How "Sex/Life" fails in its miscarriage portrayal while other shows succeeded with compassion

From "Fleabag" & "Grey's Anatomy" to Chrissy Tiegen, being vocal about miscarriage makes the experience less lonely

Published July 11, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

Sarah Shahi as Billie Connelly and Adam Demos as Brad Simon in "Sex/Life"  (Netflix)
Sarah Shahi as Billie Connelly and Adam Demos as Brad Simon in "Sex/Life" (Netflix)

"Sex/Life," the raunchy Netflix dramedy focuses on the unraveling of a picture-perfect, suburban marriage when Billie (Sarah Shahi), a stay-at-home mom, develops a sexual obsession with her toxic ex Brad (Adam Demos). While the show tries to wrap its arms around a number of modern feminist issues, ranging from sexual agency to breaking free of societal norms, unfortunately it does so with little success. One such topic brushed upon later in the season is Billie's miscarriage, losing the pregnancy she shared with Brad, which ultimately seems to trigger the end of their torrid, years-long relationship.

Often, on screen representation of miscarriage can be the closest many people who have lost a pregnancy come to connecting with others. But if anyone seeks connection in the disappointing, subtly stigmatizing portrayal of miscarriage in "Sex/Life," they won't find it. The opportunity to examine how Billie's pregnancy loss does — or doesn't — affect her is entirely passed up to instead explore Brad's recurring daddy issues, which he frequently invokes as an excuse to treat Billie and other women with nasty cruelty that she and audiences are expected to forgive every time. Brad becomes just one more example of storytelling that treats women as collateral damage in problematic men's often catastrophic journeys to self-improvement. 

Shortly after Billie loses their pregnancy, Brad leaves her alone, cheats on her, begs for her to take him back, only to unceremoniously dump her and force her out of their apartment just days after the miscarriage when she pushes him to find and meet his estranged father. Miscarriage may not be a devastating tragedy to every person who experiences it, but "Sex/Life" offers no consideration of the physical or mental toll miscarriage has on Billie, solely so it can instead focus on Brad's father issues. There is also undeniable, subliminal blame placed on Billie for losing the pregnancy, and subsequently causing the downfall of their relationship. 

This sort of blame and stigma probably wasn't intentional from "Sex/Life," but it's the impact nonetheless. The word "miscarriage" is controversial in itself, with many people who have experienced it and advocates pointing out its blaming implications, insinuating the pregnant person who lost their pregnancy "failed" to carry their pregnancy to term. Actor James Van Der Beek, who has opened up about facing three miscarriages with his wife has said of the term, "'Mis-carriage,' in an insidious way, suggests fault for the mother — as if she dropped something, or failed to 'carry'." The word in itself implies carelessness, irresponsibility, a moral or character failure from the person who loses their pregnancy.

The subtle and overt shaming of people who experience pregnancy loss is inseparable from a greater culture that treats pregnant people as incubators rather than people, tying their worth and existence to their pregnancy, and valuing the fetus over the pregnant person. People who lose their pregnancies are punished and policed both on a legal and cultural level. In several documented cases, they're treated as criminal suspects for supposedly intentionally harming their fetus or trying to induce an abortion, or they're treated with scrutiny and scorn over how they react to losing their pregnancy.

Just last fall, when Chrissy Teigen and John Legend announced the death of their wanted baby, Jack, from severe pregnancy complications, Teigen and Legend were harassed by an army of hateful internet trolls for taking professional photos to commemorate their loss. This, of course, is a common practice among people who experience similar loss, and often keep mementos to remember their lost or unborn child. And of course, even if it weren't a common practice, grieving, pregnancy and childbirth are highly personal experiences, and no one has the right to dictate how others should weather and move through these experiences. 

From start to finish, pregnancy is frequently treated as public spectacle and public domain, with onlookers who feel entitled to updates about this inherently personal and private experience, and certainly feel entitled to sharing their critiques, observations and opinions at every turn. One could make the argument that this cultural entitlement extends from policies that treat pregnancies and their outcomes as government-owned. And of course, in addition to this, pregnancy loss and miscarriage have long been mystified by poor or lacking on screen representation. Case in point: "Sex/Life," and the throwaway inclusion of a miscarriage as a segue to focus on the convoluted sob story of a toxic, emotionally abusive man.

That said, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, infertility and similar issues have received more and more thoughtful representation in recent years. From the devastating yet deeply human arc of Charlotte's (Kristin Davis) struggles with losing a wanted pregnancy and being unable to conceive on "Sex and the City," to the candid conversation on the second season of "This Is Us" exploring the impact of pregnancy loss on a male partner. 

Just last year, Freeform's "The Bold Type" explored how Sutton's (Meghan Fahy) miscarriage brought her mixed emotions, ultimately revealing to her that she didn't want to have kids, ever. British comedy "Fleabag" also shows the spectrum of emotions someone who has a miscarriage can experience, when Fleabag's (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) sister Claire (Sian Clifford) has a miscarriage in a bathroom, and rejects Fleabag's company and support. "No, just get your hands off my miscarriage. It's mine. It's mine," Claire says.

In 2019, Dr. Bailey (Chandra Wilson) on "Grey's Anatomy" offered a heartbreaking and resonant monologue on her miscarriage and the helplessness it evoked in her. "Everyone I touched today, everyone I held in my hands or gave to another surgeon to put back together again — fine," Bailey says. "But I made that fine. I made that work. This . . . this . . . this, I . . . I am not fine. [My baby] isn't fine. And I can't even hold her in my hands. Or put her in someone else's hands who can put her back together again. She just was! And now she isn't. And I can't do anything but just stand here — stand here and lose her."

There's no right or wrong way for a would-be parent to feel or react to a miscarriage, and far too often, people who lose a pregnancy face judgment, punishment and isolation. Miscarriage can be a famously lonely and isolating experience, as many who are impacted keep their stories to themselves out of shame, and are unable to connect with others who have also lost wanted pregnancies. It's estimated between 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, yet many who face this pregnancy outcome are left feeling alone, without people with whom they can share their stories.

More representation, and more wide-ranging representation of miscarriage, at that, is essential to destigmatize the experience, and remind those who lose their pregnancies that they're not alone. With "Sex/Life," we had the opportunity to bridge some of these gaps and shine light on a marginalized experience. We were instead treated to the spiraling of a toxic man who found a way to make his partner's miscarriage an excuse to punish her.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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