It’s no mind-blowing statement to say that genre films as a whole haven’t handled motherhood very well. If mothers aren’t absent altogether, they’re twisted into an antagonist in some sort or figured as a spectacle of failure. Lucy Fisher, in her book Cinematernity: Film, Motherhood, Genre, argues that “motherhood in the cinema has been a site of ‘crisis.’ In many films, the mother is blamed for her transgressions or for the ills she visits upon her offspring” (p. 30). Other writers, such as Hana Shafi, have taken particular genres to task for their antifeminist tropes: “motherhood is presented [in horror films] as inherently scary. These movies understand that even without blood, monsters, and ghosts, motherhood frightens us. We are afraid of the idea that a mother would do anything for her child—and as much as we encourage this self-sacrifice, we also tend to punish it. Mothers are shown as weak, desperate, extreme. Horror movies suggest that, if they could, mothers would do things like murder their son’s fellow campers to avenge his death. They would, in fact, do anything for their children, including becoming monsters themselves.”
Even sci fi and fantasy don’t quite escape this negative view of motherhood. Both Feminist Frequency and io9 have made videos about the “mystical pregnancy” trope, which is everywhere in genre films. Feminist Frequency takes the stance that the trope is a type of “biological terrorism,” where women are reduced to their biological functions, while io9 showcases some ways in which women become superheroes while pregnant (though their video does showcase how supernatural conception is usually non-consensual). It’s significant that io9 points out the ways in which this trope is evolving to give women more agency, but it’s also worth recognizing that overall, motherhood on screen isn’t always given a positive lens, and itself can be a way for “progressive” genres to perpetuate violence against women as a spectacle.
While such tropes have been well-dissected by other critics, I want to turn my attention to a related staple in genre films and tv that has recently been bothering me. I haven’t found a name of an existing trope that fits what I’m talking about (if you know it, please leave some resources in the comments!), but it’s basically this: a woman doesn’t know she is pregnant, and finds out because a male character recognizes the bodily signs or is able to read her body in such a way that he is the one to tell her before she is even suspicious. As a result, the pregnancy is made mystical in some way (even if not literal), and/or the male character is elevated to some kind of prestige because he knows a woman’s body better than the woman herself.
This trope has especially bothered me in geek circles because it elevates already-overhyped male characters. It also reduces women to be passive incubators, in a way – they aren’t acutely aware enough of their own bodies to recognize when they are pregnant, or if it’s too early to realistically know, their agency in knowing their own bodies is removed in favor of showcasing how perceptive a male character is. To illustrate, I’ll look at instances such as Sherlock season 3, Hellboy, and Torchwood before turning to more positive examples like season 2 of Wynonna Earp.