Published: Sept. 1, 2013 By

[1] Scripting the birth, that is emplotting the story of pregnancy and labor using specific narrative and visual conventions, is a way of coping with the unrepresentability of the birthing body. These coping strategies are not meant to represent the actual experience of the birthing woman but rather to decrease the viewer’s anxiety. However, viewers – particularly those who happen to be women – do form certain expectations related to labor on the basis of popular culture. The relationship between popular culture and women’s expectations and experiences is complex and multi-faceted but most certainly some degree of influence is to be expected, particularly bearing in mind the medicalization of the contemporary world, which accounts for the removal of both birth and death from the home and, in turn, from the gaze of anyone but medical professionals. As a result, most women see birth on screen before experiencing labor as birthing women. In the 1990s in Poland, the first births women viewed were often those depicted in Hollywood movies or American television series. While the fact that women in Illinois or Georgia laughed along to the 1992 blockbuster hit Look Who’s Talking comes as no surprise, that laughter takes on a different significance if the viewers are located in a different cultural and political context.

[2] Popular culture inevitably abounds in gaps and omissions in its scripting of the representation of everyday life, but it is precisely these gaps which constitute points of entry for critical analysis, providing information about a society’s collective unconscious and changing notions of propriety. For the pop culture I am surrounded by and grew up in, that of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Poland, many of these gaps are related to the female body and female reproduction. With an exorbitant fertility rate being a staple feature of most soap operas, a genre which took Poland by storm in the 1990s, one would expect a proliferation of depictions of childbirth. Yet, post 1989 scenes of labor (particularly second-stage labor) in Polish visual culture remained rare for more than a decade, only to explode in visibility after 2000. It can be claimed that the increased visibility of birth on screen can be attributed to the availability of ready-made scripts, or conventions, which, in turn, are part of Polish culture’s post-1989 imbibing of “western,” particularly American, pop cultural strategies of representation.

[3] Many strategies can be used to explain the tabooization of the birthing body and its gradual readmission into popular culture (but only on certain terms). Within media studies, psychoanalytic theory, particularly Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, with its connotations to uncleanliness and contamination, has been successfully applied to discuss visual strategies for representing maternal bodies and appears to be a promising tool for discussing representations of the birth itself. In much of the Western world, the birthing body is culturally coded as abject and, as such, poses problems of representation for popular media. According to Kristeva, interaction with the abject, as something situated outside the symbolic order and reminding one of the possibility of death, is a traumatic experience. The maternal body is the site of the ultimate – and at the same time the primal – abjection, as Kristeva points to the necessity of abjecting the maternal in order to constitute one’s subjectivity and to enter the symbolic order (Kristeva, 12-14). The birth itself can be seen as a metaphor for the messy process of separating oneself from one’s mother, an observation developed by Barbara Creed in her analysis of Ridley Scott’s movie Alien in “The Monstrous Feminine.” (Creed, 251-266). No wonder that some of the first American movies depicting birth scenes were horror films. According to Creed, horror films attempt to deal with the abject by first displacing it, then staging a confrontation with the abject, “in order, finally, to eject the abject” (253) and provide the viewer with a cathartic experience. With time, birth scenes began to be included in other visual genres, from the sitcom to the cop show. These genres use different strategies for representing birth but all of them share one important feature: they “sanitize” the birthing body, ultimately rendering it non-threatening and powerless. In contrast to the horror movie, they never attempt to represent abjection directly, but they do diffuse the anxiety associated with abjection.

[4] This article carries out an analysis of the extent of such influence in a particular time and milieu, specifically in post-communist Poland of the 1990s, claiming that American pop cultural representations of birth had a significant – though somewhat ambivalent – influence not only on the experiences of pregnant women but also on representations of birth in Polish popular culture. In fact, American images of birth have helped solidify representations which had been absent from pre-1989 Polish culture. The effects of changes brought about by the systemic transformation in 1989 for women’s reproductive rights have been analyzed elsewhere (Gal & Kligman, 2000; Graff, 2001), but the role of the suddenly available American popular culture remains either underanalyzed or simply taken for granted. Cultural changes connected to the onslaught of American pop culture prove particularly visible in spheres which were deemed unrepresentable in communist Poland. Birth is an excellent example.

