Pregnancy Denied, Pregnancy Rejected in 'Stephanie Daley'

Law, Culture and the Humanities, Vol. 12(1) 132-154, 2016

Texas A&M University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16-16

37 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2014 Last revised: 2 Sep 2016

See all articles by Susan Ayres

Susan Ayres

Texas A&M University School of Law

Prema Manjunath

University of North Texas

Date Written: May 1, 2012


Stephanie Daley (Amber Tamblyn), in the film of the same name, is a “good girl,” an introverted naive teen, who becomes pregnant after being seduced at a party. She unconsciously denies her pregnancy until labor takes her by surprise during her high school ski trip. After authorities discover a dead premature newborn, they charge her with murder and she becomes a community pariah, known as the “ski mom.” In creating this contemporary tragedy, writer and director Hilary Brougher explores “how [neonaticide] could happen,” rather than how we should judge the act. "Stephanie Daley" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, and won Best Screenplay. It showed at several other film festivals and won Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography. Despite these awards, "Stephanie Daley" had a limited release in the United States, probably due to its controversial subject matter of teen pregnancy and neonaticide.

While working on "Stephanie Daley," Brougher researched cases of unwanted pregnancy in teenagers. These unwilling pregnancies constitute what Brougher calls “the shadow side of pregnancy,” that occur when “a person . . . has stepped off the path of ‘who they think they are’ and the resulting split of identity.” "Stephanie Daley" tells two stories in a nonlinear fashion: one is Stephanie’s denied teen pregnancy and fatal outcome of childbirth. The other is the story of Lydie Crane (Tilda Swinton), the psychologist appointed to evaluate Stephanie. Lydie is a married woman who, after a recent miscarriage, experiences a desired, but nonetheless ambivalent, pregnancy. Stories such as these, about the shadow side of pregnancy, have often been silenced by expectations of positive maternity.

Brougher’s parallel stories of pregnancy in "Stephanie Daley" add complexity to social discourse and describe a wider spectrum of pregnancy experiences, exemplifying philosopher Caroline Lundquist’s call for a “phenomenology of unwanted pregnancy.” Lundquist claims that discourse about pregnancy must include ambivalent and rejected pregnancies, otherwise, “women undergoing unwanted pregnancies may suffer in silence, especially in cultures where motherhood is taken to epitomize the feminine gender role.” Even though Lundquist lauds previous writings that describe pregnancy experience, she faults “socially constructed norms of pregnancy” that “focus on the positive facets of maternity to the exclusion of all else.” Rather, Lundquist emphasizes that not all pregnancies are “chosen”; in fact, many are not chosen. A positive account of pregnancy excludes the experience of women—such as Stephanie and Lydie—who do not greet pregnancy with elation.

As difficult as it is to believe that a teen or woman could deny the obvious physical changes that accompany pregnancy, denial fits within a cognitive model of defense mechanisms. Denial of pregnancy occurs along a spectrum of pervasive, affective, or psychotic denial, categories which “can vary [in severity] at different times during a pregnancy.” According to scientific studies, women who suffer pervasive denial experience “a lack of subjective awareness of a pregnancy until the end of the gestational period.” In contrast, women who suffer affective denial may cognitively acknowledge the pregnancy at first, but then deny its emotional significance or suppress it “to the point of unawareness.” Finally, women who suffer psychotic denial experience pregnancy as “grossly delusional.” For all categories of denial, when women go into labor, many are taken by surprise and believe they are ill or having a bowel movement. They almost always give birth alone. As Brougher observes from her review of actual cases of neonaticide, “no one is … ever going to know what really happened because [the mothers] were alone, they were in an altered state, and there were no witnesses.” Moreover, most neonaticide cases, like Stephanie’s, are resolved through plea bargains rather than trials, and as a result, there is even less understanding about “what really happened.”

Despite this common lack of understanding, Brougher dramatizes how denied pregnancy and neonaticide “could happen” and how the legal system may respond in a therapeutic or healing manner—important topics because laws and legal responses are shaped by social narratives. Part One of this article analyzes Brougher’s feminist portrayal that provides a “phenomenology of unwanted pregnancy,” depicting how denial of unwanted pregnancy could happen and calling into question “pregnancy experience as totalizing social construct.” Specifically, while pregnancy and childbirth occupy the space of feminine difference, Brougher’s treatment naturalizes unwanted pregnancy experiences and allows for an empathetic response. Part Two analyzes Brougher’s portrayal of therapeutic jurisprudence, in which both Stephanie and Lydie begin to heal after their traumatic pregnancies. “Therapeutic jurisprudence is the study of the role of law as a therapeutic agent,” and is based on the premise that “legal procedures . . . constitute social forces that, whether intended or not, often produce therapeutic or antitherapeutic consequences.” "Stephanie Daley" depicts therapeutic consequences that occur when the legal process provides Stephanie with an opportunity to tell her story and heal from trauma.

Keywords: teen pregnancy, neonaticide, Stephanie Daley, unwanted pregnancy, therapeutic jurisprudence

JEL Classification: K4, K40, K42

Suggested Citation

Ayres, Susan and Manjunath, Prema, Pregnancy Denied, Pregnancy Rejected in 'Stephanie Daley' (May 1, 2012). Law, Culture and the Humanities, Vol. 12(1) 132-154, 2016, Texas A&M University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16-16, Available at SSRN:

Susan Ayres (Contact Author)

Texas A&M University School of Law ( email )

1515 Commerce St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102
United States

Prema Manjunath

University of North Texas ( email )

1155 Union Circle #305340
Denton, TX 76203
United States

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