Towards a “maternal commons”? Exploring the potential political resistance of televisual birth

By Sara De Benedictis

On the 10th March 2014 artist Sheona Beaumont gave birth to her second child, Dylan, on the BAFTA winning Channel 4 primetime television show, One Born Every Minute. Beaumont invited people to comment and engage in the viewing of her birth through social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, during the show. The experience of giving birth on television and the reactions to her birth depiction will feed into her next artwork.

As Imogen Tyler and Lisa Baraitser (2013) argue in Private View, Public Birth, in the past three decades in Western culture we have seen a dramatic rise in the visibility of childbirth. This is somewhat peculiar considering the abject qualities historically associated with the birthing body. However, as they go on to suggest (drawing on Hannah Arendt) the increased presence and focus of birth, especially within artistic sites such as Birth Rites Collection, can pave the way for a “natal politics”. As they argue, “a natal politics would insist on natality as not just an experience we have in common, but a metaphor for a mode of sharing words and deeds in public space that allows for the appearance of transformational beginnings” (Tyler and Baraitser, 2013: 23).

Tyler and Baraitser are understandably slightly skeptical of birth depictions on reality television shows, such as One Born Every Minute. As they note:

We might conclude that within much US and British childbirth TV, women are portrayed as largely passive subjects caught within the processes and practices determined by local cultural and social, health and medical structures. These televisual depictions of childbirth are undoubtedly limited in terms of the absence of possibilities they encode for imagining, experiencing or understanding birth outside of dominant systems of control and surveillance that characterise obstetric practices in the Global North. Perhaps more significantly, the fear they create feeds into and reproduces ideas of birth as a ‘crisis’ which needs to be managed to a successful conclusion by medical experts with the institutional (and increasingly corporatised) spaces of hospital settings.

My doctoral research explores a group of women’s (both those who have given birth and those who have not) reactions to One Born Every Minute through a combination of textual analysis and audience reception. Thus far, the textual analysis side of this research corroborates Tyler and Baraitser’s insights into televisual birth. Drawing on Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood’s research on reality television, Reacting to Reality Television (2012), the audience reception has complicated and furthered this argument as each participant has taken meaning from the visibility of birth in the show in varying ways.

In this sense, when I discovered that Beaumont would be giving birth on One Born Every Minute and this would feed into a new art project my interests were piqued. My first thoughts were how interesting the combining and intermingling of these different sites (hospital, television, social networking, art) and subjects (birthing body, televisual birthing body, maternal body, viewer, artist) were. A number of contradictions would seem to play out when thinking through Beaumont’s experience of giving birth on television, the reactions to this birth on social networks and how this will inform her new artwork. If Beaumont is represented as passive and censored in the televisual depiction of her birth (with the latter especially ringing true considering the show heavily edited her birth, including the decision not to show her episiotomy according to Beaumont’s twitter account), what does it mean for her to be producing this artwork now on her birth as an active, speaking subject?

Further to this, how does the intermingling of two sites, “art” and “television” – ideologically created as oppositional, as high/low cultural forms – coming together, alongside the reactions to people viewing the birth on social networking, to inform Beaumont’s work complicate ideas around visual cultures and class through the lens of the maternal? On the one hand, considering the neoliberal market-driven mentality of reality television shows, the forms of exploitation that are present from various angles in the production of these shows and the limited representations that they tend to produce, these programmes are not often seen as productive sites to explore non-dominant representations and experiences of birth. On the other hand, the infiltration and far reaching impact into the everyday of cultural texts such as One Born Every Minute makes the show a potentially interesting and urgent site to explore the public visibility of birth from alternative perspectives.

Amongst a multitude of questions that could be asked, I find myself considering what does it mean to give birth, watch yourself give birth on television and watch others react to this televisual birth? Does this fracture the stronghold of dominant ideologies of birthing bodies One Born Every Minute encourages to offer resistant potential? Do these differing experiences and depictions bring alternative maternal subjectivities to the foreground? How can these experiences be drawn upon as a form of natal politics, stepping towards a “maternal commons”, whereby “recognising what we share, what we have in common, is also a political act” (Tyler and Baraitser, 2013: 23)?


Sara De Benedictis is an ESRC funded PhD student in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. Her thesis explores the representation of birth in British reality television programmes. Sara is also a research assistant in the Media and Communications department at London School of Economics and interns for MaMSIE (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics) network, based in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. Prior to starting her PhD, Sara worked for a number of UK women’s organisations in the third sector.