[5] This essay refrains from viewing the relationship between pop cultural models and actual behaviors and experiences as purely mimetic and rejects the view of one-directional influence. This complexity is particularly obvious in the case analyzed here. Suspension of disbelief must have necessarily been in force for Polish women watching Kirstie Alley give birth in Look Who’s Talking?. They knew well that hers was not an experience to be imitated in Polish hospitals. However, it is also clear that fictions structure our reality. We do, at least to some extent, organize our experiences according to available cognitive models, and popular genres provide us with such scripts, often exactly through fictionalizing that which is violent and traumatic. And again, the birth experience seems to be one that is particularly “in quest of narrative” – to use the title of a very apropos essay by Paul Ricoeur on the topic of structuring life as narrative, as proved by the current popularity of “birth stories” in women-centered media. The birth story is an attempt at organizing one’s experience, particularly poignant as labor itself may well be one of the moments when we manage to transcend the symbolic order and step beyond language itself. Thus, the birth story is an attempt to reintegrate into language an experience which took place outside of it.

[6] However, my interest in the televisual is not accidental. It is the popular televisual genres (sitcoms, soap operas, the medical drama and mainstream Hollywood cinema) which prove more “fertile” in representations of labor than popular literary genres (there are practically no births in Harlequin romances, murder mysteries or even chick lit). While contemporary literary representations of birth are usually woman-authored and position the birthing woman in a subject position, most often as the first-person narrator of her own experience, in pop cultural visual representations of birth the woman is more often the object of the camera’s gaze.

[7] This article identifies and names three major visual conventions used in popular American and Polish media to portray labor and delivery: the metaphoric birth, the comic birth and the medicalized birth. The classification is based on how various films and television programs cope with the task of displacing the anxiety generated by the abject birthing body. All of these conventions, albeit in different ways, sanitize birth and make it suitable for mass consumption. The article also argues that the comic birth and the medicalized birth were virtually absent from pre-1989 (and even pre 2000s) representations of birth in Polish media and their current popularity is the result of the cultural influence of American televisual conventions.

Pre-1989 Polish Cinema: Birth as Metaphor

[8] Not many depictions of birth existed in pre-1989 Polish cinema and television. While cultural taboos related to the representation of abject female bodies are not unique to Polish culture, a number of circumstances stand out as related to the functioning of this taboo in the Polish context. Firstly, as several feminist scholars have noted, the primary model of femininity in Poland, the figure of Matka Polka (Polish Mother), based in the Romantic nationalistic tradition, had always been devoid of any hints of sexuality (Mrozik, 213). As Agnieszka Mrozik argues, mothers “were represented in art as ‘ready-made’, already formed mothers – either holding small children in their arms of awaiting the return of their grown-up children (usually male), caught up in the cogs of History, or standing over the graves of those who had fallen in battle for the national cause” (214). This is not to imply that no pre-1989 films contested the dominant ideal of femininity, but even those that did rarely attempted to achieve this goal by presenting birth on screen.

[9] The almost total disregard of gender as a category of analysis, coupled with the scarcity of female directors and scriptwriters in pre-1989 Polish cinema, resulted in disregard for topics related to women or in their instrumental treatment. Additionally, there was the issue of the laboring woman’s complete alienation, to reference the title of a chapter of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, “Alienated Labor.” Well into the 1990s and women’s partners were not allowed to set foot in the hospital, much less accompany them in the delivery room. As a result, men outside of the medical profession had no direct access to the birthing experience and could, therefore, hardly be expected to realistically portray an event which they never witnessed. No surprisingly, the cinematic birth itself was either a non-event, with the pregnant female character disappearing from the screen and magically reappearing with baby in tow, or in films set in the pre-hospital-birth epoch, the camera’s gaze was situated on the other side of a closed door and the main mode of representation was aural: through horrifying inarticulate screams. Interestingly, quite often the films which were the most daring and explicit visually were the ones in which the birth was important only as a metaphor; usually a metaphor about the future of Poland as a free state.

