The Childfree Effigy: On Network’s Diana and the Tropes That Betray Women
“The world must think women without children, like me, sob through breakfast, bed three men after lunch, or pulverize lives for fun.”
After watching thousands of films, I’ve concluded that the world must think women without children, like me, sob through breakfast, bed three men after lunch, or pulverize lives for fun like Faye Dunaway does in Network. But, fortunately or unfortunately, real life doesn’t imitate art—and art doesn’t imitate life, even as the cultural and now governmental response to women choosing to be mothers or not is rapidly evolving.
During my long tenure working at Netflix, I often thought about the chasm between reality and fiction in relation to my not wanting kids. And then I encountered Network’s Diana, a character who’s represented so many of us selfish little rapscallions since 1976. She produced TV, not kids; reimagined workplace gender balance; and predicted the American working woman’s experience: having to answer to everyone about where her kids are. I didn’t think I’d ever write about not having kids because I don’t care about not having kids, not even when I was married for 17 years. But conflating the choice to skip motherhood with some type of corruption intrigued me enough to write about it—specifically the conflation’s endurance.
Of course, not being a parent is influenced by socioeconomic, sociopolitical, racial, ethnographic, and religious factors, and is bound to health, age, sexuality, and market mechanisms. It’s long been associated with deficiency; innumerable are the films wherein an aging husband leaves his aging wife for a younger (fertile, aka desirable) woman, such as in An Unmarried Woman or The First Wives Club.
The “family imperative” is oftentimes centered on exclusion and contributes to significant stigma: in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, childless Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) raids a mother’s life, and while cinematically thrilling, we are led to believe that murdering to get a family is better than being alone. In By the Sea, Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) is nearly catatonic in response to her infertility; no alternative possibilities appear to exist for her life. Her pain shouldn’t be discounted—these stories are important to tell—but in the serration, the portrait reinforces that she is serrated, singularly, because of her inability to bear children. The most problematic line comes from her husband: “You’re barren, and I love you anyway.”
We can declare infertility as ultimate failure a yesteryear mentality, but we have scant films today representing women who are unable to have children and—not but—living full lives. Such representation is culturally significant: in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, literary critic Lee Edelman writes that “a major influence upon that social construction of infertility and art is the ideology of pronatalism that imbues contemporary American culture with an inherent drive to view childbearing… as of utmost importance in all realms of life.” He adds, “Analysis of representations [in film and television] is essential not because these images are authentic or factual depictions of the infertility experience, but because they are not.”
Globally, women without children have been reductively associated with disobedience, ennui and loneliness, baby hating, incompetence, the demimonde, and more. Film reinforces these myths and even creates them. We’ve seen countless onscreen non-mothers where the topic of procreation doesn’t arise, from Lady Lou (Mae West) in She Done Him Wrong to Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) in Don’t Look Up; however, when the lack of children is addressed, it’s usually done so pejoratively and with seemingly endless tropes. “I don’t want a kid”—with or without an explanation—is rarely said on screen by a woman. Millennials say it all the time.“I don’t want a kid” is rarely said on screen by a woman. Millennials say it all the time.
Network’s Diana is emblematic of the modern childfree woman emerging in mainstream cinema, and her domestic status is purposely made inseparable from her diabolical portrayal. The story begins with anchorman Howard (Peter Finch) discovering he’s on the outs at UBS Television. He freaks out on live television, and without flinching, Diana convinces producer Max (William Holden) to ramp up intense programming that exploits Howard’s failing mental health.
Married to the stereotypical Frigid Wife, Max is enamored with younger Diana’s freedom and self-possession, but their inevitable affair fails to fulfill his fantasies of converting her passion for ascendency into passion for him (“You need me badly! I’m your last contact with human reality!”), nor does it cure her self-identified father complex, her rationale for being so spiky. “The simple fact is you’re a family man, Max,” Diana says. “You like a home and kids, and that’s beautiful. But I’m incapable of any such commitment.” Max, in a moment of anagnorisis, responds, “You are…indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.” Diana never presents herself as the “marrying kind” or the “motherly kind,” and while this is absolutely why Max fell for her, he ultimately uses it against her.
Diana’s power-maneuvering, “childfree woman as evil” trope fulfillment can also be explained simply as confidence. While the emotional carnage she inflicts is part of the film’s intended satire, she’s venerated for her anomalous entitlement and applauded for besting a bunch of men. Internal grisliness juxtaposes external beauty. Director Sidney Lumet knew exactly what he was doing: his Oscar-winning film is parody as prophesy, with a main character who contextualizes a different kind of women’s labor.
In life, the childfree woman has historically courted various reactions to her state, from curiosity (is she planning to have children, and when, where, with whom?), sympathy (what happened?), and pity (my children thank me for not having them), to fear (she’ll never have meaning, what then? guess I’ll go die in a ditch), concern (what does her family think?), envy (imagine all that sleep and extra money), and clairvoyance (“you’ll change your mind”). Childfree tropes in films abound: the Gold Digger in The Gold Diggers, the Must Get Married in Every Girl Should Get Married, the Nitwit in The Seven Year Itch, and the Call Girl in BUtterfield 8.
