It was International Women’s Day yesterday, and to celebrate (albeit a day out) I will be linking up this post with lots of other bloggers over at Lulastic and the Hippyshake. Join me in a blogfest!
All the bloggers who are participating have written on the topic of Inspiring Change. There were many possibilities here, but I decided that I would write about something which has been bugging me: the way that childbirth and the early days of motherhood are portrayed on mainstream TV sitcoms.
I know that one doesn’t watch sit coms for verisimilitude. I enjoy kicking back for half an hour of mindless fun and have watched one show or another since I was a kid. However, I would love to see the genre break away from the tired old stereotypes it seems to rely on. The way that childbirth and early parenthood are represented is so hackneyed. If I could make a change, this is one which springs to mind. I think it would have a knock-on positive effect on popular ideas about what it is to give birth and become a mother: Not only would it be more interesting, but this could inspire people to be more open-minded about different ways of birthing and encourage greater community support to new parents.
There are two areas which I would like to alter: First, there is the general absence of originality which I think is a problem. I see the same stereotypical scenarios acted out again and again. Yes, this is entertainment, and enjoyable for its spectacle and element of the ridiculous, but why not draw ideas from a broader pool of human experience. Second, I feel irritated that there is a general sense that childbirth and early mothering are uncivilised acts, and should be locked behind closed doors until the woman has regained her glamorous allure and can be a member of society again.
In just about all the sitcoms I have ever watched, there are two basic birth experiences: Let’s call them ‘Childbirth with a Bang’ and ‘Childbirth with a Whimper’. In both cases, the water breaks or contractions start and the pregnant woman is rushed to hospital. She is then bunged into a hospital bed, where she remains for the duration. Doctors, usually male, mill in and out giving instructions. Mother-to-be sits or reclines throughout labour and delivery. There will be a chorus of birth attendants shouting ‘push’ at the appropriate moment. No one suggests that the birthing woman should do what she wants to feel good or listen to her own body. She obviously needs guidance and instruction, not an opinion. With the first option, there will be a lot of yelling, demands for drugs, and threats to nearby persons, climaxing in a banshee wail as the babe pops out. The second option will just have a little pretty misty-browed anguish, and a sort of yelp as the baby emerges.
This is super-sanitised childbirth which does not smear make up and goes according to plan. Everyone knows their role. There are no emergency Cesarean births, no forceps or ventouse. I suppose they are considered too scary for sit com. However, there is no nesting instinct, no mad last-minute decisions about finding a birth outfit, no water births, no birthing balls, no TENS machines, no desire to pace, or birth in an odd position.
Surely someone could find comedic value in crazed cleaning urges, the search for that lucky T-Shirt, a huge tub of water waiting for someone to fall into it, an enormous bouncy ball, or a machine which sends electric pulses into your body. Sitting down in bed is simply not the best use of dramatic potential when it comes to labour and birth positions. It would be fantastic to see representations of birth in mainstream TV that didn’t derive their drama from fear of birth, or make it so undramatic as to be bland. I have read a lot of birth stories and some of them are hilarious. Like this home water birth, which culminated in the woman’s water breaking right before delivery, shocking her husband into dropping the hose he was using to fill up the pool, spraying water all over the room. The baby crowned while everyone was doubled up in laughter. What a way to make an entrance.
As for images of the postpartum phase, there’s this moment in Season 4 of Sex and The City between Carrie and Miranda which drove me bonkers: Miranda has recently given birth to her son, Brady. Carrie goes over to her apartment to visit Mum and Baby, arriving to find Miranda trying to latch Brady onto her boob. After blanching at the sight of Miranda’s engorged breast (how distasteful!), Carrie launches into her latest drama over a guy, but realises that these troubles are nothing compared to poor old Miranda’s struggle to figure out her new role as a 24 hour milk buffet. As this truth hits her, Carrie is driven to silence over her alleged best friend’s anguish. What does she do about it? Does she make Miranda a cup of coffee? Offer to take Brady while Miranda naps or showers? Profer any kind of assistance? Nope. She smiles a big, patronising smile and says ‘Miranda! You’re a mother!’ and skips off down the road to stuff herself with cupcakes and buy some more shoes. The message appears to be that new mothers are best left to deal with all this unpleasantness alone until such a time as they at least begin to wear makeup again. Well, really!
