Tropes vs. Women: #5 The Mystical Pregnancy

July 28, 2011

This is the fifth of a six part series created for Bitch Magazine. Tropes vs. Women explores the reoccurring stories, themes and representations of women in Hollywood films and TV shows.

The Mystical Pregnancy is a trope writers use to create drama and terror by invading, violating and exploiting women’s reproductive capabilities.  Often these female characters have their ovaries harvested by aliens or serve as human incubators for demon spawn.  Sometimes they are carrying the Messiah and other times Satan himself.

Special thanks to Laura Shapiro for her wealth of fannish knowledge and invaluable help with research on this video.

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** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.

Transcript

A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable attribute in a character that conveys information to the audience. A trope becomes a cliche when it’s overused. Sadly, some of these tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.

One thing I love about speculative fiction is its ability to explore difficult topics.  Because of it’s separation from our current timeframe, they can comment on socio-economic and cultural issues in really engaging and interesting ways. But one thing that I’ve learned from watching a lot of science fiction and fantasy television is you never, ever want to get pregnant on TV.

Yup.

Some of the our most celebrated female characters come out of the sci-fi genre but it’s not all sunshine and roses.  It’s common practice for Hollywood writers to have their female characters become pregnant at some point in their TV series.   These story lines are almost always built around women who have their ovaries harvested by aliens or serve as human incubators for demon spawn – basically the characters are reduced to their biological functions.

I’m sure you’ve seen this trope many times before.  Remember back in the mid 90’s on the X-Files when FBI Agent Dana Scully found herself abducted and forcibly impregnated – which, of course, later culminated in a hybrid human-alien child.  More recently on the second season of BSG, Starbuck had her ovaries harvested by the cylons in an attempt to create human-cylon embryos.

Then we have Gwen Cooper, co-star of the Doctor Who spin off Torchwood, who is bitten by an alien one night and the next morning she wakes up to find herself extremely pregnant with the aliens’ spawn.

This trope was inflicted on Cordelia from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin off show Angel… not once but twice! Vala in Stargate SG-1 is forcibly impregnated and she is made to birth a rapidly aging child thing.

Clip: Stargate SG-1 “Flesh and Blood”

Child “Hello Mother”

Vala “I heard that children grow up quickly but this is ridiculous”

Xena and Gabrielle both have baby troubles of the mystical variety at different times in Xena: Warrior Princess.  On the show Fringe, Olivia’s alternate reality doppleganger Faux-livia, finds herself at the center of a kidnapping conspiracy to accelerate her pregnancy in order to extract the blood of her newborn baby which will power a doomsday device.

Deanna Troi from Star Trek the Next Generation is perhaps the quintessential example of the mystical impregnation trope as her character’s body and mind are regularly occupied, borrowed, violated and invaded by alien beings. During Season 2 in the episode “The Child” Counsellor Troi is impregnated with a rapidly aging alien fetus by a flying ball of “space” energy.  Imagine finding out you’re pregnant, giving birth 36 hours later, raising the child within a day and then it dies, or in this case vanishes.  We don’t see Troi dealing with the long term emotional ramifications of such a traumatic event and the experience is never mentioned again throughout the series.

And my apologies in advance to my more religious viewers because we really can’t forget about the original Mystical Pregnancy narrative… The Immaculate Conception. As the story goes, an all powerful being descended from the heavens and impregnated a young woman with the Chosen One destined to save Earth and the souls of humanity.

Yup.

It’s almost an unwritten rule that at some point during a science fiction or fantasy show, the writers will inseminate their female leads with some sort of ghastly pregnancy experience.  The mystical pregnancy is one of the plot devices that I loathe the most because while other tropes represent women in stereotypical ways, this one hits us on a biological level.  Yes some of us are physically capable of having babies but no that does not mean you get to take advantage of, and abuse, that for the sake of your story.

