Society still has a problem with the child free woman. Despite all the advances that have been made in terms of women’s rights, motherhood is still depicted as the idealized end goal for all women, to the point where depictions of childfree women in movies and TV often feel reductive or even vilified. The childfree woman desperately needs an upgrade to reflect society’s changing attitude towards the decision to not be a parent.
Society still has a problem with the child free woman. Despite all the advances that have been made in terms of women’s rights, motherhood is still depicted as the idealized end goal for all women, to the point where depictions of childfree women in movies and TV often feel reductive or even vilified.
“some people just aren’t made to be mothers…”
- Succession: Season 3, Episode 8
She’s usually relegated to a few, unflattering character choices: the career driven workaholic,
the lonely spinster, the basketcase, or the most insidious: the evil, femme fatale.
In real life, women without children have been classified as undesirable, disobedient or “loose,” lonely and unfulfilled, unfit for motherhood, or baby-hating monsters. Our negative portrayal of the childfree woman in what we watch reinforces these ugly stereotypes and feeds back into a culture where childlessness is already stigmatized.One of the most well-known childfree women in Hollywood, Jennifer Aniston, just recently opened up about her struggles with fertility – and how much more painful that experience was while facing public scrutiny and speculation.
Meanwhile, the decision not to become a parent may be more popular than people realize – in fact, there’s an entire child-free movement happening. R/childfree is one of the fastest growing communities on Reddit and the hashtag “childfree”, where people share their decision to skip parenthood has over 400million views on TikTok.
“I love my nieces, I love my nephew, I love kids, I really do. But I don’t want to be a mother.”
- fairygoodintentions, Tiktok
And it’s not just a social media movement. U.S. fertility rates have been trending downward and the number of people who aren’t planning on having children is on the rise. We’ve seen a massive shift in what our idea of the traditional “family” means. Even the fact that we use the word “childfree” instead of “childless” signals a shift in public perception…But film and TV hasn’t seemed to catch up. Don’t we deserve to see child free women who are just…child free?
Here’s our take on the childfree woman, why she desperately needs an upgrade to reflect society’s changing attitude towards the decision to not be a parent, and how her continued, stigmatized presence shows that culture still doesn’t fully understand that choice.
CHAPTER 1: THE CHILDFREE WOMAN IS SAD OR EVIL
The childfree woman character has taken many forms throughout the years
Take the most famous spinster of all time: Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham – depicted as isolated, cruel, and decaying after being left at the altar. Or even the real life example of Queen Elizabeth I – she was given the name “The Virgin Queen” for her refusal to be married off or to bear children. Despite the fact that her reign was known as “The Golden Age” she is perhaps more well known for bucking the social norms of her time. In fact, her incredible intelligence and extraordinary leadership has conspiracy theorists – quite misogynistically – go so far as to suggest she must have been a man.
Then we have the evil, childless woman – which often has crossover with the “femme fatale.” One of the most famous examples is Shakespeare’s baby-hating Lady Macbeth,
Shakespeare makes her lack of maternal instincts inextricably linked to both her being “unsexed” (denouncing her very womanhood) and to her bloody ambitions, which ultimately lead to her husband’s downfall.
“while it was smiling in my face,have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums and dash’d the brains out.”
There’s also been a problematic pattern of the childfree woman being mentally unstable as a result of them not having had a child. We see this with murderous, baby-crazy Alex in Fatal Attraction. Sometimes their desire for a family is so severe that they resort to stealing someone else’s child. Whether it’s as a comedic character, or as a psychopathic villain, this character’s purpose seems to be to tell women, “hey, you need a kid or you’ll lose your mind.” More recently, this character got a slight upgrade, to the conniving, evil mastermind of Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Amy is cold, calculated, and childfree – until she eventually uses her husband’s sperm without his knowledge to impregnate herself and manipulate him into staying with her.
“...could give me real purpose.” “A baby is not a hobby.”
- Gone Girl
Today, the childfree woman onscreen may have gotten a bit more nuanced, but the trope has largely still failed to address the complexity of the choice to skip motherhood. Sure, maybe she stopped being solely a sad spinster or a murderous psycopath, but a few more sub-categories emerged that still painted motherhood as the end all be all.
“I wanted a baby so bad.”
CHAPTER 2: FROM SPINSTER TO SEX AND THE CITY: THE EITHER/OR PROBLEM
Enter: “the workaholic,” she’s career driven with the single-minded pursuit of success – suggesting that you can be a good mother or have a good career, but not both – doing a disservice to mothers and non-mothers alike. One of the biggest social changes for women over the 21st century has been the shift out of the home and into the workplace, but this has created an environment where these workaholic, childfree women are not only against motherhood, but seem to be against children altogether.
