Every popular sitcom from “Friends” to “The Big Bang Theory” has capitalized on the appeal of strong female leads. In an era where — at least on the surface — fourth-wave feminism has finally gained its foothold in the public consciousness, media companies are incentivized to provide their viewership with realistic portrayals of the “modern woman.”
In the past 25 years, the structural makeup of the American sitcom has changed demonstrably. While its predecessors primarily dealt with the nuclear family unit — typically comprised of a mother, a father and 2-3 children — television programs of the late ’90s and early 2000s began to evolve past the “Leave It to Beaver” blueprint.
Perhaps the most notable of these endeavors is the most ubiquitous program on the planet, whose primary theme matched its title: “Friends.” While the sitcom seems remarkably safe by today’s standards, its portrayal of unconventional family types was relatively groundbreaking at the time. During the series’ 10-season run, it made considerable headway in dealing with different types of families. Ross’ ex-wife marries a woman and consequently raises a child with her. Monica and Chandler deal with infertility and later adopt two children. Phoebe serves as a surrogate to her brother and his wife.
And Rachel, you ask?
Rachel falls victim to the oldest plotline in television history: She experiences an unexpected pregnancy. It’s an undoubtedly trite tactic on the part of the writers, one that reflects a larger trend in the television industry. Simply put, pregnancy and motherhood sell.
The enduring relic of the cult of domesticity in television is the trope of the single-woman-turned-mother. It’s a cheap strategy whose purpose is two-fold in nature. One, to rekindle the romance between the ingenue and her romantic counterpart. Two, to serve as a proxy for character development. There is a dominant cultural perception that motherhood is to be conflated with maturity. Hence, if you’re a female lead, there’s a 75% chance you’ll be pregnant before the program’s finale.
It’s a lazy writing tactic, yet it speaks to a disturbing cultural fixation on how a woman’s fertility, or lack thereof, determines her worth as a human being. The various stigmas surrounding a woman’s choice not to have children are infinite. It’s seen as a sign of selfishness, immaturity or downright ignorance. Hence, the easiest way to wrap up a show, or to provide character development without actually creating any robust character arc, is to impregnate your ingenue.
More often than not, it’s an accidental pregnancy. Instead of portraying healthy relationships marked by mutual communication and future planning, TV pregnancies occur almost exclusively by accident. Planned pregnancies require complex story arcs and emotionally stable parents. You know, signs of real, tangible maturity? Writers would rather elect to spend their efforts on half-baked alternatives, which signal, rather than signify, growth.
Furthermore, popular programs often actively ignore the story arcs of their female characters in order to force motherhood onto them. “The Big Bang Theory” is a classic example on numerous fronts. Secondary romantic lead Bernadette tells her fiancé that she has no desire to have children. She cites her bad experiences raising siblings and admits that she doesn’t like babies or kids. Nevertheless, upon discovering she is pregnant, her entire outlook on motherhood changes seemingly overnight.
We can observe the same phenomenon with the series’ primary romantic lead, Penny. Penny expresses her discomfort with motherhood and alludes to the fact that she does not want to be a mom numerous times throughout the series. In the penultimate season of the series, she and her husband Leonard have a serious talk about kids, and ultimately decide not to have them. It’s a huge gesture on Leonard’s part, as he did want children. As a sweet and symbolic gesture, Penny rents a Batmobile for him as thanks him for respecting her needs and loving her regardless. It’s one of the stronger episodes in the series and holds great importance, as it demonstrates something rarely portrayed in popular sitcoms: a married couple content without children.
As both a longtime fan of the show and as a woman who has no intention of having children, I was devastated when Penny got pregnant. It was unexpected, it directly contradicted her character arc and most upsettingly, it invalidated the idea that women can have fulfilling lives without children. The show provided women like me with much-needed representation. It subverted popular opinion on womanhood and its caveats. It looked us in the eyes, acknowledged our feelings and proceeded to stab us in the back.
Sitcoms that put childless women in the spotlight without impregnating or vilifying them are desperately needed but are few and far between. However, they do exist. Programs like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Schitt’s Creek” and even “How I Met Your Mother” portray childless women in a positive light. “Kimmy Schmidt” does a spectacular job of highlighting how Kimmy is able to heal and grow without the help of a romantic partner or child. Likewise, “Schitt’s Creek” leaves Alexis completely alone by the series’ conclusion, affording her the chance to be independent for the first time in her life. On top of that, it’s established that Robin from “How I Met Your Mother” does not want children from the very first episode and honors that decision throughout the rest of the show while simultaneously demonstrating her growth through her relationships with her partners and friends.
When television programs eliminate the narrative crutch of pregnancy, they grant their female characters room for more complex emotional development. They are forced to see their characters as dynamic, living beings who evolve independently of their conscripted roles in society. They become more like the women they represent, the women who see themselves in the characters they grow to love and are not ashamed of it.