Have you ever given birth in an elevator?
How about on your kitchen floor?
Or during a blizzard? A blackout? A flood? A fire? An unforeseen natural disaster?
Did you not know you were pregnant until you violently threw up and thought it was just the flu but you were wrong?
Did you go to the doctor for something else and to your great surprise the doctor told you that you were pregnant?
Did you have bizarre cravings during pregnancy? Demand sardines and ice cream at 2 a.m.?
Did you scream expletives at your significant other while you were in labor? Or was he or she not being there because their flight didn’t take off on time, or they were in a traffic jam or stuck in the blizzard, blackout, flood, fire, or natural disaster mentioned above?
Maybe some of you out there have experienced this. We know extreme circumstances happen in real life (just ask Seth Meyers’ wife, who gave birth in the lobby of their apartment building). But television loves a good cliché, and pregnancy is the good one that never stops giving. There’s so much natural, innate drama in pregnancy and the desire to become pregnant that too often TV writers hit the same themes and notes on an endless closed circuit loop.
And pregnancy is everywhere on TV these days. Police officer Nyla Harper (Mekia Cox) found out she was pregnant on The Rookie after she had to go to the ER while being injured on the job. Trying to get pregnant was pretty much the only storyline for Karen Pittman’s Dr. Nya Wallace on And Just Like That. Jennifer 1 (Tiya Sircar) and Jennifer 2 (Ayden Mayeri) are very smug and self-satisfied with their pregnancies in The Afterparty. Jessica (Carra Patterson) is months away from delivering when Turner & Hooch begins. Brittney (Anna Grace Barlow) found out she was pregnant after she threw up right before her big performance on The Big Leap.
Inventing Anna, the new Netflix drama from Shonda Rhimes about con artist Anna Delvey (Julia Garner), leans hard into one of the pregnancy’s most familiar tropes: Can a woman balance a career with being a mom? Does she have to sacrifice one for the other? Journalist Vivian (Anna Chlumsky) races to finish her investigative story before giving birth to her first child with her husband Jack (Anders Holm). Each installment of the nine episode series begins with a version of “This whole story is completely true except for all the parts that are totally made up.” But interestingly unlike Anna, her friend Rachel (Katie Lowes), her hotel concierge/ friend Neff (Alexis Floyd), her trainer Kacy Duke (Laverne Cox), and her lawyer Todd Spodek (Arian Moayed), Vivian is based on but not named after her real-life counterpart. Jessica Pressler wrote “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York’s Party People” for New York magazine, the story on which the show is based. But the character named Vivian Kent writes for (to use the show’s words, “totally made up”) Manhattan magazine. Apparently like Kent, Pressler was pregnant while writing and investigating the story on the fake German heiress. But why did Inventing Anna feel the need to add this extra layer? There was enough inherent drama in Vivian piecing together Anna’s intricate deception without the addition of her dodging the realities of her pregnancy.
Inventing Anna sets up Vivian’s pregnancy as an almost binary choice: She can be a mom or she can be a journalist. The show struggles with the concept that she could be both. While of course the birth of a child sets up a natural, innate deadline, the series’ view on Vivian’s pregnancy is odd. She turns the baby’s nursery into her research space hanging pictures, timelines, and clues on the walls. She ignores her doctor’s advice about taking it easy days before her baby is due. “Engaged? Engaged in what? That’s not serious. That’s not married,” Vivian says after her doctor tells her the baby’s head is engaged. That seems to me like someone unable to deal with impending reality, not a woman we should champion for getting the job done.
Her husband is mortified that Vivian wants to return to the office after leaving said doctor’s appointment. “Vivian, this is not a drill. We are at zero dark baby and we’re not even ready… We have no diapers,” he tells her. “People have babies every day. People squat in fields. We are not special… I need to get this story out of my head and onto the page. I need to get this done. I need to finish. I need to have this baby knowing that I kicked ass and won,” she tells him. She can’t kick ass and win after she has a baby?
The eighth episode begins with Vivian and Jack looking down on something declaring it to be beautiful while a baby coos in the background. They are, of course, looking at Vivian’s article.
Pregnancy clichés are woven throughout the narrative. Anna’s lawyer helps Vivian with what appears to be sciatica. Her water breaks while she is writing the story at the office. “No, no, no.” Vivian gasps. Two months after giving birth, Vivian heads to Germany to further investigate Anna. Once again her husband is duly horrified. Vivian says all the right things (“I hate when I’m not in the same room as her. I can’t imagine being on a different continent”) but she doesn’t seem to really mean them. She seems to have more maternal instincts towards Anna who drolly tells her she’s lost weight after Vivian delivers. While in Germany, her breasts leak as she tracks down Anna’s parents and visits Anna’s school.
It plays again into this whole tiresome “can women have it all?” narrative that exists in society and in our media. The honest answer is no one can have it all (however you define the ever elusive all), but it’s interesting that the show chose to show Vivian’s pregnancy as an obstacle she must overcome. There’s no right or wrong answer as to whether it’s okay for a mom to leave her baby two months after giving birth (people do and don’t do that all the time), but the show seems to imply Vivian is making the better choice.
I’m so ready for TV to move on from all its pregnancy clichés. Pregnancy isn’t a prop, an obstacle, or a joke. It’s time for TV to give birth to a new way of telling these stories.
All nine episodes of Inventing Anna are currently streaming on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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