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Special Issue Articles

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

"Damned If We Do, Damned If We Don't": Ageist Narratives of Reproductive Control

January 15, 2023


Women who grow up in Western societies are confronted with media, cultural, and literary narratives conveying the notion that motherhood is "natural" and an integral part of womanhood from a very young age. Thus, having a child is frequently presented as the only option for adult women. Nancy Felipe Russo calls this "the motherhood mandate," which problematically suggests that every woman wants to become a mother and that this "is a woman's raison d'etre" (144). The normative conflation of womanhood with the obligatory assumption of motherhood is ingrained in North American society and reinforces rigid gender norms while exposing hegemonic reproductive expectations. These norms also extend into efforts to control reproduction and produce condemning, frequently ageist narratives that stigmatize those whose reproductive choices do not comply with heteropatriarchal norms. Therefore, this article proposes that age is a crucial lever of reproductive control and examines how ageist facets of such controlling efforts affect characters' lives in Brit Bennett's The Mothers and Sheila Heti's Motherhood. Based on the reproductive choices in The Mothers and Motherhood, I will argue that the ageist reproductive norms and concomitant stigmatizing narratives aim to exert reproductive control, on the one hand, by suggesting that young women are damned if they become pregnant, mothers, or have an abortion, and, on the other, by condemning adult women who decide to remain childfree.


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