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Critic’s Notebook: The tyranny of maternity on TV

"Jane the Virgin," pictured, opened Monday on the CW with a young woman so determined to avoid an unplanned pregnancy that she has remained a virgin into her 20s.
“Jane the Virgin,” pictured, opened Monday on the CW with a young woman so determined to avoid an unplanned pregnancy that she has remained a virgin into her 20s.
(Greg Gayne / The CW)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

The two series could not be more different. “Homeland” is the once-exalted then much-criticized Showtime political thriller rebooting its fourth season to wary and conditional praise. “Jane the Virgin” is a highly anticipated CW comedy, with magical realism top-notes and a very high buzz factor.

Yet they share a troubling and unexpected theme: Socially Enforced Motherhood.

Despite their contrasting tone, form and intent, both shows insist that, deep down, every woman wants a child no matter the conditions, even when the woman in question has made it very clear that she does not feel this way at all.

In “Homeland,” main character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) got pregnant last season as a result of her affair with soldier-turned-terrorist-turned-soldier Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis). That a CIA agent who was treating her bipolar mania with drugs and electroshock wouldn’t use birth control is certainly a questionable plot twist, but these things happen.

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For months, she denied the existence of the pregnancy, and then did not abort due mostly to psychological inertia and the writers’ need for her to have something nice to tell Brody just before his death. But Carrie never wanted the baby and, in fact, planned to put him or her up for adoption, a decision that shocked her sister, who then convinced her not to do this.

The same sister who, at the opening of Season 4, expressed intense frustration over the fact that Carrie still doesn’t want to be a mother. “You bring a child into this world, you take responsibility,” she says in the premiere, referring to the child Carrie, you know, wanted to put up for adoption. “There isn’t even a diagnosis for what’s wrong with you,” she adds, when Carrie fails to bond with baby Franny.

Yes, there is, it’s called Not Wanting to Have a Child. Something that might have been synonymous with insanity during the Inquisition but should not be so now.

Not that anyone told the writers, who could not resist throwing in a tempest-provoking scene in which Carrie contemplated drowning the baby. See? Insane.

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“Jane the Virgin” opened Monday on the CW with a young woman so determined to avoid an unplanned pregnancy that she has remained a virgin into her 20s. At which point she is accidentally impregnated by a relationship-preoccupied OB/GYN! Hahahahahaha. A pregnant virgin!

So funny. Almost as funny as the social and personal fallout of actual “accidents” at fertility clinics, which dominate the news even as “Jane the Virgin” premiered.

But it’s OK because the show is based on a popular telenovela, which means billboards wink and TV characters come to life, so all those humor-challenged feminists can just back off: This is just a “fairy tale,” and we know fairy tales have never been used to dictate social mores or control behavior.

Jane must decide to have this baby because otherwise there is no show. So this tragic accident/instance of heinous medical malpractice is presented as a Huge Gift, a corrective to her previous plan of, you know, establishing a career and generally controlling her own life.

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No, no, Jane, you must take what the crazy but wise comedic universe hands you. Being herself the result of an unplanned pregnancy, Jane certainly could not think of demanding the morning-after pill, never mind an abortion. It would be like aborting herself!

Especially since it turns out she knows the “father,” a young man in a loveless marriage on whom she once had a crush. If that weren’t queasy enough — accidental impregnation as meet-cute! Why has no one thought of it before? — he has been rendered sterile by chemotherapy. Which means the cells dividing within Jane are his only chance at having a Child of His Own.

There are so many things wrong with this scenario, it’s hard to know where to begin.

First of all, when did adoption become an evil to be avoided at all costs? (“Dear Adopted Kids: Sorry! Love, TV.”) Second, when did having a child under any circumstance become the most important and precious thing a woman could do?

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Everyone needs to take a moment and reread Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And then someone should probably make it into a miniseries.

It’s unfair to call out just “Homeland” and “Jane the Virgin” — they don’t exist in a vacuum. This summer’s “Extant” was a very disturbing woman-as-vessel tale, and it came on the heels of a “Rosemary’s Baby” remake. In each story, maternal instinct dutifully trumped all, including rape by an alien and Satan himself!

A mother myself, I understand ... wait, you know what? Never mind. The fact that I feel the need to use my own choices to establish legitimacy just proves my point. In a world teeming with overpopulation issues, too many of us still view women who don’t want to have children as broken and/or misguided.

They must hate children, have experienced great trauma or be irredeemably selfish; the best-case scenario is that they’re just not aware of how Truly Transcendent parenthood is and What They Will Miss if they don’t experience it themselves. (The male version of the Socially Enforced Motherhood, currently playing in “About a Boy” and “St. Vincent,” follows a selfish meanie’s transformative relationship with a child. Because that’s what children are for: to teach adults how to love.)

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Either way, the idea that a woman might just not want to have children, this minute or at all, simply does not compute. In too many of the stories we tell ourselves, motherhood, parenthood, is what makes us whole. Because no child has ever experienced abuse, or neglect or abandonment, no child has had to live with a parent or parents ill-equipped for or disinterested in parenting.

Nope, people may say they don’t want to be parents, but they don’t really mean it.

Just ask Carrie and Jane.

Follow me on Twitter @marymacTV

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