Extant literature on ‘reality’ programmes such as A Baby Story (1998), Maternity Ward (2001) and One Born Every Minute (2010- ) make reference to the various ways in which representations of pregnancy and childbirth on television can be seen to either romanticise or demonise the birth experience in relation to notions of authenticity, reality and rigid stereotyping (Maher 2004, Stephens 2004, Morris and McInerney 2010). At a time when women are said to be ill-informed about the birth experience (Maushart 1999) and naïve in relation to notions of age related infertility (Bonifazi 2003), the role and responsibility of ‘reality’ programming might be understood as a key player in educating a future or expectant mother about the experience of childbirth. Therefore, examining the depiction of pregnancy and childbirth in factual and fictional programming is an important part of both media and motherhood studies because the medium has the power and scope to inform and educate alongside its ability to entertain a contemporary audience.
Rather than offer what Joke Hermes refers to as an ‘exceptionally knowledgeable’ (1995) reading of such television texts, it is crucial that we take as our starting point, the voice of the actual rather than assumed, imagined or hypothetical audience here. In this way, and only in this way will we be able to understand the pleasures, frustrations and public health messages on offer on the small screen. As one mother in the audience stated:
Given how much we unconsciously learn or assume is true from the depictions (of pregnancy and childbirth programming), I think they contribute significantly to the myths about pregnancy and childbirth that may only be dispelled via good antenatal classes or the experience of one’s own pregnancy and childbirth.
In order to identify the ways in which mothers in the television audience respond to representations of pregnancy and childbirth on television I created an online questionnaire, and requested responses through a number of social, charitable and networking associations including the NCT, Media Parents, Mumsnet, NetMums, nursery chains and women’s networks (Feasey 2013a). The questionnaire asked mothers in the audience to speak about their preferred, favourite, admired and more negative depictions of motherhood on television, spanning different decades, channels, genres, factual and fictional categories, presenters, pundits, actors and characters, and much of these responses inform the book length study Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television (forthcoming). However, it is the question that relates specifically to pregnancy and childbirth programming that was overlooked in that volume that I seek to address here.
I asked mothers in the audience if they ‘liked to watch reality shows or television drama about pregnancy and childbirth?’ with the added guidance, should they chose to read it asking if ‘programmes such as One Born Every Minute and The Midwives are educational, entertaining, nostalgic or frustrating to watch? And querying why they ‘like to watch fictional television drama such as Call the Midwife about expecting mothers and labour?’
Reality programming: sensationalism, fear and the nostalgia of childbirth
Just under half of the respondents made it clear that they do not watch any form of factual programming that focuses on the experiences of pregnancy or childbirth, but what is fascinating here is their reasons. These women did not simply state ‘no’ or leave the section blank but they took the time to give brief or extended reasons for their lack of engagement with such texts.
The notion that these programmes are ‘too dramatic’ and ‘unnecessarily affected’ or ‘theatrical’ is interesting here, especially given that shows such as Channel 4s One Born Every Minute are made, marketed and oft applauded as ‘reality’ by the shows creators, midwives and contributors. One Born Every Minute is a British reality pregnancy and childbirth programme that focuses on the late pregnancy and childbirth narratives of a number of women in a busy maternity unit. The series is referred to as ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in line with the documentary tradition because it is filmed by 40 small, fixed, remote-controlled cameras in the maternity unit, including reception, the neonatal ward, the operating theatre and birthing pool, which, although not invisible, are not intrusive as they seem to blend in with the other technological paraphernalia that adorns each room in the ward (Feasey 2013b). Indeed, the programme has been commended for its natural depiction of late pregnancy and childbirth by Sue Macdonald, the education manager of the Royal College of Midwives. Macdonald tells us that the programme gives an accurate portrayal of childbirth that can be both ‘natural’ and in need of intervention. She goes on to say that the show can act as an educator for pregnant women because ‘it does help women think about what it’s going to be like and help them plan what they want for their birth’ (Macdonald cited in Saner 2011). However, this is not necessarily how the show is read by many mothers in the audience:
I found them irritating and obviously picking the parents for the drama and entertainment factor.
I can’t stand One Born Every Minute, it picks the difficult or sensationalist birth stories, which is frightening or saddening.
This refusal to watch what were seen as dramatic birth stories was even more pronounced for those mothers in the audience who were already scared by the idea of childbirth or who had themselves experienced first hand or knew of a traumatic, or what Naomi Wolf refers to as an ‘ordinary bad birth’ experience (Wolf 2002).
I used to watch One Born Every Minute but now that I’m pregnant for the first time I find it slightly scary to watch, as I’m apprehensive about the process of giving birth.
I watched One Born Every Minute before I had my baby, before I even got pregnant. Once I got pregnant I couldn’t watch it. I also had quite a traumatic birth, so I find I can’t watch it any more really.
