For Better or For Worse? Childbirth in Popular Culture

BlogHer Original Post

After watching the live cesarean birth on the TODAY show last week and then the commercial for Jennifer Lopez's new movie, The Back-Up Plan, during the Superbowl, I've been thinking a lot about the way childbirth is portrayed in popular culture - on TV and in the movies - and how that influences us.

In a perfect world, women (and men) would learn about childbirth from reading books and websites and talking to their care provider (doctor or midwife), to a doula, to their mother, aunts and friends, but unless you live under a rock, women (and men) also learn about childbirth when they are bombarded with images on TV and in movies that depict childbirth as something scary, painful and out of control. Whether we want to believe it or not, our perceptions of birth are bound to be influenced - for better or for worse - by what we view and hear in popular culture.

On Rixa's blog Stand and Deliver she lists 61 film clips she compiled for a conference presentation about depictions of childbirth in cinema. That's just movie clips. Think about all of the episodes of A Baby Story, or ER and many other TV shows where women are giving birth. Each one further reinforces popular culture's birthing stereotypes.

Birthing Beautiful Ideas believes:

it’s pretty foolish to dismiss the effects that popular culture has on a woman’s beliefs and decisions about pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, I would venture to say that these effects are pretty widespread. Of course, I’m not saying many of us literally turn to pop culture when we’re deciding whether or not to consent to an episiotomy or to request pain medication in labor or to choose one care provider over another. That would be stupid, right? But that doesn’t mean that what we see on television or read in a (non-birth-related) book or watch in a movie has no effect at all on our thoughts about pregnancy and childbirth. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Because every time a woman reads that she “won’t be able to make it without an epidural”…

…every time she sees natural childbirth portrayed as something only for hippies and freaks…

…every time she sees a movie in which birth is a crisis or a catastrophe or a comedy of errors in which the mom is a crazed, expletive-hurling woman who is seriously out of control…

…those images and words start to affect the way she thinks about birth in general, and they may even have an effect on her specific beliefs about birth.

She goes on to give a real-life example (a positive example) of how a TV show changed her beliefs about birth. She describes an episode of Sex and the City where Miranda gives birth. Miranda asks Carrie to be there for the birth and tells her that when it’s time to push, she doesn’t want everybody getting all “cheerleader-y” on her and shouting “PUSH! PUSH! and shit like that.” She said that when she saw that scene, "it signaled a major change in the way I thought about how I was going to give birth some day." Her birth paradigm shifted and she believes she has the ladies of Sex and the City to thank for that. She's currently a doula and future lactation educator who's working on a PhD in philosophy.

Not all examples of how popular culture influences women are as positive.

Heather from A Mama's Blog told me that watching TLC's A Baby Story - which she described as "high drama" and ending more often than not in a c-section - "seriously warped" her view of childbirth.

The Feminist Breeder said:

When I first found myself pregnant, I was just like the vast majority of pregnant American women who never get truly informed about the birth process, and instead spend their pregnancies watching “A Baby Story” and reading Jenny McCarthy books. I got my hands on “The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy” by Vicki Iovine, which told me that Lamaze was useless, as were all other birthing classes, and what I really needed to focus on was how quickly I could get the epidural.

Yeah — I got the epidural. The epidural that only went down half my body, that caused me uncontrollable shaking, that shut down my labor, that necessitated more Pitocin, which put my baby in distress, which then necessitated a nice, traumatic cesarean surgery. Yep. That epidural.

Honey B., in her post Childbirth: Hollywood's Take, wrote that after a year of watching A Baby Story, 18 Kids and Counting, Knocked Up, Four Christmases, etc., she realized how much of what she thought she knew about childbirth was based on TV. She then shares sarcastically all that Hollywood taught her about birth. (The descriptions are longer on her blog.)

Natural Birth: The choice of masochists, women who don't shave their armpits and have children named Moon Flower, and optimistic first-time mothers who don't know any better. (My note: Case in point, The Back-Up Plan's home birth scene)

Birth with Epidural: This is the smart woman's choice. This is what she does for the second birth, after going through the above 'Natural Birth'.

C-Section (Emergent): These are completely normal, and happen all. the. time. And the doctor always knows best.

C-Section (Planned): This is the choice of the truly enlightened woman, the Real Housewives of Orange County type who view pregnancy as an invasion of their body. (My note: Perhaps this is why, according to the most recent data available (from 2006), the United States' c-section rate was 31.1%, ranging from 21.5% in Utah all the way up to 37.4% in New Jersey. The World Health Organization actually recommends that the cesarean section rate should not be higher than 10% to 15%. When the rate is higher than 15% there is some research which shows it results in more harm than good. But who wants to talk about that in movies?)

Mallory who blogs at Pop Culture believes,

"Childbirth in Hollywood movies is from a male perspective; rarely does childbirth show angles from the female viewpoint during the actual birthing.
We show killings, bombings, shootings, rapes and torture in movies, so why not show a woman giving birth accurately? Is it really that obscene and disgusting?"

Naomi, a birth doula, wrote her top 10 suggestions for an easier birth. Number two is "Prepare for an easier birth, now!" She cautions:

Don’t watch A Baby Story! Instead (if you are interested in watching birth videos), watch movies like The Business of Being Born, Orgasmic Birth, Pregnant in America, Water Birth, Special Women, and normal birth videos on YouTube which represent birth as it usually is. TV specials on birth are designed and promoted to offer drama and attract viewers, not to support women preparing for birth.

I also want to add What Babies Want and Birth Into Being to that list.

Teba told me that her sister was there when she had a home birth two months ago. "She said after seeing birth in movies she never imagined it could be so peaceful."

That's just it. Birth can be peaceful. It doesn't have to be a hysterical emergency, but as a result of popular culture, most women are never exposed to anything that suggests a peaceful birth is even a possibility.

How has popular culture affected your beliefs and decisions surrounding childbirth?

Contributing editor Amy Gates blogs about green living, attachment parenting, activism and life with an anxiety disorder at Crunchy Domestic Goddess.

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