In Alfred Hitchcock’s world, blonde women were overwhelmingly rich, entitled, and cold. But for a stretch during the late ’80s and early ’90s, they were rich, entitled, cold, and struggling with fertility issues.
Case in point: Rebecca De Mornay’s villainous nanny Peyton “Flanders” Mott in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which was released 25 years ago today. The Curtis Hanson film begins with Mott’s doctor husband molesting his pregnant patient, Claire (Annabella Sciorra). She later files a complaint, exposing Dr. Mott’s sordid history of sexually abusing the women under his medical care. He reacts by fatally shooting himself, at which point his widow (De Mornay), herself pregnant, is informed that the couple’s assets have been frozen and her home is gone.
It’s a major blow and causes Peyton to pass out and go into early labor. She loses the baby, and an emergency hysterectomy is performed — ensuring she’ll never get the chance to give birth in the future. Claire, meanwhile, delivers a healthy little boy and goes home to her husband, their older daughter, and a fancy greenhouse that is just begging to come shattering down on a dear friend.
Peyton’s experience is tragic, but she chooses to channel her victimhood into villainy: She’s now the crazed, barren woman who worms her way into Claire’s home as the seemingly perfect nanny. She pits Claire’s daughter, Emma, against her. She taunts the handyman, Solomon, who has learning disabilities. She uses her breastmilk to nurse Claire’s baby. She does everything she can to undermine and upset Claire’s domestic bliss — ultimately resorting to both murder and the violation of one of the most sacred bonds motherhood offers.
She’s not the only villain of this particular ilk. One could easily imagine Peyton commiserating over cocktails with Alex Forrest, the bunny-boiling mistress played by Glenn Close in 1987’s Fatal Attraction. Alex isn’t infertile; she becomes pregnant — or claims to, anyway — by her married lover, Dan (Michael Douglas), but makes it clear that her age and past miscarriage are important factors for wanting to keep the baby. And while terrorizing the guy’s family was an unhealthy reaction to rejection, it’s not hard to feel the urge to throttle Dan yourself while watching the scene in which Alex breaks it to him that she’s pregnant.
“You don’t, uh…?” Dan asks, referencing birth control, conveniently glossing over his inability to procure condoms.
“Use anything?” Alex prompts. “I had a awful miscarriage last year. I didn’t think I could get pregnant.”
After questioning his possible paternity, Dan eases up and offers to pay for an abortion.
“What makes you think I want an abortion?” Alex asks.
“I’m 36 years old,” she goes to explain. “It may be my last chance to have a child.”
Unfortunately, a tidy little ending in which Alex saw Dan for the sleaze he was, raised the baby on her own, and started selling organic baby food in Vermont just wasn’t sexy enough for the screenwriters. Instead: Alex lost her shit, 86’ed the rabbit, and wound up dying about three different times in Dan’s master bath. Because that’s what happens when Hollywood tells stories about single women whose biological clocks pound away like jackhammers.
And then there’s sweetie-pie schoolteacher Tracy Safian (Nicole Kidman) from 1993’s Malice. Tracy and her college dean hubby, Andy (Bill Pullman, looking every inch like a well-mannered college dean named Andy). Tracy and Andy are trying hard to have a baby who will inherit his or her mama’s strawberry-blonde ringlets; so understandably, they’re devastated when a ruptured ovarian cyst sends her into emergency surgery, ending her pregnancy. Their drunk neighbor, Jed (Alec Baldwin), recklessly relieves Tracy of her second ovary through a nefarious medical sub-plot. Cue a lawsuit and marital separation.
But wait! It turns out Andy wasn’t the father of the child Tracy miscarried — poor sap was sterile all along. The truth is that Tracy and Jed were having an affair: The pregnancy, ruptured cyst, and botched surgery were all part of some twisted plan to score a huge settlement from Jed’s hospital. Seeing as how Tracy’s past as a con artist with a history of abortions is out in the open, our anti-heroine has little choice but to up the ante and try to kill an actual child who many have witnessed her crimes. Thankfully, someone decides to swap said child with a mannequin.
More than two decades after Malice hit theaters, infertility and miscarriage storylines are luckily a little less one-note, at least on the small screen. Sex and the City‘s Charlotte York MacDougal Goldenblatt, Outlander‘s Claire Fraser, half the cast of Grey’s Anatomy… These women soldiered on and eventually became parents, whether through adoption or another pregnancy.
But one need only recall Gone Girl‘s Amy Dunne to realize that fertility can still be used as a weapon by a female antagonist should Hollywood (or Gillian Flynn) see fit. After using her pregnant neighbor’s urine to add intrigue to her disappearance, the story’s protagonist, Amy (Rosamund Pike), subjects her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) to one last bombshell: She’s been artificially inseminated with his sperm. The film ends right after that revelation, with Nick slowly stroking his rich, entitled, and cold wife’s beautiful blonde hair. The Hitchcockian archetype lives on.
Despite the introduction of more nuanced portrayals, the trope of female villains untangling their fertility issues continues. Even Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, the Avenger who started out as an anti-hero, declared herself to be “a monster” about the sterilization treatments she was forced to endure. From Mad Max: Fury Road to even Juno, women are often divided into “breeders” and “the barren,” with the latter coming off as aloof and distant at best, and malicious and desperate at worst.
Dividing women into these two camps isn’t merely limiting: The tradition is downright medieval. King Henry VIII’s eagerness to dispense with his many wives was linked to their ability to produce a healthy (and, preferably, male) heir. When Anne Boleyn — mother of Queen Elizabeth — suffered multiple miscarriages, she was portrayed as a vile creature and beheaded. She was swiftly replaced by Jane Seymour, who did manage to deliver a future (albeit sickly) king, though the effort of childbirth would claim her life two weeks later.
Half a millennium later, we still haven’t entirely rejected these backward attitudes. It’s not that fertility issues shouldn’t be addressed in the film and on TV — it’s important that they are. It’s that it’s unproductive, shaming, and stereotype-perpetuating to align fertility and motherhood with virtue, and infertility with villainy when real life shows us that that’s not the case.
And besides —when’s the last time some male Bond villain or evil dude had to defend his paternity status? The answer to that is “never.” It’s about time we started extending women the same courtesy.
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