Emma Thompson: ‘You don’t have to have babies to be a complete woman’

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande was released on Hulu here in the US. It’s a small, indie drama starring Emma Thompson as a retired teacher who wants some adventure, so she hires a sex worker so she can have some experiences she’s never had. There was apparently some back-and-forth about whether a film released on Hulu would be eligible for Academy consideration. The ruling came down recently that Leo Grande qualifies, so now Emma is part of an Oscar campaign for her performance. She spoke to Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast about the film, the industry, streaming and a lot more. Some highlights:

Watching herself perform on screen, naked: “I would say that the most vulnerable I felt was in Berlin at the film festival in this massive cinema. It was a bloody football field—I mean, huge wraparound room, where we were pretty large on screen. When they told me that it was going to stream [on Hulu], I thought—in a way, in America, there’s more puritanism about sex and sexual pleasure even than there is here. And there’s a lot here. I thought maybe it’s easier for people to see it in their homes.

What she thinks about indie movies going on streaming: “It reminds me of a little bit of all the debate that came around when video started. I’m old enough to remember that, you see. Everyone said, “It’s going to kill cinema.” Didn’t kill cinema. “Cinema’s going to kill theater.” Didn’t kill theater. “COVID’s going to kill theater.” Everyone’s gone back to the theater. We all get into a bit of a panic. And I’m old enough to remember all of those panics and to know that actually in the end, really great stories do find their way out a lot of the time. I’m not underplaying the fact that I’ll find something and suddenly go, “God, why didn’t I see this at the time?” Everything’s under the huge tsunami of massive movies. If at the Cannes Film Festival you’ve got literally got fighter jets going over for Top Gun: Maverick, I go, look, if we’re not going to be supported by independent movie film festivals, then that’s something that’s got to be taken responsibility for.

The film made her recognize “the waste of time” of not accepting one’s body. “You can’t unlearn it because it’s brainwashing. I’ve been brainwashed since I was very young and the brainwashing continues. I think it’s worse actually now because it’s continued on social media. So instead of people saying, “We are now going to inhabit the world in our real selves, in our real forms,” people are taking their forms and photoshopping them themselves. Everything that I was brought up with, which only happened in magazines, is now happening to people on people’s phones. This notion of the ideal and the perfect, industrialized, banal and tedious though it is, has been made even more of a thing. And thus we’re looking at kids as young as eight saying, “I don’t like my thighs. I don’t like this.” Anorexia’s hugely on the rise. It’s something that I’ve fought against all my life, but I can’t fill in those runnels. I just can’t do it. But I can try to be the change. At least I can be honest. And at least I can say, “Look, I accept this now.” I accept my body. I don’t have to love it, but I accept it.

On Maggie Gyllenhaal & seeing an early cut of ‘The Lost Daughter’: “Her presentation of the hell and the torment of motherhood, if it’s not what actually you want to do, was brilliant…[Maggie & I] been mates for a long time and have talked about all of this for a very long time. And actually, one of the things that should be, and I think is becoming part of a mainstream conversation, is that you don’t have to have babies to be a complete woman. You just don’t have to do it. And I think there’s still a huge taboo about that—huge. You become a mother and you realize that everything’s your fault because everything’s the mother’s fault, everything. In popular psychology, that’s changing a bit, but certainly when psychology began, that was everything. It was all written by men, and it was all very bad science. All of this stuff has to be unpacked, taken apart and redefined, re-explored. And all of these movies that we’re talking about are doing that.

Stories we need to stop telling: “There are certain stories we really do have to stop telling because I think they’re quite damaging. One is, “And they lived happily ever after.” That’s just bullsh-t….The other story that we really need to stop telling is about one man saving the world. This is just a very, very dull story, and it has to stop. I’m so bored. When I talk to my brilliant producer friend, Lindsay Doran, she does a talk about the female hero and what writers are told. They’re told the most extraordinary things now—today they’re told, “Well, she can’t cry. She can’t cry because that’s showing feminine weakness. She’s got to be badass.” All the female tropes now have to be like the men. You go, “Hang on a second.” It’s the same story. We have to go into the in-between bit and say, “But what is this that we’re representing?” We are just saying the same thing again and again.

