We Need More Childless Women, Couples on TV
A week after the lovely, tear-jerking series finale of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, I can’t shake one question: Why did April have a baby?
Let’s start purely from a character level. Even as she grew to take on more responsibilities and to come to terms with her love for her friends and mentors, April maintained a general desire to not take much seriously. Yet she went from having never talked about wanting children to in one episode — in five minutes, really — going from undecided to giving birth. Her becoming a mother felt more like creator Michael Schur trying to find a way to wrap up April and Andy’s storyline than a natural character development. (Personally, I would have gone with making them hugely famous thanks to Andy’s TV show and as a nod to Chris Pratt’s rising star; what better venue in which to trot out Burt Macklin and Janet Snakehole than Hollywood?)
Of course, what happens to characters isn’t up to fans, nor should it be, and it can quickly become folly to judge an artist’s work for what it could have been instead of what it is. But that is what takes the “Why did April have a baby” question to a deeper level: Why couldn’t she have been different?
I wondered this a few weeks ago when Mindy on The Mindy Project became pregnant, and a year ago when Leslie became pregnant with triplets at the end of Parks and Rec’s sixth season. And a year before that, when Liz Lemon adopted kids at the end of 30 Rock. Each had/has found career success and love to boot with the likes of Adam Scott, Chris Messina, and James Marsden, respectively. Why did we need to add kids on top of it? Did the story really need that development, or is that development just expected when it comes to female characters?
Leslie, Mindy, Liz, and April’s decision to become parents in and of itself is not a bad thing, whether or not it is out of character. But the decision continues to read as an item on a tired check-list TV writers trot out as a way to give a “happily-ever-after” ending even to the most career-driven and independent of women. It’s outdated and uninteresting.
Libby Hill raised this question over at The A.V. Club last year when Leslie herself became pregnant with triplets:
It would be one thing if Leslie Knope represented an isolated example in the current television landscape. But, TV’s modern sitcom feminists are wealthier and whiter than ever before. … They are blessed with choice and agency, the ability to blaze their own trails, and the courage to set their own course. It is brilliant that 40-plus years has allowed growth and change enough that the question of having it all has been eliminated. Of course women can have it all. Nor is the question should women have it all. The question is, must women have it all.Having children doesn’t make a woman more or less of a feminist. That is stupid; almost as stupid as meninists. Have kids or don’t have kids; stay at home with your kids or go back to work — as long as you and baby are happy and healthy, then you do you. No need for those on any side of the issue to draw battle lines. But as we work as a society to have a more all-encompassing view of what it means to be a parent and what it means to have equal rights, it is equally important to see the kind of variety we preach among our friends presented throughout entertainment. We need more childless women — and more childless couples — depicted in our media. We need to represent those who have decided they don’t want children and are happy with it; we need to show that that choice is acceptable, and normal. To put it in Parks and Rec terms, we need more Donnas instead of Aprils.
We’ve had some throughout modern TV history, led by the standard bearer Mary Richards of the ground-breaking The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Others, who were childless for a variety of reasons, come to mind, from the Hartleys on The Bob Newhart Show to Elaine Benes on Seinfield, Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote to the Schraders on Breaking Bad, and Diane Chambers on Cheers to Dana Whitaker on Sports Night. Most notable in the last 15 years or so have to be Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones of Sex and the City, and perhaps a plot from the show’s sixth season can help teach a lesson in the weirdly smug culture war of kids versus no kids.
In “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie, forced to remove her $485 Manolo Blahnik heels during her friend Kyra’s baby shower, ends up shoeless when one of the guests takes off with them. Kyra offers to pay for them only to balk at the price tag — “I’m sorry, I just think that’s crazy to spend that much money on shoes.”
Carrie: “You know how much Manolos are. You used to wear Manolos.”
Kyra: “Sure. Before I had a real life. But Chuck and I have responsibilities now. Kids, houses. $485. Like, wow.”
Carrie: “I have a real life.”
Kyra: “No offense Carrie but I really don’t think we should have to pay for your extravagant life style. I mean it was your choice to buy shoes that expensive.”
Carrie: “Yes, but, it wasn’t my choice to take them off.”
Kyra: “They’re just shoes.”
So Carrie sends Kyra an invite to her wedding - she has decided to marry herself, and her only registry gift is for a replacement pair of her fabulous Manolos. Kyra gets the picture and buys them for Carrie.
A tad over-the-top? Maybe. But the message delivered to the friend — and the viewers — was loud and clear.
Of course, there’s a middle ground to be found. To be fair to Leslie and star Amy Poehler, her speech in the episode “Pie-Mary” as she put “men’s rights” activists in their place was on-point:
“I’m now going to give you permanent answers to all the silly questions that you’re going to end up asking me and every other woman in this election in the next few months. Why did I change my hairstyle? I don’t know, I just thought it would look better or my kids got gum in it. Are you trying to have it all? That question makes no sense, it’s a stupid question, stop asking it, don’t ask it. Do you miss your kids while you’re at work? Of course I do! Everybody does. And then, you know, sometimes I don’t.”
Poehler found a way to give Leslie triplets without making them a central plot point. In fact, we barely saw her and Ben’s kids, jumping over the years of their births and early childhood and only seeing them in a few scenes. It was a nice, by-design progressive spin on the trend, at least — she had kids, but they didn’t stop her from doing what she wanted to do. She loved her kids, and her husband, and her job — and herself. If babies are going to play parts in our stories, then this is a great example of an alternate way it can be done.
We all make different choices in life. (And by “we” I am speaking to those of us lucky enough to have the privilege and luxury of such choices.) Parents can do their part by not acting morally superior for having procreated; child-free people can do their part by not gloating about sleeping in late and having disposable income. We all win.
We win by celebrating different choices, which is why diversity is so important in entertainment. Yes, they are just fictional characters, but fiction has the ability to inspire us, move us, make us learn, makes us change — it matters that we can look to the screen, big or small, and see someone who looks like we do. It matters to have a prominent character not have children and be happy with the choice, because that helps send the message that expectations have changed. It matters to have TV writers not include pregnancy plots as part of some sort of notion of “having it all.”
Having it all means what you want it to mean.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.
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