Some audiences refuse to watch because of what they view as the over-dramatisation of the birth-experience; others find the traumatic births realistic, but it is then this realism that prevents them from watching the show in case of what one mothers refers to as ‘flashbacks’ to her own traumatic experiences. Several women here make the point that shows such as One Born Every Minute have the power to inform a generation of new mothers, but that they are instead, misinforming them about the lived experience of pregnancy and labour. Another group again, comprising mothers, midwives and other health professionals shun the programme for its lack of verisimilitude to the lived reality of childbirth.
I cannot stand One Born Every Minute. The midwives consistently show poor practice and it does not show birth in a good light.
The portrayal of midwifes isn’t realistic. In the programme they sit round chatting with the mums to be for ages. In my experience I’d press the buzzer and have to wait around 20 minutes for attention and the midwives were way too busy to sit around chatting.
Other criticisms of the show take the form of its over representation of the socio-economically disadvantaged mother, based on the assumption that maternal participants are paid for their pregnancy and child-birth ‘performance’ in front of the camera. And even though Channel 4 does not offer a financial reward to mothers who appear on the show, this does not mean that there is not a working class bias to the women included in the production, or what one mother refers to as a ‘skewed picture of society and birth’. Another respondent echoed this comment as she tells us that ‘I do think that the show attracts a certain type of participant, typically lower socio-economic status, lower education and therefore I don’t believe this show is fully representative of the whole variety of experiences and reactions to childbirth’. One might well wonder what would convince any woman to agree to be filmed during labour, and the sentiment behind appearing on the programme is overwhelmingly that families want a professional, yet still personal ‘record’ of their baby’s birth, while also using the show to inform and educate other women about the possibilities of childbirth. For example one couple who appeared on the show announced that:
We were apprehensive, because it is a very private thing … But we thought it would be a good memento for the babies. We also wanted to promote neonatal care … Everyone on the programme was so supportive, so it never felt intrusive. It’s emotional for both of us looking back and seeing those intimate moments. At the time you’re so wrapped up in it that it’s nice to be able to replay it later … Because we had tried for a long time to get pregnant, I think it was important to show people that through all the heartache good things can happen (cited in Saner 2011).
In terms of criticisms of reality pregnancy and childbirth programming, one mother speaks of the role and responsibility of the maternal cliché, making the point that while One Born Every Minute plays to ‘lots of clichés, e.g. the surge of love or elation on seeing your baby for the first time’ this may ‘not be the case for all women as some feel calm, others panic, others feel numb’. And this sentiment echoes the work of maternal scholars and sociologists who have previously suggested that not only is the ‘good’ mother (one who blossoms during pregnancy, bonds with her baby on contact and then spends every waking moment tending to the diverse needs of a baby, then toddler, then infant, adolescent and adult with no thought to her own needs, wants or desires) a romanticised ideal for some mothers, but that the continued cultural power and pervasiveness of this ideal is harmful to those women who do not or cannot conform to this ‘accepted’ image of contemporary motherhood (Oakley 1979/81, Maushart 1999, Arnold 2003, Green 2004, Borisoff 2005, Douglas and Michaels 2005, Warner 2007, Feasey 2013b).
Although a number of women in the audience have diverse reasons for overlooking or critiquing One Born Every Minute, just over half of those who responded to my questionnaire were entertained and in some cases, informed by, and took comfort in the programme in question. We are told that several women prefer pregnancy and childbirth reality shows to their scripted counter-parts because programmes such as One Born Every Minute ‘don’t try to gloss over the realities of actually having a baby’. Rather, they were said to ‘give a good insight into the reality of childbirth in all its guises’ and therefore ‘demystify the whole experience’ of childbirth. And likewise, ‘I appreciate that it is heavily edited as a Docudrama, but expectant parents do watch it, and it does show some interesting aspects of birth’. However, when this self-same respondent notes that she only ‘sometimes watches … less than I used to’ she echoes a significant number of comments as many women made the point that they were only committed to the show for the duration of their own pregnancies and that due to their own lived experiences, they no longer needed the life lesson or reassurances that these programmes offered:
I suppose I now feel that now I’ve ‘done it’ myself I don’t need to watch anyone else or gain any more information!
I enjoyed watching for a short time, mainly when I was pregnant or shortly after I had my children, but I no longer watch them much. I now have enough reality in my life not to need any more!
For those women who continue to watch pregnancy and childbirth reality programmes after pregnancy, the overwhelming motivation for doing so is nostalgia, to use the programme as a reason to think back to their own pregnancy and birthing experiences, be it days, weeks, years or decades previously:
Yes I love the reality shows, it brings beck memories of my own labour and births.