[10] In the Polish context, quite uniquely, filmmakers’ attempts to bypass the rampant censorship of the communist period resulted in using relations between men and women as metaphors for the political situation. In effect, much of the Polish postwar cinema abounds not in real flesh and blood women but in one-dimensional female characters. The plump and robust female tractor driver became an icon of social realism. Together with the image of the ghastly thin and emasculated Polish male intellectual, the two figures served, in the discourse of the anti-communist opposition, as a comment on what was wrong with communism: men, deprived of power by the political system, could no longer be “real men,” while women had to take on the “abnormal” role of breadwinner. Agnieszka Graff’s classic diagnosis of the shift in gender relations in Poland post 1989 analyzes the movie Seksmisja [Sexmission] (1983) as exemplary in substituting gender for politics (Graff, 14-32).

[11] In the film, the two main male protagonists are transported into the future, where they learn that women have taken over the power, castrated all men and effectively removed them from the population. They reproduce using test tubes and artificial wombs, without any necessity of male participation. Of course, the process results in female babies only. The two time travelers instigate a revolution by making the women fall in love with them and, as the plot implies, by conceiving babies naturally. The women in the movie are “abnormal” because they side with technology, not nature, and because they exhibit unnaturally aggressive behavior. The two heroes come to the rescue and not only impregnate the futuristic techno-women but also meddle with the AI sex selection process. In the closing scene of the film, a shocked nurse holds up a male baby and the movie closes with a close-up of the baby’s genitals. Order has been restored, things are back to normal. The last words spoken in the film by one of the male protagonists are: “Mother nature is on our side.” Women have been restored to nature and men have recovered the lost technology.

[12] Graff explains that the huge success of the movie resulted from the fact that viewers quickly recognized that the futuristic setup was a metaphor for socialist Poland’s reality and provided a glimmer of hope for the future: order would soon be restored, nature cannot be cheated, the communists will be forced to retreat. Graff’s perceptive analysis reveals that gender and politics served as excellent metaphors for each other precisely because they were perceived as interrelated. Communism displaced men and women from their previous gender roles – or at least was perceived as responsible for the displacement – thus, the systemic transformation initiated in 1989 had to entail a restoration of the “natural” order of things. This is also how Graff explains the outburst of cultural conservatism in the early 1990s, including the implementation of the restrictive anti-abortion law.

[13] The movie’s treatment of the theme of birth can be seen as logical extension of the ideas described by Graff in her book. The birth of the first male baby serves as a metaphor for the future rebirth of a democratic Poland, one in which natural order would be restored. Yet significantly, the birth itself is not shown on screen, not only because a representation of the birthing body would constitute a violation of a taboo but also because the abject birthing body does not exist. The fetus developed in an artificial womb and was somehow removed from it (off screen) with the help of modern technology. Thus, the new natural order is not “of woman born” but created by men without the need for women’s participation. This is the ultimate male fantasy of self-birth: it retains the metaphorical significance of rebirth while removing the female body, not just from public view but even from any material existence. The suggestion seems to be that technological interventions may be necessary in order to put nature back on track.

