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Gemma Arterton: being a child-free woman threatens people

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Anna Brech
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Gemma Arterton

Gemma Arterton’s new film shines an uncomfortable light on the role of women, children and society at large

With solo living at an all-time high, more women than ever are choosing not to have children.

And yet, this decision is still seen as controversial by some - as actor Gemma Arterton highlights in a new interview.

Arterton herself does not have children, but in her latest film The Escape, she plays a suburban housewife and mum-of-two who becomes increasingly indifferent about parenthood amid a battle with depression.

It’s a role that made Arterton sharply aware of how society views non-maternal women.

“I find that fascinating,” Arterton tells the Telegraph. “If a guy says he doesn’t want kids, it’s OK, but if a woman feels that, it’s like something’s wrong with her.

“It threatens people’s idea of what a woman is, what her function is.”

Arterton says she found it difficult to bond with the actors who played her children on-set, which made her realise how difficult the storyline of The Escape would be, were it to happen in real life.

“I was really struggling with working with the children in this film, it was actually the most difficult thing for me,” she says. 

“ […] I just couldn’t engage with them in the way that they wanted, like Dominic [Cooper, her co-star] could.

“He would come in and be silly with them, and make them laugh, and I couldn’t do it, and it got to where they’d look at me and they’d hide or they’d run away, and that was really, really painful. 

“And then it reached a point where I didn’t care if they liked me or not. And I thought, how tragic if they’re your actual children, to feel ambivalent like that.”

Writer and producer Tracy King

Tracy King: “Procreation is seen as a public duty”

Women’s relationship to children - even whether or not to have them to begin with - is still the source of widespread judgement in modern society.

Even now, with a dramatic shift in the topography of how we live, motherhood is often viewed as the default option by many people.

This is true both in real life and on-screen.

“Women without children tend to be portrayed in the media in two ways: either emotionally driven by maternity (think of Top of the Lake’s Robin, hallucinating her miscarried babies), or childless vixens lacking some basic ability to love and be loved,” writer and producer Tracy King tells Stylist.

“The things about my life I value most are things I would have to sacrifice to have children, a sacrifice for a benefit that I don’t feel is missing. I’m not short of love, or company, or ambition, and I’ve never noticed any biological clock or tugging desire to reproduce my genes.

“Yet because procreation is seen as a public duty, it’s apparently OK to grill a woman on the state of her uterus or mental health, digging to find what’s wrong with us – because surely something must be.”

Holly Brockwell

Holly Brockwell: “Nobody goes up to pregnant women and asks: ‘Why do you want one of those?’”

Journalist Holly Brockwell, who has also chosen not to have children, agrees.

“It’s interesting how often child-free people are asked to give reasons for not wanting kids, as if wanting them is a universal desire and you must have cast-iron explanations for feeling otherwise,” she says.

“Nobody goes up to pregnant women and asks: ‘Why do you want one of those?’

“There’s a popular narrative in society that everyone who has kids is happy, fulfilled and doesn’t regret their choice. It’s very, very taboo to admit you regret having a child, because people take it to mean you don’t love the kid you have. 

“But what you don’t have, you don’t miss […] me not having kids doesn’t mean you were wrong to, or that I hate your kids. It means I, personally, do not want a child.”

However we choose to live our lives, Arterton’s new film spotlights society’s disingenuous attitude towards women and motherhood - and the need for this to change.

Images: Getty, Tracy King, Holly Brockwell

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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