Fanvidder, Laura Shapiro calls the Mystical Pregnancy a type of reproductive terrorism because it makes becoming pregnant seem disgusting, frightening and nightmarish.  Laura goes on to say, “The problem from my point of view is that pregnancy and birth are natural processes that are being distorted into torture porn, ways of punishing women and exploiting their terror to up the dramatic stakes.”

This trope can’t just be brushed off as “just entertainment.” Human beings since the beginnings of the verbal storytelling, used narratives to understand ourselves and the world around us. When we hear a story repeated enough times it can affect the way we think about reality. The Mystical Pregnancy is just another sexist narrative that exploits women for being “female”.

These stories are especially striking at this point in American history because women’s reproductive rights, which have always been threatened are currently under vicious attack by conservative and religious groups.  Some states are trying to pass legislation that will criminalize miscarriages or make abortion procedures so strict and complicated that it renders them nearly impossible. Planned Parenthood is even in danger of being defunded through direct ideological attacks on women’s ability to control what happens to their own bodies.

So, all you Hollywood writers, you should all feel real guilty right about now for continually using the tired old Mystical Pregnancy trope to violate and degrade women’s bodies on television.

I sincerely hope that after this lesson you will stop terrorizing female characters with the magical-demon-impregnation-from-space-story-lines.  You know, maybe you should just stop writing pregnancy altogether until you can do it with some respect and dignity and with the appropriate amount of emotional impact.

I’d love to see a show set in some dystopian future that deals with issues surrounding women’s reproductive rights as the core plot line, not just as some throwaway episode or for dramatic effect.

Pregnancy is not a “here one week, gone the next” kind of a thing, and it seems as though Hollywood might need to be reminded of that fact.

Now check out a clip of Laura Shapiro’s fanvid “Stay Awake” about the Mystical Pregnancy and be sure to click on the link so you can watch the whole thing.

Clip: “Stay Awake”

Music

“Though the world is fast asleep

Though your pillow’s soft and deep

You’re not sleepy as you seem

Stay awake, don’t nod and dream”

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45 Responses to “Tropes vs. Women: #5 The Mystical Pregnancy”

  1. On the plus side, there are some subversions of this trope. Most notable in my mind is the way Star Trek: Deep Space 9 handled the pregnancy of actress Nana Visitor. Her character was implanted with the fetus from another of the characters, and after she delivered she gave the baby back to his biological parents. They handled it tastefully and made sure to emphasize that she was dealing with some depression after parting with the child, and the story line didn’t just immediately disappear.

  2. ** Doctor Who Season 6 spoilers **

    I’d been thinking about this recently with the Amy pregnancy story in the most recent doctor who, so it was really interesting to see you pull it all together. As usual, you put into words all the things that were bothering me about it but that I couldn’t articulate!

    Just a nitpick though – the immaculate conception is the conception of Mary herself, meaning that she was born without original sin. Her conception of Jesus is the virginal conception. I’m not Catholic, but it’s a mistake that happens a lot so thought I’d point it out…

    Anita Reply:

    I was really nervous about the pregnancy storyline in the 6th season, but at least they didn’t put Amy through a terrorizing experience as far as we have seen… when we saw her, she was just going into what looked like natural child labour.

    epanalepsis Reply:

    Delurking to say that, personally, I found what Amy went through to be a *very* terrorizing experience. In seconds she went from not-pregnant and riding along in the TARDIS to going into labour in a small white cell. At the same time she found out that she’d been there all along, that the body she thought was hers *wasn’t* and that she’d been a captive this whole time.

    Don’t misunderstand me, though, I don’t think that Amy’s pregnancy and the horrifying experience was in any way cheaply done by the creators of DW (yet). We’ll have to see how it’s being handled in the coming episodes.

    Anita Reply:

    I totally agree, I thought about it some more after I posted that comment and it definitely counts as Mystical Pregnancy. Being locked away and having your mind trapped into a doppelganger is definitely torture.

