I was 18 when I had my first baby, and that was 18 years ago. Resources and information for women back then were not freely available and my only education on childbirth came from the media. We had no internet; no Google and I certainly couldn’t afford glossy baby and pregnancy magazines. I went to three short antenatal classes run by the NHS where we all sat around on mats panting, on our backs propped up either by pillows or our partners, and watched a baby doll get pushed through a knitted vagina. That was the sum total of my education, and as such I pretty much expected birth to be how it is it portrayed in the media.
How birth is portrayed in the media is one of my favourite subjects to rant about. Heaven help my friends if we are watching a movie or a soap opera when one of the characters goes into labour. They will not be allowed to watch and enjoy the horror in silence. There will be me ranting in the background about how untrue to real life it is, and how this does no good for women to watch. I’ve even ranted about this on first dates!
The way birth is portrayed in the media is so untrue to real life in most instances. From soap operas to movies, we have babies arriving unexpectedly, within minutes, to screaming mothers, delivered by dads, friends, neighbours or strangers; in kitchens, tube trains, barns, cars or pub cellars. It is very rare to see a natural birth on the TV. Vicki Elson, anthropologist and childbirth educator has made a documentary available for download entitled “Labouring under an illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs The Real Thing”. In a New York Times Article entitled ‘And Baby Makes Reality TV’ Alessandra Stanley says “DEATH is scary, but it’s not nearly as frightening as birth” when talking about birth on TV. She goes on to say “Motherhood, at least the way it is depicted on cable networks like MTV, TLC and even FitTV, is a menacing, grotesque fate that is mostly ill-timed … Horror makes for easy entertainment, of course, so it’s hardly surprising that the maternity ward would be milked for bloodcurdling thrills.”
I will celebrate with a bottle of bubbly the day I see a soap opera or blockbuster movie portray one birth as a natural, healthy, joyful, peaceful, beautiful and not scary event!
The ‘mad rush to the hospital’ started with the first birth scene ever on TV which was ‘I Love Lucy’ and has been repeated on nearly every TV birth since. Exaggerated danger is another popular theme for media – giving birth with some unexpected danger going on (eg flood, fire, war, hostage situation). Pain and fear makes for great viewing (and is sometimes comical) which is why most births in the media are portrayed as being extremely painful and scary. But women are being affected by watching this and it filters into their subconscious, and as a result women are more scared of birth than they might otherwise be. And as we know, fear is not at all helpful for labour and childbirth!
It is extremely rare to see a planned home birth on TV represented truthfully. Mostly it is unplanned, scary and traumatic, because that is what is considered entertaining. Women are being taught from this media that birth is traumatic, panicky, full of mayhem, and emergency; and are learning that they “need to be rescued from their own body” (Vicki Elson) by the hospital or medics. Women no longer trust their own body. Trusting our own bodies is key to giving birth naturally with as little medical intervention as possible. Usually on TV the women are shown begging for, or demanding drugs.
Dads are often portrayed poorly in movies and TV shows. Rarely are they depicted as understanding, loyal, caring partners. It is not uncommon in the media to show Dads panicking, fainting, being subject to verbal or physical abuse from the labouring woman, or missing the birth altogether. So many Dads perhaps have no idea how different things can be, and what a beautiful, bonding, precious experience birth can be with a loving partner.
Outside of the TV and movies we are subjected to countless horror stories in glossy magazines and the newspapers about celebrities and their pregnancies. It is not uncommon to read headlines stating that a celebrity had a fright over their pregnancy, or a horror that turned out to be fine in the end. The emphasis is never put on things turning out fine, but rather the horror they experienced. Sometimes, sadly, loss and heartache does happen to celebrities as anyone else, but most of the time it is glorified scare-mongering. Pregnant women may look to these celebrities as role models, especially if they are both pregnant at the same time. After enduring these scares they more often than not end up sauntering out of hospital looking like they are ready for the cat-walk; rested, beautiful, glamorous, without a pick of fat on them. What is not easily seen is that these women have an entourage of support; cooks, nannies, personal trainers, personal assistants, a makeup and hair team and have had their photos airbrushed.
