Child-Free in the Media

My wife and I are a child-free couple and we’re happily and confidently content with our decision.  We like our friends kids, enjoy our nieces and nephews, I work in education, and in addition to her job as an ecologist she does volunteer work at a local nature center that often includes teaching children.  While we enjoy the financial benefits and free time that comes with a child-free lifestyle, we do not dislike children nor are we secretly pining for children of our own.  We are secure in our decisions knowing who we are and what is best for us.

What is fascinating to me is that we can’t seem to find examples of secure, content, and kind child-free people in entertainment media.  If we were to judge our lifestyles against what is available on the television we would certainly think ourselves an aberration.

What about all of the confirmed bachelors that populate action films and science fiction?  James Bond never had kids, neither does Captain Picard.  True, but they live lifestyles that simply prohibit families.  I’m talking here about characters that pursue or have meaningful relationships and do not fit into one of two stereotypes:

  1. Children Haters:  These characters feed the narrative that “people without children don’t like kids”.  I would also clump characters who are incredibly selfish into this category.
  2. Childless and Regretting It:  In other words “anyone without kids must be infertile and therefore goes home to cry about how empty their lives are.”

Here are a few examples I have noticed recently (contains a few very minor spoilers):

Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz on “The Big Bang Theory“: In the episode “The Shiny Trinket Maneuver” discusses her feelings about wanting to be child-free but then seems to give in to Wolowitz at the end of the episode, provided that he stays home with the kids.  This seems to turn a child-free character into a mere gender role reversal.  However, she too is hostile to children thus her hesitation to procreate is based upon the dislike of children.

Robin Scherbatsky on “How I Met Your Mother” was proudly child-free, but not inherently hostile to children.  She seemed like a good example of someone who was merely comfortable in the fact that they don’t want children.  Unfortunately, the writers ruined this by having it revealed that she is unable to have children, which feeds the annoying stereo type that the only people without children are those who can’t have them.

House of Cards” main character Frank Underwood openly dislikes children, he’s not exactly a stereotype busting character.  However, his wife Claire, while showing some pangs of regret over her decision not to have children with Frank, is kind to the children of Peter Russo.   She shows kindness while maintaining that she does not want children because it wasn’t for her.  Claire was the closest thing I have seen to a sensible child free character.  However, in the final episode of Season 1 she is seen in a fertility clinic to inquiring about her chances for having a child.  This change of character feeds the belief that even those who appear to be content with the child-free decision are secretly regretting it.  What compounds the stereotype is that Claire has her moment of regret after being confronted by a woman who derives her self-righteousness from being pregnant.  Suddenly awash with self-doubt Claire asks Frank if what they were doing with their lives was “for” anything.  (Implying that the only thing that makes a person’s life work worth something is if they procreate.)  Unfortunately, neither Claire nor Frank Underwood are exactly role models of a moral lifestyle, but I had hoped that she could at least exemplify a person being well adjusted when it comes to the child-free option.

I do not dislike these shows in fact they are all my guilty pleasures (man cannot live on Frontline and Nova alone!).  But it would be nice to see a few child-free by choice characters begin to emerge somewhere that are not excessively shallow and selfish and who like children.  I’m sure that someone who is a more devoted fan of the aforementioned shows could probably find nuances of plot or dialogue  that would diminish the value of my examples, but I feel they generally serve to support my case.

I do not know why the stereotypes of child-free people persist, maybe it’s just a tool for lazy writers to create drama and character conflict.  But when my wife and I sit down to watch TV we do not tend to watch shows about ‘busy families’ and we are finding that shows about single people in their 20s “looking for relationships” is starting to wear thin.  Those shows invariably have one of the main characters get pregnant and then gush about how life was so meaningless beforehand.

I would argue that advertisers and entertainment producers would be rewarded for embracing this key demographic.  A 2011 study by the Center for Work-Life Policy discovered that 43% of Generation X Women are childless (or child free) and that Generation X men and women are displaying a substantially increased preference for the child-free lifestyle.  Often these people have more disposable income and advanced levels of education, which may be prized by advertisers.

I have little faith in modern entertainment media’s willingness to take chances with challenging stereotypes just to do the right thing.  There is, however, cause for substantial faith in the fact that the desire to appeal to an audience with money to spend might just encourage the portrayal of more well-adjusted child-free characters.

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