Reminds me of the pain of labour and the indescribable joy of the birth of your child
For those who continue to watch the show long after their own pregnancies and childbirth experiences, there are those who speak less of a specific nostalgic experience, and more of an enjoyment of what can be generally understood as ‘the human condition’:
My husband and I love to watch One Born Every Minute because it’s the beauty and wonderfulness of human life with all the possibilities of life and love.
Reality television programmes (such as One Born Every Minute) are interesting and entertaining (emotion and sharing a very special moment in somebodies life) – both before and after I had children.
While mothers in the audience were enthralled by the depiction of new life and growing families in reality programming, so too, they took pleasure in watching the minutia of family interaction and the funny ‘silly’ or amusing behaviours of the pregnant women, midwives and the revolving door of family, friends and birth partners. But another set of voices emerged, they were in the minority, but I wonder how much of this is to do with female self-censure and notions of ‘appropriate’ feminine dialogue. Some women spoke of envy, a sense of missing out, in part to do with primary or secondary infertility struggles, or on the back of their experiences as adoptive mothers or lesbian co-mothers.
I do watch, I probably shouldn’t, I am always torn between by joy for those women on screen and my own desperation to be in their shoes.
I have the joy of my own family, and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but as an adoptive mother I never went through the highs and lows of pregnancy and childbirth and I have often watched programmes like One Born Every Minute and wondered about what could have been …
Women habitually watch, refuse to watch or view pregnancy and childbirth reality programming for a limited time due to a relatively small number of reasons, education and childbirth instruction, vicarious and nostalgic experiences, a broader sense of the human condition or a veiled notion of envy. What was clear however in all responses, be they applauding or critiquing the reality genre, the notion of the real (or lack thereof) was crucial to their commentary. With this in mind then, it is enlightening to see the ways in which these same women respond to depictions of pregnancy and childcare when removed from the genre codes of realism and verisimilitude.
The fictional drama: pregnancy, childcare and the role of the midwife
Call the Midwife (2012- ) is a BBC drama based on books written by Jennifer Worth, a midwife working in the 1950s East End and supplementary testimonials from others midwives from the period. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that respondents remarked on the quality of the production, irrespective of their comment concerning pregnancy and childbirth on the small screen. In short, there were three key reasons given for watching the show and they are inextricable linked, namely: historical interest, feelings of nostalgia for a personally experienced or more hypothetical time, and the ability to compare pregnancy, childbirth and health practices from the 1950s to the present day. In terms of historical interest we are told that:
I like the dramas as they show us what pregnancy and childbirth was like before and the challenges they faced.
I watch Call the Midwife sometimes … it’s really well done and fascinating/interesting again to see the way things were done in a different era.
While these mothers spoke of their historical interest in a by-gone era of health and medicine, the majority of women who spoke favourably about the show found entertainment and emotion in their ability to not only look back, but in comparing the 1950s depictions with more contemporary health, medicine and social norms:
I like Call the Midwife for historical interest. I read the books before the series was made and it was fascinating to see what has changed – and what hasn’t – in the past 50 years.
Drama is different as its obviously going to be a little unrealistic for dramatic purposes or for the storyline. Call the Midwife is good as its enjoyable seeing how things have moved on.
Although many women spoke of notions of historical interest and a fascination for charting different healthcare practices over previous decades, there were also those women who spoke of a more specific feeling of nostalgia. More mature mothers in the audience used the word nostalgia rather than more general terms of historical interest as the programme both harked back to a bygone era and spoke to them about their own lived experiences of family life during the period in question:
I love Call the Midwife because of its nostalgic era. It’s a gentle programme that’s endearing to watch, no swearing or violence. But wonderful characters and relationships.
Watching Call the Midwife gave me such pleasure. I was born in 1947, so the time is nostalgic. I remember well the child health clinic, the Virol, orange juice and brewers yeast tablets; having a friend who contacted polio wearing callipers. His mother gave birth to twins and they were placed in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe until a wicker washing basket could be bought, as money was tight. The washing basket could be used later and money was well spent. Washing nappies has become a thing of the past.
The programme can be said to remind audiences of a different period, when norms of etiquette and domesticity were understood to be safer and more chaste. In this way the programme can be seen to offer a ‘romanticized nostalgia for the good old days’ (Grainge 2003). However, the show might perhaps be less a yearning for a preferred but irretrievable past and more a ‘fabricated approximation of the past’ (Drake 2003) so that those selectively stylised clothes, home furnishings and hospital rooms ‘operate as catalysts for recollection’ (ibid) and mobilise a feeling of a past security, reassurance and comfort. The feeling of comfort for a by-gone era tended to be experienced by younger mothers watching the programme, while more mature mothers and grandmothers in the audience vocalised nostalgia based on their own lived experiences, memories and recollections. This is not to say that their own memories are not in some way rose-tinted, but this is a different viewing position than those looking at the programme as an initial introduction to the historical period.