“What’s that sound?” “Children.” “Your life is gross.”
- Parks and Rec
Even when successful, working women are shown in a positive light, they’re still faced with the either/or problem. Cristina Yang is one of the most high profile of these kinds of characters. Her decision to not have children is specifically linked to her desire to be a world class surgeon. She cannot conceive of a reality where her career ambitions won’t be thwarted by starting a family, and while Owen feels very much in the wrong in the way he treats Cristina, his reaction feels in keeping with the cultural assumptions made about women who don’t want kids.
“You’re gonna change your mind in three years or five, you’re gonna change your mind about having a baby and then it’s gonna be too late.”
- Grey’s Anatomy
It’s interesting that Shonda Rhimes’ female protagonists often exist with this same choice hanging over their heads. In Scandal, Olivia Pope does get pregnant with Fitz’s child, but gets an abortion. And in How To Get Away With Murder, we learn that Annalise loses a child in a car accident, but predominantly her focus is on her career. Each of these characters have a streak of ruthlessness in them that is on some level incompatible with our view of motherhood as soft and nurturing. While it’s important these women all make a choice about their bodies, it’s a choice that feels born from practical necessity. So, instead of showing us a character that would more accurately reflect reality – where over 70% of mothers with children under the age of 18 are working or looking for a job – we tell women that they can choose one path: motherhood or a career.
And somewhere along the way we got the polar opposite of the workaholic: “the basketcase.” Characters like Fleabag and Young Adult portrayed childfree women as unlucky in love, often sexually promiscuous, and altogether just spiraling out.
“ It’s obvious you’re having some mental sickness, some depression. You’re very lonely and confused.”
- Young Adult
The implication here is that these childfree women are, at heart, damaged, broken, or unfit to be mothers. That it’s better off for the world that they remain childfree. Elaine’s desire not to have kids in Seinfeld is born out of self interest. Ironically, not only is she not particularly career driven, she’s on the other end of the spectrum, moving between multiple jobs and not successful at any of them. So again, there’s an idea that her as a mother would be disastrous.
Mary from 3rd Rock From The Sun is another who fits this mold. While she may also seek career advancement, the implication is she achieves this not through extraordinary feats of competence, but from sleeping her way to the top. She too is given a tragic backstory, with her own parents not loving her, so again, this idea of her as an unfit mother feels a result of this unresolved trauma.
“Dick I can’t have children.” “Oh Mary, why not?” “Because I hate them!”
- 3rd Rock From The Sun
Even female characters who do want children but can’t have them are left devastated, reinforcing the belief that the childless mother is someone to be pitied. We see this in Angelina Jolie’s character in By The Sea, or Girl On The Train’s tragic Rachel Watson, whose husband left her for another, more fertile woman. The idea that if a woman cannot or will not produce children for her husband, he might leave her is a daunting threat we see both onscreen and off – like with John Mulaney’s recent divorce from Anna Marie Tendler and the subsequent birth of his child with Olivia Munn.
Some of our “workaholic” characters are not free from this narrative either. We often see driven career women who secretly would like to become wives and mothers, but their work precludes them from this. She may be successful, but she’s deeply unsatisfied. In ‘Baby Mama’, Tina Fey’s character has focused on her career for so long that she never found love and when she finally decides to have a baby at 37, she finds out she’ll have to resort to surrogacy. Not only are we reinforcing the either/or choice for these women, but are we also maybe saying “hurry it up before you regret it” too?
“Okay. One in, in a million. I just don’t like your uterus…” “Don’t say that again.”
- Baby Mama
We’ve seen very few happy, “normal,” childfree women onscreen but there have been some that almost hit the mark. Riding the second wave of feminism, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was revolutionary for its time, portraying an upbeat, ambitious, single woman without a child.
She gave us a career-driven character without the more negative connotations it often comes with. And though the show retrospectively had its own issues, Sex and the City had two proudly childfree characters in Carrie and Samantha. Although Samantha was stigmatized as an overly sexual, baby-hating individual, and Carrie was career-focused, the show did successfully flesh out these characters without making their decision to be childfree the focal point.
“The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.”
- Sex and the City - An American Girl in Paris: Part Deux
But – both of these shows went off the air decades ago and featured women who were privileged, wealthy, and white – which often makes the decision to opt out of motherhood a lot easier – a luxury that most don’t have. Although more modern interpretations do mirror the conversations that childfree mothers experience in their day-to-day, they continue to reinforce the idea of non-mothers being outcasts.