[From Vanity Fair]

“You don’t have to have babies to be a complete woman. You just don’t have to do it. And I think there’s still a huge taboo about that—huge…” She’s right. Childfree women are still considered oddities, or the exception to the rule. Mothers reinforce it too, when they talk about how having a baby makes them feel “complete” or “whole.” This made me stop and think too: “in America, there’s more puritanism about sex and sexual pleasure even than there is here. And there’s a lot here.” I assume she means the UK and perhaps the British-American strains of Puritanism. I get that. But British tabloids still put topless photos in every issue, right?

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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59 Responses to “Emma Thompson: ‘You don’t have to have babies to be a complete woman’”

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  1. OriginalLaLa says:

    The number of childfree women is going up, we aren’t such an oddity anymore – I’m in my 30s and many of my friends are happily childfree like I am. I’ve never once thought I’m less of a woman because my identity isn’t tied to the state of my uterus.

    • LaraK says:

      I’m going to get dinged for this, but I loathe the term child-free. For one, it makes it sound like children are a disease, but also because it invalidates families where children have an alternate presence in peoples lives. My BFF’s brother has four children. She sees them every weekend, every single one, and is a huge influence in their lives. She chose not to have children, but I hardly consider her child-free. I also don’t think of myself as child-afflicted.

      Bottom line, giving birth, adopting, or choosing to not have children are not the only options here. And ALL choices can result in a complete, fulfilled person.

      • notasugarhere says:

        It is a pro-active stance and word, given that ‘childless’ has been used for decades as pejorative, negative, pitying, etc..

      • MtlExPat says:

        @Nota – exactly.
        @larak – a little defensive, no? Women who choose to not have children repudiate the “childless” or “less than” terminology and choose “child free” and you make that about you not being “child afflicted?” Newsflash – it’s not always about you and your choices to have children.

      • AlishaB says:

        @Larak – “child-free” was the term chosen because it was the least negative but made the most sense. It’s meant to convey specifically that not having or wanting children is a deliberate choice.

        “Childless” isn’t accurate because it means you just don’t currently have children, not that you simply don’t ever want them. (And that term is also be seen by some as negative too). “Without children by choice” is just cumbersome. There really aren’t a lot of other good descriptors.

      • Cammi says:

        I think “child-free” was coined as a alternative to “childLESS” which has the connotation that you’re “less-than” if you don’t have children, or missing something in your life that should be there to make you whole or complete. Nothing to do with the actually reality of your existence. Is a child-free kindergarten teacher or paediatrician child-free if they don’t have kids of their own? Absolutely! But do they play an important part in kids’ lives and vice versa? Of course! Surrounding yourself with kids doesn’t negate the fact that you aren’t a parent. That’s a 24/7 18+ year job! It’s hard work and a massive life decision that’s not for everyone.

      • Kitten says:

        I’ll always use the term child-free for the reasons outlined in the above comments. And no one else gets to define or dictate how I refer to myself. If you don’t like the term, you can call me childless IDGAF..

      • Tiffany:) says:

        “no one else gets to define or dictate how I refer to myself.”

        Child-free, unmarried, no apologies.

      • Pusspants says:

        I love the term “child-free” because I associate not having kids with having more freedom to do what I want with my time. And though I do have other children in my life (17 nephews & nieces), I’m not a parent & it doesn’t make me feel less-than to be described using a term that doesn’t encompass every aspect of my relationship to children. I could go by “happy with no kids while also sometimes enjoying time with other people’s kids.” A bit of a mouthful.

      • Miss Jupitero says:

        I am childfree and I am the poster child for how you can end up with a wonderful and loving family without ever being a mother. My partner of 25 years has two daughters– however, although I was certainly an influence in their lives as they grew up, I was not nor have I ever been their mother. They already have a mother and did not need another. They consider me to be more of a glorified auntie. Being childfree does not mean that you hate children, nor does it mean that you can never have children in your life, nor does it mean that you have no investment in the next generation. There are so many ways to have people in your life and motherhood is just one.

    • Mel says:

      Women in their 30s not having children is becoming wildly common place. Myself and my girlfriends all have zero interest in having children. We’re all busy getting Doctorates and travelling the world, opening practices, holiday-ing, eating $150 sushi. Literally, why would we ever give this up?

      We support women who want to have children, we just don’t. We like to sleep, drinks nice cocktails, buy ourselves expensive Burberry coats and bags, and fly to Ibiza for our birthdays. I move to Argentina this week and I would not be doing that had I had children.

