After 60 years and over 200 episodes, Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has dipped into the most frustrating plot contrivance well for women: the mystical pregnancy. The mystical pregnancy (MP) is a cheap ploy that almost always serves to completely remove the character’s identity as anything but a vessel for the being inside her. Even worse, very rarely does the character gain her identity back, derailing any character development that had previously taken place. Unfortunately, this pattern of identity loss plays out as a dangerous metaphor for the state of women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. and the view of women in general.
Before we touch on Doctor Who and then finally what this plot contrivance means for real women, let’s look at some other instances of mystical pregnancy (including one done well).
Cordelia Chase (Angel). By season four of Angel, Cordelia Chase was no stranger to the mystical pregnancy. She’d already had a one-episode arc where she was impregnated by a demon, but these type of episodes (see also: Torchwood’s Gwen Cooper) serve more to fit the damsel-in-distress trope than the true MP plot conveyance. Cordelia’s real MP storyline came in season four. Through three seasons on parent show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and another three on Angel, Cordelia had, perhaps, the greatest growth arc of any female in the Whedonverse. She went from shallow cheerleader to suddenly poor to helper of the helpless. Things started going wrong when she was lifted to become a higher being. When she was returned, she wasn’t quite right, and her memory wasn’t all there. In the creepiest instance of MP we’re going to have on this list, she found momentary comfort in sleeping with Angel’s age-accelerated son, Connor (whose diapers she changed only a year or two ago in her timeline — CREEPY!). Connor was a product of a MP himself (we’ll get to that in a bit), and it soon came out that even his own conception was all part of a Xanatos Gambit to get Cordelia, who was suddenly evil, preggers. After an accelerated gestation, Cordelia gave birth to a fully-grown goddess, Jasmine, who claimed to want to solve all the unhappiness in the world. Except that she was really a maggot-faced demon. After giving birth, Cordelia fell into a coma and other than being used for its special blood (or as a hostage), she was pretty much forgotten about until she was used as a plot device for the 100th episode before dying off-screen at the end of that same episode.
A similar MP/SuddenlyEvil combo happened to Phoebe in Charmed. After marrying the reformed demon Cole, it’s discovered that Cole isn’t really reformed at all. In fact, he’s now the Source of all Evil and wants to seal the deal with Phoebe to make her the Queen of all Evil: that means he has to knock her up with his demon seed. Even their wedding is disrupted by the potential of a baby, (THERE’S NOT EVEN AN ACTUAL FETUS YET) because he’s told that if they get married under one kind of moonlight, the baby will be good rather than evil. The prospective baby and eventual physical fetus become the focal points of the end stretch of episodes. When the fetus actually beams itself out of Phoebe’s womb (seriously, I’m not making this up), it’s revealed that Phoebe was literally a vessel: the baby isn’t hers at all. To me, that’s downright offensive, I don’t know about you. Phoebe does recover her character development post-demon-baby, although being granted with the power of premonition, it seemed like visions of herself with children were a frequent theme.
And then there’s the Star Wars issue: Padme and Shmi. Any woman whose story revolved around Anakin Skywalker was just doomed to tragedy. While Padme’s isn’t a strictly mystical pregnancy, it seems mystical to the viewer because we know that she is destined to become the mother to Luke and Leia, the most mythical twins in science fiction. From the moment she’s introduced, her accomplishments seem to go out the window. Nevermind that she’s a Queen, then a Senator (Oh, you strange Naboo political structure)… she’s going to be Anakin’s honey and Luke and Leia’s poor dead mother. I mean, Lucas couldn’t even bother coming up with a believable reason to kill her off — SHE DIED OF A BROKEN HEART, as if he basically said, “Oh, crap… how does she die? She’s sad, there you go, now on to the lava pit lightsaber fight! We have effects money to spend! And Darth Vader to introduce!” And all because of Darth Friggin’ Vader. The Chosen One to Bring Balance to the Force. So we know because he doesn’t even have a father. Shmi is a rip off of the greatest mystical pregnancy of them all (we’ll get to that later). She exists solely to have had this child, have him taken away, and then have a life-altering (for her child, of course) tragedy befall her. We know nothing about her that doesn’t relate to Anakin. She has no story, no life, outside of what will be beneficial to advance Anakin’s plot. Sucks to be you, Lars family.