[14] A strange and utterly unsuccessful comedy called Cesarskie Ciecie [Cesarian Section] (1987) is based on a similar ideological framework to Seksmisja, that is the conviction that communism is unnatural and nature’s help is needed to defeat the system. While this film, similarly to numerous late 1980s movies and television shows produced in the wake of perestroika and a general political thaw, provides a thinly veiled critique of the communist system, its depiction of the birth itself is unique not only because it is rare, but also because it departs from the satiric paradigm maintained throughout the film. The film is set in a decrepit regional hospital, where pregnant women await the birth of their children. An award is offered to the one-millionth citizen of the region and the women (and, even more so, their husbands) eagerly join in the race. The leader of the local branch of the communist party sets up office at the hospital in order to screen the possible parents of the “one-millionth citizen” and take advantage of the available technology (c-section) to ensure that the prize-winning baby be born to a respectable communist family. The fathers-to-be engage in blackmail and bribery to increase their chances of success. One of the pregnant women waiting at the hospital – and the movie makes it clear that a pregnant woman’s place is in the hospital – Wiesia, is unmarried, carrying an illegitimate child. She is hunted down and humiliated by the other pregnant women and by almost all hospital employees, with the exception of a young male nurse, who is working in this degrading and emasculating position solely because he was not admitted into medical school for political reasons. In the end, Wiesia cannot stand the atmosphere any longer. She runs away and goes into labor on the street. The sympathetic male nurse, accompanied by a previously vicious midwife who has just experienced a change of heart and whose vicissitude, we learn, results from her own infertility and envy of pregnant women, pursue the escapee in an ambulance and rescue her. Wiesia gives birth en route to the hospital. While the camera keeps moving from the pale face of the male nurse to the calmly professional midwife issuing expert advice – “Push! Push!” – we do get a glance at the supine body of the laboring woman and at her very red face and screaming mouth.

[15] Wiesia, whose name connotes simplicity and rural origins (the name literally means: “from the village” and Wiesia’s father is a forest ranger), is almost completely silent throughout the movie, intermittently breaking out in inarticulate sobbing. She cries out in labor but is voiceless afterward. She is a victim, someone who has been abused, first by the father of her child, then by the hospital staff and fellow patients. In the birthing scene, she is an object of the attention of the medical professionals who save her, while all the spotlight is taken over by the baby once he – there is no question that the baby must be male – is born. Wiesia’s character is completely one-dimensional, most likely because, yet again, the plot of the movie is to be read metaphorically, or even allegorically.

[16] The ideological premise of Cesarskie Ciecie parallels that of Seksmisja: nature, here in the form of a “natural” delivery, wins the battle with technology, humiliating the “unnatural” communist system. The one-millionth citizen is not born via a scheduled c-section to an accomplished communist family but arrives in an ambulance as the illegitimate child of an unmarried woman from the countryside. The system is revealed as weak and corrupt, but also as dependent on technology, on something unnatural. However, let us be clear about this, the movie was a flop. It was written by Andrzej Mularczyk, the scriptwriter of some of the most popular comedies of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Yet, this particular comedy did not sell. Of course, a diagnosis of the reasons for the lack of commercial success is somewhat speculative, but reviewers pointed out generic confusion as the film’s main fault. The depiction of the birth and the conventions employed for this purpose may underlie this confusion. Although most of the movie views as a comedy of errors and is clearly a satire of the weaknesses of the political system, the tone of the last ten minutes, including the birth scene, suddenly shifts to a mixture of melodrama and action movie. It is set on a rainy night; the faces of all the characters assume a seriousness which they had hitherto lacked. It is the birth itself which occasions this shift, or rather the lack of conventions available for successfully displacing the anxiety evoked by the event.

[17] A claim that Polish postwar cinema is responsible for inventing the convention of the “metaphoric birth” in world cinema would certainly be false. The concept of birth serving as a metaphor for the restoration of natural order or for hope for a better future has been widely used as a literary convention, and later – though less widely – as a cinematographic convention, by Western European and American writers and filmmakers: see, for example, the theme of Rose of Sharon’s baby in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (both the novel and the movie based on the book). However, the existence of institutional censorship coupled with a perceived “unnaturalness” of gender relations under communism contributed to the emergence of a very particular version of this story: one which coupled the possibility of restoring the nation’s independence with traditional gender relations.

