By Laura LaVoie
I know this joke. Want to hear it? The punchline is predictable, but it isn’t actually funny. Here goes…
How does television like to show growth and personal development for female characters?
This post contains spoilers for multiple shows. Stop now if you’re not caught up on the most recent seasons of:
- Gilmore Girls
- The Big Bang Theory
- Parks and Recreation
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
- Bojack Horseman
Okay. You have been sufficiently warned.
Do you know the answer to the “joke” above? Oh, yeah, you probably guessed it. Apparently, the preferred technique to show how a female TV character is maturing as a human being is to get them pregnant.
In the final season of Girls on HBO, Lena Dunham’s autobiographical-esque character, Hannah, finds out that she is pregnant after a fling with a “water ski instructor.” (He was actually a surfing instructor, but that’s the joke. That she doesn’t even remember what he did for a living.)
And, while the series hasn’t ended yet at the time of this writing, so far the producers are skewing the pregnancy as a way for Hannah to finally, after all these years, reach some level of maturity.
I have written here before about The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation. Both shows established female characters who appeared to be non-maternal. In fact, they stated it. And both shows demonstrated with their story lines that they eventually came around to the idea of motherhood too. You know, like normal women.
But, it isn’t all about the babies.
I have also written here about Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. This animated show handled an abortion story line well; better than many networks do. I was also pleased with the story line of The CW’s musical comedy, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. On that show, the main supporting character, Paula, isn’t childfree. In fact, she’s already a Mom to two. Just as she decides to enroll in law school, she learns she’s pregnant. Rather than having the child, she and her spouse decide on abortion. In a show that is typically absurd in its storytelling, they handled this very well. It wasn’t a drawn out, overwrought decision. It was just the right thing for Paula to do as a mature woman.
Why can’t we have more of that kind of maturity in women on TV? Not specifically the abortions, though it is refreshing to see a situation portrayed this way on network TV. But, instead, why aren’t women shown as developing when they decide to pursue higher education. Or start their own business. Or make all kinds of smart choices for their own lives. Even the classic working-girl sitcom Murphy Brown fell into the baby trap back in the 1990s.
In a culture where babies on shows is universally considered “Jumping the Shark,” television writers return to this well over and over again, even the edgiest Lena Dunhams of the world. While there is still time for Hannah on Girls to figure this out for herself, it doesn’t bode well for the long term use of this overused trope.