I’ve been pregnant twice. I won’t say I loved being pregnant. There were definitely down sides to the reproductive process, though compared to some my pregnancies were relatively easy. I do not say that to brag. Pregnancy is a frightening thing. A dangerous thing. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 800 women die daily from pregnancy or birth-related issues, the majority in developing countries. Many of these deaths could be prevented if those women had access to the care and technology we do in first world countries. Still, women here can suffer through pregnancy and childbirth in many ways when their bodies betray them due to new or pre-existing conditions. When I say my pregnancies were easy, I say it with the deep understanding of how fortunate I have been, and with the humble acknowledgement of the strength of those women for whom the process is not easy at all. And who, in spite of their difficulties, are willing to do it again.
Nonetheless, I did love my pregnant belly (and also my pregnant boobs). When I wasn’t waddling to the bathroom with my friends making quacking noises, or trying in vain to avoid buying maternity clothing, I loved my pregnant body. I felt beautiful. I felt…powerful.
Too often when I see pregnant women in entertainment, the pregnant belly is anything but beautiful and powerful. It is, instead, baggage. Excess baggage. Even though it may contain precious cargo. And so too is the woman attached to it. Together, the woman and her belly become a plot device with any number of tropes used to show just how inconvenient—but oh so dramatic—that pregnant belly can be.
The pregnant belly is a weakness.
The Walking Dead: Season 2 game formulates much of its later episodes around this concept as Rebecca struggles with her pregnancy. Of course, Rebecca is very pregnant when the group are forced from their shelter. The group must forage for food and water for her, slow their pace for her, and when she goes into labour, find the necessary tools to bring the baby safely into the world.
Pregnancy is such a great plot device, right? It can be used to trap a man in a relationship. It can be used to relegate a woman to inconvenient baggage. It can even be used to conveniently kill her off, while offering meaningful emotional motivation for others, or, it can be the key to humanity’s salvation.
The pregnant belly is a precious thing. It must be protected. The fate of humankind lies within that womb. In a future filled with infertility, the miracle of Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is the last hope for the Children of Men. Our heroes will do anything to protect the girl and her unborn child, and nothing short of sacrificing themselves is enough, so that new life can be born. TVTropes describes “Imperiled in Pregnancy” thusly:
“Women Are Delicate. Children Are Innocent. A pregnant woman combines these two ideas in one to create a woman whose condition rates as so vulnerable, so precious, that you never want to see anything bad happening to her.”
But bad things do happen to the pregnant woman. After all, the pregnant belly is the perfect hostage. Targeting that protrusion of life paralyzes both the mother and any decent human being conditioned to protect the life of an unborn child.
In The Walking Dead television series, the character of Lori suffers a much different death than in the comic. In print, she survives the birth of her child and shares a joyful post-natal moment with her family. Much later, she is shot and the baby dies in her arms. In the television show, Lori doesn’t make it beyond the makeshift labour room and her son is forced to shoot her in the head shortly after she gives birth to ensure that she does not come back as a walker.
In Lethal Weapon 4, a nine months pregnant Lorna Cole (Rene Russo) is grabbed by a thug who flicks open a blade and presses it to her belly. Mel Gibson’s Riggs, who moments before had the upper hand over the assailants, instantly complies, dropping his weapon. Cole manages to break her captor’s hold, but the point has already been made and the other pregnant woman, who lacks Cole’s police training, has no such recourse.
In HBO’s version of the infamous “Red Wedding” from Game of Thrones, Talisa Stark’s pregnant belly—not merely Talisa herself—is the first to be destroyed in the brutal event. It is one of the many changes from the original source material where Robb Stark’s wife is very specifically kept from attending the wedding. Given that HBO’s changes to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series too often place women in far more violent situations than in the book, Talisa’s presence at the wedding and the subsequent targeting of her pregnant belly now seems that much more suspect.
