Bringing Up Baby: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Care in TVLand
Hello, fellow Bitch readers! I’m a freelance journalist, editor, writer, and blogger, and I warmly welcome you to the first post of my guest blog series, Bringing Up Baby, which will explore pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care as represented on television (and, occasionally, in film and the mainstream media). My goal is to introduce babies as an important topic for feminists who are wary of representations of women and gender in the media.
Too often, pregnancy and early motherhood are the abandoned, unloved stepchildren of feminist media criticism. When it comes to motherhood, we’re more typically concerned about Woman as Inevitable Caregiver. We’re concerned about Childless Woman as Emotionless Career Woman. We’re concerned about the assumption that a woman without a child equals a woman who secretly wants a child. We’re concerned about representations of parenthood for LBGTQ characters.
These are important concerns, and their centrality to feminist criticism is also important. It was, after all, the equating of womanhood with motherhood and domesticity that feminists originally fought against. But today, motherhood needs feminist voices. Single motherhood (not any indicator of race) is the number one predictor of poverty in the U.S., and the U.S. is the only Western country that does not mandate parental leave for working parents. We’re also facing an ignored crisis in maternal healthcare. Rates of death and illness resulting from childbirth have been climbing since the late ‘80s, and the U.S. ranks #33 out of 43 developed countries in maternal death rates.
But fear not! Come along with me for a jaunt in TVLand, where the news tells us that maternal mortality is only a problem in Africa, and sitcoms and dramas remind us that single mothers don’t exist—unless their progeny are attractive teenagers. With the notable exception of NBC’s new Up All Night (yes, I’ve watched it, and no, I didn't like it), current in-depth portrayals of early parenthood on TV are portrayals of early fatherhood. Exhibit A: Modern Family with little Lily and her two dads, Cameron and Mitchell; Exhibit B: Dexter and little Harrison (his mommy was murdered by a serial killer); Exhibit C: Young single dad Jimmy and baby Hope (her mommy was a serial killer and subsequently executed) in Raising Hope.
There are a lot of babies in TVLand these days, and the popularity of single fatherhood is not new; let’s not forget Full House (how could we?). Early fatherhood of non-infants is popular as well, from Two and a Half Men (shudder) to Fox’s new animated series, Allen Gregory. So . . . where are the moms? Considering the fact that 80% of single-parent households are headed by mothers, the popularity of shows about single fathers seems strange. And while it’s important that homosexual dads are getting screen time, I can’t help but notice that these fathers seem to replicate, sans uterus, all the assumptions and prejudices of white, heteronormative American parenting. Again, I must ask . . . where are the moms? (Well, on Grey’s Anatomy. I’ll get to that later). According to the U.S. Census, one-third of lesbian households have children, as compared to only one-fifth of gay male households. But these lesbian households are hard to find in the media.
My blog posts will address the absence of single mothers except under sensationalistic circumstances (pregnant teens; Manhattantites in heels; polygamists: reality TV, my head spins!), and I’ll also address such persistent mysteries as: Why do female characters on crime or sci-fi dramas rarely become pregnant (unless by demon or alien spawn)? Why do middle-aged female characters so often think they’re menopausal, only to discover they’re actually pregnant (most recently on Parenthood)? Why does nobody in TVLand ever have an abortion (Grey’s Anatomy, I know) even though there’s a pregnancy at some point during most every teen drama? Why are childbirth scenes so formulaic? And what was up with that grotesque homicidal midwife witch lady on Game of Thrones?
I hope you’ll join me as I examine what pregnant women and new mothers are like on television, and speculate on how these representations might be hurting women in the real world. I should mention here that I have actual physical difficulty watching reality TV (symptoms: nausea, vertigo, lingering headache), so my knowledge in that area is sparse, and I welcome my readers to offer examples and counter-examples. Thanks for reading!
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