      Again, great for those who want them – but for those of us who don’t, we are living a realllllllly nice, well-rested life. Plus, it gives me time to read Celebitchy each day, which I wouldn’t otherwise manage.

      Childfree life is the dream!

      • AlishaB says:

        @Mel. Exactly, I am in my 30s as well and the vast majority of my friends – both men and women, have opted out of having children. I’d say it’s about 70/30 split in favor of being childfree. I definitely think it’s an increasing trend. Although some chose not to have them for other reasons, like the cost or not being comfortable with that state of the world. But I don’t know anyone who has regretted it yet.

      • Chicken says:

        Damn, your child-free life is more glamorous than mine, and power to you for that! But yeah, I get to sleep late when I want, work late when I need to, and have fancy ass food and drinks whenever I damn well please. I’m in my 30s and the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances are happily child-free.

      • Miss Jupitero says:

        You are singing my song! Btw, at 58, I have never regretted my choice.

    • SophieJara says:

      I agree that it’s changing. Most of my friends don’t have kids and my mom didn’t pressure me about it. I do live in a coastal city, but no one ever has asked me about it.

      I tell all my friends who are still considering that you better WANT this. I did decide I wanted it, mine are 4 and 6, and it is HARD. Even if you did really want it. If you’re on the fence… I don’t recommend lol.

  2. Jessie Quinton says:

    “But British tabloids still put topless photos in every issue, right?”

    The Sun used to have the Page 3 girls which were the topless models, and there used to be Zoo magazine here and whatnot full of topless women, and they would declare it FEMINIST for these women to do that. And then women started actually saying “actually, all of this is really pandering to men and the p*rn industry* and that fizzled out sometime in the late Noughties. Now with the prevalence of mobile devices it’s just migrated online to social media. I definitely think since then there has been a shift in that kind of thing in the UK towards more of the American way of “enjoying” sexual images and all things associated, but I don’t necessarily think it’s because the British are adopting Puritanism.

  3. jo73c says:

    Historically on screen, (US compared to UK) nudity & sex were more tightly regulated in the US, and violence more tightly regulated in the UK.

  4. ME says:

    I agree. Women don’t need to become mothers to feel complete…nor do men. Also, I really dislike when people ask married couples when are they “going to start a family”. Excuse me, but you don’t have to have kids to be considered a “family”. Families can come in all shapes and forms.

    • Coco says:

      Yes I hate the idea that your only a “family” if you have kids.

    • Pusspants says:

      Yes! And please indulge me for going off topic for a moment. I hate when politicians use the term “working families” or just “families” when they talk about who their policies that are non-child specific will benefit. For instance, “These tax breaks will put money into the hands of working families.” Why not just say “people” instead of the family focus? Are policies not made to benefit individuals? I’m married & this always struck me as odd & exclusionary language. Feels good to get that off my chest 😉

  5. Zan says:

    I love her so much.
    She is so right about so many things here, but what she says about mothers being at fault for everything is spot on. I remember once my husband and I taking both our sons to the simultaneous appointments at the dentist, and each of us stayed with one kid, but the dentist would call me over to look at something that wasn’t quite up to snuff and I was like, “His dad is standing right next to you, tell him!” But I, as the mother, was responsible for all problems or deficiencies. UGH.

  6. Lightpurple says:

    I have alway loved you, Emma, but you just tripled that! Thank you for saying that.

  7. Betsy says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to ding women for saying that motherhood made them feel complete if that’s a statement of fact about their feelings about their own lives. Motherhood added a richness to my life but I wasn’t lacking prior to motherhood, nor is any other woman. No woman should feel compelled to have children if she doesn’t want to and not having children doesn’t make anyone incomplete*. Women are not the contents of their uterus.

    *This of course speaks to those who do not want children but I think it’s fair to understand that the women who wanted to have children but were unable to do so do feel incomplete.

    • Lightpurple says:

      There is a huge difference between one woman saying her own life was complete when she had a baby, as you just did, and anyone generalizing that a person isn’t complete or isn’t a woman until she has a baby. The first is personal experience (I understand you meant the first one); the second is an insensitive, demeaning and hurtful generalization. Olivia Wilde said the latter and I will never forget or forgive it.

