Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Review of "Laboring Under an Illusion" by Vicki Elson

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 intersperses her own commentary and analysis with clips from reality TV, sitcoms, Hollywood, YouTube, and educational childbirth videos. In Elson’s work as a childbirth educator, the mass media has strongly affected her clients’ expectations and experiences. She asks us to become aware of how our media-heavy culture shapes our ideas about birth. Only then can we ensure that our values and decisions are really coming from us—not from what a TV producer or Hollywood writer decides we should believe.

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)


  1. Fun fact: The newest Star Trek movie did not beam out little baby Kirk because when it had been done previously in the Star Trek universe, it killed the mother. Babies are not supposed to be teleported out of the uterus! Yay for natural childbirth while evacuating a ship under heavy fire?

  2. sounds like a really interesting film. funny, because i had a dream last night that each of my sisters gave birth (neither of whom are pregnant, but i am!). there was no rushing about or sense of emergency, but both of them were lying on their backs to deliver and the babies were taken away, cleaned, and wrapped up in blankets before being handed to the mums--none of which i want for myself when i give birth in a couple of months! i woke up thinking about the influence movies must have on my impressions, even though i have done quite a lot to educate myself as much as i can about "real" birth. will have to see if i can find the film in the UK!

  3. One show I thought did a nice job with natural birth was the Australian "McLeod's Daughters" (about sisters who run a ranch in the outback). The tough ranching sister gives birth with a friend attending in an unused animal shelter- and I'll admit, I cried a little at the beautiful scene. There were no scare tactics, no emergencies, and mom and baby did great. I was shocked to see such a depiction on a widely watched show.
    As I was watching- I realized I had never seen anything like that portrayed as normal. It's on Netflix instant watch if you find yourself with some extra time.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...