The Reproductive Sociology Research Group supports research and teaching on the social and cultural implications of new reproductive technologies.

ReproSoc is led by Professor Sarah Franklin at the University of Cambridge.

Plan B

Plan B

Katie Dow, March '16 - available to download as a PDF.

The first episode of comedian and actor Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None, ‘Plan B’, opens with a sex scene. In doing so, it initiates a motif that is recapitulated throughout the show, of presenting an expectation – in this case, what a young male writer (or in fact, pair of writers – it is co-written by Ansari and Alan Yang) might have as his fantasy first scene on his first solo TV show, and then showing its obverse: it turns out that this episode isn’t actually about sex at all – it’s about parenthood.

I started watching Master of None, which first aired on Netflix in November last year, because I had seen it featured in various ‘TV of the year’-type reviews and because I was aware of Ansari from Parks and Recreation and his memorable bit-part as a racist fruit-seller in Flight of the Conchords. And, given my own penchant for thinking about reproduction, they not surprisingly had me at this episode, which wittily and thoughtfully reflects what many people in their early thirties who are surrounded by reproducing friends and siblings think about when considering the possibility that they, too, might become a parent one day.

The name of the episode comes from the outcome of the opening scene, which is a broken condom (which, by the way, happens a lot more in films and TV than it does in real life), a conversation between Ansari’s character Dev and Rachel, whom he’s just met, about the likelihood that she will get pregnant despite the fact that he hasn’t ejaculated and a deceptively simple scene at the late-night pharmacy where they go to get the morning-after pill, Plan B. Ansari also published a book, co-written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, about technology and dating last year and, before Dev and Rachel go to the pharmacy, they both turn to their iPhones to google whether she can get pregnant from pre-ejaculate. In the pharmacy, which is the first time we really see Rachel and Dev in full light rather than illuminated by the glare of their phone screens, Dev self-consciously attempts to strike the right balance between being responsible and being respectful towards Rachel, insisting on paying for the Plan B, ironically declaring it ‘my treat’, and buying her a brand of apple juice he likes to offset the sudden interposition of the over-lit pharmacy into their first date. Although the date seems to be effectively over at this point, he is still trying to make a good impression – thus establishing that he is a good guy to both Rachel and the viewer of this pilot episode.

Next, Dev tells two friends, Arnold and Denise, about the incident over drinks in a bar, concluding, ‘so now two people that barely know each other won’t be raising a human child together. That’s dope. Shout out to Plan B pills!’ This provokes Arnold, who has been described as ‘the token white character’ of the show, to disclose that he has a low sperm count, which he blames on hot tubs ‘melting’ his ‘little guys’. He isn’t worried about this, though, and opines, ‘babies are boring, man. It just doesn’t make sense. In the olden days, you’d pop out those bitches and they’d tend to your farm, but now we’re not living an agrarian lifestyle anymore they’re obsolete.’ Denise asks Dev whether he wants to have children. His reply crystallises what many other single middle-class people in their early thirties, living in cities, starting to get established in their careers think about the prospect of parenthood: ‘Part of me is like, yeah, it’d be an amazing human experience. But then part of me is like, alright, later tonight, I wanna go get some pasta, now if I have a kid I can’t go, I gotta scramble to find a sitter or something. What if I don’t find a sitter, then what? What, I’m not eating the pasta? That sounds horrible.’

Later in the episode, Dev and Arnold attend their friend Kyle’s son’s first birthday party, lured by the promise of a bouncy castle. When Dev asks Kyle about fatherhood, Kyle says, ‘it’s great, I feel like I’m part of something bigger now, y’know, I’ve got this deeper sense of purpose’. Dev asks him if he ever misses going out and Kyle describes being woken up at 4am by his crying son, looking into his eyes and enjoying a moment where they laugh together, ‘I’m laughing with this person I created, right, with my kid! I just can’t think of one night partying or drinking that would make me feel one millionth of that feeling.’

This exchange between Dev and Kyle is followed by a fantasy sequence in which Dev imagines himself as a 1950s father to two perfect children, who listen to his advice and go for sedate walks in the park. This scene underlines the mythical quality of Kyle’s description of fatherhood, which we later find out to be rather hollow, or, as he puts it, ‘bullshit that you say at a party’. In this first half of the episode, then, parenthood is about grand themes, abstract notions, finding meaning. It is a noble, enriching and fulfilling pursuit, while not having children is a silly, childish, hedonistic decision – it’s putting artisan pasta and loveless sex above an amazing human experience.

Running through this is a motif of what Siobhan Magee called in her recent talk at ReproSoc, ‘adult childness’, a sense that adults who don’t yet have children are still somewhat like children themselves, in that they don’t have responsibility for another dependent human life. It’s a motif that’s familiar from recent fatherhood films like Knocked Up, but, like the graphic memoirists that Magee discussed in her talk, here it is treated more ambivalently and less normatively. In one scene, Arnold notes that his pet lizard has the same name as a character called Alex’s baby and it is not immediately clear whether he is making fun of her choice of name for her son, especially when he then adds that the lizard died recently in an improbable-sounding accident. But he never breaks his hangdog affect and so we start to see that, rather than mocking Alex or keeping all the attention on his lizard rather than her child, he is actually trying to relate to her. And, Alex’s sympathetic response suggests that maybe there isn’t anything particularly hollow or emotionally vacuous about having a pet rather than a child. It even suggests that people who are parents can still relate to those who aren’t. In this way it suggests that, while childfree people might seem to be more like children in terms of societal expectations, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are lacking in human experience or emotional depth.

