screaming.The big twist comes when it is discovered that George and Martha, who have been raving about their teenage son the whole evening, are in fact infertile and have never been able to have a child. While an amazing film about the dynamics of marriage and codependent relationships, when it comes to the pain associated with infertility, it falls horrendously short and paints women as “baby crazy” in more ways than one.

Men weren’t safe from pointing fingers either; the 1956 film Written on the Wind (based on the 1946 novel of the same name) portrays lead character Kyle Hadley as a womanizing alcoholic. When it is revealed that Kyle has a low-sperm count, it is implied that this contributes to his inability to maintain a functional relationship, and is ergo the cause of his philandering and evil ways. Rather than being handled with compassion, his diagnosis is treated as one of the roots of his poor behavior and cruelty. No chance that his insecurity could be based on society’s unwillingness to accept a low-sperm count as a completely normal occurrence that isn’t worthy of judgement tied to their masculinity, right?

Whispers to Conversations

The late 80’s saw a trend in bringing infertility to the spotlight, although a bit clumsily. Comedy films like Raising Arizona (1987) still thrived on the stereotype that wanting a baby when you couldn’t make one yourself left you a little… touched. At least, touched enough to steal an infant and start a bounty hunt. Slapstick aside, it still brought the feelings surrounding infertility to the surface: I am hurting, I want this to change, and I will do anything to make that change happen.

Immediate Family from 1989 added even more emotional depth to the discussion. Linda and Michael struggled with having a baby for years before settling on adoption, but go through additional trials and tribulations when their teenage surrogate Lucy has second thoughts. While the film focuses more on the drama of Lucy backing down, the drive and desperation to keep her in their lives encapsulates the frustration clearly: we can not take another loss.

As the 90’s pressed on, television became another outlet for the infertility discussion to be explored further. One of the US’s most popular shows of all time, Friends, explored Monica’s and Chandler’s navigation of both of their roles in their infertility. Another television superstar, Sex and the City, chronicles Charlotte’s seasons-long experiences with impotence, miscarriage, infertility, and adoption. While conveniently glossing over many of the details associated with treatment, these depictions brought humanity and humility to a topic that could barely be mentioned in polite conversation barely ten years prior.

Real People, Real Problems

The early 2000’s saw a gentle slope of portraying infertility with kindness instead of blame, while also bringing the hope and resilience that comes with diagnosis and treatment into frame. 2007’s Juno follows the titular character as she carries her teen pregnancy to term as a surrogate for Mark and Vanessa Loring, a couple unable to conceive on their own. At first blush, Vanessa may seem like another standard damsel-in-distress– she is nervous and desperate for the baby to arrive after years of failed treatments and a previous surrogacy falling through last-minute. Her longing is palpable in a scene where she lovingly speaks to her unborn baby through Juno’s belly in a mall. When her husband Mark, unprepared for fatherhood, decides to separate from her, Juno tells Vanessa: “If you’re still in, I’m still in.” Taking hold of her personal power, Vanessa pushes forward on her own to fulfill her dream and raises her son as an SMC (single mother by choice).

Another great example is Pixar’s Up! (2009); in a few short minutes, they catalog the journey of Carl and Ellie from their youthful romance to a solid marriage and hopes for a baby to join their family. Ellie suffers a miscarriage and it is shown that she will not be able to conceive again. A poignant scene of the normally gregarious Ellie sitting on a chair on her lawn follows, eyes closed and quiet, taking in the pain of losing a future she and her husband desired so strongly. Rather than falling into the “broken woman” type-cast, she perseveres and begins a new life focused on her own happiness.

We’re in This Together

The past decade has brought more understanding and candor surrounding infertility in media than our parents and grandparents may have ever thought possible. Films such as 2012’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting provides a veritable kaleidoscope of complications surrounding getting and staying pregnant, and what can happen when it just doesn’t work out. Highlighting how the different journeys can still unite us in solidarity is certainly a breath of fresh air from the days of old. Private Life from 2018 dove deeper into how the hardships surrounding infertility can wound not only us on an individual level, but as a unit with your partner. These honest and sensitive insights are important for us to witness, on our own, with our partner, and as a society.

TV has caught up nicely as well, following a golden age of television that has pushed several boundaries on what we can show and speak of in the media. The Netflix adult animated hit Bojack Horseman (2014) covers everything from depression to redemption, but more closely, follows Princess Carolyn, an ambitious and career-driven woman who struggles at every opportunity to have a baby. She endures several miscarriages after she chooses to abort her first pregnancy in her teens, and pushes through IVF treatment, a failed relationship, and a strenuous adoption process. Once she finally has her daughter in her arms, she can not help but feel inadequate and ill-equipped. For a time, she feels distant from her baby, and feels she is broken for it. This heartfelt, bittersweet, and often difficult-to-watch examination on parenthood is as beautiful as it is complicated, much like parenthood itself. This is Us of 2016 onward has been another series that hits close to home for many. Rebecca and Kate both experience difficulties conceiving and staying pregnant, and the show really puts into frame how discouraging and difficult the IVF process can be.


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