10.20.2012

Is "Call the Midwife" the Most Countercultural Show on TV?




          It brings me great joy when my wife and I can find a television show that we both enjoy and can watch together.  I tend to go for darker or more out-there fare, with British comedy being my absolute favorite (think The Prisoner, Louie, The Office [British version], or The Fast Show).  She tends to go for more relationship oriented comedy/dramas, classic TV, standard crime procedurals, or practical minded reality TV (think Friends, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bones, or House Hunters). We both had a love for Seinfeld before we got married and we have enjoyed watching a number of new shows together since we got married: All Creatures Great & Small, Northern Exposure, Frasier, As Time Goes By, Freaks and Geeks, and My So-Called Life, with our latest television bonding coming from a mutual obsession with Friday Night Lights.  But in the past few years since having kids we have watched very little television together.  

Somehow she had heard of a new show airing on PBS entitled Call the Midwife and since she is a woman who has immersed herself in women’s health on a professional level (she is a physical therapist's assistant) and midwives and birthing on a social, personal, and self-educated level, she told me she wanted to see it.  And, since I have been Anglo-obsessed ever since seeing Mr. Bean nearly twenty years ago, and this show was a BBC drama, I told her I definitely want to watch it with her.  I was excited: our disparate television interests might find a mutual place for enjoyment in this show!

So we watched and immediately got caught up in the period drama about a group of midwives in post-World War II London, my wife crying several times throughout the episode, me having carefully controlled watery-eyed man-tears most of the time (unable to control myself, I cried much more during the second episode!).  The series is based off the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, and follows the character Jenny Lee as the main protagonist.  She lives in Nonnatus House, a nursing convent where a mixture of both Nun nurses and "regular" nurses live together and serve the pregnant, birthing, and postpartum mothers in the East End of London. The format is a simple one: a newly certified young midwife finds herself in numerous challenging situations, and along the way she meets many interesting pregnant mothers and families, delivers lots of babies, and goes through the expected amount of tragedies and triumphs.

However, as we have been going through this series (and we are only two episodes in) I have found it quite striking that despite its relatively conventional formula for a television drama it has really chosen to tackle some controversial subjects: midwifery, the medical industry, abortion, femininity, as well as belief in God and the institutional Church.  What I am starting to see—and I have no idea if they keep it up throughout the show’s run or what the presuppositions of the show’s creators are—is a boldly counter-cultural television show couched in a seemingly saccharine sentimental period drama.  You see, midwifery and home-births are note exactly respected in this country, and despite the continuing prevalence of religion in the U.S., in many ways we are and are yet becoming a Post-Christian society just like our European neighbors.   

I will explain what I mean by "counter-cultural" with two sets of lists, one dealing with midwives, women, and birthing, and the other dealing with God and religion.

