Look at Life: Is Family Stereotypes

19th July 2019

why three isn’t always the magic number

claire moulds

At a time when TV channels are being urged to produce programmes that better reflect the society in which we live, why are so many unable to accept that there doesn’t need to be a baby in order for a character to have a happy ending, especially when one in five women in the UK will never have children?

When you’re childfree by choice, as I am, you get used to having to defend your decision over and over again, and when tv shows, films and books continue to insist that the only satisfying narrative for a woman is to have a baby, it only exacerbates the situation.

That’s why, as a huge fan of US comedy series Big Bang Theory, I was extremely disappointed with the last ever episode. (Warning: spoiler to follow…) Over the past few seasons of the hit show, one of the central characters, Penny, has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t want to be a mother. Even when her husband has expressed his wish to be a father – leading to upset and disagreements – she has stood firm. That is until the finale, when the writers chose her to provide the requisite ‘end of an era’ baby, designed to give viewers a hint of what the future might look like for their favourite characters.

Everyone has the right to change their mind. Those who wanted kids when they were younger may reject that path in later life, while someone who has never had any interest in being a parent can suddenly desperately want a baby. Nobody swaps sides overnight though, and one of the many problems with how the issue was handled is that we didn’t get to see how Penny dealt with the emotional rollercoaster of an unplanned pregnancy. All we know is that she’s still getting her head around it, but is ‘happy’.

Sadly, this only serves to perpetuate the myth that, if you get a woman who doesn’t want children pregnant, she’ll happily toe the line and be delighted with the news. If I had a pound for every time I’ve been told ‘you’ll feel differently when you’re actually pregnant’, I’d be a multi-millionaire.

Worse still was the manner in which Penny conceived, which we’re told was the result of drunken, unprotected sex. It’s bad enough that society is unable to accept that an intelligent woman knows her own mind when she says that she doesn’t want kids – which is why family, friends, colleagues and even complete strangers feel the need to keep telling you that you’re wrong – but by portraying Penny as stupid and careless it undermines everything she’s achieved and her character’s growth over the past 12 series, as it takes her back to her wilder teenage years.

I’m not alone in my criticism of the writers’ work. Comments on social media ranged from ‘I’m mad they made Penny pregnant. Not every female character needs a baby to validate their existence in the storyline’ and ‘I’m disappointed by the predictable pregnancy ending’ to ‘Not wanting kids is a perfectly valid life choice and I’m tired of society enforcing the idea that couples need to have kids to be whole’. A decade and a half ago, when the finale of Friends aired in the UK, the writers were so keen to underline this last point that the fact that Monica and Chandler had just become parents was simply not enough and they insisted on newly married Mike and Phoebe committing to start trying for a baby too.

More recently the second Sex and the City film made some inroads into addressing the issue, with Carrie musing on how she and Big, as a married couple, were expected to make the leap from lovers to parents. Ultimately both decided that they were perfectly happy as they were, and she presented him with a watch engraved with the inscription ‘Me and you. Just us two’. Sadly the writers fell short of fully exploring the complexities around the issue and made it into a small side story, rather than the main focus of the film, when arguably it would have struck more of a chord with the audience than the actual plot.

What makes the Big Bang Theory’s decision so heartbreaking is that it took such care in the same episode to make Penny’s friend, Amy, into a role model for women in science, to encourage others into the field. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is a phrase we hear time and time again and if we want to get women to consider careers in traditionally male dominated professions then little girls need to grow up seeing women in such industries, both in real life and on screen. It’s just a shame the producers didn’t feel the need to use Penny as an equally important role model, showing little girls that being child-free is not only a valid life choice but one that brings just as much happiness, satisfaction and excitement as motherhood.

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