And just like that, the nausea was back.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that “Mother!” was just the beginning. Over the months that followed, I was destined to watch similarly disturbing scenarios involving pregnant women and mothers.
I didn’t realize just how bleak the outcomes could be for childbearing women on screen until I got pregnant. Had pop culture always been this way, and I wasn’t paying attention? Whatever the case, movie and TV moms have had a rough go of it recently. One positive pregnancy test is all it takes, apparently, for a woman to be at heightened risk for agonizing death or terrifying misery.
By contrast, men — the good guys anyway — are nearly impossible to kill, regardless of their parental status. In Dwayne Johnson’s upcoming blockbuster “Skyscraper,” he’s already short a leg when he manages to outrun machine gun fire, then leaps roughly the length of a football field from a crane to a massive building. (He’s doing it for his wife and kids, who are in peril, of course.) The trailer turns his survival into a cliffhanger, but we instinctively know he’ll be safe. Just like he always lives through the crashes and conflagrations in the Furious franchise. During the last installment of that series, all the main players lived — except for the mom in the crew.
Of course, pregnant women really do have valid concerns. In the last year, ProPublica’s deeply reported pieces about the surprisingly high maternal mortality rate in the United States have been shocking. But the women in movies aren’t dying of preeclampsia; they aren’t women of color being systematically overlooked by a prejudiced health-care system.
Murder is, in fact, one of the top causes of death for pregnant women. But if you’re judging by movies and television, you’d start thinking that just about every expecting lady is at risk, given all the homicidal maniacs on the loose.
The plot of the recent Netflix series “Alias Grace” hinges on the murder of a pregnant woman. “Top of the Lake: China Girl” kicks off with the image of a pregnant prostitute being stuffed into a suitcase and dropped off a cliff into the ocean. And a pregnant detective in “Liar” gets drugged and raped by a man with a dangerous history; at least she survives.
I realize I’m in a peculiar (and often charmed) spot. I’m paid to keep up with pop culture, so I can’t simply ignore it. Most other moms-to-be can just tune out. But, as a viewer, you can’t always predict what’s coming.
I didn’t expect, for example, that a Thurgood Marshall biopic would feature a traumatic pregnancy. Yet a major humanizing aspect of “Marshall” is the fact that the great lawyer’s wife suffers just the latest in a string of miscarriages.
Then there’s “Fifty Shades Freed.” A movie about a couple’s kinky bedroom activities should be safe, but that’s before (a) Anastasia Steele gets pregnant, (b) her husband, Christian Grey, considers leaving her over said pregnancy and (c) she gets kicked in the stomach by a crazed stalker. Good news, though: The fetus is fine. And the threat to Ana’s life makes her husband realize he does, in fact, want to be with her, even if she’s going to become something as unthinkable as a mom.
Once the baby is on the outside, female characters aren’t necessarily safer. You could see it coming, at least, in “The Snowman,” a thriller about a serial killer who preys on mothers. And the trailers for “Suburbicon” and “Wonderstruck” both hinted that the moms weren’t going to make it to the final credits.
Survival isn’t always the best outcome, though. In one week in November, three new movie releases featured mothers in searing but distinct agony: “Mudbound” dramatizes not only a miscarriage but a character whose son is mutilated by the Ku Klux Klan; “Wonder” features every mother’s nightmare when a newborn is whisked away at birth due to life-threatening complications; and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” follows a mother seeking justice — or at least vengeance — after her daughter is raped and murdered.
“Three Billboards” was a reminder that there’s a fate worse than death for mothers, and it’s seeing your child go first, and recent movies have had plenty of that, too, in “In the Fade,” “Wind River” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
I was so over the onslaught of maternal grief by the time I saw “Hostiles,” Scott Cooper’s Western starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. In the opening scene of the film, a woman witnesses a group of Comanche Indians scalp her husband and slaughter her two daughters. When she’s fleeing for the hills, an arrow sails through the newborn she cradles in her arms. She survives somehow, which allows the film to take an almost fetishistic interest in her suffering. When she’s discovered by a group of travelers, she doesn’t seem to fully understand that her children are dead, but pretty soon she’s wailing and clawing at the rocky earth, set on digging her family’s graves herself. (In the end, though, she’s too weak. The men have to do it for her.)
Have we had enough yet? Maybe if I hadn’t been bombarded with the trope of the mournful mother again and again it would have made an emotional impact, but the repetition finally burned me out. Instead, I started to wonder when the last time was that a movie or show gave viewers the full scope of what a typical pregnancy and motherhood are truly like.
Other than the prickly relationship between mom and daughter in “Lady Bird,” the closest thing I found to accuracy was in a surprising place: The raunchy animated Netflix comedy “Big Mouth.” In one episode of the series a pillow gets pregnant (please don’t ask) and experiences some familiar real-life indignities.
“You think I’m disgusting don’t you?” the pillow cries to the father of her child. “I’m huge! I’m bursting at my seams.”
That’s right, the only character I could relate to during my pregnancy was made of down feathers. But it was better than nothing.
And then there was “A Bad Moms Christmas.” The sequel about a group of women acting out was nothing special, honestly, but after “Hostiles” and “Mother!,” it was a necessary antidote to all the pain and loss. The women in the comedy didn’t pretend motherhood was a picnic, but they were having fun anyway. They were going out, getting drunk and watching sexy Santas strip, and, best of all, they weren’t dying while doing it.
While I was at the press screening for that movie, I felt something I’d never felt before — and it wasn’t just an appreciation for a story that didn’t torture women and their offspring. I actually felt my baby move for the first time. And, for a moment, despite all the cautionary tales, I felt like maybe everything was going to be all right after all.