Bringing a child into the world is also a very legitimate thing to be afraid of and it’s not okay to gaslight those who acknowledge to having that fear.
The essay contains spoilers for Netflix’s “Bird Box”
“Bird Box” has some issues. In true horror trope fashion, all three of the only people of color present in the narrative end up sacrificing themselves, becoming willing martyrs so the main white character can ultimately survive. It also falls into the familiar trap of portraying people with mental illness(es) as nothing more than “crazy” and unhinged, relegating them to antagonistic roles and creating a sort of binary antithetical relationship between two types of disability, wherein one becomes an advantageous extension of real-world inspiration porn while the other becomes a monstrous extension of real-world stigma and misinformation. What stands out most about its narrative for me is how it treats Sandra Bullock’s character, Malorie, and her relationship to motherhood and children.
The film begins with her sister, Jess, gaslighting her about her pregnancy. Malorie is a painter and she is working on a new piece when Jess comes over for a visit. It’s a group of people sitting around a table. At the center is an image of a woman who resembles Malorie, but her form is empty. The rest of the painting has been filled in, but “Malorie” has not. Her sister insists that it’s just a picture of a bunch of lonely people, but Malorie corrects her. “It’s about people’s inability to connect,” and Jess immediately concludes that this is about the pregnancy.
“That’s not how it’s going to be for you,” she tells her sister. “It’s different with a baby. It’s an immediate love affair.”
“It’s not gonna be that way for me,” Malorie responds.
“Yes, it will,” Jess insists. “You should be afraid of being alone, not of this.”
But motherhood/parenthood isn’t always an “immediate love affair” and it does more harm than good to insist that it is. Plenty of parents did not feel connected to their children during their pregnancy or after the trauma of birth, and it’s something that’s not acknowledged enough. When we perpetuate the myth that all experiences with pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing come with these instantaneous, magical connections, it only alienates those who have not had that experience and invalidates the experience they did have. Bringing a child into the world is also a very legitimate thing to be afraid of and it’s not okay to gaslight those who acknowledge to having that fear. Parenthood should never be compulsory.
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Any time Malorie speaks on her pregnancy and looming reality of birthing a child, she displays clear ambivalence and disappointment about her situation. It’s very obvious that she does not want to be pregnant, but why she chose not to simply have an abortion is never addressed. Even during her ultrasound, which Jess gleefully inserts herself into, Malorie is indifferent about it and refers to the pregnancy as nothing more than a “condition.” During their visit with Dr. Lapham, Jess goes on and on about how a horse knows it’s pregnant right away, and how it changes its gait, how it eats, how it behaves. She is infatuated with the idea of pregnancy and parenthood, and she cannot understand why her sister doesn’t share her enthusiasm, but is also completely unwilling to even try to understand Malorie’s perspective or respect her feelings.
The doctor picks up on Malorie’s disdain for her pregnancy — it’s difficult to miss — and opens a dialogue with her about other options, handing her a pamphlet that reads “Considering Adoption?” which she studies intently. Adoption would certainly be a good option for her, but lo and behold, the sudden apocalypse prevents the conversation about adoption from going any further. Within moments of leaving the ultrasound, Malorie finds herself barricaded in a house with a group of strangers in a sea of confusion about what’s going on outside. They soon learn that there are mysterious creatures who drive people to spontaneous suicide, but only if people look at them. They’re trapped inside and can now only move through the world without the use of their sight. All things considered, Malorie is now forced to have the child that she never really wanted and feels no connection to.
After some time, another pregnant woman arrives in search of shelter and they allow her to stay. Her name is Olympia, and she and Malorie are due around the same time. Olympia immediately latches onto Malorie and eventually makes her promise to take care of her child if something happens to her. Malorie reluctantly accepts. The two go into labor at the exact same time and give birth simultaneously in the midst of a crisis in the house, which culminates in the death of several people, including Olympia. And so, Malorie is now obligated to care for two children that she never wanted and her resentment is apparent. She is so disconnected from the two that she refers to them as only “Boy” and “Girl” for more than five years. Her companion, Tom, eventually lectures her about this. “They deserve a mother!” he tells her. “They deserve a mother.”
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Five years after the children are born, Malorie finds herself making her way up the river to what has been promised to be a safe location by a man over a radio transmission. The only thing is, he says, the river has rapids and they are dangerous to navigate blindfolded. It’s a hard journey to make with children and someone will have to “look,” essentially sacrificing themselves so the others can make it. This dangerous rapids conundrum arguably goes beyond pro-natalism and drifts into anti-abortion waters, no pun intended. When Malorie has to choose whether or not to pick a child to “look” so they can make it through the rapids, she agonizes over it. She can’t be the one to “look” because she has to row and keep control of the boat. Her best chances of survival are to, more or less, abort one of the children so that she can get herself and the other child to their destination unscathed. Ultimately, she chooses not to go this route and instead endangers all of their lives by keeping everyone blindfolded. Miraculously, they all make it to the shore.
Immediately after this, Malorie and the children get separated and she has to call out to them so they can find her again. This is when she gives an impassioned speech about how they need to be together and tells them she loves them for presumably the first time. They ultimately find their way to the safe place which turns out to be a school for the blind. And who does she meet there? None other than the Dr. Lapham, who of course asks the children their names only to look confused when they respond proudly with their gendered placeholder names.
“Actually,” Malorie bends down. “Your name is Olympia… and your name is Tom… and I am their mother.”
The inexplicable naming of the children as “Boy” and “Girl” not only seems like a blatant reinforcement of a cisnormative gender binary, but is also a mechanism put in place to give additional weight to the happy conclusion when she finally gives them real names, symbolizing of her decision to finally mother them intentionally. So the story concludes with Malorie finding herself where others have wanted her to be throughout the entire film, and her attitude towards motherhood is no longer one that makes people uncomfortable.
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Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to these kinds of things as someone who has been repeatedly and sometimes aggressively shamed for being intentionally childfree, but watching “Bird Box” felt a lot like all the times someone has condescendingly said, “You’ll change your mind!” after learning I don’t want children, or some variation of “Motherhood is completely natural/a woman’s purpose.” I don’t know if the writers set out to make pro-natalist propaganda, but that’s what it seems like they ended up with.
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