At least, SATC must be given credit for showing how hard it can be to get started on breastfeeding, and to have the mother actually gain baby weight. Miranda’s exhaustion even lasts for more than one episode, albeit being subsequently resolved by a hair cut, or rather the regaining of above allure. Usually in hit sitcom/dramas, you see a token nod to the mothering experience: some occasional breastfeeding, often attached to a joke which sexualises breasts; a period of wakefulness and yelling lasting no more than one episode; conflicted feelings about leaving the baby with someone else. Once trotted out, these plot lines are given their milk and put to bed, never to reappear. In a near future episode, a nanny character is introduced, a kind of grim reaper to baby-based story lines.
Following the appearance of the nanny, the mother character appears as her former self again, but sporadically wielding a baby, to show that she hasn’t lost it somewhere. The baby becomes either a silent presence in a carseat/sling/buggy, and is brought out only so that the adult characters can talk about its appearance. The child is returned to obscurity until it reaches a script-reading age. I find it sad that no one really interacts with the smallest cast member. No one’s dangly earrings get grabbed. There are no mega poo explosions, no spit up down the cleavage. I appreciate the difficulty in working with a baby, in that you can’t get them to do stuff on cue, but couldn’t someone please talk to the kid like a human being rather than an accessory for once? Or have their ear torn by enthusiastic little fingers.
The way parenthood is depicted is in isolation to the rest of the show’s characters and events. Couldn’t the character’s role as a parent be better integrated and developed alongside other aspects of their part in the show? I would also like to see the friend characters of both sexes get a bit more involved in helping out. After all, they all piled into the hospital to wait for baby to arrive. I think it is good that not all women are depicted as liking or wanting babies, but on the other hand, some greater eagerness to lend support would be nice. After all, there is usually some babysitting once the baby has reached silent accessory stage. It would be lovely to see a televised example of mates rallying round to take care of mundane household stuff for a couple or single mother while they bond with their new addition. Perhaps there could be some hilarious consequence dreamed up about the chums cooking some postpartum meals, tackling the dishes, or changing some nappies.
The reason I believe that change could be beneficial is that when people are faced with situations of which they have little or no immediate experience they draw on scripts from indirect exposure via TV, film, hearsay, literature. For many of us, popular culture products can end up writing our lives. I remember the distinct feeling of being in a movie during my first labour experience. The hospital bed and other accoutrements were so surreal, I fell into the pregnant lady role like butter on bread. I got scared. With my home births I was completely removed from this effect and I am sure that helped me to do my own thing and remain calm. I don’t think I am alone in that ‘ooh it must be my birth scene’ experience. With more examples of women taking an active part in birth, this would filter into our cultural consciousness to a greater degree and challenge the idea that all women want to birth the same way.
I don’t think I am alone in having felt unkempt and fat during the postpartum period. Having glamourised images adds to the social pressure to look a certain way and sets an impossible standard. Women are not strangers to this experience outside of birth and motherhood, but at this time when there is a struggle to lose inhibitions during birth and get to grips with a new identity afterwards, women might be more vulnerable. I also think the ‘baby as accessory’ phenomenon could be harmful. It sends a message that babies should conform to particular behaviours, which they rarely do. That is what makes them so hard to look after at times, but also a source of joyful surprise.
Finally, it makes me feel sad that some people, fictional or otherwise, are left to get on with parenting alone in the early days. Yes, the babymoon should be respected, but I know how much I appreciated the gift of a meal, some company, or another pair of hands to hold my little one in those first months of newborn time.
I know there are greater issues facing women today, but I think some creative script changing could inspire people to be more open-minded and open-hearted regarding the transitions of people becoming parents that happen in our communities every day.
Dear Sitcom, I will always love you. I hope we can work it out, but we may have to go our separate ways if you can’t change. It’s not so much that I need you to think outside the box as put something new on it. Best wishes, Alexis
To everyone else a very happy international Women’s Day! Xxxx