[18] While the use of the “metaphoric birth” has not disappeared in Polish cinema and television post 1989, it has most certainly lost its political significance. The current application of this convention does not result from the need to bypass censorship in order to make a political statement, but rather from the same premise that underlies birth scenes in American catastrophic movies (for example Day of Destruction, 2004); the desire to make a statement about the possibility of restoring the “natural” order of things. A perfect application of this formula can be seen in Wojtek Smarzowski’s film Dom zly [The Dark House] (2009), which ends with a highly explicit birth scene. The film is set in communist Poland and all the evil effects of the corrupt system on the morality of the individual citizens are revealed. In the end, a policewoman, pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair, gives birth to the illegitimate child on the floor of the “dark house.” The purpose of the birth – no surprise here – is to present a glimmer of hope, to suggest that new life, something fresh and unspoiled, can still emerge from the darkness.

Pre-1989 Polish Women’s Experiences of Childbirth

[19] Meanwhile, the reality of birth in Poland in the early 1990s was far from optimistic. For Polish women the 1990s were marked by two seemingly contradictory forces: empowerment and growing personal agency resulting from the systemic transformation, rather unanimously perceived, at least in the early 1990s, as the regaining of independence and the return of democracy; and the polar opposite of this trend, that is stark restrictions on women’s reproductive rights introduced in the name of a “return to normalcy” and in light of the influence of the Catholic church. These two forces resulted in the rise of a strong feminist-minded opposition to the anti-abortion law (Fuszara, 1993).

[20] The birth of another movement, also based on feminist principles but much less known and discussed, coincided in time with the fight against restrictions on abortion. The “Dignified Birth” [Rodzic po ludzku] campaign commenced in 1994 with a series of newspaper articles published in the largest Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. The paper solicited women’s birth stories. It should be noted that actual birth stories had never before appeared in popular media, so the campaign itself was an attempt at the detabooization of the topic of birth. The outpouring of traumatic accounts of birthing women being denied basic dignity – strapped to their beds, placed in large delivery rooms with multiple other women, alone and afraid – spurred the organizers to transform the project into a nationwide campaign and start a foundation to coordinate the actions. The accounts collected in 1994 resemble birth stories circulating in the US at the onset of the second wave of feminism, in the 1960s and early 1970s. The main difference seems to be the availability of painkillers. While Adrienne Rich complained of being medicated against her will and remaining unconscious during the birth of her three children (Rich, 175), Polish women suffered from a total lack of access to any pain medication and epidurals were unheard of in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The stories collected during the 1994 campaign frequently compare the hospital to a torture chamber and medical personnel are portrayed as sadists.

[21] The Dignified Birth campaign was the first mass-scale attempt at the detabooization of birth. Significantly, the campaign was carried out in print media and the massive response proved that the form of first-person testimony was well-suited to revealing the vicissitudes of the Polish medical system. I would like to argue that the breaking of the taboo of publicly discussing birth and the solidification of visual conventions used for representing labor were aided by the outpour of televisual depictions of birth in American popular culture, which, at that precise moment, were consumed on a mass-scale by Polish women.

[22] The appetite of the Polish public for American cinema and television immediately after the transformation of 1989 was voracious. Friends, neighbors and entire families would gather to watch and discuss the improbable plots of American soap operas and sitcoms – both of these genres were unheard of in socialist Poland – relishing the opportunity the show gave them for viewing what had been, until 1989, considered “forbidden fruit,” that is the Western lifestyle. This is not to say that no American television programs had been screened on Polish public television before 1989. In fact, some shows – like Bonanza or Little House on the Prairie – caused the streets of Warsaw to clear out in the 1970s and 1980s.

