Recently, I went back to an old series I’d loved as a kid and reread it from start to finish. It hadn’t aged well, or perhaps I’d aged in a different direction from the book. That’s always a possibility with revisiting something from childhood, and I’d kind of expected it in this case, as I’d long grown away from this particular setting. However, it made for good comfort reading, and I mostly enjoyed going back through the long plot progression.
But there was one thing in particular that bothered me this time through, and I’m not sure why it caught my attention only now: Not only were all the female characters treated as if wife- and motherhood were the natural end state of being female, but once these characters became pregnant, most of their old personalities evaporated. It was as if they’d abdicated their roles to the potential roles of their offspring, sometimes dramatically. (The warrior queen who turned into the distracted, slightly deranged twerp was probably the most notable of these.)
I’m not yet sure if this is indicative of a larger trend — I’d meant to do more research before writing this post, but my internet connection went down (which is why this post is late) — but I’m going to go out and make a sweeping statement in hopes of being proven wrong: Fantasy has a very weird and problematic approach to pregnancy and motherhood. Some of it probably stems from fantasy’s roots in fairy tales, in which the mother was either replaced with a stepmother by later redactors or the mother’s death simply reflected high maternal mortality rates at the time. But I think more of it has to do with the fetishization of motherhood in western culture.
A pregnant character is rarely a character in her own right. She’s a plot device. At some point she’ll give birth during trying circumstances (and one of the main characters will have to help with the birth), or she’s carrying a Chosen One of some kind and will therefore probably not make it long past the Chosen One’s birth, or her pregnancy is the result of some horrible incident in the recent past which will then move the plot forward. If there’s an element of horror in the story, then it’s Demon Fetus time. In all of those cases, the woman is less important than the fact of her pregnancy.
I can only think of a few characters who don’t succumb to this — Catherine Harcourt from Naomi Novik’s Empire of Ivory, whose pregnancy is treated very matter-of-factly, is one that came to mind quickly. Magrat Garlick from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is somewhat of one, but her role as a new mother has an effect on the plot — partly because the Lancre witches have a maiden-mother-crone triad. (I tried to play with this idea a little in Spiral Hunt, since my main character fits none of the above categories. I don’t yet know how well I succeeded.) Catelyn Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly driven by her love of her children, but she comes across as a character in her own right.
Am I just missing a lot of characters who aren’t eclipsed by their roles as mothers? Is this something basic about plot — after all, pregnancy and motherhood are huge events and roles, so does it make sense that they’d be reflected that way in fiction? And what about science fiction? (Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold comes to mind.) If fantasy is a conservative genre (an assertion that’s up for debate), does science fiction have a more liberal approach to motherhood?