The rise of ‘maternity noir’ in The Replacement, The Handmaid’s Tale and Prevenge

BBC drama The Replacement channels maternity leave anxieties into a paranoid thriller: Mark Mainz/Left Bank/BBC

She’s there on the Tube, concealing a butcher’s knife behind her back on posters for Prevenge.

She’s there in the Hitchcockian title sequence for BBC One’s The Replacement, a curiously curved silhouette standing ominously at the top of the stairs.

In a few months’ time, she’ll also be there in The Handmaid’s Tale, a highly anticipated TV adaptation of the cult Margaret Atwood novel which turned maternity into dystopian sci-fi.

A string of film and TV shows centered around a fear of pregnancy are heralding in a new genre of on-screen thriller — “mat-noir”. But what’s so terrifying about life’s great miracle?

Well for one thing, parental leave can defecate all over your career plans, like a poorly baby on a dry-clean-only rug. The not entirely irrational fear that you’ll arrive back in the office after 39 weeks to find yourself usurped and forgotten is explored in full by Tuesday evening’s new hit thriller.

Grantchester’s Morven Christie stars in The Replacement as Ellen, a high-flying architect and mother-to-be whom initially is happy to meet her maternity cover, Paula (Vicky McClure from Line of Duty and This is England).

The two soon start to clash, however, over Ellen’s feeling that Paula is replacing her in the affections of her colleagues and Paula’s habit of dishing out unsolicited advice on motherhood. “At one point, Paula says something like: ‘What’s happening to you right now is a million times more meaningful than whether or not the building gets a skylight,’” recalls The Replacement’s writer and director Joe Ahearne. “When I wrote that, I thought it was a really outrageous, intrusive line, but the way it’s performed and reacted to, you go: ‘Oh yeah, she has kind of got a point.’ It’s kind of true!”

Vicky McClure in The Replacement (BBC/Left Bank/Mark Mainz)

Whether you’re Team Paula or Team Ellen, what makes Ahearne’s OTT melodrama so enjoyably watercooler-worthy is its grounding in a recognisable reality. Paula and Ellen’s office battle is the externalisation of an equally fierce struggle which takes place within most new parents. Should you try to maintain the hard-won identity you built pre-baby? Or it is only right that this tiny new person become the focus of your entire being?

So astute is The Replacement’s script, it may surprise some to discover it was written by a man. Ahearne credits his producer Nicole Cauverien with the initial inspiration, but also points out that their scenario isn’t only applicable to women.

“What men as well as child-free people can identify with is the paranoia at work and the idea that you’re not good enough. Your identity changes in a massive way when you have kids, but your identity can change for other reasons as well.”

In the current series of Channel 4’s increasingly dark comedy Catastrophe, it’s Rob, not Sharon who struggles to the return to work after their second child (and, ahem, that small matter of the sexual harassment claim in his last job). Rob bears the brunt of the pressure to provide financially, while Sharon’s suggestion that he embrace the identity of the stay-at-home dad doesn’t go down particularly well with the recruitment consultant: “That’s fine to say at a garden party, or in Sweden, but not here. Here men work in real jobs.”

Catastrophe Series 3 (Channel 4/Ed Miller)

On the one hand, our identities are more wrapped up with work than ever, and on the other, we’re bombarded by media images of family life and how fulfilling it can be.

According to Wendy Hollway, Open University emeritus professor and author of Knowing Mothers: Researching Maternal Identity Change, we’re facing an updated version of an old problem.

“Post-natal depression is a very common diagnosis, but I think that what is missed is the ordinary upheaval that all women go through,” says Hollway.

“How do I find the time and, of course, the wherewithal and the caring capacity to give myself over lock, stock and barrel to this vulnerable person? This person whose life depends utterly on me? I mean, that’s freaky enough on its own, isn’t it?”

This is just the start of the freaky stuff, of course. When you really get into it, as mat-noir does, there’s the Alien-esque physical horror of a separate life form growing inside of you. And next there’s the medically acknowledged horror of labour ahead (expectant mothers are well-advised to skip John Hurt’s most famous scene from the 1978 movie).

Then there’s the radical change in priorities mandated by your new biologically appointed boss. This bundle of cells could force you to eat spray cream straight from the can for breakfast or compel you to start work on an Ikea crib flat-pack at 2am. And that’s if you’re lucky. What if your unborn child sends you off on a maniacal killing spree?

That’s the plot of Alice Lowe’s comedy-slasher Prevenge (still in selected cinemas), which she rather impressively shot while seven-and-a-half months gone and edited while still breastfeeding.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Lowe described the film’s subject matter as “the existential crisis that you feel being pregnant… This woman is sort of being taken over by the baby, in a sense. It’s going against any of those societal and film clichés that as soon as you get pregnant you suddenly become this sweet, saccharine, perfect, earth-mother person.”

For many, though, it’s not the pressure to become the perfect earth-mother person that’s discomforting, so much as the prospect that they actually will.

The mama blogs and Insta accounts which are supposed to comfort floundering first-timers instead curate and disseminate an image of the generic Hot Mama which threatens to subsume all individual identities. A descendent of the Seventies Stepford Wife, Hot Mama has swapped frilly aprons for yoga pants, home-baked cakes for organic weaning and instantly ditches all her old friends for the randoms she met at NCT.

True, Hot Mama isn’t quite as horrifying a spectre as the Handmaid from Hulu’s new Atwood adaptation, but she’s getting there. In this series set in a dystopian future, Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel star as members of the handmaid class whose sole purpose in society is to reproduce. Handmaids are recognisable by their red uniform (scarlet woman meets holy Daughter of Charity) and are expected to discard every vestige of their lives, including their names.

It’s not all bad though; when pregnant, these “wombs on legs” are revered for their fertility. They’re also told what and when to eat, kept mostly indoors and generally infantilised to the point of enslavement. Ellen from The Replacement could probably relate. The Handmaid’s Tale’s references to both 17th-century Puritan America and modern Islamic theocracies prove that the basis for maternal anxiety is neither new nor culturally specific.

New-parent horror is also not a particularly new topic for TV and film, as best exemplified in Roman Polanski’s creepy 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby. But then Rosemary never had to go back to work after giving birth. And if she had, at least those Satanists next door could have provided some affordable childcare.

Follow Ellen E Jones on Twitter: @msellenejones

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