For Better or For Worse? Childbirth in Popular Culture

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 I’d like to believe that 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 the truth is that unless ya live under a rock, women (and men) also learn about childbirth every time they are bombarded with images on TV and in the 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.

Movie: The Back-Up Plan, photo credit: Jezebel

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 though.

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 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?
* I didn’t actually watch the Superbowl, but have Lynn to thank for telling me about The Back-Up Plan commercial.

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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54 thoughts on “For Better or For Worse? Childbirth in Popular Culture”

  1. My grandmother gave birth to all my uncles at her house with the help of a non licensed nurse. She mocks women who are afraid of childbirth. My grandma is funny, too bad she is getting old.

  2. Googling “ladies lunch and popular culture” this is one of the incomprehensible hits. Read it out of curiosity, then I get to the bottom and it says March 14th, 2010. That’s my 90th birthday! Just seemed like I ought to contribute to this discussion of childbirth.

    I had three children, 3000 miles apart, at Stanford U Hospital in 1950, at Mercy Hospital on Long Island in 1951, and in Waterloo England in 1956. I think what I’m here to say IS that not only does it not make much difference IN THE LONG RUN how you have your baby, but what the pediatrician of the moment tells you to feed it doesn’t make any difference either.
    Stanford? Cutting edge, upscale, best around back then. One stayed five days after birth. We were poor, husband WWII GI finishing up college, me working as long as possible because we needed my salary. Got into this lovely place because our neighbor was a resident physician there. 1) They let me come in early because I was overdue and “nervous” at home and Bill HAD to take exams at college. I read for a day or so, baby suddenly wanted out, Bill unreachable, then had baby using some kind of very new spinal block–wide awake throughout, somewht participatory as I remember, NO PAIN AT ALL. Headache next day. Woman pediatrician lived other side of hill in Marin County, did a HOME VISIT!!!!! I didn’t breastfeed, didn’t even consider it, had to go to work. Diet for baby Stephen? Formula and STRAINED MEAT after a couple weeks.
    Next year on Long Island, Mercy more typical of what most women experienced, stay 4 days after birth. Again baby overdue. Bill in great new job, boss wanting him to go to Virginia on business for weekend. I say GO, just drop me off Thursday at my mom and dad’s, they’ll mind Stephen, I’ll have a nice rest and read till you get back Sunday afternoon. Library Friday on bus (such a sense of FREEDOM with Stevie taken care of), settled in for a weekend of being waited on. Saturday 3 AM, labor starts. Poor old Dad has to take me to Mercy Hospital (and he hates driving at night). In pain, but then they do what was (I guess) common in 50s, give me something and I don’t remember a thing after 7 until I wake up and Christine is there. Huge baby over 8 1/2 lbs. I seek and find ANOTHER woman pediatrician. Meat? outrageous, but she is hell on allergies. I have to add veggies after a month of formula only but quarter teaspoon for 3-4 days, by quarter teaspoon until we reach a tablespoon in about 2 weeks, to be SURE baby is not allergic. Didn’t consider nursing because two kids in 16 months was pretty intimidating.
    Fast forward to 1956. Bill now very successful and setting up branch of business in England and we’re there with him for 6 months. Under their socialized medicine I’m entitled even as outsider to a midwife delivery but for me that sounds like something out of the backwoods. I persist, call American Air Force general in desperation, and he gets me referral to gynecologist in Manchester they use for difficult births at the base.
    What an experience! He doesn’t care a bit how much weight I gain (Americans had been tyrannical about this–under 20 pounds), AS LONG AS MY ANKLES DON’T SWELL.
    I must agree to have Maria in a Catholic “nursing home” in Waterloo, between Formby where I live and Manchester where he lives, so he doesn’t get stuck in traffic. I must agree to check in when he tells me and STAY TWO WEEKS! Sounded fine to me, two weeks of being babied? Kids at country hotel with care and Bill taking charge?
    Once again, overdue, and with my history he tells me baby is so large, can go no longer and I must have Caesarian next day. I check in and it is clear, that those Northern Ireland Catholic nuns (all midwives) 1) can’t understand WHY a healthy woman with no history of difficulties is going to a Dr who they say is fancy enough for the Queen. 2) Don’t approve of the robe and gown I’m wearing 3) Totally amused (and borrow to read it) my Dr. Spock I brought along to refresh my memory about baby care after five years (amused by all that walking the floor at midnight feeding baby) and 4) I realize later, determined to outwit that Dr’s plans for a caesarian.
    They give me long hot bath in one of those Victorian bathtubs as in My Fair Lady when Liza gets scrubbed, tuck me into bed at 10 PM and kiss me on my forehead! And what do you know — I HAVE Maria around midnight (no Bill of course around)naturally with 2 midwives. Know what anaesthesia was? They had a cotton ball dipped in chloraform and I got wafts of it as they passed it back and forth about 4 inches from my nose, every time I expressed discomfort. So help me, that was it.
    Bill and Dr. arrived early next day expecting surgery and there we were–all born and happy. And I did stay 2 weeks. Could take a walk to town, have my hair done in town, but the idea was (they said) that mom would get the rest needed from child care, and BABY WOULD SLEEP THRU THE NIGHT by the time I left. And it was true, she DID sleep from about 10 PM to 5:30 or 6 in two weeks of THEIR STYLE feeding and care.
    We left for States soon as I left hospital (Bill had to do all that getting packed and ready, lucky me). Pediatrician? By this time last one had left to specialize in allergies, new one prescribed, guess what? No meat OR veggies for months but (and I’ve never have heard of it before or since)formula plus PASTINA.
    I guess my message is — babies (short of neglect or abuse) will survive one way or other as long as they’re fed. If they suffered from lack of breastfeeding, I can’t tell. All three still alive, married just once, no divorces, have children themselves who SEEM to me to be very upstanding–raised a bit of hell of course, but no one of them had early babies or got on drugs or anything serious like that.
    As to Bill NEVER being there for any of the three — he couldn’t help it — and for me, I just as soon be by myself as long as I have something good to read while I’m waiting. Was he relieved to be otherwise engaged? I never asked him, but I wouldn’t be surprized if that were true of him and MOST men now obliged to be present by pop culture. Has nothing to do with love.

    I really don’t understand wanting ANYBODY (other than medical staff) around — husband or family — to witness one’s pain and probably looking awful. What’s that about??? Along with snakes, child abuse, and crime families (have yet to see Godfather) I immediately change the channel when yet ANOTHER childbirth is on TV.
    As for not breastfeeding, in the 50s women thought of that as liberating. Final anecdote. When I was in that upscale and luxurious Stanford room, my companion was a young woman, no more than 19 or so, Jewish emigrant from Italy. Her whole family would arrive every afternoon around 5 and soon they’d be obviously berating her in Italian and she’d end up in tears. Finally one day I said, “What are they upset about with you? Why do they make you cry?” Answer: They want me to breastfeed and I tell them, “I don’t HAVE TO breastfeed, I’m an American now!”

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