The reality TV show is a popular phenomenon at the moment, and across the world there are various birthing reality shows, ranging from ones with cameras in hospitals, to ones that focus solely on ‘amazing births’ (read – scary or horrifying births). Far more pregnant women watch reality birthing shows than attend ante natal classes, according to Vicki Elson. So this is perhaps where they feel that they can get their education. But what is not easily recognised is that TV shows are heavily edited and that there is usually a narrator. As Vicki shows in her documentary, you can show two clips of exactly the same birth scene with two different narrations over them, and come away with two totally different ideas of what happened. So these reality births are all subject to what the producers wish to emphasise. I have noticed that the American ‘One Born Every Minute’ tends to show the medical staff at the maternity hospitals as ‘heroes’ who save the traumatised birthing woman from her own hellish body and deliver the baby safely for her. Instead of her.
But nowadays there are so many more useful and positive resources for women than there were in my day. A range of powerful and beautiful birthing DVDs are available to watch, as well as a plethora of websites and forums. An expectant couple may feel overwhelmed with the options available to them. On the one hand there is so much scaremongering in the media; but on the other there are DVDs like Orgasmic Birth that don’t appeal to everyone and may send the message that birth either has to be medical or completely hippy. If a couple hire a doula or attend independent birth preparation classes they will have the good fortune of being directed to the best and most appropriate resources for them, without having to wade through more information than they could possibly take in during the course of one pregnancy. ‘The Business of Being Born’ is a new documentary that I haven’t managed to see yet, but that seems to be causing stirs amongst the world of doulas and midwives. I have ordered a copy of this and await its arrival.
With the wonderful world of the internet though, comes a new resource for women. Many couples have started to film their own experiences of childbirth and have put these videos onto youtube to encourage other families. There are countless amazing youtube videos of women birthing their own babies; from c section films, to natural hospital births, water births, home births and unassisted births. The range of home made films is endless. This is a new form of media that the everyday people of the world are able to use to show their own experiences without any producer editing or narrating their own ideas onto it. Perhaps this is one of the best, freely available resources to women. A lot of doulas, midwives or birth activists regularly promote these types of videos on their facebook pages or websites.
So media in general I think has had a very negative impact on the way birth is portrayed. But at the same time, there is the potential for us to use media to correct this, and it seems to be slowly happening. With celebrities such as Ricki Lake promoting natural and home births and making documentaries about it we may slowly see a turnaround. But I doubt that the movie or soap opera industries will change their tactics any time soon. All that we can do as doulas or birth activists is try to correct the balance.
Below I have put some links to some of the typical media birth portrayals in soap operas. The ones I ranted about most. And then underneath are some more encouraging natural birthing videos.
In the media;
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaaJKcK2iu0 Eastenders – Kat gives birth in the pub barrel store, delivered by Alfie and Mo with full pub listening to her screams.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22dMCqrOsB8 Eastenders – Dawn goes into labour on a broken down tube train, supported by strangers with constant narration from another Mum telling everyone how hideous childbirth is, and the indignity of relieving her bowels on the train floor.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onzYsTpywXI Eastenders – Tanya gives birth on her living room floor, delivered by her husband Max as the midwife and paramedics can’t get there on time.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvyLqaSRuNI – Eastenders – Lola gives birth on a chip shop floor, for no apparent reason delivered by one of the locals, surrounded my male onlookers.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoHQNKGa7PE – Eastenders – Sonia gives birth on the sofa unexpectedly, delivered by Mo who years later delivers Kats baby. Dad then passes out. No one knew she was pregnant.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qAiTlFt0O-M Eastenders – Zainab gives birth on Indian restaurant kitchen floor, delivered by husband, surrounded by male onlookers. Baby isn’t breathing and Dad has to give him the kiss of life. Everyone thinks baby is dead. Baby is ok in the end.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e92Jo6itGOE –Coronation Street – A classic example of a women giving birth in some sort of barn with only the aid of a man. Fantastically they make it appear that her cries can be heard from one end of the country to the other!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTjP6ZcsJrc Coronation Street – Maria gives birth to a still born baby.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pgNRpoliSE Coronation Street – baby Jake is born in hospital but dies in his sleep a few hours later.
Encouraging birth videos;
https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=114330581074 A collection of the most beautiful natural births you’ll ever see, including twin births and breech. A must see.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ck3IJXjtwc&fb_source=message Slideshow of the natural birth of triplets
http://birth-media.com – Labouring under an illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs The Real Thing.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/arts/television/23moms.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0 New York Times article “And Baby Makes Reality TV”
http://birth-media.com/reel-childbirth-script-consultants-deliver-the-facts – information on birth for screen and play writers to help aid the portrayal of birth in the media.
http://motherloveblog.com/2012/02/24/podcast-birth-on-tv-and-in-the-movies Vicki Elson podcast on childbirth in the media