Sunday, January 1, 2012

Natural Birth on TV: Bones Season 6 Finale

First, a disclosure: if you are looking for up-to-date pop culture analysis, you’ve got the wrong girl. I will go weeks without turning my television on and then watch an entire series of a show on Netflix Instant Watch in two days. While I am fascinated by pop culture and think it offers important insights into our culture, I am not a timely consumer. So, I realize that Bones Season 6 ended months ago. I realize that there’s a whole other season out there that’s airing on TV right now. Regardless, I’ve only watched up to the finale of Season 6, and this viewing is fresh in my mind, if nowhere else.

The portrayal of birth in popular media is important because, as Tiffany Holdsworth-Taylor explains in this article, “Medicalization of childbirth has created an information void—enter popular media. Many women ‘experience’ birth through TV, magazines, or the Internet.” And those “experiences” are shrouded in fear, severe pain, complications, and fast-paced panic, ingredients for great dramatic entertainment, but not so great for creating a culture where birth (medicated or not) is approached with calmness or serenity. Women learn to fear birth and the pain that goes along with it.

As Katherine Don explains in this article from Bitch Magazine, “We must be sensitive about portrayals of childbirth in the media because the United States is in the midst of a maternal health care crisis.” We rank incredibly low on maternal mortality rates. The c-section rate is much higher than recommended. While perceptions of birth certainly aren’t the only factors contributing to these statistics, instilling terror into every woman who may someday give birth (not to mention their partners, parents, and friends who will advise them) isn’t going to help.

Which is why I was glad to see the portrayal of a natural birth by Bones’ character Angela Montenegro.

Angela is played by Michaela Conlin, who seems to have considered the responsibility of portraying a birthing mother. In this clip, she discusses how nervous she was to shoot the scene because she “didn’t want to make it a hammy, cartoony performance.”

I think she did a good job of capturing some of the complexities and nuances of birth without falling into full-out terror. The thing I was most impressed with, though, was the portrayal of her OB.

Angela is a few days past her due date and dousing everything she eats in hot sauce in an attempt to bring on labor. She’s sick of being pregnant, a feeling most women who’ve neared or passed their due dates can probably relate to. But her husband (Hodgins, played by TJ Thyne) reminds her that the doctor said she could go two weeks past her due date. At this point, I wanted to yell “thank you” at the screen. When I was pregnant, almost everyone I knew was pressuring me to ask for an induction--and I went into labor on my due date, so I wasn’t even past due.

Angela also experiences contractions that she mistakes for the onset of labor. For this trial run to the hospital, Hodgins completely freaks out. Angela stays fairly calm and makes fun of him for not acting as the baby books instructed. They laugh about their false alarm and promise to be calmer when the real thing hits.

Angela’s water breaks in the middle of a big case, and Hodgins is calm. . . for about three seconds. Then he freaks out and fails to be of much use. Angela makes a quip about how “men aren’t built for this.”

I disliked that the show had to fall into the trope of “men, useless, amiright?” This is a trope that comes up again and again in media birth scenes. And I know that it’s meant to highlight the strength of women during childbirth, but men can (and, in my opinion, should) play an important role in the births of their children. And that might be more likely to happen if they weren’t shown as bumbling idiots in media birth scenes.

But Hodgins redeems himself. During the birth, he’s calm and supportive. Angela does fall into cliché of the cussing, angry woman in pain, but only during contractions. The show does a good job of showing that labor is not one continuous stream of pain. (Though Angela’s ability to give advice on a complex murder investigation between contractions minutes before pushing might be taking it a bit too far).

Angela also gives birth without any pain medication. At one point, she is screaming during a contraction and her husband asks if she wants to reconsider the epidural. She is adamant that she doesn’t want it. “Because natural childbirth is a beautiful thing,” she pants between clinched teeth. I appreciate that the show demonstrated a woman who had to make a decision for a natural birth and stick to it in the face of the temptation to veer from it. This is the reality for most women who choose a natural birth in a hospital. For me, the nurses and doctors treated me as a complete anomaly. One nurse in particular kept trying to move my legs for me. “I can do it!” I called out in frustration. “Oh yeah. I keep forgetting you can feel your legs.”

Through it all, her doctor is calm and reassuring. She doesn’t rush Angela by telling her that she only has x-amount of time to progress before being forced to get Pitocin or a c-section. She doesn’t fear-monger. She calmly waits for the last contraction that allows Angela to push out her baby. She’s the only medical professional in the room. The lights are dimmed while Angela labors. These are optimal conditions, and I’m glad they portrayed them because they can happen in the hospital, but they’re probably not the default.

Overall, this was a birth that was definitely framed by Hollywood drama. The rush to get to the hospital, the cursing mother in pain, and the screams of agony are all common tropes in media births. Also, Angela spent her entire labor sitting in the bed, which is probably not the best way to get through a natural birth.

However, I appreciate the fact that it was able to capture the necessary drama for the entertainment value while still doing some really important work in portraying birth as a non-terrifying way. At the end of the episode, when talking to Dr. Brennan, Angela talks about how beautiful and amazing her birth experience was--hopefully it was beautiful for the people watching as well. 

Knocked Up provides another (albeit more dramatic) on-screen portrayal of a natural birth. What others have you seen?

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