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

If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my mailing list.

* indicates required



Birth plan? Doula? Natural birth? Not here you don’t.

A sign posted at the Aspen OB/GYN Women’s Center in Provo, Utah has many women up in arms. What’s so offensive? Read for yourself.

The sign reads as follows:

Because the Physicians at Aspen Women’s Center care about the quality of their patient’s deliveries and are very concerned about the welfare and health of your unborn child, we will not participate in a “Birth Contract”, a Doulah Assisted, or a Bradley Method delivery. For those patients who are interested in such methods, please notify the nurse so we may arrange transfer of your care.

I first learned of this sign from Naomi, the Denver Doula, who posted it on Facebook. Being a doula (which is misspelled on the sign) herself, she took a particular interest in it. When she called the Center and inquired with the receptionist as to why the sign was posted she was told, “in case there is an emergency we don’t want anyone to get in the way of the doctor doing what he has to do.”

Annie from PhD in Parenting was inspired by the sign to write How Not To Have a Natural Birth and believes the center might as well have said:

Because Physicians at Aspen Women’s Center care only about doing things their own way and making as much money as possible from unnecessary birth interventions, even if it poses greater risks to the welfare and health your baby, we will not participate in a “Birth Contract”, a doula-assisted, or a Bradley Method delivery. For all patients who have done any research into having the safest birth possible, please notify the nurse so that we can transfer you to a facility that cares less about control and money.

Annie added, “I guess we can at least credit them with warning women in advance. Many hospitals with the same attitude don’t have a sign hanging out front.”

Amber responded, “I always thought the big ‘trust birth’ poster in my midwives office was a little cheesy. Now that I’ve seen the alternative, I think it’s truly marvelous. Really.”

Miriam Zoila Pérez of Radical Doula wrote a post called Signs You Don’t Want to See at Your OB-GYN’s Office. She believes the sign could be translated to say:

We don’t care at all what you want as a parent, or a person in labor. We want a patient who will sit quiet and do what we say–no matter what. Oh and if you have a partner you want involved, tough. Your desires don’t matter.

Miriam adds, “They should change the name of the center to the ‘Unborn Children Center’ since they don’t seem to care too much about the women involved.”

A commenter named Janna responded saying, “That’s what bothered me most about this hateful little sign–not once is the “welfare and health” of the MOTHER mentioned, just the “welfare and health” of the “unborn child” and the “quality” of the “deliveries.” Who would want to give birth in a place where they’re the lowest priority on their caregiver’s list? I hope women in this area have other options and the opportunity to have safe, healthy, supportive births.”

Does no doula, Bradley Method birth or birth “contract” equal no women’s rights?

Summer who writes at Wired for Noise says signs like this one and stories like the lack of choice with regard to our reproductive health and doctors’ personal “birth plans” make her sometimes think Doctors Hate Women.

What does it say when women have to escape, have to run away in order to do something as normal as give birth? What does it say when women are treated like children, talked down to, insulted, lied to, and handed letters telling them what the god-head doctor will allow or not allow. When all you want to do is give birth and you’re doctor is more concerned with telling you to sit down and shut up, what is that if not hatred?

I have to agree with Annie that at least some doctors are upfront with what they will and won’t “allow” as part of their practice. Kudos to them for being honest. Hopefully that will allow women to look for another care provider while she’s still early in her pregnancy.

Rest assured if the OB/GYN I had at my daughter’s birth would have given me a piece of paper with her “rules” or had a sign posted like that at the Aspen Women’s Clinic, I would have found another care provider pronto. Instead, however, she paid me lip service and acted like she cared about my birth plan (though she didn’t act very well and that should have been a big clue for me) and said we could “try” Hypnobirthing, etc. However, when push came to shove (no pun intended), it was her way or the highway. I had my healthy baby girl at the end of it and for that I am truly thankful, but I also got a lot more than I bargained for (and not in a good way). Then again it was that experience lead me to pursue a home birth for my second child and become a home birth advocate.

Although I admire the Aspen Women’s Center’s honesty, I find it truly offensive that they imply that if a woman wants a doula, natural birth, or has a birth plan, she is not concerned with the welfare and health of her baby (so much more personal than “unborn child” don’t you think?) or is even putting her baby’s life at risk. Studies have shown that when doulas attend birth, labors are shorter with fewer complications, babies are healthier and they breastfeed more easily. And how exactly is choosing a Bradley birth not good for the health or welfare of the baby? “Bradley® classes teach families how to have natural births. The techniques are simple and effective. They are based on information about how the human body works during labor. Couples are taught how they can work with their bodies to reduce pain and make their labors more efficient.” What about a birth plan or “contract?” Is that harmful to the “unborn child?” The American Pregnancy Association suggests, “Creating a birth plan can help you have a more positive birth experience.”

There are other things I find offensive as well, like Janna mentioned above, the mother does not seem to be included in the equation at all. Is there any concern for her “welfare and health?”

Who’s time money welfare are they really concerned with? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’ve obviously already drawn mine.

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

Don’t miss a single CDG post, subscribe to my blog.