Going back to Angel, the seasons two and three arc with a newly human, then-vamp’d-again Darla actually served as a rare MP story where the character gained development with the pregnancy. Introduced on the parent show as Angel’s vampire sire, Darla was quickly dispatched by stake but often referenced, appearing in flashbacks. In the second season of Angel, Darla was brought back from death by the Big Bads to try and lure Angel back to the dark side. It worked, and a driven-to-the-brink Angel took a leap toward the abyss and slept with Darla before chucking her back out to the street, still, somehow, ensouled. The next time we saw Darla, she had a craving for innocent blood and a big ol’ baby belly ready to pop. The impossible vampire pregnancy is about as mystical as you can get, and various prophecies and cults spring up around it. Interestingly, the soulless Darla begins to share a soul with her unborn child, causing her to feel love that she’s never felt as a vampire. Her (dead) body begins to strain with the child, and she realizes that once he’s born, she’ll have no soul again: she won’t love her child. She tells Angel that their son was the one good thing they did together and stakes herself, leaving her child in her ash. Looked at just as its own piece of plot, this is actually a good example of MP done well. While Darla ends up sacrificing herself for her child, she gains development that she never had even when she had a soul of her own. Her child makes her a more complex character. It becomes problematic when the writers later decide that the Impossible Vampire Baby was all set up just to enable the Cordelia/Connor clustermess a season and a half later, negating the strides that Darla made herself.
Less problematic is Charmed’s Piper Halliwell. From the first episode, it’s established that Piper has taken on the maternal role over the sisters since their mother’s death. Following Piper and Leo’s courtship and marriage, she discovers that they might have trouble conceiving, what with her husband being a mystical being and not technically alive and stuff. After Phoebe’s debacle with Cole, the sisters are given the choice of giving up their magic. Sacrificing their potentially normal lives, all three sisters decide to stay witches, and one of the first things Phoebe has a premonition about is Piper being pregnant. Her future children become important plot points, the first one being prophesized to have great power and becoming a regular target of various demon sects before eventually turning evil (and then back to good), and the other being sent back in time (to before he was even born) to be the Whitelighter protector of his mother and aunts. Throughout all of this, though, we never lose Piper’s identity and character development. Throughout the course of Piper’s story, after she has her first child she goes through losing her husband, becoming an out-of-control goddess, becoming a valkyre, dating again, having a booty call with her husband (resulting in another baby), finding out that her protector is her adult second child just before he gets killed, reconciling with her husband, and being the only survivor of a great final battle before going back in time to save her sisters’ lives. While some of her plots certainly center around her children, her own, distinct role to play as a powerful witch is never diminished.
And so we have mad, impossible Amelia Pond. Introduced in the revamped Doctor Who’s fifth season, Amelia Pond is a little girl who meets The Doctor as he’s just becoming who the Eleventh Doctor will be. He promises to take her away and she waits… 12 years. After their second meeting, she waits another two years, finally running away with him the night before her wedding. They travel, and there’s her fiance and sexy vampire fish and a Dream Lord and her fiance being erased from existence and all of time and space falling into a crack and bringing back her friend, the Doctor, just from her memory and a wedding and dancing and promise of more adventures. That’s simplifying it a lot, and there are many things that are problematic about Amy Pond (but Steven Moffat’s Problems With Women are the subject of an entirely different article), but this season, the most problematic thing about Amy Pond became her Shrodinger’s Pregnancy. In the season opener, we meet a strange little girl who has pictures of a baby with Amy, and this little girl is later shown regenerating, just like a Time Lord. After Amy closes the opening episode cliffhanger with the revelation that she’s pregnant, she later claims to have been mistaken. The Doctor does a scan on her (without her knowing) and the scan keeps changing between Negative and Positive for a pregnancy. The second, third, and fourth episodes all end with this noncommittal scan (worst EPT test EVER). The only reason the fifth doesn’t is because it rolls into the sixth, and in the sixth we learn why the scan can’t decide: Amy is pregnant, but Amy isn’t around. She’s been replaced by a goo-doppleganger called flesh and has really been held in captivity in some unknown place for her entire pregnancy. She’s being held by people who want to turn her baby into the perfect weapon: a tiny time lord to defeat The Doctor. After waking up to discover she’s in active labor, Amy has the child taken away from her when it’s only a month old. As the Doctor and Amy’s husband (and baby daddy) Rory storm in to rescue her and the baby, they lose the child again. As they sit in shock from their loss, River Song, their old friend who couldn’t come help with the siege, comes upon the scene like a true deux ex machina. She reveals that the little baby, Melody Pond, will be perfectly fine. How does she know? Well, she’s Melody, of course… all grown up.
