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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Follow-up to TODAY show guest post: childbirth resources


If you are visiting from the TODAY show blog, welcome and thank you for visiting. :) If you haven’t yet read my guest post on the TODAY show, you can read it here: Viewer: Learn more about cesarean births. I’d love it if you would like to contribute to the discussion and leave a comment over there.

Because there was only so much information I could include in my guest post, I’ve put together some additional resources here for those of you who are interested in learning more about c-sections, VBAC, giving birth vaginally to larger babies, and more. I believe in informed consent. Knowledge is power.

Information about Cesarean Sections and VBAC:

  • International Cesarean Awareness Network – “The International Cesarean Awareness Network is a non-profit advocacy and support group whose mission is to improve maternal and child health by preventing unnecessary cesareans through education, provide support for cesarean recovery, and promote vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC).”
  • Childbirth Connection’s Cesarean Section Resources
  • The Reality of C-Sections by A Mama’s Blog – Heather writes about the many things about c-sections that she didn’t know and wished she had been told before she had her own c-section, as well as includes pictures of actual c-sections (something we didn’t get to see on the TODAY show).
  • VBAC Facts – Jennifer, teacher of The Truth about VBAC classes, deeply believes that women, after educating themselves on the risks and benefits, should be the ultimate decision makers on their medical care – not OBs or insurance companies.
  • Maternal Death Rates Rise, C-sections Now Considered a Factor – another post by Heather from A Mama’s Blog
  • The Unnecesarean – The Unnecesarean provides information about preventing an unnecessary cesarean and resources for making fully-informed decisions about childbirth while offering an irreverent take on the maternity care crisis in the United States and beyond.

Giving Birth Vaginally to Large (Macrosomic) Babies – Information & Birth Stories:
Although your doctor may suspect that you might have a larger baby, that does not mean you should automatically schedule an induction or a c-section. Ultrasound exams are notoriously inaccurate for predicting the weight of a baby and can be off by a pound or more in either direction. There’s no way to know how much a baby will actually weigh until it is born and weighed. If you are told you are going to have a large baby, weigh the risks and benefits of any intervention and make the choice that is right for you and your baby.

  • Big Baby Bull****
  • Baby Julian – My son (pictured above) was born at home and was a surprise footling breech. He weighed in at 9 lbs. 8 oz., and was 22 inches long.
  • Baby Lazlo – Justine gave birth to her 11 lb., 23-inch son at home
  • Baby “D-Man” – Kat’s son weighed in at 11 lbs., 3 oz.
  • Baby “Muski” – Kate’s son was a VBAC and weighed 10 lbs., 3 oz.
  • Baby Peggy – Annette‘s daughter was 9 lbs., 6 oz.
  • Baby Jaxon – Jaclyn’s son weighed 9 lbs., 4.4 oz.
  • Baby Iris – Sybil‘s daughter was 9 lbs., 14 oz.
  • Baby Mikko – Lauren’s son was 11 lbs., 13 oz.
  • Baby Emma – Jessica’s daughter was 9 lbs., 2 oz.
  • Baby “Boychick” – Arwyn‘s son was 10 lbs., 6 oz. and born at home
  • Baby Julian and Baby Emma – Annie‘s two kiddos (not twins) were 9 lbs. and 9 lbs. 8 oz.
  • Baby “Junior” – Candace’s son was 10 lbs., 4 oz. and sunny side up
  • Baby “M” – Jennifer’s son was 9 lbs., 10 oz. – a home birth after cesarean (HBAC)

Additional Childbirth Resources:

  • Business Of Being Born – A documentary that “interlaces intimate birth stories with surprising historical, political and scientific insights and shocking statistics about the current maternity care system.”
  • Pushed Birth a book by Jennifer Block – “The painful truth about childbirth and modern maternity care”
  • Ina May Gaskin – Author of Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. “Discover the proven wisdom that has guided thousands of women through childbirth with more confidence, less pain, and little or no medical intervention.”
  • Doulas of North America – A doula is “a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period. Studies have shown that when doulas attend birth, labors are shorter with fewer complications, babies are healthier and they breastfeed more easily.”
  • Considering an induction? Use the Bishop’s Score for Labor Success – “This tool measures certain components with regard to the mother’s cervix and baby’s position to evaluate her readiness for an induction and ultimately increase the chance of having a vaginal birth. This scoring system can also be used to determine the likelihood of spontaneous labor.”
  • Post-Partum Crotch Care 101 – A humorous, but very practical list. This is one of those things that nobody ever talks about, but is good information to have.

Are there any childbirth resources YOU think should be on this list? Leave a comment and let me know. Thank you. :)

Disclaimer: The information included on this blog is not medical advice and should be used for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a medical professional (doctor or midwife).

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Live c-section on the Today Show

Thanks to ICANtweets I learned that the Today Show aired a live Cesarean section from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston as part of the “Today Goes Inside the OR” series. A healthy 10 pound baby boy was born via scheduled c-section to Carrie and Josh Johnson. According the The Today Show’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman, they elected a c-section because babies “run big” in the parents’ families and Carrie was “past her due date.” Dr. Snyderman adds, “And those are two indications that a Cesarean section is a lot safer than having a vaginal delivery.”

A lot safer? Really? You might want to weigh the risks for yourself.

Photo courtesy: tifhermon (Flickr)
Photo courtesy: tifhermon (Flickr)

Here’s the link to watch the Today Show c-section video

I found it hard to watch how the baby was handled and the way mom seemed to be left out of the process. Why can’t they clean up the baby where mom can see?

I also found a few other things quite disturbing.

At one point in the video, the doctor doing the c-section comments to Dr. Nancy that one reason for having a c-section is if the mom has had a c-section before. Then when asked if this mom gets pregnant again and has a “normal size” baby if she can have a vaginal delivery? The doctor responds, “absolutely, absolutely.”

That sounds like she’s giving mixed signals to me. Not to mention that many doctors and hospitals no longer allow vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) due to insurance costs. I left a message with Beth Israel hospital to find out what their policy is re: VBACs. I’ll update if I hear back. Joy Szabo had to move 350 miles from home to have her VBAC. And some women are being denied insurance after having a c-section.

After the baby was weighed (10 lbs.), Today Show co-anchor Meredith Vieira commented: “They chose the right way to deliver that’s sure by section.”

Dr. Nancy Snyderman agreed: “They sure did.”

So having a larger baby vaginally is the wrong way to have a baby? I strongly disagree. I think so would Justine who had her 11 lb. son at home on Jan. 6. And Kara who gave birth to an almost 10 lb baby vaginally. And Cathy who describes herself as petite and said both of her boys weighed 9 lbs. 4 oz. at birth. And Arwyn who said, “At home in the water was the right way to “deliver” my 10lb 6oz baby!”

What did you think about all of this?
Email the Today Show your thoughts at: TODAY@nbcuni.com

Read more about my reaction to the live c-section.

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