Hollywood Still Doesn’t Know What to Make of Childless Women

Mary Queen of Scots promises heady feminism, but it endorses a pernicious idea: Whatever else she might achieve, a woman who is not a mother is to be pitied.

Focus Features

“I was jealous. Your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood. You seemed to surpass me in every way.”

That’s Elizabeth I, queen of England, meeting her cousin Mary I for the first and only time, in one of the climactic moments of the new movie Mary Queen of Scots. The scene is a strange one for several reasons, the first being its fanciful fabrication—the two queens, in reality, never met in person—but another being the film’s use of the imagined meeting as a chance to flip its own script. Mary, her throne and her life in jeopardy after one of the schemes against her finally proved effective, is asking her cousin for protection; she is begging for her life. And yet it is Elizabeth, in this scene as in so many others in the movie, who is presented as pitiable. The English monarch has a massive army and extensive political power, yes, but Mary is prettier. And Mary is a mother. And so: You seemed to surpass me in every way.

Mary Queen of Scots sells itself as an explicitly feminist film, grafting a 21st-century sensibility onto a 16th-century story. It features Mary uttering lines like “Many times you have said I cannot do what I have done.” It presents several scenes of the eponymous queen clad in armor, straddling a steed, leading her troops into battle. A little bit Brave, a little bit Braveheart: the red-haired Scot, tall and proud and inherently regal, carried through by her own steely strength. “BOW TO NO ONE,” the movie’s poster puts it.

Elizabeth, however, proves a complication to this historically flexible feminism. And she does that precisely through the confession she makes—of her own alleged inadequacy—to her fellow queen: your motherhood. Mary Queen of Scots is most immediately a political drama, loosely based on true events; on another level, though—a far more unsettling level—it is a film about pregnancy, and the way the fickle workings of human bodies can bend the course of history. Would either queen marry? Would either bear a child? You could read the film’s abiding interest in those questions as an empathetic exploration of the paradox that both queens, in life, really did navigate: Marry, and potentially gain an heir—but also risk being usurped by your husband; or remain single, avoiding the risk of usurpation … but ensuring the death of your dynasty. The personal is political, rendered in the most intimate, and consequential, of ways.

That reading, though, would be generous. What makes Mary Queen of Scots remarkable, as a specimen of the 21st century, is the moral judgment it layers onto the procreative demands of monarchy. Mary, the historical figure, married and had a child; Elizabeth, the historical figure, did neither. The film takes those blunt facts and finds pliant meaning in them, determining that each choice reveals something holistically true about who the queens were, as people. Historical accounts of Mary’s personality, given the weaponized rumors that swirled around her reign, conflict; here, though, Mary, who chose marriage and motherhood, is presented as warm and kind and nurturing and sexual and, above all, feminine. Elizabeth, meanwhile, the virgin queen? “I am more man than woman now,” she tells her cousin. “This world has made me so.”

In that sense, Mary Queen of Scots does deliver on its promise of modernity: It manages to tap into ongoing anxieties that lurk, still, just below the cheerful surface of things, around pregnancy and fertility and motherhood. Here is a movie that assumes its characters’ maternal status to be a reflection of their personalities, their political fitness, their overall characters—a movie that suggests, based on a loose reading of history, that motherhood is implicitly feminine and its absence is implicitly not. The film’s fusty castles echo with whispers of the ways the American culture of the current moment, so proud of its progress, comes to similar conclusions: The woman who is a mother is to be congratulated; the woman who is not is to be pitied.

At roughly the same time that Mary Queen of Scots began screening in theaters, the Slate podcast Decoder Ring released an episode exploring the phenomenon of “Sad Jen”: a tale, told in the tabloids but also in American pop culture more broadly, of the ongoing struggles of Jennifer Aniston. The sadness of Sad Jen, the story goes, is made manifest not in her long and successful career—there is very little tragedy to be mined in that—but rather in the quiet spaces of her personal life. Sad Jen is sad, the storytellers have concluded, because of Brad—and specifically because of Pitt’s relationship with Angelina Jolie, who would become a mother to six children. It wasn’t just the jilting that made Sad Jen sad, the tabloids’ tale went; it was the fact that, in his departure, Brad had robbed her of motherhood itself.

#TeamAniston, #TeamJolie, all the assumed animosities, all the manufactured jealousies: Add some corsets, and the whole thing looks a lot like the romanticized rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth. Here is the childless woman, her sadness assumed and insisted upon, her situation treated as a reason for sympathy but also as a cautionary tale. That Aniston has said, repeatedly, that her purported sadness is untrue—“We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child,” she wrote in an essay in 2016—has made no difference. Her protestations, in fact, have only fueled the myth: Poor Jen is so sad that she can’t even recognize her own sadness. (How sad.)

Sad Jen, as the meme’s subject knows all too well, is a stubborn tautology: The idea perseveres, Slate’s Willa Paskin posits in Decoder Ring, because readers, in fact, want Jen to be sad. They are invested in the maternal status of Jennifer Aniston because pregnancy, still, remains laden with symbolism and, with it, expectation. Aniston is powerful and rich and privileged in pretty much every way a person can be (her fame has been deemed so expansive, apparently, that she has been asked to serve as a spokesperson for water itself); the logic of Sad Jen, however, cares very little about any of that. It cares only about pregnancy. It treats her childlessness less as a choice she has made for herself—an option made available to her by technological advancement and political progress and the hard work of those who have insisted that bodily autonomy is the foundation of other kinds of freedom—and more as a loss that has been inflicted upon her. Potential, squandered. Darwin, snubbed. Femininity, unfulfilled. Sad.

