c/o Macall Polay

c/o Macall Polay

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for “Succession.”

As of this past Sunday’s episode of “Succession,” Shiv Roy (Sarah Snook), the only daughter of business magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox), is pregnant. Shiv Roy, who has tried her entire life to escape the societal limitations of her gender by aggressively yet shakily overcompensating with conventionally masculine traits, is pregnant, and apparently has been for around four months.

Television has a wobbly history with Strong Complex Female Characters and pregnancy arcs. For decades, the prevailing purpose of its inclusion was to force the Strong Complex Female Character in question into a come-to-Jesus moment where she realizes that she’s been a hard, harsh career woman neglecting her womanly desires all along. The Strong Complex Female Character abandons her ambition and chooses what society would typically deem to be happiness instead.

Unsurprisingly, this narrative has become less popular in recent years, with the possible exception of Hallmark movies. This tired trope implying that women are happiest in the home with a baby suckling at their teat has been subject to much criticism and derision. In response, a counter-narrative to those pregnancy storylines began to appear and has increased in recent years. Strong Complex Female Characters get pregnant and decide to get an abortion in order to continue their careers, to continue being Strong and Complex. Look at Amy Brookheimer, for example, in the final season of “Veep,” a show often considered to be the political spiritual counterpart to “Succession.” The newfound and still-growing existence of representations of abortion in media is incredibly important, and this counter-narrative has played no small part in the rising acceptance of reproductive rights and its presence on our screens. These storylines are lauded as empowering and meaningful because they seem to finally allow women to choose their own path and not be shuttled straight into motherhood or classical definitions of femininity. Although this narrative counters its predecessor, it is unfortunately not as boundary-breaking as it has been made out to be. After all, the underlying dilemma is the same: women must choose between motherhood and a career. In other words, they must choose between being Female or being Strong and Complex.

Enter Shiv Roy of “Succession” fame. At the start of the show’s first season, she’s an ambitious, confident, independent political advisor, and as it continues, we see her drawn further and further into her family’s Murdochian media dynasty. As the only daughter among Logan Roy’s four children, and frequently one of the only women in a given room, Shiv is constantly disrespected and ignored by the men around her because of her gender. To counter that, she attempts to avoid ever doing anything that could be perceived as feminine: showing emotion, desiring love or connection, displaying vulnerability of any form, and appearing dependent on others.

The only times Shiv directly acknowledges her gender are when she weaponizes it, often against other women. She needs to be seen as a man, both at work and in her personal life. This is made evident by her unhealthy relationship with her husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen), one that is ripe with unstable power dynamics and distrust. She plays the stereotypical role of a man in her marriage. While Tom is emotional, overly affectionate, and acquiescing, Shiv is non-monogamous, emotionally distant, commitment-phobic, dominant, and clearly the one who wears the pants in the relationship. She’s had to adopt traditionally masculine characteristics and repress feminine ones in order to survive, let alone thrive, in the male-dominated environment that surrounds her. 

For a character like Shiv, whose nickname literally is synonymous with ‘knife,’ to suddenly be pregnant feels almost unthinkable. Something like pregnancy, which is so inextricably associated with femininity and so personal, would necessarily push her to reckon with her own fear of embodying anything remotely feminine. It would force her to reconcile the version of herself she needs to present to the world with whatever she actually is or actually wants—because frankly, we as an audience have no real sense of what Shiv wants in life, outside of her father’s approval and the CEO position, or even if she wants anything outside of that at all. 

That’s not to say Shiv has been poorly written so far or has been misogynistically underdeveloped compared to male counterparts whose psyches we know more intimately. I think the obscurity of her desires is intentional; Shiv is notoriously resistant when it comes to self-reflection, and even more so when it comes to actual expressions of vulnerability. Either of those actions are death sentences for women trying desperately to be respected in male-dominated spheres. Throughout the show, Shiv’s been clinging to personas she cannot embody. She needs to convince both herself and everyone around her that she is something she isn’t. How else would she survive as a woman in a man’s world, a center-left liberal in a deeply conservative company, a born-and-raised capitalist working in a Bernie-Sanders-esque campaign? She does hold on to her identity and values as much as she can, but when push comes to shove, she will always take on the stomach-turning identities she needs to in order to succeed: posing with fascists, talking women out of coming forward about abuse suffered at her company’s hands. In any “big d*** competition” (as business conflicts are repeatedly referred to on the show), she will always end up whipping out her own. Shiv can’t afford to think about her feelings for too long, because doing so would be nausea-inducing. Not only would it out her as having emotions and vulnerability, but it would force her to come to terms with the person that she’s become and, even more importantly, the person that she isn’t. She isn’t a paragon of liberalism or progressive ideals. She isn’t a feminist icon or a role model for women in business everywhere. She’s barely different from her father and much of the time, she wishes she were more like him. Shiv can’t introspect for too long or with too much intensity because it will burst the bubble she’s built up around herself for years, and with that bubble burst, what would even be left?

That’s the real question: what would be left? Who is Shiv outside of Waystar Royco, outside of sibling competition and fighting tooth-and-nail for male respect? Because something would be left. As much as she might wish she were the emotionless, Machiavellian ideal of masculine power, she isn’t. No one is. She’s still a person, and people have desires and hopes and feelings – not just women, but people. But it’s not like Shiv would ever take the initiative to sit down and ask herself what she really wants from both her life and herself. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be honest about it. So how is “Succession” going to develop Shiv’s inner life, not just her relationships with the men around her or her career ambitions? Shiv’s pregnancy might be the catalyst the show’s been waiting for.

