Mini Object Lesson: The Pregnancy Test as Plot Device

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Night in the suburbs. Home late, Adam drops his jacket on the couch and informs his wife, Kristina, that he’s been fired. She tries to comfort him, but he retreats to the backyard to rummage the trash for his son’s missing retainer, an item he can’t afford to replace. Amidst rotting vegetables and soggy paper bags, he spies a white and purple stick. The camera lingers on a tiny blue plus sign and then pans to the second story window where his teenage daughter is talking on the phone.

Back inside, Adam declares his plan to kill the “little son-of-a-bitch” who “promised that he would use a condom.” Kristina follows, desperate to tamp his rage.

“Why can’t anything go right?” he yells. “Why can’t a single thing go right around here? . . . Our sixteen-year-old daughter is pregnant!”

“It’s me,” Kristina says calmly. “It’s me. It’s me.”

As a plot device, the pregnancy test provides endless opportunities for misinformation and dramatic comedy. While the previous scene, from the NBC series Parenthood, relies on an identity mix-up and escalating series of bad news, the gag has endless variations:

  • The woman who hates children finds out she’s knocked up.

  • Roommates take the tests together. The sticks get mixed up and an “almost virgin” assumes she’s expecting.

  • A boy takes a test on a dare.

  • The test’s packaging includes the warning: “May cause birth defects.”

Though pregnancy is a timeless source of narrative conflict, pregnancy tests on the screen are relatively new. Over-the-counter, take-home indicators didn’t hit the shelves until 1988. Before that, aside from obvious symptoms—missed periods and morning sickness—early verification was harder to come by. The 1927 A-Z test (named for inventors Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondak) involved injecting a woman’s urine into an immature mouse or rat. If the rodent went into heat, the woman was “in the family way.” In frogs and rabbits, the same procedure incited ovulation. While frog eggs are expelled from the body and easily visible, injected rabbits had to be cut open and inspected, a practice that gave rise to the euphemism “the rabbit died.”

When technology surrounding reproduction shifts, so do plots. Whether a character is “up the spout” is easily resolved, although responses to the news remain a source of drama. Newer innovations—surrogate parenting, hormone therapies, the likelihood of conception from two eggs—create opportunities for fresh narrative trouble. Appearing in the films Juno, Kill Bill II, Baby Mama, and Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason as well as in the TV shows Roseanne, Ellen, Friends, Sex and the City, The Simpsons, and Parks and Recreation, the pregnancy test is essential but tired—a trope and, increasingly, a joke.