Therese Shechter is a filmmaker, writer, and multi-media storyteller based in Brooklyn. She is currently raising money to complete My So-Called Selfish Life and would love you to check out her Kickstarter campaign. Her other documentaries include How To Lose Your Virginity and I Was A Teenage Feminist, and she’s part of a podcasting trio called Downton Gabby.
In a recent interview, we discussed her work in feminist filmmaking, the politics of not having children, and the commodification of motherhood.
Therese Shechter: I recently read somewhere that “feminism is the assertion of our right to seek out and define our own existence and determine our own fates.” That’s really the guiding principle of all the work I do: challenging the identities and roles that society tries to impose on us – from our political rights in I Was A Teenage Feminist, to our sexual behavior in How To Lose Your Virginity, to valuing women for more than their uterus in My So-Called Selfish Life.
In My So-Called Selfish Life, I want to understand why women who choose not to have children are subject to so much stigma and judgement. It’s not just that people are rude! There are powerful cultural and historical forces behind the message that every woman’s most important role is to reproduce. So I want to know who profits from that message and what we can do to change the conversation and take control of our bodies and our lives.
TS: It’s pretty sparse, especially on broadcast TV, but there are some. For example, the great Dr. Christina Yang from Gray’s Anatomy. Robin Wright’s character from House of Cards is also aggressively not interested in children, but she’s a villain, unfortunately. Of course, Carrie and Samantha from Sex and The City, and Amy from Veep are all HBO non-mothers. There was a character on Big Bang Theory who was outspoken about not wanting children, but they knocked her up anyway, which was maddening.
Personally, I miss the days of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda who were true role models for me. But nothing beats the old school ladies of film: Auntie Mame, and the misunderstood Baroness Schraeder from The Sound of Music. They’re my heroes – plus they had style.
You can see the same dearth of women without children in advertising; everything is marketed to mothers whether it’s relevant or not. I was talking about this with someone the other day, and they pointed out that you don’t need to be a mom to sell paper towels. If Scandal’s Olivia Pope spills red wine on her white couch, she’s going to need those paper towels as well.
TS: There are women of every demographic group who don’t want kids, just like there are women in every demographic who are queer, for example. The difference is some cultures are more tolerant of women who veer off the female script – whether it’s about who to love or what their families look like – than others.
Anecdotally, many women of color have told me about pressure to reproduce in their communities, especially in the face of the history of US governmental actions limiting their reproductive freedoms. I’ve talked to several South Asian women off the record because they are really nervous about the consequences of ‘coming out’ to their families about not wanting children. It’s still deeply taboo.
Saying you don’t want children can be seen as inherently political because as I said, it’s stepping off the traditional female path, the path we’re groomed to take since childhood. We live in a culture that tells us every woman’s most important job, the thing she’ll be most valued for, is having children. If you upend that, it’s a threat to the patriarchy. it’s a political statement, whether you consciously intend it to be or not.
KM: I find the tabloid and even mainstream entertainment news industry obsessed (for a long time now) with what they call "baby bumps," and also assigning women the desire to have babies, not to mention films and TV movies about the "bad mother." You've even asked "Why won't the tabloids leave Jennifer Aniston alone?" (Of course there's also a history of forced and coerced sterilization, informed by eugenics, to prevent so-called "undesirable" procreation, targeted at women of color and disabled women that takes away the choice to have children.) It seems this social fixation about motherhood is ruled by attitudes around female essentialism and biological determinism, i.e. women are born/designed to have children and should want to, always. What are your thoughts about the commodification of motherhood?
TS: It depends what group you’re speaking to. Within any cultural or ethnic group there is the understanding that women will not only have, but naturally will want, children. But if you widen your focus, you’ll see that most of the marketing in the US is to white middle class women, either to buy lots of stuff for their babies and children, or to hire the services of the fertility industrial complex if they are having trouble having babies. Fertility treatments have helped a great many people to conceive, and it’s transformed the lives of my friends and family in wonderful ways. But at the bottom of it, they are a multi-billion dollar business and it’s definitely in their interest to push the idea that every woman must have a child.
As the ObGyn in my trailer says, ‘The desire to have children is not innate. It’s just not.” That’s been the single most controversial thing in the trailer and I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had about it on Facebook already. I mean, we used to think that opposite sex attraction was innate, and you could certainly make an evolutionary case for it. But we know a significant chunk of the population feels no opposite sex attraction, no matter how many tortuous ‘conversion therapy’ camps you send them to. It’s the same with the desire to be a mother.
KM: What's the status of your film right now, and where do you see it going in future?
TS: We’re about halfway through shooting it right now and with funding to travel, we’ll be able to finish shooting this spring. The plan is to have a rough cut by the end of next year. If the distribution is similar to my previous feature docs, it should get domestic and international festivals, TV, and streaming. And then my personal favorite which is distribution in colleges and to organizations, with lots of screening events. Speaking to college students is my favorite part of the whole filmmaking process, and it’s a great feeling knowing your film is being taught all over North America.