The mainstream Western cineplex has always made pictures for white, cisgender audiences, and debasement of women without children is discernible in clichéd portraits that increased in the 1970s and beyond, including but not limited to the Defensive Headcase in Images, the Inept Widow in Private Benjamin, the Femme Fatale in Basic Instinct, the Lonely Lunatic in Misery, the Walking Biological Clock Emergency in My Cousin Vinny, the Self-Absorbed Writer in Let Them All Talk alongside the Tearful Left Behind, the Drunk in Young Adult—not to be confused with the Mess in Blue Jasmine—and the Abandoned Wife Whose Life Falls Apart When the Ex Has a Baby With the New Wife in The Girl on the Train. Much of the time, we see scripts entrenched in binary thinking. Which is it: ingénues or wrecked ingénues?How might women benefit if onscreen representation catches up to what’s actually going on out here?
Filmmaker Therese Shechter charts the childfree experience in her 2021 documentary My So-Called Selfish Life. In a recent conversation, we discuss Knocked Up and how writer/director Judd Apatow never allows Alison (Katherine Heigl) to seriously consider, or even say, “abortion.” Instead, she’s given a logic-defying happily ever after with a stoner she doesn’t know. “The insidious message is that deep down, what a woman wants most is to become a mother,” Shechter tells me. “And it’ll be her greatest joy.”
In my own life, I’ve known several mothers who, feeling pressured, had children when they didn’t fully want them. One expressed resentment for oversold and underdelivered fulfillment and wished, with her eyes squeezed shut, exhausted, that she never had a family despite all her love—a rarely explored crux in film, which makes the pathos of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter feel forbidden in its honesty. For mothers, the expectations of self-sacrifice are reinforced by film, oftentimes within an irresoluble angel-versus-devil construct. The Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade is already shifting consciousness of motherhood preparedness; in the future, could we see films about compulsory births or women forced to ultimately sacrifice their lives?
In the name of entertainment, women of color frequently see their fictional representations of motherhood alongside stereotyped drug use, violence, and poverty (Moonlight, The Place Beyond the Pines). Queer mothers have barely any representation in film (The Kids Are All Right remains rare). Speciously screened tropes become distorted narratives about women’s psychosexual lives; historically, they’ve been written within a patriarchal framework designed and disseminated by men: male producers, male screenwriters, male directors. The majority of stories about women are not even by women. Cinema has been one long, fictive Men Explain Things to Me.
The tropes are only amplified when the possibility for a child has diminished or ended. Consider that Maude (Ruth Gordon) in Harold and Maude is one of only a few depictions in film history of a happy childfree older woman. For older Roberta (Candice Bergen) in Let Them All Talk, money substitutes for a child. Stay-at-home mom Jackie (Susan Sarandon) is positioned against childfree photographer Isabel (Julia Roberts) in Stepmom. Audiences are constantly conditioned to assess the quality of a woman’s mothering or potential-to-mother skills, and to judge how she balances family and career.
So, too, is a childfree woman’s sensuality relentlessly evaluated, and against arbitrary standards. Male heroes aren’t confined to overstating or suppressing an essential part of themselves as it relates to fatherhood. (We’re too busy swooning over Robert Redford’s brain in All the President’s Men to ask where his kids are.) This is where the “childfree woman as slut” trope plays on the archaic view that female sexual desire is linked to sin, weaponry, and motherhood fitness, à la the apogee of desperation, Alex (Glenn Close), in Fatal Attraction. Promiscuity is a convenient go-to as a child replacement.
Were it women directing 85 percent of Hollywood films today, how might that change the global perception of power, and even power itself? We know who benefits from owning a woman’s image. In the year Network premiered, Simone de Beauvoir said that it’s not for women to take power out of men’s hands; it’s about destroying the notion of power. How might women benefit if onscreen representation catches up to what’s actually going on out here?
Of all the films I’ve watched, one did change the trajectory of my life, and it wasn’t Network; it was Revolutionary Road. Based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, it tells of April Wheeler (Kate Winslet), who attempts to live out the ideals of others to devastating effect. I was in my early thirties when it debuted, and when the theater had emptied, I was holding both a gasp and a premonition because I believed my life could easily unfurl like April’s. Perhaps my maternal instinct told me to not be a mother. I don’t sob through breakfast because I don’t have a child, but I probably would if I did.
In Revolutionary Road, as in life, we see the harrowing consequences of shaming abortion. More than half a century ago, what Yates got right in deconstructing happiness was that connecting identity solely to a prescribed life is dangerous—yet women sometimes have no alternative, despite the undeniable desire for something, anything, different.
Today, a woman of color who doesn’t have biological children is vice president of the United States. More women than ever are doing whatever they want with their lives, like Diana, including finding joy and satisfaction in motherhood. They’re also having difficult motherhood experiences, forced motherhood experiences, or none at all. Rethinking family en masse has taken a sharp cultural turn, and film isn’t there yet. While the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusivity in Hollywood inhibits art’s ability to shift folkways and mores, we know the chasm between fiction and reality can change. It’s not selfish to desire this, to desire more.
This essay is an excerpt from a cited longform essay written for Columbia University.