CHAPTER 3: UPDATING THE CHILD FREE WOMAN
Culture seems to not know what to do with women whose child free status doesn’t form the backbone of their identity – which doesn’t exactly reflect the changing nature of society.
According to a Pew Research report, 44% of childless adults between 18 and 49 don’t want kids and aren’t planning on having any in the future. In 2018, the number of babies born in the U.S. fell to the lowest level in 32 years, and that rate has been steadily declining ever since.
“Guess what? I don’t want to have a baby”
- The Last Kiss
The childfree movement is here – and the women who number among their members are frustrated. As Hollie Richardson writes in the aftermath of Roe v Wade being overturned: “The US has just taken away a woman’s right to have an abortion. If you break that law, you are doing something “wrong” – proof that a woman is still deemed bad if she chooses to not have a baby in 2022.”
“The world perceives child free women in the most negative light possible.”
- The Guardian
Even though women shouldn’t need any reason, many of those in the childfree community have very valid ones. It costs more than ever to raise a child in the U.S. Over 300,000 dollars per kid to be exact. With the climate crisis looming, many wonder, why subject a child to this future at all? But critics of the childfree movement not only bring up the potential economic impacts – without babies we won’t have a future workforce – they also say that it’s unnecessarily nihilistic. Both mothers and non-mothers shout that the other side seems miserable and report a “holier than thou” attitude that makes them recoil.
Challenging these assumptions is the recent documentary My So-Called Selfish Life, which profiles different women who just chose never to have kids. As well as showing that these women aren’t always career focused, or child-hating, it posits that one of the reasons that motherhood is continually depicted as the end goal for women is economic. Reproduction is viewed as essential to keeping society moving. We saw that with Elon Musk’s comments this year, saying “We should be much more worried about population collapse…USA birth rate has been below min sustainable levels for ~50 years.”
The irony is that there are plenty of high profile women in culture who haven’t had their own children, and who seem extremely content with that choice. Today, a woman who doesn’t have biological children is Vice President of the United States. Betty White, one of the most prolific, comedic actors of our time never felt any doubt about her decision. Jennifer Aniston’s potential motherhood was constantly speculated over in the tabloid press, with her depicted as this tragic figure because she never had children. But this clashes with her own words on the subject. Compare someone like Jen to someone like Seth Rogen – who has been very vocal about his blissful childfree life, yet doesn’t face the same scrutiny – highlighting the difference between how we view childfree women versus childfree men.
“I don’t know anyone who gets as much happiness out of their kids as we get out of our non-kids.”
- Seth Rogan
To find characters in film or TV who are similarly child free is tricky. One refreshing example comes in Julie and Julia — and even that is based on the true story of TV chef Julia Child. Her child free status is never commented on, and never feels like an obstacle to her relationship with husband Paul. They’re very happy, very much in love, and don’t feel like they need any further additions in order to complete them. And in a more recent portrayal of the famous chef, HBO’s ‘Julia’ refreshingly addresses the subject of menopause – a rarity for the screen – and goes even more in depth into Julia and Paul’s loving relationship without focusing on their lack of children.
In the movie Spinster, Gaby’s future plans of a husband and a family are thrown off course when, at 39, her boyfriend moves out. And while her age does make her question whether or not she’s going to have children, or whether or not she wants them, it feels a far less defining conversation than society perhaps leads us to believe. In talking to other childfree women, she realizes that you can have a happy, fulfilled life without being a mother, and so she pursues that.
“Did you ever want kids?” “A big part of me wanted kids, but a bigger part of wanted something different.”
In ‘Bad Sisters’, Eva has fertility issues, and in her backstory this did leave to a split with her partner, who went on to marry a more fertile woman. But while Eva has pain associated with that chapter of her life, she is able to move forward, find joy in her life, and put more maternal love and care into her relationships with her sisters. In ‘Private Life’ – a brutally honest portrayal of what it’s like for a 40-something-year-old couple struggling to get pregnant – we see a difficult topic broached with both care and humor. These kinds of characters and storylines portray the “motherhood problem” in a much more nuanced, realistic, and less stigmatized way – something we’d like to see more of.
“Actually, we wanted to ask you about your eggs.” “Scrambled is good, but however you guys do them is fine with me.”
- Private Life
In this post-roe world what seems most important is that we encourage each other’s bodily autonomy. The choice to become a mother or not should be equally celebrated.
We’re overdue some representation of childfree women who don’t feel like stock tropes or tragic figures…who just are. Because there’s no one size fits all journey to being a woman, and trying to force that narrative erases so many whose stories are worth telling.
“People can not want kids, it’s a thing.”
- Grey’s Anatomy