  3. I am REALLY enjoying this series, along with your regular show. I wish that there was an abundance of you, via podcasts, webisodes, or articles, and it’s frustrating to have caught up so quickly only to be forced to wait for each new video (and, of course, I hate waiting).

    Your arguments and explanations are similarly concise and informative without being dull, your presence is inviting and good-natured despite the troubling topics you cover, and every single video or link you post is inspiring. I truly hope that there are people in your audience that will take to heart some of your recommendations or at least keep in mind the accusations you’ve made, hopefully for the betterment of humankind.

    My two cents are below but I wanted to do some praising first.

    At the very least, if a writer or two were to view this video in particular and decide to write a counterpoint episode of Show X, which leads to a character becoming pregnant either by choice or happenstance, and therefore the entire season is effected by their pregnancy, which either leads to (duh) a baby or termination (but, please, no “she/I lost the baby due to INSERT CALAMITOUS EVENT HERE” resolutions, there are enough of those), and the result became central to the following seasons, that would be amazing. Too often the baby is forcibly aged (Angel), removed from the show (Lost), or written as a MacGuffin (Secret Life of An American Teenager). Kind of…a modern day Lone Wolf and Cub. But with less of a rapist vibe.

  4. Why wasn’t Wesley Crusher impregnated instead? It *is* sci-fi, after all, isn’t it? :)

    Thanks for the transcript!

  5. Do some of those impregnating scenes look like rape to anyone else? Like the one with the woman strapped to the table? I was disturbed watching them. And I can’t believe that anyone would come out that experience with out being traumatized in any way. And why do aliens, demons, or other mystical creatures need human women to carry their children?
    On a related note, how do you feel about the tropes: Rape and revenge, rape as a back story, or rape as drama? I’ve noticed that in many horror movie rape scenes, the rape itself almost looks pornographic and sexy… I don’t think I’ve ever seen rape handled appropriately in stories.

    AbsoluteDestiny Reply:

    Some of the aren’t just “looks like rape”, some of them are rape. Cordelia is effectively date-raped by a guy, gets quickly pregnant and discovers on an ultra-sound that she has a dozen hideous demons wriggling inside her. The only thing that made it possible for me to endure the episode was that Cordy soon became possessed by the demons and wasn’t conscious of much of the trauma that followed and forgot about it when the day was inevitably saved. Doesn’t forgive the storyline, though, which is just gross and exploitative.

    And, of course, many of these pregnancies are against the will of the mother. So yeah. The ones that are consensual often exploit the mother by having a super-quick or accelerated pregnancy with the child stolen to appear later as a tv-worthy teenager or adult conveniently skipping the awkward nappies and puke stage. (This happens in Xena, Angel and has sorta kinda backwards happened in this current season of Dr Who).

    Amanda Reply:

    I recently rewatched ST:TNG, and I squirmed all the way through “The Child”. I turned to my partner and said “Troi was effectively raped, without consequences or psycological impact, do you realize that? And they called THIS first contact?!”

    I felt really sorry for Marina Sirtis and all the bullshit body shaming and misogyny she got put through during that show. Any episodes that require sexytimes? Troi is your FuckToy.

  6. I really liked this one, and it really is too bad that something as beautiful as motherhood is being perverted like this. The only consolation about the Virgin birth of Jesus is that Mary did agree to it.

    Rebekah o' Jaunty Dame Reply:

    Well, Gabriel didn’t present it as a choice. But Mary seemed fine with the idea.

  7. Although I haven’t seen/read it, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood is a sci-fi book/film about women in a dystopian future America forced to produce children for wealthy couples who can’t conceive, along the lines of Hagar in the book of Genesis. Although the film probably isn’t as good as the book, the whole storyline centres on women’s rights to their own body and the far-right’s attempts to remove them.

    Anita Reply:

    The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent book… sadly the movie is a pretty horrible rendition.