[23] However, it is the 1990s which bring about a greater variety of imported programming. One of the consequences of Poland’s bad financial situation in the early 1990s was a significant delay in the acquisition of television shows. Polish television would schedule shows screened several years earlier in the United States or – again mostly for financial reasons – purchase alternative productions which achieved mass popularity solely in Poland (e.g. Northern Exposure). American daytime programming was scheduled for prime time slots in Poland as viewers who had developed a taste of melodrama with 1980s Brazilian soaps such as Slave Isaura and Ciranda de Pedra wanted to experience more of the same type of pleasure. This explains the unprecedented popularity of the American soap opera Dynasty. The background laughter in American sitcoms, a genre unheard of in pre-1989 Poland, annoyed most viewers but a few of these thirty-minute programs did manage to glue viewers to their television screens (particularly: Murphy BrownRoseanne and later Friends), while some American hits trailed miserably in the Polish ratings (e.g. Seinfeld with its hermetic and culture-bound humor). The first American medical drama to be shown in Poland was ER, which crossed the Atlantic with little delay. The X-Files were also a big hit in the second half of the 1990s.

American Conventions: Comic and Medicalized Birth

[24] The late 1980s and early 1990s in US cinema and television were a period of the solidification of conventions for representing birth. While the period from the late 1960s (Rosemary’s Baby) through the 1970s and into the first half of the 1980s (Alien, V: The Final Battle) was dominated by the use of horror conventions, the 1980s move away from depictions of the “monstrous feminine.” Horror does remain one of the conventions used well into the twenty-first century, as seen particularly in science fiction films and shows, for example The X Files, but it begins to be accompanied by a host of other narrative and visual conventions. Even though some of these conventions overlap and are not exclusively genre-specific, I will roughly categorize them as: the comic birth (sitcoms, romantic comedies, comedies) and the medicalized birth (medical drama, melodrama, soap opera). The metaphoric birth, which I have already discussed, remained present in catastrophic films, war films, soap operas, cop shows, etc.

[25] The comic birth is usually also a medicalized birth, that is the birth itself takes place in a hospital setting and includes numerous medical interventions (use of electronic fetal monitor and epidurals, though no c-sections in this category). As such, it is opposed to the metaphoric birth, which usually takes place in an out-of-hospital setting. In order to strengthen the message of nature’s restorative powers, the birth itself must also be coded as “natural” (women giving birth in elevators, taxi cabs, hijacked airplanes, during floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters all fit into this category). The comic birth, however, is defined not through setting but through the effect it produces on the viewer: laughter.

[26] Laughter is clearly a displacement of fear, a strategy for coping with the abject, and a socially acceptable way of dealing with the cultural taboo on depicting birth, while maintaining the objectification of the woman. She is the birthing body, grotesque in its exaggerated roundness and emotional reactions, but not a fearsome monster. As described by Judith Leavitt, the comic convention was, in fact, used in the first representation of the pregnant female body on American television, the expectant Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy. Lucy’s food cravings, her irrational behavior and waddling swollen body, though also her husband’s lack of confidence as a father-to-be, thus a temporary reversal of the “proper” power dynamics of the two genders, fuel the audience’s laughter. The actions of the two main characters reveal irreconcilable and natural differences between the sexes, exacerbated by the woman’s “condition” (Walzer Leavitt, 48-85).

[27] The shows and films from this category which were widely viewed in 1990s Poland include RoseanneMurphy BrownThe Bill Cosby Show, the all-time favorite Look Who’s Talking with Kirstie Alley’s starring role and, quite poignantly, Junior (1994) with pregnant Arnold Schwarzenneger. I would venture to say, though it is hard to come up with data other than anecdotal accounts, that Look Who’s Talking was the most widely available narrative of childbirth in 1990s Poland. Typical emplotment of birth in a cultural script of this type involves a very sudden breaking of the waters (quite often in public, in the case of Murphy Brown on network television), a mad dash to the hospital entailing the necessity of overcoming traffic problems, the breaking of speed limits and a long and arduous labor in the hospital. In the birthing room, the woman is usually shown in the supine position, with the lower half of her body covered with a hospital sheet, quite often strapped to a fetal monitor, screaming and cursing. Humor results from the father-to-be’s shock with his wife’s uncommon behavior, his lack of confidence and clumsiness in the presence of embodied womanhood, and from the dynamics of the relationship between the birthing woman and the attending persons. Usually, the male is the one who is yelled at and insulted as bearing the responsibility for the pain, which yields a certain amount of symbolic power to the female. However, the opposite can also be true.

