With all this excitement for a new season of TV, and now that I’m continuing to learn more about FABMs, I started thinking about some of my most-loved series that featured fertility-related storylines. It’s always fascinating to me to see how fertility is perceived and portrayed. Sometimes television is accurate, other times, not so much. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Let’s look at a few examples of some our beloved characters from everyone’s favorite primetime powerhouse, Friends (NBC), tackling fertility-related circumstances. Something that is very interesting to me is that all three leading ladies had a very different pregnancy storyline. Phoebe opting for in vitro fertilization (IVF) to become a surrogate for her brother and his wife; Monica tracking her ovulation (ultimately struggling with infertility); and Rachel with the unexpected, unplanned, one-night-stand pregnancy.
Sadly, I didn’t appreciate Friends until after the series ended. Very (as Fergie would say) “three-thousand and late” of me, I know, but thanks to reruns on like 10 different channels, I have now seen every episode multiple times. So I’m officially a Friends expert now. How accurately did the show depict these situations? In the spirit of all-things-tv, I’m going to borrow from TV Guide to give these fertili-TV storylines a “Cheers!” or “Jeers” rating based on how realistic they are. (Disclaimer: I am well aware that “Friends” is a completely fictional show - indulge me here, y’all!)
When Phoebe’s brother, Frank Jr., marries his high school home economics teacher, Alice, the couple discovers they are unable to conceive. They ask Phoebe to be their surrogate and she undergoes IVF fertility treatments. Surprise! (This shouldn’t be a spoiler, but if it is, #sorrynotsorry) Phoebe ends up giving birth to triplets!
Phoebe’s fertility storyline is good exposure to infertility and how family members may get involved with helping a situation of infertility. For couples who desire biological children, but face medical obstacles or are in a situation where pregnancy isn’t possible, surrogacy technically can be an option for them. The financial cost, however, is extraordinarily high ranging from $90,000 to $240,000*. That doesn’t really classify it as a realistic option for most couples.
The cheers is for Friends bringing up a controversial topic. Comedy can be a great strategy to bring up controversial topics in a way that opens discussions in a friendly way (no pun intended). One controversial topic about surrogacy is the risk of the surrogate getting attached to the unborn baby during the pregnancy. Phoebe began to develop an attachment to the growing babies in her belly, with humor of course. The show omitted more detailed and controversial aspects of surrogacy such as the legalities, extreme expense associated with the process, harsh judgments the surrogate often faces, etc.
After a year’s worth of unsuccessful attempts to have a baby, Monica and Chandler decide to see a fertility specialist. The Bing’s plans for a family are halted when they learn that Chandler’s low sperm motility combined with Monica’s “inhospitable environment” (her uterus) make it very unlikely for the couple to conceive naturally. Monica and Chandler explore other options and end up pursuing adoption.
When “The One With the Fertility Test” episode originally aired in 2003, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reported that 6.1 million Americans were being affected by infertility. First, *insert all the hand-clapping emojis here* to the Friends creative team for 1) featuring this storyline and 2) including the narrative that infertility is shared. Infertility is a painful reality for many families - I’m sure it must have been comforting for millions of people to see that portrayed on the small screen. I also admire, appreciate and give #allthecheers to the Friends writers for emphasizing the male factors of infertility. Chandler’s low sperm count contributed to the couple’s inability to get pregnant as well. It is refreshing and reassuring to see men share the challenges of infertility, especially since their roles are often diminished.
Here comes the jeers, though. Shortly after the episode aired, the LA Times printed a scathing article blasting the show for ignoring “some of the most common causes of female infertility” like endometriosis, ovulatory problems and hormonal imbalances (check out the full article here). Also, is it just me, or did “inhospitable environment” seem like a fake phrase at the time? I honestly thought is was a line the Friends writers came up with to almost sugarcoat or gloss over symptoms of infertility. When I looked it up, I discovered that “inhospitable environment” is actually a legit medical condition. This means the uterine environment is not suitable for hosting a fetus. There are several explanations why a uterus may be inhospitable; for instance, a woman may have a cervical insufficiency - a condition that occurs when weak cervical tissue contributes to premature birth or the loss of an otherwise healthy pregnancy. As a viewer (who is still learning about fertility), dressing up unexplained infertility issues in vague and unfamiliar terminology is confusing. *In my Randy Jackson from American Idol voice* It’s gonna be a jeers for me, dawg.
In Season Eight, the gang finds out that Rachel and Ross had a one-night stand a month before Monica and Chandler’s wedding. On the night the pair gets together to address Monica and Chandler’s wedding invitations, the exes hook up after one tells the other “The Story” - a tale rumored to guarantee some “tail” if you catch my drift. A forgotten recording later reveals who initiated it in “The One with the Videotape” episode (spoiler alert: it was Rachel).
This one is really tricky. I’m sure we’ve all been warned of the consequences of one-night stands, yes? (I always think of the“Don’t Have Sex” scene from Mean Girls and LOL when this topic comes up.) It would have been a good time for the show to input some education on the likelihood of becoming pregnant after a single act of unprotected sex. Which is totally a possibility and certainly does happen, but as you probably know, depends on the stage of the woman’s menstrual cycle and age.
ManyFriends fans are actually very critical of this particular storyline - mainly because of the glaring inconsistencies in Rachel’s pregnancy timeline overall - it’s getting a big ole jeers from me.
I commend any TV show that bravely features very real and relevant life subjects. We need more of it!
What do you think about how TV tackles serious topics like fertility and infertility? Are there other fertility-related storylines being overlooked?
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