  8. Hey! Thank you for covering this trope. It always made me feel kind of uncomfortable/vulnerable.

    I saw this pattern in a metal video recently and did a mock narrative, though – a lot more clumsy in the delivery. http://feministheadbanger.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/ov-gender-and-the-narrative/

  9. [...] and the hatred of pregnant women Posted on July 31, 2011 by Cora Feminist Frequency has a video essay on the supernatural miracle pregnancy, which has to be one of my most hated fantasy and SF tropes ever. Careful, the video may be [...]

  10. [...] Porn: Alien Impregnation in Science Fiction.” The piece originally comes from Feminist Frequency: Conversations with Pop Culture. This feminist critique of aspects of speculative fiction brings [...]

  11. [...] Sarkeesian talks about the “mystical pregnancy trope,” especially in sci fi/fantasy, in which women are used for their reproductive capacity and [...]

  12. Star Trek: Voyager includes a reasonably positive depiction of pregnancy, in that Ensign Wildman’s pregnancy is desired, and although her child Naomi grows quicker than human children some aspects of parenting are explored in the show (perhaps not the nappy and puking stages). I can’t remember whether there were episodes involving the mystical pregnancy trope in the show (probably too much to ask that there be none), but it’s good that pregnancy and mothering are also portrayed in other ways. Voyager has its limitations but there is so much that it does right!

  13. [...] GA_googleAddAttr("author", "JamesFMcGrath"); ShareTheoFantastique and Political Jesus shared a video as well as some links related to a classic trope in both religion and sci-fi: the impregnation of a [...]

  14. You know what really ticks me off about the times Trek does this? “Unexpected.”

    That’s the episode where Trip Tucker, the male chief engineer, gets impregnated by an alien species through massively irresponsible pleasure-seeking on the alien’s part. It’s played for laughs. So when a woman gets mystically impregnated, it’s a source of terror, fear and nausea: when a male gets mystically impregnated, it’s a source of comedy, fun and frolics. I found that indescribably offensive.

    That said, not to get into a debate about reproductive rights, I think it’s simplistic to blame Hollywood for the shift towards anti-abortion, and more a result of massive cultural shifts towards the conservative in recent years. Suffice to say, I agree with your general opinion of these episodes being cheap and shorthand for a much more complex and long-term situation, though I think their growing frequency is more a reflection of changing attitudes, not a cause.

  15. THANK YOU. I was going “Yes yes, this YES!” during the Xena and Troi mentions (having been watching those shows recently). The handling of Lucy’s pregnancy in series 5 is the moment I can point to where the writer’s torpedoed the show. They took a fabulous feminist show and turned it into a Virgin Birth/biblical retelling. I can only think the networks chickened out, and had to deliberately Mom-ify an “angry feminist” *facepalm*

  16. Sorry to hijack, just thought of another very significant “Monster Birth” that was also a way to make a strong female character docile…

    Alien3.

  17. [...] her ongoing series at Feminist Frequency, “Tropes vs. Women”, Anita Sarkeesian explains the phenomenon of the mystical pregnancy that occurs so frequently in science fiction. Earthbound contraceptives are no match for [...]

  18. You know, I have a lot of friends that find pregnancy creepy because they don’t like the idea of something growing inside of them. Its fine if they do not want children themselves, but to go “ew gross” when someone announces they are pregnant I find a bit rude. I wonder if this trope has anything to do with this view as they do watch a lot of sci-fi

    And people are rude enough when you are pregnant with out these stupid plotlines. I’ve gotten comments like “OMG you’re going to get so huge!” “Ah you ruined your life!” “What about work?” “Your so young!” (Ah I’m 24!) “Don’t talk about your pregnancy it’s innappropriate!” Among others. Yeah you have people that are excited about your baby, but there always seems to be someone who has to be negative.

    Rebekah o' Jaunty Dame Reply:

    Rin, I wonder if the people who WROTE the sci-fi find pregnancy gross or unsettling, and that’s what inspired some of these stories.

