Screaming Birth

As a highschooler, I was completely entranced by TLC’s A Baby Story. The labor and delivery process presented was so horrifically dramatic, I simply couldn’t tear my eyes away.

Laboring mothers writhed in pain. Howls thundered from deep within, as if possessed by someone or something otherworldly. Eventually and almost always, pain consumed the mothers leaving them at the mercy of medical intervention.

I specifically remember one episode where a mother rocked in a chair breastfeeding her very young infant.  She sat sobbing because nursing her baby hurt so badly.

These depictions of birth and breastfeeding became my expectations. I privately prepared myself for my child-bearing years, accepting these scenarios as normal.

Shows like A Baby Story specifically target new and soon-to-be parents. It is unfair and almost unethical to present birth and breastfeeding as such miserable experiences when so many of us know that the parenthood process has the potential to be empowering and beautiful.

BrandyBrandy Hansen is a Union Institute & University Maternal Infant Health: Lactation Consulting student and WIC breastfeeding peer counselor in Illinois. She recently wrote Childbirth Tropes in Animation: The Screaming Birth for her Anthropology of Childbirth course taught by Healthy Children’s Kajsa Brimdyr, PhD.

Hansen’s idea is fresh; Google “birth and animation” and you won’t come up with anything of value. But Hansen’s research findings are frightening.

She writes, “Especially among young people and parents, who are the more likely targets and viewers of said animated series, there is an almost palpable lack of collective knowledge about the ‘real’ birth experience.”

Hansen looked at an episode of the animated sitcom Home Movies and its portrayal of the Screaming Birth as it reflects our cultural beliefs and expectations in the U.S.

She defines the Screaming Birth like this: The laboring woman quickly delivers in a hospital setting after a membrane rupture. She is always laying down with her legs spread wide and she is always in an extraordinary amount of pain forcing her to lose all self-control.

When the baby emerges, he is “serene and beautiful” although tightly swaddled and breastfeeding is always absent. If the birth progresses out of the hospital, there is always an element of danger, Hansen explains.

There are two important aspects to consider here. First when one watches a cartoon, he or she is generally not deliberately looking for birth and breastfeeding messages. Instead, the birthing messages presented in animated shows are subliminal, although most often harsh and ungracious in their depictions.

Second, Hansen found that the Screaming Birth is always present; there is never any kind of deviation from the violent birthing experience.

“The most surprising thing is how pervasive it is,” Hansen says of the Screaming Birth.

“When a person watches a cartoon, they are seeking comic relief but I was surprised at how those beliefs came out and how much they were reinforced.”

Hansen admits this finding was somewhat disappointing. She tells me that while she labored, she never once thought to scream at her supporters in abuse, as so many birthing mother portrayals do. Instead, Hansen says she felt more at their mercy and felt thankful for the people there to help.

She also expresses concern about animation’s male dominance.

“If men are writing this and this is how they see birth, do we as lactation professionals laugh at it?”

Hansen wonders to what extent birth and lactation professionals have a responsibility to shift our culture’s birth and breastfeeding expectations.

She also asks in Childbirth Tropes, “If a father is watching these shows, and having those seeds planted as labor being ‘scary’ or ‘difficult,’ he is more likely to be anxious rather than empowered about his role in the process, especially given the role to which fathers seem to be relegated in the animated word (the bumbling buffoon or absentee).”

Hansen suggests that it is up to lactation professionals to show women (and men) that birth doesn’t have to be the malicious magnification presented in the media.

“…We must as professionals present parents with accurate, evidence-based information on birth,” she writes.

Hansen also suggests that that animators have the ability to relinquish power.

“Cartoons..are a form of media that can be used as a vehicle for social change and reflection,” she writes.

Somewhat recently, Hansen has noticed a “nice movement in the other direction.” In an episode of FOX’s Bob’s Burgers titled “Synchronized Swimming”, she says birth is presented as very normal.

“This is a huge step from what I’m used to seeing,” she says.

Hansen is currently reworking her paper to include these positive updates. Eventually, she says she would like to create a comprehensive list of animated shows including analysis of how labor and delivery visions are evolving.

Stay tuned: Childbirth Tropes in Animation: The Screaming Birth will soon be published on Our Milky Way!

2 Replies to “Screaming Birth”

  1. There is an historical reason for the portrayal of women in labor as screaming lunatics. From around 1915 to the 1960s (and later in some regions), women were drugged into Stage 2 of anesthesia using a narcotic (such as morphine) and an anticholinergic drug (such as scopolamine); this became known as “twilight sleep.”

    Stage 2 of Guedel’s 4 Stages of Anesthesia is also called the “excitement stage.” It follows the initial loss of consciousness and is characterized by delirious activity…and includes amnesia.

    Women given “twilight sleep” were out of control. They had to be strapped into stretchers to keep them from throwing themselves onto the floor. They swore and screamed and acted liked insane people. After the baby was born, and they woke up, they would have no memory of their labor, and no heart connection to the infant stranger that they were given.

    Seeing the “screaming birth” in the media is a relic of this awful time.

    In 1958, Ladies Home Journal published an article called Cruelty in Maternity Wards that received more reader response than any article previously published. In 1959, Marjorie Karmel was in Paris, France; her pregnancy and labor was attended by Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze who had studied the work of Dr. Grantly Dick-Read from the UK. Mrs. Karmel had an unmedicated labor and birth, and loved it. She came home to the US and wrote a book, “Thank you Dr. Lamaze”. His name is remembered in the childbirth organization called Lamaze International. This time and book was one factor in the women’s consciousness raising movements of the 60s.

    I am glad to see that media representation of birth is becoming more gentle.

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