Infertility on Screen: Does Television’s Portrayal of Infertility Help or Hurt?
Television has come a long way since Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were the first to show a pregnancy on screen. “Being the Ricardos” on Amazon Prime showed the audacity of that decision in the 1950s. Showing someone was pregnant was taboo, but mentioning infertility in TV shows or movies was even more forbidden.
Portrayals of infertility as a plot point have become more common as broadcast, cable, and streaming media have grown more open to displaying intimate issues, allowing audiences to be exposed to topics they may not otherwise be familiar with. However, these storylines can stray from the real experiences faced by those struggling with infertility, which begs the question: does portraying infertility on television help or hurt people struggling to conceive?
Showing popular characters struggling to get pregnant can help reduce the shame and stigma associated with infertility, which can make it less of a taboo subject and lead to greater societal understanding. Seeing Kate and Toby suffer a miscarriage and experience fertility issues on “This Is Us” provided viewers an intimate look into the difficulties that many experience when trying to have children. Viewers who have not experienced infertility themselves were given the opportunity to better understand the complications, while many others may have been able to relate to the experience portrayed by this popular TV show. In fact, presenting details about a character’s infertility problems can increase public awareness of specific issues, such as Kate’s PCOS and obesity and how they affect her fertility. Additionally, Toby’s low sperm count highlighted male factor infertility, challenging the common narrative that infertility is solely a “women’s issue” while simultaneously increasing awareness about the condition on a national platform.
“Parenthood,” another popular TV show, featured secondary infertility as a plot line when Julia and Joel were unable to have a second child. This show accurately and movingly portrayed how Julia felt her body was “broken” and how infertility impacted their marriage. Additionally, “Master of None” featured an accurate depiction of a same-sex female couple pursuing IVF, which even included the “diagnosis of infertility” caveat that makes access to insurance coverage difficult for many same-sex couples undergoing fertility treatment.
One of the earlier series to include infertility is “Sex and the City,” which featured both Charlotte and Miranda’s experiences with fertility problems. While Miranda ended up becoming pregnant despite low odds, Charlotte continued to struggle and hid her feelings of inadequacy from her friends. Eventually, Charlotte became more open about her difficulties conceiving, as well as the emotional toll it took on her, and ultimately chose to build her family through adoption. By portraying Charlotte’s experience juxtaposed to Miranda’s, the series demonstrated to millions of viewers that family building can be a unique and unpredictable journey for many.
Despite the benefits of bringing awareness to infertility, TV shows can often portray inaccuracies to better serve the characters and plot lines. One of the most pervasive misconceptions is the “miracle baby,” when the character fails to get pregnant, “gives up” and moves on to adoption—only to miraculously get pregnant and carry a child to term. This plot line occurs on many TV shows, including “Parenthood” and “Sex and the City.”
Shortening the process of fertility treatment to better support the plot is also common. On “This Is Us,” Kate got pregnant with her first IVF cycle, whereas most women need two to three IVF cycles to successfully get pregnant. Simplifying the reality of infertility and fertility treatment may be effective for a convenient storyline, but it can perpetuate false hope and misinformation amongst viewers.
TV shows have significantly improved their portrayals of infertility over the last few decades. However, there are opportunities for more accuracy and more inclusive representation, especially concerning topics such as miscarriage, LGBTQ+ family building, and male infertility. When these experiences are presented thoughtfully on television, those who are struggling to build a family may feel “seen” and find comfort in relating to the plot, while those who are unfamiliar with these topics can gain a better understanding of infertility. By portraying these narratives accurately, conversations surrounding family building can evolve, creating opportunities for education and awareness, which can ultimately benefit everyone.
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