    Rin Reply:

    I wonder that too. I think a lot are written my men who have the idea that “OMG pregnancy is horrible for women to go through, women hate it! Let’s make it much much more scary!” When really, yeah it can be a pain, but it is also very exciting for the couple. (if the pregnancy is wanted) And I always laugh when a TV show decides that the women still needs to have horrible morning sickness after the first triamester. Though I think a pregnancy plot line written by a women could be very funny in a sitcom because it could properly adress the emotions, annoyances, other people treating you like you are completely fragile, weird strangers that want to rub your belly.

    On an off topic note, I would like to see the media adress the serious subjects such as infertility, miscarriage and still birth. (Properly adressed, not an “oh no” after miscarriage or a thirty minute sitcom episode of infertility ending with the couple pregnant. I mean years of struggling with infertility) Those topics often considered taboo, and many people make unintentional rude comments to people that had to experience these situations.

  19. Also I find it terrible that in some states, a woman has to prove that she did nothing to cause her miscarriage. Especially when doctors are not always sure of the cause. I can’t imagine how traumatic it must be for a couple, who was excited about expecting a baby, and devastated by a miscarriage, to be blamed for causing the miscarriage.

  20. I love the series but I just wanted to clarify one thing. The Immaculate Conception doesn’t refer to Mary’s impregnation with Jesus but, rather, Mary’s mother’s impregnation with Mary. It’s a latter day Catholic explanation of how Mary could have been without sin when she was mystically implanted with Jesus.

    In any case, people often refer to Jesus as the “Immaculate Conception” but that term actually refers to Mary’s birth.

    Like I said above – I love this series and only wish that there were 10 of you so that we could have more.

  21. [...] movie themes depict women in very stereotypical and sexist ways. My favorite so far is about “The Mystical Pregnancy,” which is when “writers use to create drama and terror by invading, violating and [...]

  22. [...] video from Feminist Frequency. I think her argument loses focus towards the end, and generally needs more nuance, but is still [...]

  23. Just wanted to suggest that a trigger warning would have been useful as I was upset by a lot of the clips. I agree with a lot of the comments that a lot of these clips were pretty much rape scenes.

  24. … and of course, now that the Breaking Dawn trailer has come out, we have the awful Bella Swan mystical pregnancy. Bascially, the trailer reads as: Bella gets married, Bella has excruciating sex (the 1/2 second of that scene looks painful), Bella gets mystical pregnancy, Bella becomes damsel in distress from angry out-of-town wolves. :/

  25. Hi! I agree absolutely with the message of these videos, and I am glad that someone with your profile is taking on the issue of how offensive some tropes are to women.

    I was wondering if you could comment on your choice of Martha Jones out of all the DW companions in this clip? She’s my favourite reboot DW companion, but many people seem to dislike her. I was wondering her inclusion in your list of celebrated female characters – is she simply your favourite companion or are you alluding to her agency in DW, or something else? Thank you for taking the time to answer this, if you do. :)

  26. I have loved this series. The narrative conventions consistently employed by unoriginal writers frustrates the hell out of me, and your Tropes vs Women videos are educational and informative and presented so concisely. Thank you for your enlightening material and please DON’T STOP!

    I’d just like to make a point about, not just the writers, but the industry as a whole. Each component facilitates the next. The writers have impact with narrative construction, but the directors, cinematographers, editors, publicists, even the actresses themselves, have JUST as much responsibility for contributing to these stereotypical representations. Imagine the trouble it would cause if EVERY Hollywood actress chose to boycott roles that were detrimental to the representation of women?

    Of course, we live in the real world, where people like money, and there is always someone willing to sell out, but I just feel like people need to stand up and make changes!!! So good on you! YOU are making a difference!

  27. OT but I’ve been looking for feminist takedowns of the Final Fantasy series and if anyone has anything they could link to I’d be super grateful.

  28. One thing I really like about Martha Jones is that she’s an adult woman who knows her mind. It was a refreshing change of pace from Rose’s doe eyes (though, yes, Rose’s story made for great TV). I didn’t like how Rose was given the gift of a replacement lover in the end, as though that made everything ok.

