I first watched Vicki Elson’s film Laboring Under an Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing at the 2009 Lamaze Conference. She recently sent me a copy to review. This 50-minute film will make you laugh, groan, and roll your eyes. You will also examine how your assumptions about childbirth have been influenced by various forms of mass media.
Elson’s film presents two divergent motivations for broadcasting childbirth scenes: profit and education. Profit-driven birth scenes are written to amuse, to shock, and to entertain, not to depict reality. In such scenes, anything and everything can happen. Women give birth to aliens. Alien women give birth (or have their babies beamed out of them a la Star Trek). Men become pregnant and gives birth. If the mother is actually a human, she is usually white, married, and slender. Her labor lasts 20 minutes or less, usually so fast that she has to rush to the hospital. Labor is so painful that she demands drugs on arrival even when she had decided to “try going natural.” Expectant fathers are often get into fights, pass out during the actual birth, and generally act like helpless, bumbling idiots. Medical intervention in birth is normal, while natural birth—during the rare times it’s portrayed in the mass media—is exotic, usually taking place in faraway lands and times. Modern women and natural childbirth simply do not mix in the mass media.
On the other hand, educational childbirth films aim to make women feel more confident and less afraid of the process and to show what childbirth really looks, sounds, and feels like. These films show women embracing the process, working hard, and beaming with pride and ecstasy when their baby is finally in their arms.
Much of Elson’s film contrasts these two approaches (mass media childbirth versus “reality”) using a wide range of film clips: I put the word reality in quotes, because even reality itself can be framed, manipulated, edited, and interpreted by filmmakers. So it’s not really raw, unedited reality that we’re seeing in educational and natural childbirth films. It’s an interpretation—albeit far, far more true-to-life than mass media birth scenes—of the reality of giving birth. Elson doesn’t actually say this outright. Instead, she makes occasional allusions to the agenda of educational birth scenes (promoting confidence, portraying birth as normal and do-able rather than terrifyingly painful, arguing that the hard work of birth is a pathway to personal satisfaction). She also notes that portrayals of birth overemphasize either the safety or danger of giving birth. In light of this, I think Elson could have reworked the title of her film to evoke more subtlety and complexity than just “The Real Thing."
Laboring Under an Illusion would be perfect for childbirth educators, birth attendants, and pregnant women. But this film would also be a fantastic educational tool in a high school or college setting. It's the perfect length to show in a single class hour. I see this film sparking fascinating discussions in Women's Studies, media studies, communication, composition/rhetoric, or anthropology classes.
Laboring Under an Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing
Length: 50 minutes
Price: $19.95 (bulk pricing of $13.95 for 5 or more DVDs)