The image of motherhood on TV is changing. And I’m not talking about the June Cleaver ideal. That is dead and buried, thank goodness. I’m referring to the latest trend in scripted television to portray motherhood in its stark and sometimes painful reality, which is no better realized than in the abundance of storylines this season dealing with postpartum depression.
Currently, there are four TV shows with characters struggling with perinatal mood disorders. And it’s no coincidence that I’ve noticed, being a new first-time mom myself recently returned to the Norman Lear Center from maternity leave. There is very little more a new parent can do – bleary eyed and bone weary from sleep deprivation – than lie on the couch and stare at a television screen. So unintentionally, I’ve been doing my research.
Within the past couple of months if not weeks, significant characters on HBO’s “Girls,” the CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” ABC’s “Nashville” and “Catastrophe” on Amazon Video have become new moms and have subsequently descended into PPD.
This season on “Girls,” Adam’s sister, Caroline, who has a history with bipolar behavior, abandons her daughter with her husband. The character, played frenziedly by Gaby Hoffmann, leaves a goodbye note admitting she was afraid of harming both herself and her baby.
On “Jane the Virgin,” the once-villainous Petra (Yael Grobglas) has given birth to her twin girls – from the stolen sperm of her ex-husband (novela melodrama at its best). Soon after the birth, she seems distant and distracted, confessing to Jane that she can’t connect to her babies and thinks they would be better off with someone else. After an intervention at a mommy and me class, she decides to seek medical care.
Life mirrored art for ABC’s “Nashville” with its postpartum depression storyline, as its star Hayden Panettiere also acknowledged her own bout with PPD late last year. Her character detaches from her infant daughter, buries herself in her work and experiences bouts of anger – at one point throwing a snow globe at her husband and baby – which culminates in a PPD diagnosis.
Finally, in the British comedy “Catastrophe,” which airs on Amazon Video, Sharon (Sharon Horgan) admits she is having a hard time bonding with her new baby. “You don’t think she [the baby] seems manipulative?” she asks her husband. “Like she’s plotting something.” Almost matter-of-factly her husband tells she may have a bit of the postnatal depression. “What you’re going through isn’t rare,” he says, before abruptly leaving to bury the dead pet dog. She eventually goes to therapy and then gets on medication.
According to an analysis of data from the 2012 national HealthStyles survey (conducted by marketing firm Porter Novelli and analyzed by the Lear Center program Hollywood, Health & Society), 42% of regular primetime TV viewers report learning something new about a health issue or disease from a television storyline. Twenty-one percent report taking action on what they learned.
And according to recent studies (Wisner, 2013), one in seven women will suffer depression in the year after they give birth. With 4 million births/year in the U.S. alone, that’s over a half-million women suffering from the illness, of which only 15% will seek treatment.
So the increase in storylines on mental health for new moms is great, at least in its efforts to normalize the experience and help facilitate interventions for women experiencing symptoms. But accurate portrayals of health information are even more critical. (Hollywood, Health & Society is an excellent resource connecting television writers with health experts to ensure factual information makes it into TV scripts. They also consulted on the “Nashville” storyline.)
But let’s face it, dramatizing early parenthood features lots of bodily fluids, but is, quite often, boring. So mental illness makes a wonderful plot point, especially at the extreme edges of the disease: abandonment, violence and self-harm. Though it would be invaluable to have characters experience the subtler and more common aspects of PPD, like the feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, what could be appreciated from these dramatizations is how different the illness could take in form. Like any disease, it is not one size fits all.
Prior to this one single season, I could count only a handful of instances in which PPD played prominently into a scripted series storyline. There were a few one-off episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (2004), “Private Practice” (2009) and “Homeland” (2014), but those plotlines were slammed by health advocates for conflating PPD with postpartum psychosis and homicidal ideation (thanks to Erica Rosenthal for that information!). There were a couple of story arcs on “Scrubs” (2007) and “Parenthood” (2011) (with the “Scrubs” storyline winning a Sentinel for Health Award from Hollywood, Health & Society).
But as important as the number and nature of PPD storylines is why it’s happening. It has much to do with who is running the store. No surprise that all four TV shows have female writers and female showrunners, proving that as more women take the reins behind the scenes, stories of women’s health will get more airtime. And that, on this Mother’s Day, is a gift to all women.