Dev’s wide-eyed, high-pitched delivery adds to the impression of the child-like nature of his character, but it also makes him able to ask questions and get away with observations that his friends might easily find alienating rather than endearing (in later episodes, we see this in particular in his various encounters with racism). In the second half of this episode, his lofty ideals about the amazing human experience of being a father are tested as he volunteers to look after his friend Amanda’s two children while she attends a work meeting. In the first interaction that we see between Dev and the children, we learn that Dev is good with children, but Amanda warns him that her son Grant ‘can be a bit of a dick’. Dev counters that Grant’s always nice to him. Amanda points out that he only over sees him for short periods of time adding, from experience, ‘if you saw him all the time he would, like, take a shit in your shoe or something’.

The hour’s babysitting starts well, with Dev and the children playing together in the park, but as soon as he moves beyond that repertoire into having to take responsibility for them – when they can’t choose what ice cream they want, when the girl, Lila, needs to go to a public toilet and when Grant gets lost in the supermarket – he starts to understand why Amanda warned him about the negative sides of caring for children. This culminates in a second fantasy scene that revisits Dev as father – now, it is contemporary and his children are screaming and making a mess to a soundtrack of ‘Come to Daddy’ by Aphex Twin while he looks resigned and envies Arnold’s carefree bachelor lifestyle.

Dev’s decision to remain childfree, at least for the time being, is cemented in the final scene, at Amanda’s home. Ansari is a self-confessed foodie whose partner is a chef (and a feminist) and once again, food provides the go-to metaphor. Amanda has returned from her meeting and she, Dev and her (happily childless) brother Nathan are going to have some deli sandwiches that Nathan has brought around for them and which she is really looking forward to. As they sit down to eat the sandwiches, Grant and Lila reappear, now rather more demure, announcing that they have made Amanda a special sandwich with peanut butter, lettuce… and ketchup. Amanda foregoes her deli sandwich and opts to have the one made by her children. Lila and Grant then announce they’ve also got one for Dev. He looks at the sandwich they’ve made him, which is in pieces and covered in ketchup, and concludes, ‘I’ve gotta be honest, that looks pretty disgusting, I’m gonna eat this one, I’m sorry’ and proceeds to eat his deli sandwich and then starts on Amanda’s too.

A New York Deli. Photo: Harrison Embrey (Wikimedia Commons)

A New York Deli. Photo: Harrison Embrey (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, Dev is not the first male character to reflect on fatherhood. For example, Louiehilariously fictionalises stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s own experience of shared custody of his children with his ex-wife, once again in New York. But Dev is unusual in that he is not a father, nor – his scruples about the perils of pre-ejaculate aside – is he about to become one. On screen, men are usually depicted thinking about fatherhood when their partner announces she’s pregnant, their child is kidnapped or they’re going through a divorce. And so, there is something notable about Ansari and Yang’s decision to pilot their show with an episode that isn’t about Dev’s job or (really) about his sex life, but about whether he’d like to become a parent one day.

Thinking about future parenthood from the point of view of a straight man allows us to see the different physiological relationships men and women have to parenthood and the ways in which parenthood takes on different meanings in a milieu in which mothers and fathers are likely to have had numerous previous sexual partners. This is pithily captured in Dev’s reflection on bumping into an ex-girlfriend who now has a baby: ‘I’ve had sex with that person and now a baby’s come out of that same vagina!’ What this observation and the show’s opening scene both show is the assumption that sex and reproduction don’t necessarily go together. This has been facilitated by the availability of contraception like Plan B, which also makes dating culture possible, as well as the greater awareness of infertility and the social expectation that parenthood should be planned and intentional that is characteristic of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

As the dialogue suggests, this is a show by and primarily for millennials. One way of reading Ansari and Yang’s decision to have a young, single male character thinking about fatherhood is their assumption that fatherhood means sharing childcare with the child’s mother, which is quietly revolutionary. The set-up of the episode suggests that, for millennials like them, becoming a father has the same kind of impact as becoming a mother – it’s not just ‘hugs and kisses’, but also the ‘poop shoes’. This is encapsulated by Kyle’s character, who, in his later more honest conversation with Dev, surrounded by the aftermath of his son’s birthday party, seems as exhausted as any breastfeeding, sleep-deprived mother of a newborn. But, even though he now reveals that is divorcing his wife, he is clear that he loves his son and values being a parent, however difficult it is. He is just as likely to get up at 4am to attend to his crying child as his wife is and he is just as personally affected by the profound responsibility of being a parent. It is also refreshing, in the current climate of anxiety about parenting, that Amanda is never blamed for her children’s bad behaviour and, indeed, Grant and Lila are not two-dimensional brats.

Something that the show can’t get away from, though, is that it is much more socially palatable for Dev, a man, to decide he doesn’t want children. Choosing this option would be much less comfortable for a female character because of the cultural assumption that women have a biological urge towards motherhood – and, as Lucy discussed in last week’s blog, that women’s biology is much less forgiving of ‘delaying’ the decision to procreate.

An old friend of mine, on the cusp of becoming a father, recently asked me whether I was planning on having children. When I said I wasn’t, he teased, ‘That’s because you’ve overthought it, isn’t it?’ I had to concede that, in a way, he’s right – my job largely consists of overthinking reproduction, after all. In ‘Plan B’, Ansari shows, with the kind of deft touch, enthusiasm for self-deprecation and ultimately optimistic take on the world characteristic of another New York-based comedy show, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, that such ‘overthinking’ isn’t necessarily the preserve of women. 

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