That’s not to say bad things can’t happen when a pregnant woman is participating in an apocalypse, political betrayal, or any other major event. But are these the only ways for pregnant women to function in the media we consume? In mainstream comics, we rarely get to see a pregnant woman at all. Babies just magically appear and are shipped off in the same manner, as needed. Rarely do we get to see a pregnant woman in action. Treated as something more than the sum of her belly—even if that fetus is a major focus of the plot.
This is why The Splendid Angharad pleased me so when she arrives on screen in Mad Max Fury Road.
When we first meet the Wives of Immorten Joe, they appear in the most deceptive way possible, playing on our preconceived notions of the damsel in distress. They are dressed in flowing white, seemingly virginal, bound in chastity belts. But we know their true purpose in a world where fertility is rare and healthy bodies are scarce. And if we forget, Splendid’s belly is there to remind us. But even as our minds sink into the belief that we’re about to see tired old tropes about damsels that Max must save from their pursuers, Splendid and the Wives face him unerringly. When his warning shot nicks her leg, she doesn’t wither. And when the bullets truly begin to fly, Splendid is out there fighting with all of them, even when labour pains threaten.
And when she uses her body to protect Furiosa, I felt chills run down my spine.
Undeniably, Splendid fulfills the trope of the woman carrying precious cargo. This is her sole purpose in the eyes of Immorten Joe and, whether or not she values her own life or that of the baby within her, she knows damn well what both mean to the man she is trying to escape. All of this we see in the fierce determination with which she faces down Joe as she splays herself protectively before Furiosa. The pregnant belly is to be protected, but Splendid uses that very thing against Joe to remind us that it too can protect. No. That Splendid, the woman, is still very much capable of protecting those she cares for, no matter the state of her body.
Her death saddened me, and yet, in a morbid way, it pleased me. Because it was a victory. Not only because Immorten Joe was denied his ultimate prize, but because Splendid was a whole character who was not bound by her swollen belly. Everything she did in that movie, she could have done pre- or post-natal. Did her pregnancy significantly raise the stakes for her character? Of course it did, given the narrative of the film, but it did not diminish her because of it.
Splendid is not the only pregnant character to prove that pregnancy does not automatically incapacitate a woman. Helena isn’t one to take anything sitting down so I suspect this clone will still be on-the-go in the next season of Orphan Black, despite her growing fetus. She hasn’t started to show in the current season, but her status as a pregnant woman is often mentioned. Still, she keeps busy, murdering her captors, escaping prisons, and rescuing her sestras.
I am quite fond of Claudia Black as Aeryn Sun in Farscape: Peacekeeper Wars. Granted, she technically isn’t pregnant for much of the film because, through the magic of modern alien science, her fetus is housed within the body of the frog-like alien, Rygel. When Aeryn finally gets her baby bump back, it is very near the time of birth. Where does she give birth? Why in the middle of a firefight, of course. The scene in its entirety is over the top, but I will forgive it since Peacekeeper Wars remains a fandom victory (because crackers do matter!) after the cancellation of the original series, and that fight is exactly how we wanted our heroes to go out. As for Aeryn—who is and always will be a soldier first, no matter how much she has changed in her time spent with Moya’s crew—well, I expect no less from Aeryn Sun. John Crichton (Ben Browder) knows better than to coddle the mother of his child during this time. When he tries to stop her from firing her big gun, which she claims relaxes her, he only does so for practical reasons. After he helps her give birth to their child, he gives her back a weapon, which she holds along with Little D.
None of these women are physically empowered by their pregnancy. There is no magical ability imbued in them by way of their fetus. As labour comes closer, the child does prove a hindrance, but not one that the writers choose to present as a weakness, even when the baby does—as babies often do—decide to come at the most inconvenient time.
In reality, pregnant women aren’t necessarily going to be kicking ass and taking names in maternity gear. They might just be working their butts off at their jobs and/or taking care of their families, right up to the day of delivery. If they have issues with their pregnancies, then by all means, care for them. But do not assume that a pregnant woman is incapable. Nor should we always have to see her as such in our media.