While most mothers watching Call the Midwife were fascinated and enthralled by the notion of difference and change between 1950s birthing practices and those of today, a small number of women made the point that pregnancy and birthing is a universal, timeless experience, unchanged since time immemorial:
I loved Call the Midwife … although since having a baby it has been a more emotional watch. I like it more because of the historical and universality of motherhood/giving birth.
As fictional drama, albeit based on the accounts of a practising midwife, the programme is removed from the genre codes and conventions of reality programming. And yet one mother notes that the programme ‘is actually sometimes more realistic about childbirth, despite it being fiction’. That said, like its reality counterparts, the show is held up to similar audience critiques, in that it is simultaneously too dramatic and too sentimental according to different women in the television audience. In terms of traditional notions of romanticism and sentimentality we find:
Call the Midwife I felt was in a way romanticised even with some negative endings. The drama series was ultimately a drama and was meant to make you feel.
I enjoy fictional programmes such as Call the Midwife … they are nostalgic and well written, I’m often ‘sucked in’ and find myself cheering for a character or crying when an emotional scene is aired! I suppose I quite like the fact that child birth on these shows is rather romanticized … reality being rather less attractive.
While one mother applauds the show for its ‘sympathetic depiction of birth’ that presents childbirth ‘as a part of life as opposed to a dramatic medical emergency as normally depicted’, another suggested that the show was, like its reality predecessor, too sensationalistic. In terms of being too sensationalistic, we are told that ‘I did enjoy Call the Midwife as it focused on the midwives and what they could do with limited resources. However, as the series went on it did get frustrating that every episode seemed to include a rare and catastrophic event’.
While both factual and fictional programming are accused of both dramatising and romanticising representations of late pregnancy and childbirth on the small screen, both were understood, according to different maternal audiences, to be at times, frustrating, educational, emotional and entertaining. What was interesting here however is what these shows contribute to mass media depictions of feminism, femininity and a woman’s role, as several mothers made the point that One Born Every Minute and Call the Midwife depict strong, courageous and resourceful women, removed from predictable notions of objectification and stereotypical sex-role stereotyping. Those women who spoke of their interest in watching the eponymous midwives routinely spoke of the ‘strength, courage and capabilities’ of these women in what are deemed ‘adverse & challenging situations … the midwives are strong female role models’. In my desire to learn a little more about why mothers watch, or refuse to watch, depictions of pregnancy and childbirth on screen, I have discovered something perhaps even more significant to the field of film, television and media studies, and that is that powerful women exist on television, just perhaps not in the genres and programmes that we might routinely expect. Much recent feminist scholarship examines, unmasks and interrogates the representation of women in contemporary television, including the depiction of the matriarch in the prime-time soap opera, the single girl in the situation comedy format, female empowerment in adult animation, the kick-ass heroine in the fantasy teen and science fiction text, the abrasive female detective in the cop show and the exhibitionism of women in reality programming, and yet it is here, in depictions of midwives and medical professionals that we find female strength and stamina.
While Channel 4s One Born Every Minute and the reality pregnancy and childbirth genre was critiqued for both scaremongering and reassuring women about the ‘reality’ of childbirth, the long-running show continues to be most popular with new mothers and younger mothers when compared to those who spoke favourably about the BBC One Drama, Call the Midwife. And although there were a small number of concerns about the routine over-dramatisation of problematic births in the latter production, most middle aged and more mature mothers in the audience spoke with enthusiasm about the period production both because of and in spite of its commitment to pregnancy and childbirth through the midwives of the period[i].
Although there is limited evidence here of the ways in which pregnant women watch the reality genre for pregnancy advice and childbirth instruction, perhaps we should look to the fictional drama as the most important educator. In the final episode of the fourth series, Doctor Turner/ Stephen McGann prescribed the sedative thalidomide to a pregnant mother[ii]. And while many women in the audience are now prepared for much of the drama that will no doubt make up the fifth series of the show in question, there are many who will be shocked and surprised at the outcome of a seemingly innocent prescription. And it is for this reason that Call the Midwife is essential viewing, not just for new or existing mothers, but to a generation of young women unaware of the outcome of taking that seemingly harmless drug.
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[i] For a more detailed version of this research, please see:
[ii] Originally devised in 1957 by the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal as a risk-free sedative designed to combat morning sickness in pregnant women, thalidomide was first licensed in the UK in 1958 by the drinks company Distillers, under the brand name Distaval. Despite anecdotal evidence from 1959 that suggested a surge in rare birth defects, the heavily marketed but insufficiently tested drug remained on sale in 46 countries. Altogether 180 million tablets were sold until it was withdrawn in the winter of 1961, after irrefutable evidence linking its use to a dramatic global spike in the birth of deformed babies (McGrath 2014).
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/).