List #1: It is countercultural in how it portrays midwives, women, and the birthing experience:
  1. It shows that babies can be born safely at home, with normal people both attending the birth (the midwives) and doing the birthing (the mothers).
  2. It shows that midwifery is a legitimate medical practice, wherein the practitioners utilize both modern medicine and time-tested techniques unique to the field (and not a mystical dark art performed by guru-like patchouli smelling caravan travelling hippie women—even though there have been a few of those around throughout the years).   [As an aside, it is fascinating to me that midwifery is portrayed as safe and legitimate in the 1950’s when modern medicine was only beginning to kick into full gear.  Think about it: if babies can be delivered safely at home in the poorest section of London in the 1950’s, consider how safe home-birth is in the 21st  century, with all the new knowledge, equipment, and medicine at a modern midwife’s disposal! No seriously, really think about that.]
  3. It takes an entirely negative view of abortion (at least so far).  A midwife’s call is to bring lives into the world, so they tend to have a natural revulsion to the waste or the destruction of human life.  So, when the subject of abortion was brought up within the plot of the show the characters showed the utmost horror and disgust, as that act to them demonstrated a total disregard for the gift of life (and not just because a backdoor abortion performed in the 1950’s was a completely unsafe procedure).
  4. It shows that birth is a natural event that just happens.  These are the most authentic TV births (i.e., fictionalized or dramatized) I have ever seen.  Sure, there is a lot of screaming and pain involved but they never overplay the birth scenes.  On top of this, although women’s bodies are often portrayed sexually or as objects of male desire in the show, when it comes to pregnancy and birth, women’s bodies are portrayed as beautiful and yet natural (much like a woman’s breast can be both an object of sexual desire as well as a functional body part simply useful for feeding babies).
  5. It shows that modern medical interventions are not necessarily necessary in order to bring a baby into the world.  Barring a situation that requires going to the hospital, birthing mothers do not need pain meds, IV drips, antibiotics, C-sections, Pitocin, or especially a (usually male) doctor.  All you need is a mommy, a bed, water, basic medical supplies, and a knowledgeable, calm, and caring midwife by mommy’s side.
  6. It shows women at the height of their womanhood.  Sure, women should have the same jobs as men and get paid the same as men (at the risk of throwing myself into the currently heated political climate), but in my opinion never is a woman more powerful than when she is doing that which makes her most womanly as well as doing something no man is capable of.  And what displays the inadequacy of men greater than the act of bringing babies into the world?  Women are the gatekeepers of humanity, both as birthers and as those attending births.  To me it is utterly fascinating that the most empowering moments in a woman’s life—that of giving birth—are also the most vulnerable and (perhaps) most intimate moments of her life as well.  What Call the Midwife demonstrates is that families—and not nations, rulers, businesses, or intellectuals—are the center of human culture, that births are the central events of human history, and that women are the central figures of those events.
This is all truly remarkable, as I have never seen a show tackle these kinds of issues before.
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Picture break:

Wisdom From the Hippie Midwife: “After the next contraction we’ll all dance 
the baby out by enveloping mom and baby in positive cosmic energy!”
____________________________

List #2: It is countercultural in how it portrays God, religion, and people of faith:
  1. It shows that Christians should pray to and intercede before God for others, that they often do so unknowingly, and that God hears and answer their prayers.  In episode 2 of the season the nuns are shown chanting a prayer from Compline (the last office of prayer for the day) which states, “O God make speed to save us. O Lord make haste to help us,” and then we immediately see a young woman who appears to be in trouble.  This woman turns out to be Mary a young Irish immigrant living in London as a prostitute, who has gotten pregnant, and risks being forced into an abortion at the hands of her pimp.  One night, Jenny, the central midwife of the show helps Mary get a bite to eat, and from there is able to get her away from a life of prostitution and into a safe environment where she can give birth to her baby (all of which is provided by the Church, I might add).  While someone without faith would see that progression of events as merely a series of fortunate coincidences, a viewer with faith would automatically see how God provided in that situation and provided as a direct result of prayer.
  2. It takes seriously the fact that people feel called by God to do certain things with their lives. In the second episode a new midwife joins the crew at Nonnatus House, the well-meaning but wet-behind-the-ears upper middle-class “Chummy.” Even though she is gangly and uncoordinated due to her height and a bit of a social misfit due to her sheltered upbringing, she is nonetheless portrayed without any mockery as a sincere believer who feels called by God to help people in Africa.  Sure she is a bit na├»ve, but her faith is shown as real and not a mere feeling—indeed, she has given up years of her life in service of others as a nurse, and then in training as a midwife, all so she can pursue what she feels God has called her to.   I find it absolutely amazing there could be a character like this in a show from a country that is so predominantly secular.  I cannot but help but think the people behind the show have a faith of their own or at least take faith seriously.
  3. The Church is portrayed ultimately as a force of good. The nuns running the convent are all deeply loving and servant-hearted women, despite any of their personal foibles.  In fact, with the nuns we see not an isolated Church who hides away in fearful judgment of the world, but instead a people whose worship directly correlates with their mission.  Their time of abiding with the Lord through Morning and Evening Prayers ensures that they can go back out and serve their community as midwives.  On top of this, in episode 2, the character of an Anglican priest (Father Joe) is introduced as the head of a shelter for young women in trouble who helps give protection to the young Irish mother.  This is a man who desperately cares for the least of these whom God has put under his care.  He is also a man who has to make tough decisions, decisions that can often seem harsh, but ultimately come from a desire to see the greatest good done.  As a symbol of the Church this priest represents an organization that is nowhere near perfect but that at least has the right heart.  Again, this is an amazing interpretation of Christianity, coming from a country that usual depicts its religious leaders with cynical mockery.
What I am most curious about is where the show’s creators are coming from in their portrayal of midwifery and Christianity.  I mean, what are they on about?  Now, I know the stories come from Jennifer Worth's memoirs, so maybe they’re simply trying to tell her stories well.  And I also know that period shows like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Upstairs Downstairs have been hugely popular in the last few years, so maybe it was a no-brainer for the BBC to greenlight this show as well.  Even so, this is a show about midwives set in a convent--meaning, it is not exactly scintillating material.  