      I wanted children but cancer took that from me. It’s part of my life and I accepted it very quickly – the other option was death. I understand that is my personal approach and others may feel differently. We get up, we move on, we enjoy the life we have. And I have a very full, wonderful life in which I can do things people with children can’t do and yet my life is also full of children whom I adore, who adore me. What I can’t and won’t accept are the people who tell me that my life is incomplete.

      • Hootenannie says:

        @lightpurple I see what you both are saying, but I thought @betsy was referring to the author of this article noting that “mothers reinforce” this attitude. I always wonder how many of these observations come from real life vs the internet.

      • Betsy says:

        I didn’t word that precisely. I’m not implying that you are in any way incomplete or less than, only that it would be *understandable if* a woman who wanted children and did not get to have them felt incomplete. A few of my friends and family wanted children and did not get to have them and in their own words they feel incomplete. You are a whole being.

  8. Looty says:

    What was hard for me was weighing some of my potential weaknesses as a parent against my desire to have a child. I think it’s not a frivolous decision, and not everyone should have children even if they want them. Definitely don’t have them if you don’t want them. Because yes, mother is blamed for everything. Just one more side effect of misogyny. Still, glad I did but I went in with my eyes open.

    • Aj2 says:

      I’ve often said that for me, being child free isn’t about not having children- it’s about not wanting the 24 hour job of being a parent- plain and simple. And 15 years after making that decision, I have no regrets. Kudos to Emma for saying this out loud.

      • Mel says:

        I think about this all the time. You can literally never call it a day, ever. I don’t know how people do it in the modern world, the biological drive must be through the roof to convince people to go through with it.

        For men, the burden isn’t the same. But for women… it just doesn’t seem like a possibility in my head. I can’t wrap my head around how they do it. I guess they clearly manage and just get on with it, but it just blows my mind that they do.

  9. Dawn says:

    As someone who is unable to have a baby, Emma’s words made me cry. It is something I have struggled with and hearing her say you are a complete woman if you do not have kids is powerful. I have had mothers tell me I am not a real woman or a good wife because I cannot have children. People need to stop judging and demeaning people who do not have kids.

    • Mel says:

      I’d wager money (as a Psychologist) that many of those women have regrets about their choices and their lives, and they’re using transference to make themselves feel better.

      Also, don’t ever talk to those people again.

    • Lizzie Bathory says:

      I’m so sorry people have said that to you, Dawn. I can’t have children either & even though I wanted them, I’m very happy with the life I have. I feel complete, but I’ve heard comments like that, too. We finally had to tell my in-laws bluntly about my medical condition so they’d stop asking “when” we’d have kids.

    • Lorelei says:

      @Dawn, I’m so sorry that people ever had the audacity to say such disgusting, untrue, cruel things to you. And I completely agree with @Mel that it’s more about them trying to make themselves feel better about choices that *they* regret.

    • Pusspants says:

      @ Dawn, Those sound like some very rude people who said that to you. I’m another psychologist & agree with Mel that their words are about negative feelings they have about their own choices or situations in life. Hugs to you & it’s okay to remove people like that from your life

  10. Bettyrose says:

    The British sent their puritans packing… to the Americas. So yeah we’re way TF more puritanical. But I’ve really never even considered having a baby. I’ve never wanted it and haven’t structured a life around it. I actually present as very fem with my hair and nails and clothing styles, but while I have always enjoyed being conventionally fem I’m missing some kinda domestic gene. The two are clearly not connected.

  11. MtlExPat says:

    I’ve always loved Emma Thompson from way way back. She’s interesting, funny, independent and has no f*cks to give. The older I get the more I appreciate her.

  12. jequill says:

    Got a job interview last month by a 50y+ man who asked me if I was single and if I had children, I said no. He looked at me dryly and said ‘because you hate them ?”. I was so shocked, I didn’t reply. He then said ‘just jocking”. What a prick ! I’m glad I didnt had the job.

    • AlishaB says:

      @Jequill What a completely nasty and inappropriate thing to say to you. Interviewers shouldn’t even be asking those kinds of questions, and as a woman, it’s a tricky topic to navigate around. There’s still people who don’t want to hire women because they worry about them having kids and quitting, then there’s those who act like if you don’t have or want kids, there’s something wrong with you. We can’t win.

    • HoofRat says:

      I have to confess the first response that popped into my head was,”No, I don’t hate them – I’m just scared they’ll turn out like you.”
      Sexist putz.

