My essay on baby-less marriage and popular storytelling as featured on the Evangelical Channel of Patheos.com on November 15, 2012
Infertility, the Stuff of Fairytales?
Heroes from humble origins find their wishes granted. Forces of evil are defeated by acts of bravery or, better, true love’s kiss. ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” regularly trades in these conceits. The drama’s premise is that fairytale characters are plucked from their world and sent to ours.
Each episode pivots between stories unfolding in our world and flashbacks that insert unexpected twists into the characters’ storybook pasts. For example, I bet you never knew that Snow White was infertile.
Exposure to whatever that those dwarves have been mining is not to blame. Rather, a curse is.
Prince Charming’s adoptive father King George is furious after his son refuses an arranged marriage to Midas’ daughter. The King’s men capture Snow White—Charming’s true love—and bring her to his castle. There the King and Snow have an icy exchange that ends with the King’s foreboding recollection of how he and the wife he loved lost their joy:
We were happy, blissful. But then she became cursed. She drank a vile potion that made it impossible for us to conceive a child. Family is everything, my dear. Losing all hope of having one? There is no greater misery. Charming could have been that hope for me but instead he made my suffering worse. . . . Death is too good for him; first he must know pain, my pain.
Snow White looks wonderingly down into the goblet from which she’d been drinking and realizes King George has slipped her that same terrible potion. “You poisoned her,” gasps an onlooker. “I cursed her,” corrects the King.
When this scene flickered through my living room, there was a kind of inaudible gasp, a tensing of muscles and an intake of breath on both sides of our couch. Wide-eyed I turned to my husband only to see him mirroring my expression. Wordless, our bodies spoke a shared, visceral reaction to the King’s words.
As someone who struggled with infertility for years, I needed a few weeks and few conversations with other infertile couples to put words to that immediate reaction.
Was it shocking that the show handled infertility so lightly, just another way to keep classic characters topical? Or that it described infertility so gravely, a pain worse than death?
Even Snow White’s ultimate healing (yes, it’s in the same episode) depends on her mother-in-law’s willingness to die rather than see her son go childless. On her deathbed, Charming’s mother passes up the chance to drink a restorative potion, giving it to Snow instead. In both the casting and breaking of this curse, the episode insists that death is preferable to life as an infertile couple.
It is no wonder this story stuck with me, but it did so for the surprising things it got right as well as the painful things it got wrong.
It is refreshing for our culture to acknowledge the existence of infertile people. On TV, happy and unhappy, young and old, together and separated, straight and, yes, even gay couples have kids. But in life, something like one in ten couples will struggle with the inability to have a child. Most of the time, couples like us are simply invisible.
Of course, it is not all the television’s fault. Infertility makes many of us going through it clam up. The show gets this right, too, as Snow White avoids telling even Prince Charming about her condition. Snow presents a compelling picture of the loneliness that accompanies the weight of being the one who “has something wrong with me.”
Snow White also has one of the classic, painful conversations with well-meaning family. This is the one where they express their excitement about your children-to-be (how they hope they look like so-and-so or how they can’t wait to be an aunt/uncle/grandmother) while you smile wanly.
Then there’s King George, whose speech cursing Snow’s womb drips with his woundedness as much as his cruelty.
Somehow in this jumble of vignettes, the show managed to evoke the jumble of alienation, anger, and Ache (yes, with a capital) that faces couples struggling with infertility.
Still, when I relayed the King George and Snow White scene to some other, less-than-fertile friends, they had similarly visceral reactions to my own. I suspect that King George’s speech nearly knocked the wind out of every one of us for a reason. When you find out you are infertile, this is the fear that the devil on your shoulder whispers into your ear: “God has cursed you.”
For believers, our faith in a sovereign God offers us meaning, grace, and hope. But on bad days, it can also leave us feeling stranded by God in circumstances we would never choose.
“Once Upon a Time” did not succeed in transporting me to its fairytale universe complete with magical resolutions. (Anyway, infertile people are plenty used to situations that feel like they can only change by means of magic—whether modern medicine, prayer, or perhaps a strict regimen of both.)
Instead, the show jolted me out of its escapist fantasy with the vivid memory of the “cursed” mindset that can dog infertile couples.
The cursed mindset says that you and your spouse can never be happy, can never be enough without a child.
And that is a lie.
Just like the lie that being infertile has anything to do with how much God loves you.
Marriage is not just about children. A happy marriage is, in itself, a miracle testifying to God’s goodness and life’s joy. It is allowed to be enough.
Healthy marriages of infertile couples are threatened by the mentality that if the two who became one do not go on to become three or four, they will never really be happy. This is an absurd proposition even by fairy tale standards. We need look no further than Charming and Snow to see what I mean.
This episode invites viewers, now caught up in the Snow White’s infertility scare, to forget that she and Prince Charming have already overcome incredible odds simply to find one another. They are beautiful, young, and poised to rule their realm side by side. Their love is so strong that, in another episode, a sorcerer literally tries to bottle it as the most powerful magic of all.
So something is wrong with the storybooks, just as something is wrong with the stories whispered by the devil on our shoulders. We should be very suspicious of any narrative that rules out a happily ever after for people without kids. These couples, with God’s help, are writing great endings of their own.
L. Kenna figured out a way to watch TV and movies professionally. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and has taught a variety of courses concerned with the relationship between popular culture and the ways Americans understand their lives. In addition to her academic writing projects, she is working on a book about the experience of infertility inside the church.