Mary Queen of Scots, the plucky prestige drama, ends up amplifying those ideas: Its Elizabeth functions in large part as an avatar of maternal absence. Just after Mary gives birth to James—the son who would go on to inherit the thrones of both Scotland and England—the camera lingers on the Scottish queen, spent but proud, blood splattered before her splayed legs; the scene then cuts to Elizabeth, in her own cold court, her legs angled in a similar fashion, a craft project—flowers, folded of crimson paper—spread out between them. Empty artistry, the movie suggests, where a child might have been. At another point, Elizabeth sees a newborn foal, teetering on its spindly legs. She glances at her shadow on the ground. She billows her gown to give the shadow a swollen midsection. She gazes in quiet wonderment: the shape, once again, of things that will never be.

There’s so much more in this vein. Mary, empowered by motherhood; Elizabeth, lessened by its absence. The message is unmistakable and cutting. Mary Queen of Scots, over the course of its run time, portrays a beheading and a disemboweling and a strangulation and myriad other acts of gory violence; there was only one moment of the movie, however, that, in my screening, drew a gasp of horrified indignation from the audience. It was when Mary, speaking of Elizabeth, delivered this line: “I shall be the woman she is not. I shall produce an heir, unlike her barren self.”

It is worth asking why barren remains such a shocking rebuke. It is worth wondering why the phrase childless woman is considered, still, to have an aura of sadness, and why the phrase childless man barely exists at all. Earlier this year, the writer Glynnis MacNicol published a memoir, No One Tells You This, about the freedoms of being over 40, single, and childless. Some of the reviews of the book struck a subtly skeptical tone: She couldn’t really be happy. Won’t she regret it later? As MacNicol told The Washington Post: “We don’t understand how to talk about women’s lives as fulfilling unless we incorporate babies or weddings. [There are] no stories about women over the age of 40, really, where they aren’t primarily accessories in their own lives or support systems.”

That is changing. But it is changing very slowly. One of the shifts is coming from efforts, in pop culture and beyond, to emphasize motherhood as something that is, for all its wonders and joys, also a matter of practicality. Kate Pearson’s story line in the just-concluded third season of This Is Us—she and her husband, Toby, struggled with fertility, finally deciding to try IVF—treated pregnancy not as a soft miracle, but as a medical reality. Michelle Obama’s recently released memoir, Becoming, highlights similar struggles that the former first lady and her husband overcame: a revelation that will very likely help to eradicate long-standing taboos around discussions of fertility. Recent works of pop culture—Jane the Virgin, Better Things, I Feel Bad, Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife, and many others—have also found mordant humor in the quotidian challenges of parenting, demystifying both its hardships and its rewards. (The central incident referenced in the title of the Amazon show Catastrophe is, yep, an unplanned pregnancy.) And Hollywood has been newly illuminating the pitfalls of treating women as the sum of their reproductive capacities: There’s a reason The Handmaid’s Tale, the fiction of uncanny dystopia, has struck such a powerful cultural nerve.

But there the tabloids remain, fascinated with—capitalizing on—the pregnant bodies of famous women. Us Weekly, one of the more dignified of the group, features a collection, “bump watch,” whose sole purpose is the stalking and sharing of celebrity midriffs. (“Pregnant Emily Blunt, Chrissy Teigen, and Other Pregnant Stars Bring Bumps to Oscars,” the magazine reported a couple of years ago, treating the bumps in question as, effectively, fashion accessories.) A Google search for “meghan markle baby bump”—the Duchess of Sussex announced her pregnancy less than two months ago—currently yields 51,600,000 results. One of them is a slideshow from Hello! magazine, inviting viewers to “See How Meghan Markle’s Baby Bump Has Grown.”

The Da Vinci Code, in its own work of feminist revisionism, posited that the Holy Grail is in fact the preserved body of Mary Magdalene—specifically, her uterus, the chalice of legend made manifest. The womanly body, as a vessel waiting to be filled, as something by turns accommodating and incomplete—as something that, on some level, belongs to everyone: It’s an idea that carries on, in its way, in every supermarket tabloid that invites readers to join in its easy voyeurisms, and in every published picture of Meghan Markle’s midsection, and in every moment that finds a stranger touching a pregnant woman’s belly without her permission. It’s a notion that remains alive, as well, from the other side of things, every time a magazine or a sitcom or an Oscar-fodder historical drama sees a woman who is childless and assumes that she must be, fundamentally, Sad.

The other day, in the checkout aisle, I happened to see the latest issue of Star magazine. “Brad & Jen,” its cover lines went: “MEET OUR BABY!” The cover featured a copy of a sonogram, and a perfunctory picture of Pitt, and a quote: “‘We never gave up hope.’” Its focus, however, was a picture of Jennifer Aniston, clad in a dark dress with an A-line skirt, her right hand on her hip, her left hand grazing her stomach. In the photo the editors had selected to announce her alleged pregnancy on her behalf, Sad Jen looked, finally, Happy. She also looked unmistakably triumphant.