    • bettyrose says:

      Wait, wut? Was this in the U.S.? Because that’s completely illegal. Actually, as I understand it, it’s not illegal to ask if someone has/plans for kids. It’s illegal to discriminate in hiring on that basis, so asking the question provides a basis for a credible accusation of gender discrimination. If you’re in the U.S., please consider filing a claim with the EEOC. Here’s the link: https://www.eeoc.gov/filing-charge-discrimination

      • jequill says:

        thank you but I’m french living nearby Paris

      • bettyrose says:

        This happened near/in Paris?? I live in the fantasyland of the mind where France is legions beyond the U.S. in women’s rights. I still think that’s true, but I’m disgusted at how easy it was to assume that comment was from an American man, something I don’t need to explain to any woman in the U.S.

    • Tiffany:) says:

      Hate them? I love them. Tastes like chicken.

      Just kidding, but his question was so out of line and irrational, only an irrational response is appropriate.

      • bettyrose says:

        Totally fine. My partner and I used to joke about our inappropriate responses to rude questions about plans for children. Our favorite was “yes, we do plan to have them, with fava beans and a nice chianti.” Rude questions deserve no less in response.

      • Saucy&Sassy says:

        Tiffany & bettyrose, or you could go the W.C. Fields way. When asked how he like children, he replied, “parboiled”.

        I’m in my 60s and am child free. I’m quite content and I have to admit that any decisions I make I only have myself to consider. That really makes retirement great!

      • Tiffany:) says:

        I’ve found my people! 😉

    • Jaded says:

      It’s illegal to question a potential employee about their married status or plans for children here in Canada. Period. If I were in your shoes I would have lodged a human rights complaint STAT and got his ass fired.

  13. Wilma says:

    I’ve always felt that I could go either way with regards to children and be happy and I stand by that.
    Children should be their own people, not the thing that is needed to give you purpose or make you feel complete. That’s too much of a burden to put on a kid.

  14. Margot says:

    She is my nearly 80-year-old dad’s big crush. My mom and I think he has great taste!

  15. Twin Falls says:

    Tik Tok says single child free women are the most successful demographic followed by…married men who have children. And that makes so much sense to me.

  16. Jaded says:

    I’m about to turn 70 and have never regretted making the decision to not have children. Maybe it’s because my own childhood wasn’t ideal, maybe I just don’t have the “mothering” gene. In any event I did get pregnant once, had an abortion, and went on with my life. I do feel like a complete woman — I’m smart, capable, have had my share of ups and downs and survived them all on my own. I’m currently in a WONDERFUL relationship and happy as a clam that I lucked out finding Mr. Right at this time of my life. Children don’t make you a complete woman, YOU make yourself a complete woman.

  17. HeyKay says:

    Bless the new thinking about people having the choice to life their lives as they choose to do.

    I’m 61, and most everyone I know IRL was raised to be married, have children, and be stay at home Moms. Granted, I was raised in poverty and in a very sheltered community, “Do as you are told, it’s for your own good”

    Thank you to every single person who supports others in how they choose to live.

    • bettyrose says:

      @HeyKay – I’m going to word this carefully to not stumble into classicism. The desire to have children is not determined by economics. However, the pressure to have children has been used historically to keep women financially constrained and dependent, so it does make me angry to hear about women living in poverty being pressured to have children. It’s one thing if you’re 32, want children, and make the decision to do so despite economic obstacles. It’s quite another to feel pressured to start having babies the day you graduate high school to keep the poverty cycle in tact. (I read a book about this recently, but now I’m forgetting the title. Anyway, it’s an author from Kansas who wrote about the effort it took to not get pregnant in high school under extreme social pressure to do so).

  18. Valerie says:

    I love Emma! She’s absolutely right. <3

  19. jferber says:

    Of course, this is push back to Harry Potter’s author on her hellbent vendetta against trans women. Emma is a joy. I LOVED LOVED LOVED her indie film and could watch it another ten times.

  20. Isa says:

    She’s absolutely correct. It’s interesting how in order for women to be considered complete by other people they have to have children- something that honestly takes so much from you mentally, financially, emotionally, physically, etc. I am happy with my decision to have children, but if it’s something I didn’t want WHY would I do it? People say do what makes you happy, until it doesn’t line up with what their expectations of happiness looks like.