The other night I was up late watching a rerun of The Golden Girls. It just so happened to be the episode where Blanche’s daughter Rebecca, who is a single woman pregnant via artificial insemination, goes to Miami to ask her mother to attend the birth of her baby. Blanche is already uncomfortable with the fact that her daughter is an unwed mother, and then she learns that Rebecca plans to check out a birthing center instead of having her baby in a hospital.
(The following is a short summary of a clip from the show, found here, starting at 5:15.)
Rebecca tries to explain the concept to her mother, noting that the birthing center is one of the biggest on the east coast and that “they emphasize natural childbirth in a relaxed atmosphere with no painkillers.” As expected, a number of jokes follow about the pain of childbirth and a comment by Sophia likening the birth center to a Disneyworld theme park. Dorothy encourages Blanche to keep an open mind and at least visit the birthing center. In the next segment, the women all tour the birth center. Blanche and Sophia make disparaging remarks about the lack of “equipment” and even Dorothy, ever skeptical, takes a negative view. The women are interrupted by a yell, and then another. An unseen woman in another room is giving birth. The women seem alarmed- especially Rebecca, who asks, “Why is she screaming?” Sophia answers, “Because she’s conscious!” and the group heads for the door.
In the next clip, Rebecca has changed her mind about the birthing center and decides to have her baby in the hospital. She mentions she has a Lamaze coach and says there’s no reason she can’t have a natural birth in a hospital. When she wakes up in the middle of the night wondering if she’s in labor, Dorothy has her get into bed to start timing contractions. When Blanche and Rose wake up, the group heads to the hospital, where Rebecca is put flat on her back on a gurney and the obstetrician who arrives makes a number of snide remarks.
The final clip has just about every cringeworthy stereotype about birth shown in popular culture. Rebecca is in the delivery room, covered in all sorts of gowns and drapes, while everyone in the room is in scrubs. Blanche at least gets to forego the mask over her face. Rebecca is supported with her knees up around her ears, holding her breath while Blanche and the doctors loudly exhort her to push as they count to 10. Between pushes, she’s nearly flat on her back on the delivery table. (She’s probably only tilted up because otherwise the camera wouldn’t be able to capture her face in the shot.) After Rebecca births the baby, the doctor immediately cuts the cord and hands her a perfectly clean, blanketed baby, and then the credits roll.
Granted, the original airdate of this show was in 1990. But how much has truly changed in the intervening 20 years, in real life and in the mainstream media? In many hospitals, women are still delivering in drapes, still in the lithotomy position, still being directed to push by doctors, nurses, birth partners, and whoever else happens to be in the room. Certainly this is how birth continues to be portrayed on television and in the movies. (see: Knocked Up)
I think the result is that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of expectations. The general populace expects birth to be a horror show of screaming and sweating and laying flat on one’s back because that’s what is portrayed in the media. The obstetric system expects that women (and men) will just accept their status quo. And everybody expects movies and tv to depict birth the way it happened to them, further cementing the status quo and beginning the cycle again.
The birthing community has done a lot of work to break the cycle, especially in the arena of changing the status quo for births, both in and out of the hospital. But if we continually portray birth in the popular culture as something that “happens to you” on the doctor’s or hospital’s terms, what lessons are we imparting to children, teens, and young adults who consume this type of media? What stereotypes have those of us who advocate for choices in birth had to confront? And most importantly, what can be done to turn the media tide?
We live in a time and place where in the media violence is recreated with painstaking authenticity, where we can watch any number of surgeries and medical procedures on television, where “reality tv” is a killer app. And yet birth is treated alarmingly unrealistically. In order to re-normalize birth in hospitals, perhaps it must first be re-normalized in pop culture.