Ah, childbearing, the most miraculous and bizarre process in nature and what ensures the survival of our race. It’s the beginning of great new chapters in many people’s lives, and as fiction is a reflection of reality, TV writers often use the event of pregnancy in their plots.
However, they’ve done so in a way that also renders it completely terrifying for everybody involved. The purpose of a lot of science fiction and fantasy is to intrigue and scare the viewing populace, often inflicting outer space or demonic stresses on their lead characters. This is perfectly fair, seeing as that is how story tension is generated… but funnily enough, there’s an idea for horror that a lot of shows seem to share, and that is the great villain of supernatural pregnancy. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency breaks down the trope of the Mystical Pregnancy in this video:
There are several rather horrifying things about this.
First of all, I can’t claim to have any experience in this, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how being pregnant works. A lot of these “mystical pregnancy” plot lines are one episode or story arc affairs, and from what I can tell, a lot of them involve the whole business being magically sped up, such as in the Torchwood and Star Trek examples. Wake up one morning, and then, oh my, is that the tell-tale bulge of a seven-to-eight-months-along baby bump?
Real talk for a second, because my mind is still boggling at how you could possibly roll cheerily out of bed after a regular night’s sleep and only then notice that there is an enormous living lump in your stomach. This is suspending viewer disbelief a bit much, whether or not the writers/creators in question know about the scientific details of being preggers.
The baby-bearing body goes into hormonal chaos enough as it adjusts to its new state over a period of a few months (which is what leads to the fainting spells and morning sickness associated with early pregnancy)… imagine all that happening over a period of a few hours. Not to mention how the skin over the torso stretches as the belly grows, the internal organs reshuffle and move out of the way, the rib cage expands (that’s right, her bones move)… this all sounds fairly gruesome, but it happens very gradually over the nine-month growth period. If all this enormous physical and chemical movement whirled into motion in a single night, well… you’d think they would at least feel something.
So with the horrifying biological ramifications out of the way, what about the horrifying psychological ones? You have here a woman who has been impregnated by some sort of space creature or being of the abyss, all too often without her consent. She has been induced into one of the most drastic transformations the human body can endure (whose effects take hold and rewrite her entire framework in a matter of hours, apparently) entirely without wanting to, and often at the behest of some technologically advanced and purposefully creepy other people. I can imagine few things more terrifying than the concept of having control over my body taken from me, especially in the case of someone or something else violating it like this.
As I mentioned before, these arcs are often restricted to one or two episodes and then forgotten about, leaving no room to acknowledge the utter trauma of having some other person or species hijack your reproductive system. The only consolation is that it’ll all be over soon, and carrying the creature they’ve implanted inside you (I get shivers just writing that) doesn’t have to stay there, you can get rid of it cleanly and naturally… by giving birth.
Childbirth is one of the most beautiful and horrific inventions of nature, and there’s no denying how miraculous the whole process is… in a very scary kind of way. It’s a lot of work and it hurts quite a lot, that is society’s general understanding of the business, which has pretty much been confirmed to be true. But those are regular human biological births we’re talking about, not births in the land of sci-fi and fantasy where anything is possible and mutant and where non-consensual babies are the final frontier.
With that pain and effort endured (often with high degrees of focus on these elements for the viewers’ discomfort), now the female character’s work is done, they have fulfilled their biological destiny despite whatever the individual herself wanted, and all they have to do is raise the child/devil spawn/messiah/alien/whatever they’ve popped out against their will. Except more often than not they’re saved from the duty by some greater force—the aliens who harvested their womb take back their human-alien hybrid, the creature flies off to do its damage or save the world, or the child grows super-fast, just like it did in utero, and is old enough to walk around and take care of itself within scenes.
And it’s all over, just like that.
Some examples not mentioned in the video are Prometheus, which had a ten-or-so-minute scene detailing the character’s horror at being impregnated with some sort of alien seed and then rushing in bloody pain to abort it, which I can safely declare is one of the most horrifying things I have ever witnessed on a screen; Mellisandre and her murderous “shadow babies” from Game of Thrones, grown-man-sized creatures of darkness that go and kill people at her orders after being born direct from her; and of course the infamous case of Breaking Dawn and Bella and Edward’s magically low-maintenance baby, who also provides the vessel for her mama to become a super shiny vampire and is not much more than a really cute little plot device that, again, leads to one of the most horrifying scenes to grace my imagination. Mark will explain.
There is so much horror in that paragraph. Why, you’d almost think these writers had been hired discreetly by some sort of conservative organization to make some subliminal messaging designed to scare female viewers away from having babies. Because if they get pregnant, it will be a gruesome punishment for their own wanton behavior, whether they wanted to or not. There’s a whole whirlwind of victim-blaming, torture-porn-y, women-are-helpess-and-worth-no-more-than-the-ovaries-that-define-them subtext going on here, and it’s really not comfortable.
The way television handles this process is iffy in most genres, actually— most long-running sitcoms and soap operas have, at some point, a pregnancy plot line, because it’s a natural thing that happens in life and that is what those stories are about. Again, though, it is often used for drama and little else, with the baby guaranteed to decide it wants out weeks before it’s due to cause panic, or igniting custody battles or games of “Who’s the Father?”, or so on and so forth. And, again, once the excitement of the actual birth is over and done with, the baby will usually fade into the backdrop or flat-out disappear. This may come down to infants being hard to direct as actors, but the point remains.
Yes, carrying and having children is a lot of work, but it can also be a magical and enriching experience that lots of perfectly sane, perfectly normal people go about without being bitten or assaulted by aliens. It doesn’t even have to be that painful in this modern age of medicine. So do we really need to turn something perfectly natural into a horrorific plot device?
Written by Alex Henderson
Follow her pop culture blog, The Afictionado!