How Hollywood Judges Its Childless Female Characters

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Mother’s Day prove Hollywood is not done with some damaging tropes.

If you are a childless-by-choice woman of a certain age (and that “certain age” can vary from culture to culture), you’ve probably put up with some judgment from your family, friends or even colleagues over the years, who often think (out loud) that you have chosen unwisely. You might even have experienced an amount of exasperating, active nagging by those who insist you should just grow up and procreate before it’s too late.

But it’s one thing to combat peer pressure and shrug off when your old grandmother innocently expects motherhood from you. It’s entirely another when supposedly liberal/nonconformist Hollywood overtly shames you for your choice (in year 2016), helps shape negative public opinion about childlessness and periodically reminds you the uphill, losing nature of your battle. There is nothing like being confronted in multiplexes by the unmistakable juxtaposition of pure and affectionate mothers against cold-hearted, devilish females: also known as career women who have no real purpose in life and are doomed to die alone, unless they hop on the baby bandwagon ASAP. Especially with “Mother’s Day” just around the corner.

Currently, two wide-release films are guilty of this kind of stereotyping. In the Cedric Nicolas-Troyan-directed The Huntsman: Winter’s War –the strange sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman– we watch a grieving mother’s rise to power as a ruthless, vengeful queen (Freya, played by Emily Blunt) after she loses her baby to a murderous plot of greed. Its structural and story-related issues aside –desperately suffering from lack of Snow White as a character and a convoluted time-stamp that makes it neither a prequel nor a sequel– The Huntsman: Winter’s War does wrong by abandoning the feminist undertones of its predecessor. While the first film worked as a scathing critique of ageism in a beauty and celebrity obsessed era and bestowed agency upon the dark fairy tale’s female characters, its follow up robs them out of it at once. Every female storyline of The Huntsman: Winter’s War –from Freya’s, her sister Ravenna’s (the vanity-obsessed character from the first film, played by Charlize Theron) to Sara’s (a female soldier in Freya’s army, played by Jessica Chastain)- is primarily shaped by a male figure. But that’s nothing compared to the film’s ultimate twist and crime, delivered in the end as a painful kick in the gut. When the once warm, loving and wide-eyed, but now icy (literally) and merciless Freya learns it was Ravenna who killed her baby (as she would grow up to be the “fairest of them all” according to the mirror on the wall), she confronts Ravenna, rights her own wrongs, and assumes an angelic visual image. Under heavenly light, she imagines reuniting with her baby. On the other hand, we watch the doomed Ravenna scream in contempt: She would have wanted love and a baby too. But she was destined for power and for bigger things. Those womanly pleasures were never in the cards for her. And in case anyone would foolishly miss the message on where power-hungry women belong: Ravenna bursts into flames and dies.

Whatever fame and fortune plans Ravenna had in her gothic world, Miranda (Julia Roberts) has contemporary versions of, in Garry Marshall’s atrocious Mother’s Day (the second film in the list of current offenders). It could be immensely less glamorous to be a jewelry designer and a TV personality than being a queen with a magical mirror, yet everything about Miranda’s commanding stance –from her flamboyant outfits to her dreadful wig that poorly channels Anna Wintour– suggests she is the kind of career woman that would happily abandon a loved one, ditch a baby and sell her soul to the devil (not all that different from Ravenna). As crazy as it is to take anything in Marshall’s end-to-end crass film seriously, the realization of Miranda’s back-story is worth considering in its insidiousness, as it is the film’s hardest to detect sin. She is positioned as incomplete, inapproachable and almost mechanical until she reunites with her daughter she has abandoned a long time ago to pursue her ambitions. In fact, we are not asked to feel much for her until we learn she had always suppressed her motherly feelings and she never really forgot about her daughter.

Like many sexist tropes, the juxtaposition of saintly mothers vs. evil/childless women is sadly a deeply rooted phenomenon in cinema, starting with the infamous, “ultimately-doomed femme fatale” archetype founded on principles that reject motherhood. Other examples through decades and across genres are a dime a dozen too, in which wholesome, sacrificing mothers are awarded with our appreciation (think Terms of Endearment), women who want to but can’t have babies draw our sympathies (think Up or Juno), but those who don’t procreate by choice are often erased from stories, punished/pitied in the end OR positioned as stone-cold, heartless and obsessive women UNLESS they miraculously end up with a baby (think Baby Boom or even the recent How to be Single). The childless woman is often a high-power intruder (think Barbara Stanwyck in There’s Always Tomorrow) or a motherhood-hungry, murderous threat as in Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Hollywood deems pregnancy as sacred, seldom imagines a world where a woman can be both a good mother and an ace career person, doesn’t want to pronounce abortion as an option even when there is no logical reason to have the baby (think Knocked Up) and figures, every woman –if she’s worthy or made of good stock– secretly wants to get pregnant.

None of us deny the beauty and selflessness of good motherhood. Many of us were raised by it and know first hand the hard work and unconditional love that goes into it. But is it too much to ask that we, the childless-by-choice, be no longer seen as in need of a moral makeover? Is it too much to ask that our rejection of motherhood be no longer portrayed as malicious and destructive? Can we all get along, without having to defend the validity of our life choices?

Maybe one day. But in year 2016, The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Mother’s Day suggest: not today.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.