The Comedy, and the Horror, of the Infertility Plot

“Scrambled” is a romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with her decision to freeze her eggs. Nellie, a 34-year-old perma-bridesmaid, is wasted and alone at yet another wedding when she is struck by the fear that her fertility may peak before her romantic situation is resolved.

The conventional romantic comedy may culminate in marriage, but “Scrambled” leads Nellie toward a procedure that extends the timeline of her own marriage plot. Nellie (Leah McKendrick, who also writes and directs the film) gets her happy ending from an embryology lab. “You were no accident,” she tells one of her cryogenically preserved eggs. “You were one of the most intentional things that I have ever done.”

Reproductive technologies are increasingly assisting in human conception (even as the Alabama Supreme Court has complicated their use), and they have become familiar narrative devices, too. Their meaning is double-edged. “Scrambled,” with its oddball cheer, gives fertility treatments an empowering gloss. But an emerging horror genre sharpens the same technologies into instruments of exploitation, turning clinics into torture chambers and doctors into demons. The deus ex machina of assisted reproduction can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the god who sent the machine.

After swigging from the sentimental techno-optimism of “Scrambled,” I chased it with a wave of recent downers: I watched “False Positive,” the 2021 horror movie in which Lucy (Ilana Glazer) is subdued by a creepy fertility clinic; “Dead Ringers,” the 2023 limited series in which Rachel Weisz plays a pair of twin gynecologists; and “American Horror Story: Delicate,” the latest installment of the FX horror anthology series about an actress (Emma Roberts) who attempts to secure a baby and an Oscar with the help of her ambiguously sinister publicist (Kim Kardashian).

As I watched these horror stories, I found myself counting their clichés on both hands. In the standard fertility-horror plot, a wealthy white couple will report to a an experimental clinic. Its staff will forgo scrubs for bespoke costumes resembling clerics or Stepford wives. An inscrutable and potentially supernatural ultrasound reading will occur. A woman will struggle to conceive, and this difficulty will be blamed on her careerism. She will be instructed to ingest strange tinctures and coached to mistrust her own mind. Her terror will be dismissed as “pregnancy brain” or “hormones.” Her pain will be denied. Her male partner will collude with a male doctor behind her back. Her female friend will be in on it, too. In the end, her pregnancy will be simulated, sabotaged or terminated without her knowledge or consent.

In “American Horror Story: Delicate,” an actress (Emma Roberts, right) attempts to secure a baby and an Oscar with the help of her sinister publicist (Kim Kardashian, left).Credit…Eric Liebowitz/FX

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