Maxine Trump’s most recent feature documentary is To Kid or Not to Kid, a film about the choice to live childfree, which premiered at DOC NYC 2018. Maxine’s previous feature documentary, Musicwood, was a New York Times Critics’ Pick, a festival award-winner and played in theaters, on airlines and TV networks around the world. Maxine has directed both long and short documentaries for the TV networks Discovery, TNT, Sundance Channel, BBC, TLC, etc.and has won BDA awards for work on numerous commercial projects for TV and agency clients, including National Geographic, PBS, Comedy Central and Oreos. Maxine is also the author of the book The Documentary Filmmaker’s Roadmap, published by Focal Press in 2018; and a teacher of documentary filmmaking at the New York Film Academy. She lives in Brooklyn.
“If you don’t see us, do we not exist? Where have all the childfree heroes gone?”
Twenty percent of women won’t be having kids. Just think on that a minute. There are 327 million people living in the United States, so that’s roughly 33 million women! That’s a huge audience that don’t see themselves represented anywhere in TV and film.
You might say, hey, what about the childfree characters in TV shows The Big Bang Theory and This is Us, or While We’re Young, that Noah Baumbach movie from back in 2015? But I would respond, where are the stories that don’t show a person changing their mind about having kids? Or where a childfree person is not represented as being lonely and left behind in a relationship? Or where older childfree couples don’t look desperate trying to hang out with younger people? These were the pointed plotlines of the childfree characters in the aforementioned narratives.
Then The Big Bang Theory — not a favorite show of mine, but a top 5 show in the U.S. since 2012 — went even further. One childfree character changed her mind. Followed by yet another. This plotline had so many viewers up in arms that Vulture and Vanity Fair both covered the audience outcry.
I went crazy with my praise on social media when NBC’s This Is Us showed Zoe (Melanie Liburd) speaking her truth about not wanting kids. When she told her boyfriend Kevin (Justin Hartley) how she felt, he didn’t immediately reject or condemn her. The writers created a plotline with real complexity and depicted a strong, beautiful childfree person as normal, with no hang-ups – big shocker! (She was also a documentary filmmaker, like me.) As Zoe and Kevin’s relationship developed, Kevin initially agreed that he also did not want kids and for a while I let myself hope that This Is Us would build this fresh storyline, allow me to recognize myself, stand by me, represent me. And for a few episodes, it did. But then Kevin changed his mind, revealing that actually he did want kids.
This is something childfree folks are presented with all the time: that we just aren’t in our right mind, and eventually we will come around and change it. OK, we know that drama isn’t built from everyone just getting along nicely, but this trope feels too tired and boring and old-fashioned, and I felt let down, once again.
One of the few shows to dodge this cliché, HBO’s Sex and the City, showed women with and without children all getting along well. Samantha (played by Kim Cattrall) was as normal as the other women, because let’s face it, they all had hang-ups. But Sex and the City finished in 2004 – 2004!
The current TV landscape is pretty empty when it comes to strong female characters without children. I’m praying that Issa Rae’s character doesn’t go on to have kids in HBO’s Insecure. In the most recent season, there were scenes between two of her friends – one of whom has a child and one who is childfree – where they didn’t get along, and the childfree friend was portrayed as often drunk and little harsh. I’m not sure how this will play out – don’t let me down, Insecure!
So, where do I see myself on screen, if at all?
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first thing I jump to is characters played by actors who are childfree. Like Sandra Oh’s Eve in the BBC’s Killing Eve; in real life, Oh is childfree and in the series her character has no children. Same for Alison Brie’s Ruth in Netflix’s fabulous Glow. Helen Mirren in almost every film she’s ever been in. But these aren’t childfree storylines, they are childfree actresses that are represented without us seeing children in their lives. And then there are all the childfree comedians, TV performers and hosts: Oprah Winfrey, Betty White, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, Margaret Cho, and many more.
Prior to my own film To Kid or Not To Kid, the only English-language documentary about being childfree was 2011’s The Childless By Choice project, a shorter, TV-length documentary. To Kid or Not To Kid is the first feature-length childfree documentary, and a major part of why I made the film was because I couldn’t find other films to watch as I was trying to make my own decision about children.
While films that truly tackle the subject of being childfree seem nonexistent, last year a fiction feature did just that: Egg, written by Risa Mickenberg and directed by Marianna Palka. Egg features some of my favorite actresses, Christina Hendricks and Alysia Reiner, playing characters whose relationship is threatened when they make different reproductive decisions.
In an interesting parallel, Hendricks and Reiner – like their Egg characters – have also made very different reproductive choices. Hendricks is childfree (and there was a huge amount of press coverage when she “came out” about it), and Reiner is a mom. As Egg’s subject is so important to me (and so rarely explored!), I met Reiner for an interview about the film.
In our conversation, Reiner used the term “childless by choice” to describe her character. Which is understandable, but the community differentiates pretty specifically between the terms “childless” and “childfree.” “Childfree,” like “hands-free” or “caffeine-free,” simply means without children. There’s no “less than” in our decision. “Childless” on the other hand, refers to those who don’t have children due to circumstances beyond their control, and often wanted children.
We first see Reiner’s character, Tina, wearing a T-shirt that boldly reads “Patriarchy is a bitch.” This is a strong introduction to a character (I would wear that shirt!), so I was all-in from the film’s start. But maybe that’s where the similarity to this character and my experience ends.
Tina is hardcore, and accuses Hendricks’s character of using motherhood as a kind of celebrity status. Reiner had her own fears about Tina’s unlikability, and whether people would accept the character. But she was also a producer on the film and wholeheartedly believes in spotlighting these difficult subjects, which I applaud. “This subject matter hadn’t been explored,” Reiner said, “and that’s what attracted me.”
Women’s identity and motherhood are discussed in-depth in the film, and it’s great to have those conversations on screen. The film deals with “questioning each other’s buy-in to that traditional role,” as Reiner explained, “how they both became pregnant and supplementing the needs for their men.” Reiner said the film portrays a universal theme: even when you love someone, you can still profoundly disagree with them.
Reiner’s mission statement for making the film is that every human should have the courage and curiosity to find and live their own truth, especially with respect to how we see gender, sexuality and parenthood. Though I love this, as a childfree woman, I still don’t recognize myself in those characters. (That said, I discussed the film with one of my “childless” friends, and she loved it.) I wish there was a more nuanced portrayal of Reiner’s character, as opposed to one referred to as “a witch” who doesn’t hesitate to be hateful to “breeders.”
For all the TV writers and studio execs reading this, if you want higher TV ratings and box-office figures, think of that glorious untapped audience – millions of childfree people – who are desperate to see characters and storylines that represent the drama of our true experience. I have plenty of childfree storylines in my documentary: watch it (it’s available for preorder here), get inspired. We’re out there, so hold up that media mirror and let us see ourselves. Most of all, I’d love for the childfree choice to be so commonplace in media that writing an article like this wouldn’t be necessary.