“There’s only one difference between you and me.
When I look at myself all I can see.
I’m just another lady without a baby.”
-Jenny Lewis, “One of the Boys” (2014)
One of the convenient things about being a man is that there is no stigma about being childless.
When someone at work asks me why I’m 42 and have no kids, I can say it is because I’ve never wanted any and never will and that’s the end of the conversation. I’m confident that this makes me look like a decisive, independent-minded, somewhat self-centered guy; a regular dude with absolutely nothing to apologize for.
A woman in the same position faces more brazen, thoughtless questions (“are you SURE?” “do you think you’re going to regret it?). Nature forces a childless woman my age to wonder whether she has made a terrible mistake that may be too late to reverse. And society forces her to fear that her life will be a lonely meaningless failure if she never becomes a mother.
It took me a while to notice this pressure to reproduce. As far back I can remember, I viewed childlessness as the clearest, most objective evidence that an adult is winning at life. But I am certainly in the minority.
And according to the mediocre new movie “Mary Queen of Scots,” the existential pressure for women to have babies has been around for a long time.
Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular monarch, who returned from a long stay in France to rule her native Scotland from 1561 to 1567.
According to director Josie Rourke, Queen Mary was brave, proud, and intelligent. But she had two impossibly difficult issues to overcome.
The first was her religion. Mary returned from Catholic France to find that her faith made her a hated minority in Scotland.
Early on, Mary makes a speech about religious tolerance that she thinks will placate her Protestant cabinet. She is terribly mistaken.
There are a lot of villains in this story (virtually every man in Scotland, actually), but the real Dr. Evil is John Knox. The Calvinist reformer is portrayed as a hateful, blood-thirsty misogynist. Scotland is not large enough for Mary and Knox to co-exist.
Mary’s second problem caused her even more heartbreak. She had to deal with the impossible dilemma of having to produce a legitimate heir to the throne but knowing that any man who married her would only be doing so to usurp her power.
Mary’s reign is contrasted with that of her cousin: Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth fully recognized that any man who married her would be driven to steal her throne and possibly kill her like her father Henry VIII. She remained the Virgin Queen out of necessary self-preservation.
Mary Queen of Scots is foolish enough to marry and even briefly fall in love. Her marriage to Lord Darnley is even more catastrophic than we are expecting. Predictably, he is hungry for power. Unfortunately, he is also hungry for young men and thirsty for booze.
However, Mary does manage to get the baby she yearned for.
This is where the film drops the ball. The troubling conclusion that director Josie Rourke draws is that Mary triumphs because she produced an heir. And Elizabeth is a non-feminine chump for being too cautious to take a risk on true womanhood.
Mary is portrayed as an awesomely tolerant 21st Century-style woman. She is cool with religious freedom, interracial love, and she even has a gay guy as one of her chambermaids. But Mary cruelly taunts Elizabeth as “barren” and we are supposed to look past it. I couldn’t. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
What is true in the 16th Century is true today: life is tougher for a childless woman than a childless man. But if there are any 40-something childless women reading this, I want you know that there are people out there who are on your side. I think we are the ones who are winning.