Birth and Pop Culture

Birth and Pop Culture


Why does it matter what this snarky sex-advice book says about epidurals, or how this prime time drama portrays natural childbirth, or how films tend to make birth into a super-crisis?  It’s POP CULTURE!  Women listen to their doctors and their books on pregnancy and labor when they want to make decisions about pregnancy and labor.  They don’t go to to these other books or television shows or movies for that sort of advice!  Why should you even CARE about what they say?!

Yep.  I’ve heard that a lot.  And even though statements like these really irk me, I can sympathize with the sentiment behind it.

I mean, I don’t think I’m over-generalizing when I say that most reasonable people turn to trusted sources or experts on topic x when they are making decisions regarding x.  So when most pregnant women want to know more about pregnancy and labor, they read a book or a website or talk to a midwife or an OB/GYN or a doula or even a friend or family member who has given birth before.  They don’t always get good advice, mind you, but at least they’re generally going to the right sorts of sources.

But I also think it’s pretty foolish to dismiss the effects that popular culture has on a woman’s beliefs and decisions about pregnancy and childbirth.

In fact, I would venture to say that these effects are pretty widespread.

Of course, I’m not saying many of us literally turn to pop culture when we’re deciding whether or not to consent to an episiotomy or to request pain medication in labor or to choose one care provider over another.  That would be stupid, right?  It would be ridiculous for someone to say, “Well, my OB/GYN reminds me of that chick on Private Practice, so I think she’s the best one for me and my baby!”

But that doesn’t mean that what we see on television or read in a (non-birth-related) book or watch in a movie has no effect at all on our thoughts about pregnancy and childbirth.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Because every a woman reads that she “won’t be able to make it without an epidural”…

…every time she sees natural childbirth portrayed as something only for hippies and freaks…

…every time she sees a movie in which birth is a crisis or a catastrophe or a comedy of errors in which the mom is a crazed, expletive-hurling woman who is seriously out of control

…those images and words start to affect the way she thinks about birth in general, and they may even have an effect on her specific beliefs about birth.

Instead of rambling on about the general effect that pop culture can have on a woman’s beliefs about birth, however, perhaps it’s better that I give a real-life example: my own real-life example.

And it’s even a positive example!

You see, long before the thought of even trying to get pregnant was ever on my radar, I was a big Sex and the City fan.  A huge fan.  I owned the entire series on DVD, I cried into my Cosmo during the series finale, and I even went to see the first movie in the theaters a mere four days after giving birth to A.  (Judge me all you want for my messed up new-mom priorities, I know.)

I love Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte forever with a big, sparkly pink heart.

And one of my most-loved SATC episodes is the one where Miranda gives birth.

Before Miranda actually goes into labor, there’s this scene where she and Carrie are walking down the street, and Miranda is telling Carrie what she does and doesn’t want in the delivery room.

She wants Carrie there.

And when it’s time to push, she doesn’t want everybody getting all “cheerleader-y” on her and shouting “PUSH!  PUSH! and shit like that.”

Call me silly, but when I first saw that scene, it signaled a major change in the way I thought about how I was going to give birth some day.

I literally turned to Tim and said, “YES!  Yes!  When we have a kid some day, I do NOT want people getting cheerleader-y on ME!  Just let me do my thing.  I’ve NEVER liked that cheerleader stuff when I’m trying to concentrate on something!  [OMG, I’m so much like Miranda!  Teehee!  Pink, sparkly hearts for everyone!]”

Seriously, though, the moment was very exciting for me because all I had ever seen at that point in my life were women flat on their backs in hospital beds, pushing out a baby while everyone around them shouted “PUSH! PUSH!” and shit like that.

It was my entire paradigm for birth.

And to know that this paradigm could shift (and eventually shatter, as it did during A’s birth)?  To know that I could request otherwise?

Who knows, maybe the good ladies of Sex and the City helped to send me on the path that I’m taking this very day.

Pink, sparkly hearts and all.