With all that said, here is why I think the whole premise is incredibly clever: by setting the narrative in a seemingly golden-aged and more innocent time, it allows them to delve into touchy subjects (e.g., religion and women’s bodies) in a controversial way without being controversial.  Let me put it this way: since everything seems so old-fashioned and quaint and removed from modern life, they could not possibly be saying that God actually answers prayer, that the Church does a lot of great things both spiritual and material, and that modern medicine has gotten way too invasive in the birth process.  As a drama, the show itself is very conventional and breaks no new ground, sometimes bordering on the sentimental (please remember my crying as noted above).  It basically falls well into the “medical procedural” genre and reminds me a lot of one of my all-time favorite shows All Creatures Great and Small, which is about veterinarian James Herriot and his animal practice.  The two shows are very similar in that their internal narrative structures are essentially a juxtaposing between the relationships the medical professionals have with each other and the relationships they have with their patients.  However, I believe that its very conventionality is what allows the show to be so bold in its subject matter.  

Again, I am left wondering, “What are the people behind this show up to?”  My hope is that they continue making these courageous countercultural statements couched in the “desaturated” “heartwarming fluff” of a more “innocent” time.  Let's watch together and find out.

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Related Articles: 
Our Birth Story
Singing Over Our Children
Making a Case For Dark Comedy: The League of Gentlemen


 See more from Call the Midwife.

10 comments:

Claire said...

Briefly, thought I could wax on for days...

The Whole of List #1:
Sigh. I don't think I have the time or space to go over the whole of British history of medicine. Suffice to say that this television show, while excellent, has NOTHING to do with the current American idea that birth is normal and perfectly safe (trust me, I'm a doula and nurse, I'm familiar with it all).

Nurse midwives were trained and put forth as part of Britain's National Health Service because they were cheaper than doctors to pay, took less time to train, and as women might have an easier time gaining access to folks' home. It had NOTHING to do with "normalizing" birth, and everything to do with the fact that....London did not have hospital beds in 1950 to accommodate everyone in need of attention and care.

List the Second:
There's so much going on here; I have a headache just reading this. Let's leave it at "I don't think you've ever seen television before and you've mistaken this show for a documentary directed by God."

Lastly (o so much more to say!): Chummy as "upper middle class"? Yes, all upper middle class Britons owned two castles, an estate on the island of Madeira, and were knighted for their governmental service in India. Oh, wait, that's the highest and most privileged echelons of the aristocracy.

Chris said...

Claire,
thanks for reading my post and for your comment.
First off, I wondering if I know you at all. I know a couple of Claires and were wondering if you were one of them. If I don't know you, how did you find the blog? Also, are you British? I'd be interested to hear about what it's like being a doula in present day England.

As to your comments, I am sorry if my writing has perturbed you but I'm not sure why you needed to take such an insulting tone. That makes it difficult to respond in a civil manner. I prefer to have conversations about these issues and not be demeaning.

