The Peculiar Case of Miscarriage in Pop Culture

Miscarriages occupy a deeply strange role in pop culture, appearing primarily as plot devices rather than actual life events for the characters. The events surrounding a miscarriage seem to be less about the experience of the formerly pregnant character than the convenience, and the reactions, of the people around that character—who is almost always depicted as a cis woman, as the idea of other types of people and bodies having pregnancies is alien to many creators of pop culture as well as fans.

The experience of a miscarriage can be a very different thing between individuals, depending on whether the pregnancy was wanted, when the miscarriage occurred, whether a triggering event such as a brutal attack was involved, and what kind of community support the patient receives. I know people who have viewed as a miscarriage as a blessing, as yet another stumbling block in struggles with infertility, as a deep personal tragedy and the loss of an eagerly-anticipated member of the family. I know people with pregnancies that have quietly bled away almost before they started, and I know those who have lain on gurneys in hospital hallways waiting for ‘conscientious objectors’ to get over themselves and focus on patient care instead of their own moral righteousness.

Miscarriage is a tricky cultural thing, pop culture or not. It’s a deeply forbidden subject, much like many other things deemed ‘mysteries of womanhood,’ like menstruation, like pregnancy itself. People don’t talk about miscarriages and that discouragement means that many people aren’t aware of how common they are, let alone how devastating they can be. When people lose a child, they can reach out to their community for help and they are given space and time for healing. When they lose a fetus, they’re expected to keep it to themselves.

Sadly, sometimes pro-choice people can be the most vehement about this, concerned about blurring the lines between fetus and child, and saying that claiming a fetus is morally or ethically equivalent to a fully-developed, extrauterine human being could be dangerous. This makes the mistake of applying broad strokes to the issue, though. Legally, of course, a fetus should not be equivalent to a child. Personally, however, losing a wanted pregnancy is an intensely emotional experience and it can feel on some level to the parents like losing a child, with the added burden of not being allowed to acknowledge it, talk about it, or ask for help.

In pop culture, miscarriage becomes a convenient way to avoid discussions about abortion; instead of having a character defiantly, clearly, and unapologetically get an abortion, the producers cop out and set up a miscarriage instead. Or it becomes a tool for advancing a dramatic romantic plot, as when Brenda has a miscarriage at her wedding and viewers understand that the end of the pregnancy also represents, to some extent, the fact that the marriage itself is doomed and is unlikely to progress; much like Brenda’s pregnancy, it’s bleeding out slowly and has become a nuisance, something that needs to be cleaned up and dealt with.

Very rarely are characters in pop culture allowed to be sad about their miscarriages, or if they are, it’s for isolated periods only. Instead, they’re encouraged to push on to the next baby (a sentiment mirrored in real-life, too, where the response from people uncomfortable about miscarriage talk is often ‘so, when are you going to try again?’), and in the world of pop culture, they usually find themselves happily pregnant again almost immediately, sometimes within the space of the next television episode, the next thirty pages. The miscarriage is an event of the past, something that doesn’t bear dwelling on, instead of an emotional experience that might bring up complex feelings.

Curiously, other medical traumas are recognised in pop culture. Grey’s Anatomy has been featuring an ongoing storyline over the loss of Arizona Robbins’ leg and her adjustment to life as an amputee. Other works of pop culture have focused on adjustments to disability, medical trauma, and other major medical events, recognising that the experience of radical physical trauma can cause not only health issues, but also emotional ones, particularly when it leaves dramatic evidence behind.

Miscarriages, though, are swept under the carpet. They aren’t treated as physical or emotional trauma for the patients who experience them, and pop culture rarely explores the dark side of this experience; it flits across the screen for a moment and moves on. We don’t see patients being told to drive to hospitals fifty miles away to get treatment because no one will assist with miscarriage care since it’s ‘too much like an abortion.’ We don’t see patients getting sepsis and other complications from delayed care. We don’t see the physical pain of miscarriage.

We don’t see the emotional pain, either, except for a brief moment on screen where it’s flashed and then packed away. Blink and you’ll miss the fact that the character was pregnant at all, let alone that the loss of a wanted pregnancy may have caused trauma and stress, emotions that cannot be easily shelved and moved on from. Especially in the case of a miscarriage in later stages of pregnancy or a stillbirth, when the pregnancy may have seemed like a real, viable possibility, something that was truly going to happen, something that was going to result in the birth of a child.

Why is pop culture as afraid of miscarriages as everyone else seems to be? Perhaps because it’s primarily regarded as a ‘women’s issue,’ and thus not of general interest, let alone entertainment value; no one wants to see people processing the complex emotions that can surround a lost pregnancy. And perhaps also because of our fear of death and grief, and our desire to have these things minimised and kept away from polite society. To admit that a miscarriage can be devastating and that people should be allowed to talk about it is to allow people to get their messy feelings all over perfectly nice social conventions, and that wouldn’t do.