By Rebecca Feasey
I recently published a blog giving an overview summary of a research project that asked mothers in the television viewing audience to comment on their readings of motherhood on the small screen (Feasey 2016a). After presenting this work at a recent ‘Womb to World’ conference, I have been asked by Birthlight to consider the ways in which their members might be seen to adhere to or negotiate my original research findings. Birthlight members listened to my research and informed me of their individual maternal readings, before asking if Birthlight members could complete the questionnaire that informed the original project.
Birthlight is a ‘charity and teacher-training organisation focusing on the holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). During a time when pregnancy and childbirth are becoming increasingly medicalised, Birthlight members are committed to the ‘spiritual’ dimension of birth and view labour as a ‘light and fulfilling experience’ (ibid). The organisation supports families from conception through to the third year, with body-based practices inspired from yoga playing a crucial part in what members call ‘an expanding spiral of joy and wellbeing’ (ibid). With this in mind, it is interesting to consider the ways in which Birthlight members responded to questions posed about representations of childbirth, their favourite maternal figures, those they can relate to and those that they see as problematic, and how this compares to the wider maternal population presented in the original research who had not spent time with the Birthlight group. In short, this blogpost seeks to draw attention to shared maternal responses from within and beyond the charity in question.
When asked if they liked to watch reality shows or television dramas about pregnancy or childbirth, many Birthlight members echoed the wider maternal population, with responses telling us that they not only felt an emotional connection with programmes such as One Born Every Minute (2010- ) when they were pregnant but that they looked to this programme and its successors for an insight into hospitalised childbirth. And like those women originally surveyed, the majority of those expecting Birthlight mothers, who were interested and invested in the show while pregnant, stopped watching soon after the birth of their first child due to an emotional or instructive need already fulfilled by the programme in question.
That said, for every Birthlight member who was emotionally invested in or looked for instruction in One Born Every Minute, there were those mothers who felt irritated, frustrated and angered by what they believed to be an unnecessarily dramatic and fear-inducing depiction of childbirth. What was interesting here was that for those women who looked to critique One Born Every Minute, they did so after their own childbirth, comparing their personal experiences to those seen on the small screen and finding them wanting. And such divisive readings of reality childbirth television echoes comments made by the original audience.
Comments relating to the question about ‘favourite’ television mothers again mirrored the wider maternal population as a number of these women pointed to the characters of Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls 2000-07), Lois Wilkerson (Malcolm in the Middle 2000-06), Sue Brockman (Outnumbered 2007-14) with the addition of Beverly Goldberg (The Goldbergs 2013- ) and Nadiya Hussain from Great British Bake Off (2010- ) fame. The common theme here was that these women were understood to be ‘real’ and believable characters rather than romanticised or rose-tinted figures, irrespective of their factual or fictional nature.
Some mothers pointed out that they struggled to find favourites or even likeable maternal figures because women in general and mothers in particular, tended to be marginalised in specific genres, which echoes recent research on what is being termed the ‘missing mother’ trope (Aström 2017). Sadly, however, this trope is not restricted to science fiction, fantasy or horror fare as suggested by some respondents, rather, it is evident in the wider cultural imagination. Indeed, a forthcoming volume makes the point that representations of motherhood are, across the medium of television, absent, missing and presumed dead in much popular media culture (ibid, Feasey 2017).
I was interested to find out if there were any mothers on television that inspired them or maternal figures that they could relate to, be it through parenting practices or sartorial choices, the Birthlight mothers formed an unwavering consensus, with each respondent answering in the negative here. That said, there was the acknowledgement from a maternal minority who felt that even though they could not relate to mothers on screen, they could on occasion learn from reality parenting texts such as the Three Day Nanny (2013- ), again echoing the findings from the original maternal survey.
Birthlight members were then asked to consider if there were any mothers on television that made them laugh, and the majority view was that there were very few humorous maternal figures on the small screen. Moreover, the small number of women that were mentioned such as Roseanne Conner (Roseanne 1988-97), Marge Simpson (The Simpsons 1989- ), Edina Monsoon (Absolutely Fabulous 1992-2012) and Lois Griffin (Family Guy 1999) were all firmly rooted in an earlier period of situation comedy. A few respondents made the point that although they didn’t like ‘laughing at’ other mothers, they felt a ‘frustrated laughter’ at those women who they deemed to be poor mothers, poor mothers by nature of their absence in their children’s lives. These responses blended into my next question that asked mothers in the television audience if they felt negatively towards maternal figures on the small screen, and if so, what was it about these mothers that encouraged ridicule or disapproval. Like the original responses, Birthlight mothers were divided, as some wanted to put an end to the ‘mommy wars’ which encouraged maternal divisions, whilst others spoke of their disapproval of what they deemed selfish mothers: those who put their own needs before and above their children – be it the Kardashian clan or the real desperate housewives.
What was interesting here was the fact that Birthlight members came to the research with the expectation of proposing or presenting an ‘alternative’ maternal voice, based in part on their shared ‘holistic approach to pregnancy, birth and babyhood’ (Birthlight 2016). However, it is clear that irrespective of time spent in NHS, NCT, Birthlight or other pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, childbirth or childcare classes, there is little in the way of diversity in these maternal readings. Birthlight members mirrored the broader maternal response when these women spoke of a desire for more maternal diversity on the small screen. They noted that television under-represents disabled mothers, fostering and gay family units, the medium presents very little in the way of racial differences, and when any of these maternal minorities are depicted, it is said to be ‘in a stereotypical fashion’ with ‘exaggerated characteristics assumed by the broader media and society’.
Aström, Berit (2017) The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Birthlight (2016) ‘Welcome to Birthlight: For the Greater Enjoyment of Pregnancy, Birth and Babies,’ Birthlight. Available at: http://www.birthlight.co.uk(accessed 12/09/2016).
Feasey, Rebecca (2017) ‘Television and the Absent Mother: Why Girls and Young Women Struggle to Find the Maternal Role’ in Berit Aström (ed)The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination: Missing, Presumed Dead, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.tbc.
Feasey, Rebecca (2016a) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television,’ WordPress.com, Available at: http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/motherhood-and-the-media/(accessed 12/09/2016).
Feasey, Rebecca (2016b) Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television, London: Peter Lang.
Rebecca Feasey is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Communications at Bath Spa University. She has published a range of work on celebrity culture, contemporary Hollywood stardom and the representation of gender in popular media culture. She has published in journals such as the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Journal of Gender Studies,Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. She has written book length studies on masculinity and popular television (EUP, 2008) and motherhood on the small screen (Anthem, 2012). She is currently writing a research monograph on the ways in which women respond to representations of motherhood on television (Pater Lang, 2015:http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/).