This does not mean I think Shiv should abandon her quest to become the Biggest Girlboss of All Time or that she should have some revelation that she’s neglecting her motherly instincts. I don’t think “Succession” would do that, and even speaking more generally, I don’t think the inclusion of pregnancy in the arcs of female characters is something inherently reductive and sexist—it is just part of life sometimes. It would be very strange to not have it represented in any media. But even so, the overwhelming reaction on social media to Shiv’s pregnancy reveal has been incredibly negative, with many insisting that including pregnancy in her narrative is a massive disservice to her character. This feels bizarre to me. How does pregnancy “reduce a woman to their womanhood?” Was she not a woman before? Is she only a woman now that she’s pregnant? Is that not a weirdly essentialist take on both womanhood and pregnancy? Are real-life women who get pregnant “reduced to their womanhood” and therefore less fully fleshed-out people because they’ve decided they want children? It would be one thing if these comments were being made after it became clearer what “Succession” planned on doing with the pregnancy arc, because it is very true that there are many ways to turn it into an incredibly harmful narrative. But, seeing as so little is known about where the show is heading, many of the complaints seem to focus largely on the existence of pregnancy as a concept in relation to Strong Complex Female Characters. The only reason you would think pregnancy is a sexist concept, in and of itself, is if your internalized misogyny makes you think pregnancy, motherhood, and overt expressions of femininity are signs of weakness or a lack of complexity. Pregnancy is not womanhood and abortion is not anti-womanhood; they are just aspects of life, with specific implications and nuances for each person experiencing them. They shouldn’t be turned into grand moral statements about the right ways to “do gender.”

It isn’t surprising, however, that this is such a popular opinion. How could it be, when it’s exactly what we constantly see implied on television? Pregnancy in media is often turned into some sort of symbolic decision between femininity, and self-respect or success: are you a woman or are you a person? This holds true for certain abortion plotlines as well. There is a vast overrepresentation of wealthy white female characters getting abortions to further their career, when in reality only about 20% of people who get abortions cite this as one of the reasons, let alone their primary reason. Pregnancy and careers are framed as inherently at odds with one another: you cannot get an abortion and still desire a family or love; you cannot choose to remain pregnant and still desire a career or success. This perpetuates the harmful narratives around femininity that permeate our societal consciousness. A Strong Complex Female Character being pregnant does not mean that she will suddenly become weak or lose her complexity, yet that is one of the dominating “feminist” responses to this “Succession” plot point. This response to Shiv’s pregnancy makes it clearer than ever that we desperately need a decent pregnancy narrative for a Strong Complex Female Character—one with a female character who, rather than being defined as a Woman or an Anti-Woman, isn’t defined by complete acquiescence to or vehement rejection of societal ideals of femininity. Instead of simply being a Woman with a distinct set of classically feminine qualities or an Anti-Woman with the exact opposite qualities, she would be allowed to just be a person. 

Much of the online criticism of this plot development has centered on the insistence that Shiv has never wanted children, so it doesn’t make sense for her not to get an abortion the second she receives the news. But really, that perception of Shiv and her desires is more of an assumption than anything else, one made by audiences and characters alike. Caroline (Harriet Walter), Shiv’s mother, with whom she has a tense and complicated relationship, told her last season that Shiv made the right choice in deciding not to have kids. Shiv’s face flickers as Caroline says this, brows furrowed, indicating her surprise at being seen as having already made a decision about motherhood. Simply because a woman doesn’t want a child at one age doesn’t mean she won’t later on; Shiv’s dedication to her career doesn’t necessitate a lifelong devotion to anti-natalism. This isn’t to say Shiv seems like she’s been longing for motherhood her entire life or even that she’d be a good mother. However, just because someone isn’t overtly maternal does not mean they would never have kids. Shiv might end up having a child specifically to spite Caroline’s insistence that she won’t. Making important life decisions out of spite is certainly in character for her. There are many motivations for starting a family, but we tend to think that the only one a female character could have is a sudden desire for the domestic, rather than something in keeping with her character.

“Succession” is seen as the “Breaking Bad” of the new decade, a critical darling and cultural sensation, and deservingly so. It’s phenomenal. And more than in any other show, a pregnancy plot in “Succession” has the potential to send waves through the entire genre of prestige television. That’s why this plot line seems to me to exemplify high risk and high reward. There are hundreds of ways it could fall into the same misogyny-driven archetypes that so many pregnancy storylines tend to trap themselves in, and that would be a severe disappointment. But, at the same time, it could usher in a new era of Strong Complex Female Characterizations, ones that allow for real nuance in female characters. So, if Shiv Roy is allowed both strength and femininity at once, if those traits are allowed to not only coexist but inform each other, it just might open the door for genuinely empowering female characters, rather than ones framed as strong because they reject femininity. If Succession” does this arc right, Shiv might give birth to more than a child; she might give birth to a new generation of Strong Complex Female Characters who, perhaps for the first time, actually live up to their name. 

Casey Epstein-Gross can be reached at cepsteingross@wesleyan.edu.


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