    I like that Martha fell for the Doctor (who *wouldn’t* fall for his intelligence and energy?), but didn’t moon over him when she recognized that he wasn’t interested in her that way, and chose to leave and get on with her life rather than stick around. She did significant things with Torchwood, as I recall, and had to make hard choices about saving the world.

    I found Donna Noble grating in comparison, and the end of her story, while tragic for the Doctor, left a bad taste in my mouth because of how she was robbed of agency.

  29. [...] The Mystical Pregnancy – http://www.feministfrequency.com/2011/07/tropes-vs-women-5-the-mystical-pregnancy/ [...]

  30. [...] come across cliched and exploitative (as it involves pregnancy stuff… see this post on pregnancy porn). One is leaning toward being sci fi and centred around birth stuff again. There is another sci [...]

  31. [...] of The Feminist Frequency’s blog posts includes Tropes vs. Women: #5 The Mystical Pregnancy, which is a video post where Sarkeesian informs how the media is using TV shows to degrade women [...]

  32. [...] Mystical Pregnancy trope discussed on Feminist [...]

  33. I’ll start with the usual praise: I like your videos, and I think it’s a good idea to bring some feminist insights into circles outside of academia and radical politics.
    But I’m a little bit critical about this specific episode. Don’t get me wrong! This trope is offensive and oppressive, I agree on this!
    My opinion however is that you reificate gender/sex as a biological necessity. Now I guess that you know all the critique on gender/sex as a biological fact etc. etc. and simply dropped it, because it’s a difficult topic to present in a short video. Still I think it would have been crucial in context with this trope.

    I hope you got my point (especially since I’m not a native speaker). And once again, praise: Your videos on sexist tropes are a very decent introduction. I’m thinking of showing them to some of my friends.

  34. it’s frustrating that star trek can be so good most of the time and so wrong other times, especially when it comes to feminism. voyager has a female captain, a female head of engineering, and so many smart female characters. but then you get characters like Seska, or episodes like that one where Seven is basically told to feel guilty for indirectly causing the death of her assaulter. (I’ve never seen anything closer to rape apologism anywhere on television!)

    from the first episode I saw troi’s character, I knew it’d be bad, but that pregnancy episode really topped them all :p

  35. One thing you did NOT factor in your analysis is that the Mystical Pregnancy is often a way the writers of sci-fi show find to accommodate the REAL pregnancies of the actresses in such shows. It’s not something that they could scrape off altogether, as you suggest, without, you know, FIRING the actresses for being pregnant, which, as far as I’m concerned, would be far worse and far more sexist. Overall, I find this tropes x women commentary series to be really great (esp. for me, as an aspiring writer)! I just found out about and I’m watching all six in a row! =)

    Joshua Reply:

    I just found this web series and it is quite enjoyable. I had never heard of this trope, but I remembered many examples once it was defined. I also immediately remembered a EP’s commentary on SG:U where he was jokingly complaining about all the pregnancies that he had to deal with on all his shows. The disruption may lead to these storylines subconsciously or consciously as the actress has forced story choices on the writers. In sci-fy/fantasy the writers have an out that normal drama does not have; mystical pregnancy allows them to not have to choose a male cast member as the father.
    I was also wondering if there is anything like pregnancy that could force an alteration on the writer’s choices. Accidents/death are the only other things I can think of.

    I think my second comment is a little more controversial and I am not certain that I believe it, but I think it is worth mentioning/talking about. Genre fiction does this because they can. Rape of lead characters in normal TV drama is uncommon (at least that is what my memory thinks) and usually filled with controversy. As other difficult subjects are also approached in genre fiction, rape can by the magic of magic, be approached and tackled as a subject in the story in a stronger more powerful way. Obviously this can be done well and with care or done poorly, but should not be banned or ignored because it fits the mold of this trope.