Bringing Up Baby: Childbirth as Male Bonding Experience
This week on NBC's drama Parenthood, main character Kristina Braverman (played by Monica Potter) gave birth. The episode was so exactly a precise enactment of pop culture's "childbirth formula" I wrote about earlier that I was a little creeped out. To summarize:
Kristina's water breaks amidst an argument with Crosby, her brother-in-law. After a commercial break, Crosby and Kristina speed and screech in Crosby's convertible as though they're being chased by the cops. (Unrealistic sense of urgency? Check.) Crosby calls his brother on the phone: "We are code blue right now! You gotta get to the hospital now!" Meanwhile, Kristina moans, "I'm gonna have this baby in your car!" Kristina arrives at the hospital nine centimeters dilated, screams a lot, then delivers her baby girl. The doctor hands her the baby right away, which rarely happens in real life but always happens on TV.
OK, so they followed the formula to a T, let's move on. Parenthood is mawkish and predictable but I love it anyway (more on that later). This episode made me think about something else, a trope I'll call Childbirth as a Male Bonding Experience.
There's tension between Crosby and Kristina and Adam (Kristina's husband and Crosby's brother) because Crosby and Adam went into business together and Kristina's afraid their business will fail. So it's significant that Crosby sees Kristina through the labor when Adam isn't there. Crosby seems completely terrified, but he holds Kristina's hand and plays the sensitive guy. When Adam arrives, he and Crosby exchange a private look which communicates something akin to "thanks, brother, for stepping in and looking after my wife."
Something similar happened on Full House when Jesse couldn't be at Becky's birthing so Danny stepped in. I think this trope would be less common if women wrote more of the scripts. (This Parenthood episode was written by the admittedly awesome Jason Katims.) Could anything beg for a female perspective more than a childbirth episode? The male perspective is vital, but I'd like to see the world from a woman's eyes sometimes.
(Actor and mom Monica Potter convinced Jason Katims to include postpartum emotional changes in the coming episodes. From the interview: "I'm glad that they let me do that.")
Last season on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Dee gave birth. As a character, Dee serves as a dummy onto whom the writers unload a startling variety of violent and nakedly misogynistic fantasies. You know how comedies make fun of –isms (like sexism) in order to show disapproval of the –ism? Like on The Office and South Park? And 'ya know how there's a fine line between making fun of hatred and being hateful? Well, It's Always Sunny doesn't walk that line, it sits firmly on one side of it (not that everyone agrees).
Anyway. So the male posse on It's Always Sunny realize they don't know who the father is and start looking for him, all while realizing that they're actually excited about the idea of a baby. The birthing scene isn't included because we're out in the waiting room with the guys. As one blogger put it, "While it sounds very touchy-feely, 'Dee Gives Birth' was about the transformative power of childbirth for the guys."
Childbirth as Male Bonding was especially noticeable in "The Birth" episode of The Cosby Show, when Sondra's childbirth is used as a plot device to solidify Dr. Huxtable's relationship with basically every male family member—his son-in-law, his father, his son, his son-in-law's father... not to mention his male colleagues at the hospital.
Other childbirth cliches also reflect a male perspective. The men are always really nervous. After watching many, many childbirth scenes, this is something I saw in each and every one. And why does the mom always scream mean stuff at the dad? ("You Did This To Me!" etc.)? These scenarios reflect male anxieties about childbirth, and the male bonding trope reflects male experiences with childbirth. Which is fine, but some other perspectives would be nice, don't you think?
A quick note about Parenthood: If you're looking for a new series to get into, I recommend this one. Occasionally it's vapid and sentimental, but usually it's engaging and sweet and sometimes quite clever, and despite my notes about this episode, it's one of the few television series that consistently defies the male, heteronormative perspective while including it, because some of the characters see the world through that particular lens. A multiplicity of perspectives is allowed. Imagine that! And I happen to think Monica Potter is one of the most talented actors on television.
Warning: Viewing Parenthood leads to crying, even if you're not a person typically brought to tears.
Tune in tomorrow for a breakdown of control issues in childbirth and a close reading of Pam's labor and delivery on The Office.
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