To really examine how incredibly messed up this is for Amy as a character, you have to look at how River is introduced. In the previous Doctor’s tenure, once Moffat had been named the future show runner, he introduced a woman called River Song, who was The Most Important Woman That Will Or Has Ever Existed To The Doctor, but she couldn’t reveal why because she was meeting him out of order (curse of the time traveller). The next season, Amy is introduced.
The main purpose of Amy Pond was always for her to be the mother of the magical child who would be both the Doctor’s Girlfriend and Ultimate Foe. This was Moffat’s long game. Her relationship with the Doctor was predestined not because of her own, unique self but because of what would be in her uterus. And Steven Moffat expects us to think this is the most amazing plot twist ever in the near fifty-year history of Doctor Who.
The Real Life Dangers
More than any of the physical horrors associated with mystical pregnancy (finding yourself ready to pop without any prior knowledge, alien babies inside you moving around, children being evil, children coming out not right, etc.), the most frightening aspect is the loss of identity. The mother is seen as just a vessel for the child, almost an afterthought, as the questions surrounding the baby-to-be are the important thing. Entire lives must be arranged, planned, and sacrificed around this baby, and whether the mother is on board with being the incubator for this sacred baby doesn’t even factor into the equation. The truly terrifying thing is that this is apparently how many legislators in real life view women’s role in pregnancy. The proposed bills in Utah and, more recently, Georgia, to consider miscarriages criminal offences unless proved otherwise are a testament to this mindset. The entire anti-choice movement is predicated on this line of thinking; how else could you explain the attempts to give the best wishes of a being who doesn’t even have the power to think yet more credence than the living, breathing woman with a life already in progress? It takes the voice, the choice, away from the mother, leaving her just a vessel to fight and politic over. Once you correlate that mindset with the religious beliefs behind it, though, the reason pregnancy seems too sacred is clear.
Mary is the Mystical Pregnancy model that all other models look to. She is visited by the angel Gabriel and informed that she has been selected to be the mother of Jesus, son of God. She marries her fiance and gives birth to the prophesied child, and three men follow a star to find the baby. Although non-biblical sources give Mary a life before Christ, there is no mention of this in the Bible. Quite often, Mary isn’t even mentioned by name, just referenced as the mother of Jesus (although, admittedly, this might be partly to distinguish between the myriad of Marys in the Bible). After Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary disappears. We know nothing about her, where she is born and when, what her life is like, what her life with Joseph (who is sidelined, as well) was like, if they had other children, how and when she died… nothing is canonical. For a figure that is so very important to many religions (just look at the amount of art that has been inspired by the Madonna), it’s surprisingly how little we actually know about her as a woman with her own unique identity.
Even when a modern pregnant woman’s identify isn’t being removed by “well meaning” legislators, this attitude that pregnant women just serve as vessels can be found throughout society in small actions. The number of lists detailing foods that will harm your baby in some way lends itself to public judgement if a mother-to-be has a glass of champagne in her second trimester or sneaks a piece of blue cheese or indulges in some sushi. The tendency of strangers to want to touch a pregnant woman’s belly makes many women uncomfortable and carries the unfortunate implication that their belly is no longer their own private property. The pattern of friends and family discussing nothing else about you for nine+ months other than the impending baby serves to alienate you from your own achievements and experiences. It should be no surprise that many women turn into helicopter parents; when your identity is taken away from you in lieu of your child, of course you’re going to hold them close. They’re all the identity you have left.
Thanks and Further Research:
Assistance with biblical references provided by QueenieManhattan. Thanks to dancing-with-goldman for reminding me of Star Wars.
Other Suggestions for Mystical Pregnancy in Sci-Fi Television:
Stargate: Atlantis (Suggested by BaseballChica)
Battlestar Galactica (Suggested by itsallabitharrypotter)
Writer’s Note: Edited 6/8/11 to correct the number of years Amy waited.