Here is my response:
1. Thank you for the information about the context of the show in regards to the history of the medical industry in England during the 20th century. I will dispute nothing you said, as that is not my specialty, and I think you made a good point. Nonetheless, I believe you have truly misunderstood what I am trying to convey. While I completely know "Call the Midwife" is a historical drama set within a certain time period and a specific culture, I also know that all art has the ability to speak to or shed light on other periods of history. Essentially, art is at it's best and most powerful when it is able to find relevance and give meaning in a diverse manner of contexts. Sometimes a work of art does this with the intention of the artist himself and sometimes it is merely the interpretation of the partaker of the art (in the case of my blog post it is most obviously the latter, but I have some suspicions it might be the former as well). For example, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" was both about the Salem Witch Trials AND 1950's McCarthyism. At the same time I could take an entirely out of context work of art and apply it to a modern day issue. So, I could read Melville's "Moby Dick" and say that Ahab's chasing of the whale is just like America's hunt to find Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists. Of course Moby Dick isn't about chasing terrorists, but a great work of art is open to such creative interpretations. My comparison of "Call the Midwife" is in no way as remote as my Moby Dick example, but I still think it applies. Even if the creators of the show we not intending to make a comment of how birth and midwives and doctors are perceived in Western medicine, I believe it nonetheless did so. There are a number of scenes throughout the show where a doctor shows up and his services are completely unnecessary--the mom (and her body) along with the midwife has already done all the work. I believe this is an artistic statement. It is conveying a message beyond just the mere facts of the birth story or of the conditions of English medicine, and I believe this message has serious implications as to how people in the West (but especially America) understand how and where babies are born. This is all I was trying to convey in my post.

Chris said...

2. My point above about how art conveys meaning also applies to my thoughts on the depiction of faith in "Call the Midwife". No, I've seen plenty of TV, and I can easily tell the difference between a documentary and a fictional depiction, and to my knowledge I've never seen anything actually directed by God himself. All I was trying to say is that I believe the way they are depicting people of faith in the show is unique. It takes their faith seriously, and if you interpret it a certain way you can actually see God working within the plot. Again, this could be the intention of the shows creators and it could not. It doesn't matter what their original intentions are, since as a viewer I am making those connections based on what is actually happening in the show, and this is how everyone approaches works of art: they use their own perspective to make connections to both reality and fiction in order to gain meaning.

3. I am a bit confused about your comment regarding Chummy. What did I say that was so ridiculous? Please go back and read my actual text. In reference to her economic and social class I was merely recounting what the show itself was conveying about her: she was privileged, a bit naive, and didn't fit in with the others.

Again, thanks for your comments.

Kevin B said...

Chris, my wife and I discovered the show on Amazon and had much the same reaction. The show is one of the most human we've watched. I particularly enjoyed the episode where the main character goes and sits with the older man in his flat, caring for him. The undercurrent of the show was a strong value of simple human experience and a thread of faith running through it all in a way that is not saccharine but how real Christians live. And the "missional" context of the nuns and their less religious young co-workers serving and living side by side pictures what the Gospel is meant to look like better than a sermon ever could. We were sad when we came to the end of the show. Full disclosure: wife had 4 babies by midwife and we are Christians... and Americans.

Chris Marchand said...

Thanks for your thoughts Kevin

Anonymous said...

I just found this through a TV review site. I agree with Claire. This was a crap review of an awesome series. You had all three points wrong. Point 2 particularly - it's actually a pretty godless show even with all the nuns. As for Claire's point about Chummy, she was upper class, not upper middle. Jenny was upper middle - there's a massive difference. And wet behind the ears is utterly wrong - maybe it's coming from it with an American Christian perspective but this review makes me think you didn't understand much of the show. Do you often miss the point with all those BBC dramas you love to watch? I know most of the Americans I know tend to misunderstand British sensitivities. Anyway I hope that no one else who hasn't seen the show reads your review and gets the wrong idea.. it's nothing like you believe.

Chris Marchand said...

Dear Anonymous,
I find your review of my review hilarious!
It is obvious one of us has a distorted view of reality.

Did you read my response to Claire?
Do words still have meaning?
Is a spade a spade?

Sorry, I'm not sure if you'll understand my comment since I'm American and you're British.

Anyway I hope that no one else who hasn't read my blog reads your review and gets the wrong idea.. it's nothing like you believe.

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Zombiemommy said...

Thank you for your wonderful interpretation of this show. This morning I was reading a very interesting spritual collective journal called Weavings and the mentioned a story of St. Francis and his Canonical hours. It sounded familiar and then when I saw the word compline, I thought, hey they say that in Call the Midwife.

And that's how I landed here.

Great blog post. And I see you are into Classical Education.
Wonderful! We do CC ourselves.

Peace in Christ.

Chris Marchand said...

Zombiemommy,
thanks for reading! It's nice to know people are still finding the article even though it's a few years old.

And yes, we know lots of CC people.
blessings,
Chris