*Although there are certainly silly components of Miranda’s labor–correct me if I’m wrong, but can you actually break your bag of waters by pushing it out in active labor?–I love how the writers had her walking around in labor and stating that her doctor said that natural membrane ruptures were “better” than amniotomies.  And what a tender moment when she meets Brady–not ooey-gooey sentimental, but weird, and strange, and lovely.

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  1. Mrs. Spit
    Mrs. Spit01-25-2010

    Right on!

    No, women don’t get advice about birth from pop culture, pop culture is so limiting that they don’t know there are any other alternatives. They don’t know what they don’t know.

    I have a whole rant about how pop culture treats women whose children die, but that’s a whole other story. . .

  2. Jenny

    Pop culture definetely has a huge effect on how women give birth (and so do other women).

    My only impression of birth was what I’d seen on TV, heard about my own birth from my mother, and witnessed when I sat with a good friend in labor for a time (she got an epidural way early and pitocin) she could barely stay awake, was shakey the whole time and didn’t know she was having a contraction unless she was looking at the monitor. I was scared of the pain and scared of labor because that’s all I’d ever seen or heard about.

    I know I’ve told you this a million times and you probably think I’m a stalker by now but it was your VBAC waterbirth story that changed me. I had never heard of birth as an empowering experience. It wasn’t that you denied there was pain because you didn’t it was the power and passion behind the birth. Even before my friend hooked up to iv’s and not feeling any contractions seemed a little disconnected to me but it wasn’t until your story that things started to click in my head and come together. I had only known fear – now I know empowerment thanks to your story and the other’s I’ve gone on to read through research.

    I hope that I can have an empowering birth and start sharing mine with everyone I know so that we can take back birth and stop fearing it.

    Kind of a long ramble – sorry to hijack the post :)

  3. Laurie

    Throughout this post, I nodded my head in emphatic agreement. And I laughed with delight when reading how Miranda’s birth changed your birthing paradigm — because I am a kindred Sex and the City fan, and Miranda’s birth affected me in exactly the same way! Since that time, movies like _The Business of Being Born_ and _Orgasmic Birth_ have helped reshape my mental image of birth… You are right: no doubt, a revolution in the way pop culture presents birth (from the current negativity to positivity/empowerment) would lead to a revolution in what women expect in their birth experiences…

  4. Eliza

    This is so right on, everything I’ve thought about birth from A Baby Story on TLC to positive (or at the minimum not scary) birth stories. Birth in our culture is thought to be a scary event, painful, out of control/loss of control in a scary way. It’s not a positive way to portray birth, it’s no wonder there is so much fear around birth. A friend just told me a story about a woman in Haiti who was having a hard time giving birth. The people gathered around where the woman was struggling and started to sing. The baby was born later in that environment, a positive environment where the peoples voices were encouraging her and holding the space. Completely amazing!

    • BirthingBeautifulIdeas

      @Mrs Spit: I agree that it is often the case that women don’t “know what they don’t know” when it comes to pregnancy and birth. (What a Socratic description. :-)) And that’s because pop culture (and other, broader aspects of Western culture) don’t just influence particular beliefs about labor: they help to provide the whole lens through which people view pregnancy and birth. It’s one thing to chance a particular belief–it’s quite another to change one’s entire perspective on something.

      I would love to hear your perspective on how pop culture treats women whose children die. (If you have blogged about it before, I haven’t yet read that post.)

      @Jenny: I don’t think of you as a stalker at all! I’m actually deeply moved that you found my birth story so moving and that it made a difference in the way you are approaching this pregnancy and your upcoming birth. To know that you’ve made a shift from fear to empowerment and “taking back birth” and that I played a teeny tiny part in that–Jenny, nothing could make this doula-blogger happier.

      @Laurie: I love that you bring up The Business of Being Born. I’ve heard countless stories of women (and their partners) being transformed by that film, and it definitely seems to be part of the “revolution” that you describe.

      @Eliza: Wow, what an amazing, beautiful story! I love those birth stories where what a woman needs is not to be rescued by medical intervention (although there is certainly a time and place for that) but where what she needs is…well, love. Support. To be surrounded by people who give her empowerment and encouragement rather than exacerbating her fears.

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