Cookie Consent by
Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer

Special Issue Articles

Vol. 5 No. 1 (2023): The Childfree Woman in Literature, Film, and Television

Shallow Narcissist or Sad Spinster? Childless Female Characters in Contemporary Popular Film and Television

January 12, 2023


The article charts the way childless women are portrayed in contemporary US-American popular film and television. I argue that these representations can be summarized as two distinct figures: The shallow narcissist and the sad spinster. Both figures are unworthy of recognition. The shallow narcissist refers to the voluntarily childless woman, who is being depicted as selfish, childish, and manipulative; the sad spinster refers to the involuntarily childless woman, who is depicted as asexual, lonely, sad, and pathetic. Both figures are founded in the discourse of "reproductive futurism" (Edelman) and teach us that only a child can give meaning to women's lives. Without a child, there is no proper identity and no fulfilling relations or kinships. I also point out, though, that there are exceptions, such as Tanya McQuoid from The White Lotus and Diane Lockhart from The Good Fight, that bring important nuances to the prevailing stereotypes.


  1. Barber, Benjamin R. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. W. W. Norton and Company, 2008.
  2. Basic Instinct. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, Le Studio Canal +, 1992.
  3. A Bigger Splash. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, Cota Film, 2015.
  4. Blue Jasmine. Directed by Woody Allen, Perdido Production, 2013.
  5. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.
  6. By the Sea. Directed by Angelina Jolie, Universal Pictures, 2015.
  7. Chambers-Schiller, Lee Virginia. Liberty a Better Husband: Single Women in America: The Generations of 1780–1840. Yale UP, 1984.
  8. "Chiantishire." Succession, season 3, episode 8, HBO, 5 Dec. 2021.
  9. Chollet, Mona. In Defence of Witches: Why Women Are Still on Trial. Picador, 2022.
  10. "Church and State." Succession, season 4, episode 9, HBO, 21 May 2023.
  11. Crozier, Lorna. "A Woman Without." Nobody's Mother: Life without Kids, edited by Lynne van Luven, Touch Wood Editions, 2006, pp. 26–66.
  12. Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.
  13. "Episode 4." The Secret She Keeps, season 1, episode 4, Network 10, 13 May 2020.
  14. Fatal Attraction. Directed by Adrian Lyne, Lansing Production, 1987.
  15. Felski, Rita. Hooked: Art and Attachment. U of Chicago P, 2020.
  16. Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Bind: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke UP, 2010.
  17. Froide, Amy M. Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. Oxford UP, 2005.
  18. "The Gang Deals with Alternate Reality." The Good Fight, season 4, episode 1, CBS, 9 Apr. 2020.
  19. The Girl on the Train. Directed by Tate Taylor, Marc Platt Productions, 2016.
  20. Gone Girl. Directed by David Fincher, TSG Entertainment, 2014.
  21. The Good Wife. Created by Robert King and Michelle King, CBS, 2009–2016.
  22. Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  23. Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.
  24. Hill, Alexandra M. "The Childless Woman as Failure; or, the 'Spinster Aunt' as Provocation for the Future." Women in German Yearbook, vol. 30, 2014, pp. 164–74.
  25. House of Cards. Created by Beau Wilimon, Netflix, 2013–2018.
  26. Illouz, Eva. Hard-Core Romance. Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society. U of Chicago P, 2014.
  27. Inauguration. Directed by Brooke Kennedy, CBS, 2017.
  28. Kaklamanidou, Betty-Despoina. "The Voluntarily Childless Heroine: A Postfeminist Television Oddity." Television and New Media, vol. 20, no. 3, 2019, pp. 275–93,
  29. Kaplan, E. Ann. Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama. Routledge, 1992.
  30. Klecker, Cornelia. "Female 'Lone Wolves': The Anti-Social Heroine in Recent Television Series." The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 53, no. 2, 2020, pp. 431–53,
  31. The Landscapers. Created by Ed Sinclair, HBO, 2021.
  32. Leimbach, Joselyn K. "Queering Cristina Yang: Childfree Women, Disrupting Heteronormativity, and Success in Failed Femininity." The Truth about (M)otherhood: Choosing to be Childfree, edited by Helena A. Cummins et al., Demeter, 2021, pp. 155–78.
  33. "The Lotus Eaters." The White Lotus, season 1, episode 5, HBO, 8 Aug. 2021.
  34. Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard UP, 2009.
  35. Love, Heather. "Gyn/Apology: Sarah Orne Jewett's Spinster Aesthetics." ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, vol. 55, no. 3–4, 2009, pp. 305–34.
  36. May, Elaine Tyler. Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness. Harvard UP, 1995.
  37. Moore, Julia, and Patricia Geist-Martin. "Mediated Representations of Voluntary Childlessness, 1900–2012." The Essential Handbook of Women's Sexuality, edited by Donna Marie Castaneda, Praeger, 2013.
  38. Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2005.
  39. Notes on a Scandal. Directed by Richard Eyre, DNA Films, 2006.
  40. O'Reilley, Andrea. 21st-Century Motherhood: Experience, Identity, Policy, Agency. Columbia UP, 2010.
  41. Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era. Feminist P, 2013.
  42. Rose, Jacqueline. Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. Straus and Giroux, 2018.
  43. Schwartz, Camilla. "Loving Friends in a Time of Neoliberalism." Love Etc., edited by Rita Felski and Camilla Schwartz, U of Virginia P, 2023, forthcoming.
  44. Ségeral, Nathalie. "Mothers, Interrupted: Reframing Motherhood in the Wake of Trauma in Contemporary French Women's Writing." The Truth about (M)otherhood: Choosing to Be Childfree, edited by Helena A. Cummins et al., Demeter, 2021.
  45. Sex and the City. Created by Darren Star, HBO, 1998–2004.
  46. Skeggs, Beverley. Class, Self, Culture. Routledge, 2004.
  47. Skeggs, Beverley. Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. Sage Publications, 1997.
  48. Wall, Richard. "Women Alone in English Society." Annales de Démographie Historique, vol. 17, 1981, pp. 303–17.
  49. Young Adult. Directed by Jason Reitman, Mandate Pictures, 2011.

Similar Articles

1-10 of 78

You may also start an advanced similarity search for this article.