Last Sunday night, I was curled up in my bed for the season premiere episode of the final season of Downton Abby. (At this point, if you haven’t yet watched that episode, spoiler alert ahead!)
Within the first 15 minutes, Anna reveals (implies) that she’d recently suffered a miscarriage, and that this wasn’t the first time. (Lord knows, if you watch Downton, Anna’s been through enough!) This got me to thinking about how these pregnancy and fertility issues come up in TV and movies. So much so that I tuned out a bit from the episode for a few minutes. It also made me think about working conditions and society expectations of the time. She had a miscarriage, but got dressed and came to work. Those types of things were definitely not discussed openly at that time. The shame that was probably associated with not getting pregnant in that era was Much, much more than it is today, though so many of us still feel, or are made to feel ashamed.
I kept on down this rabbit hole of thoughts, and I began to think about how infertility and difficulty maintaining a pregnancy has never, as far as I’m aware, been addressed on any Black TV show, comedy or drama that are not medical drama.
I know two shows (that happen to be some of my favorites) that had characters who suffered from infertility: Monica Geller from Friends and Robin Scherbatsky from How I Met Your Mother. But, I cannot think of any Black character who dealt with this issue. The closest I can think is Maxine Shaw from Living Single and Mary-Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane, who did not suffer form infertility, but made “alternative” choices to attempt motherhood.
Now of course, I haven’t seen every episode of every TV show, so if you know of a Black show, or even character that did go through this, please feel free to comment and school me.
Anyone that is or was a fan of Friends, knows that Monica and Chandler got married in season 7, and found out later (season 9) that could not have a baby naturally. Both Monica and Chandler had factors contributing to their infertility. In the end, they decided to adopt and ended up with twins.
Of course, Friends was a sitcom, and dealt with the issue in a light way, but it did manage to address this very real issue. In fact, the Monica and Chandler story is the second fertility related story line in the series. In Season 4, Phoebe acts as a surrogate for her brother and his wife.
The great part about both of these story lines is at the time, there was even less of a profile on IVF, surrogacy, and infertility. To even address this at all, especially in a sitcom format, was a bit ahead of its time.
The only slight counter part to this as a Black character that I can think of is Maxine Shaw from the 90’s sitcom Living Single. In the final season, Max decides to become a mother via a donor (who she later finds out happens to be Kyle). Its never said or implied that it is because she is having any difficulties, but just because she is ready to have a child, and with her independent nature (“Maxine Shaw: Mavrick”), she just does it. It was more about being in control of her life as a woman, not the physical ability.
I will give credit for the Living Single writers for even bringing up the idea of sperm donation as a pathway to motherhood for a Black woman into the story line. Again, in the 90s, assisted pregnancy was still a mystery to most people and there was a lot of negative attitudes surrounding those processes. The idea of a baby created outside of the body, or having a doctor insert sperm in a woman to impregnate a woman was still a little taboo and considered weird. And in the Black community?! Forget about it! If that’s how you got pregnant, you better lie to your friends and family and either make an agreement with a guy friend that he’s the “father”, or say the father disappeared. At that time, either of those was better than telling your Gram-Gram that you picked a guy from a binder and had doctor impregnate you. The fact that Max was choosing a sperm donor was a huge f’n deal. Max, as was the characters personality, was unashamed of her choice.
The other popular, recent, and I would say more well done infertility story is Robin. In season 7, Robin thinks she’s pregnant with Barney’s baby. After she’s told she’s not (and they do a quick celebration dance), her doctor calls her back in a few days later to discuss other test results. The doctor delivers the unfortunate news that she cannot get pregnant. The HIMYM episode has the benefit of happening in the current era (season 7 aired in 2011-2012), where there is a better space to to discuss infertility. The episode walks the fine line of a sitcom and a bit of drama dealing with a serious topic. Its a great episode. When I see it on re runs, I usually cry, because the range of feelings and emotions you see her go through are so real.
Again, there is no counter part that is Black to this story line anywhere that I am aware of. The closest I can come, again, is a non traditional choice (key word choice) into motherhood, and that would be Mary Jane Paul of Being Mary Jane*.
Mary Jane is a complicated character, which is the charm of the show. She has these brilliant moments, then does something impulsive, selfish, and dumb. Like we all do. Without getting too bogged down into details, Mary Jane “steals” sperm form a lover, and keeps it in her freezer. She convinces her doctor bestie to inseminate her at home with a baster. Obviously unsuccessful.
Later, as a kick off to a new season of her news show, she undergoes fertility treatments to have IVF with donor sperm, and documents it for the world to see. However, the implantation was unsuccessful. Ultimately, she decides to leave the issue and not try another cycle.
Again, I credit this show for even going there, and bonus points for going deeper. Her fertility process wasn’t just mentioned, it was documented. We saw her have hot flashes. Give herself injections. Have second thoughts. Be disappointed. Have questions. But, at this point, this was a choice, not a necessity for Mary Jane. If there is ever a show with a Black cast and Black female lead that would tackle this issue head on, it would be Being Mary Jane. I would not be surprised if this issue comes back around and MJ has to face known infertility, and has to try a second round with a little more purpose and urgency. The writing team on this show is amazing, and if any team can bring this to life, it would be them.
Art is truly imitating life. Even in a parallel TV universe, we’re still not fully able to discuss infertility in Black families as a real issue that real Black women deal with. I am hopeful that this will soon change. With so much innovative programming, not just on TV, but on line and streaming, the possibilities are endless. Think of the impact a major show with a character, a Black Woman character, going through infertility could have. How it could shift perceptions and help remove the shame women feel. It can be done in a smart and funny, and culturally relevant way.
Imagine if Aunt Viv (the original), who got pregnant, at one can assume, well past 40, even briefly mentioned having a hard time getting pregnant.
What if Rainbow and Dre talked about the baby they lost before getting pregnant with Jack and Diane?
We could get into the further and deeper issue of the broader representation of women in media and Black people/Black women in media, but that is definitely a whole ‘nother post!
Black people want smart, relevant, diverse content and stories, as the numbers for recent shows like Black-ish, Empire, and How to Get Away With Murder prove. We need this infertility narrative in our stories too, because it is happening. I am thankful for the attention and story lines that do feature infertility, no mater who the subject is, but I’m waiting to see my sistas shine and use their art as a platform to change, even start the conversation.
*2018 FYI- Gabrielle Union who played Mary Jane Paul, is an infertility warrior in real life. She has suffered 9 miscarriages and gone through numerous IVF cycles.