[28] In Murphy Brown, the progressive sitcom criticized even by Dan Quayle for its positive depiction of single motherhood by choice, humor is generated by the placement of the usually powerful professional and asexual female figure, Murphy Brown the reporter, in a situation which strips her of all power: Murphy the laboring female. The obstetrician openly laughs at Murphy and treats her in a condescending way, telling her to “Open up shop” in order to check dilation. It is this sudden corporeality which the character was devoid of throughout the entire run of the show (Murphy’s sex life remains a mystery never discussed on screen) which strips her of all the power she had as a reporter. The power returns when she holds the newborn baby in her arms and sings Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” but it is most definitely a new Murphy that we see emerge from the experience, a softer, quieter, more sensitive woman. Coincidentally, Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” is analyzed by Judith Butler in her 1993 essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” where she posits the possibility of reading Franklin’s rendition of the song, and particularly her performance of the song in front of a particular audience, as subversive gender performance (Butler, 311-312). It is difficult to watch Murphy Brown singing this song without bearing Butler’s article in mind. Murphy Brown’s performance of childbirth and the apparent naturalization of her womanhood through childbirth can also be read as a subversive repetition. By smoothly assuming a role so contradictory to her previous persona, Murphy can be seen as not naturalizing but exposing the artificial character of the construct of the selfless mother.

[29] The method for displacing the abject in the comic convention is through belittling it, rendering it unthreatening in effect of its laughter-inducing character. While there exist many theories of humor, the one which seems most suitable for understanding the role of laughter in depictions of birth is based on Freud’s ideas from Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905). According to Freud, wit (the functioning of which resembles dream-work) has its origins in aggressive or obscene tendencies. The aggressive or obscene is activated in the unconscious but disguised by the wit-work. In effect, the psychic energy initially aroused can be safely relieved. The energy previously used for repressing the threatening idea (interaction with the abject) is released in laughter. The sight of the birthing body triggers anxiety, which is then diffused through comic rendering of the birthing experience. It is the very clash of the slapstick convention with the anxiety evoked by the abject which is essential for the effectiveness of this strategy.

[30] Lynne Joyrich, in an article on the 1980s series Moonlighting, traces a similar strategy at work in the depiction of the main heroine’s miscarriage. Instead of “employing the more predictable melodramatic mode,” the episode featuring the miscarriage is scripted as “a classical Hollywood musical.” (Joyrich, 107). While the intended effect of the strategy may have been the diffusion of the anxiety generated both by the miscarriage itself but also by the possibility of the main character’s assuming of the maternal role in a context where she had been consistently coded as non-maternal (or as a possible monstrous mother should she assume maternal duties), this strategy fails. Joyrich notices that “the episode’s vision of miscarriage is shocking at best” and “has a horrific edge” (Joyrich, 114). What had already by the late 1980s become a codified visual mode and narrative strategy for presenting birth, that is its association with the comic, fails to be effective in portraying miscarriage precisely because in the latter case the effect of defamiliarization is still too strong. The viewer does not derive pleasure from following a convention he is familiar with, but reacts with shock to the unfamiliar.

[31] While, as I have previously noted, the comic birth is almost always medicalized, in the classification I propose the main difference between the comic birth and the medicalized birth lies in the strategies used for coping with the portrayal of the abject birthing body. The comic birth displaces the abject through laughter while the convention of the medicalized birth, as many feminist scholars before me have pointed out, finds a solution for dealing with the unsettling female presence in a hospital setting by turning the woman into a patient. Rather than a subject, she thus becomes an object of medical practice, her body is turned into a site of medical intervention and the remaining possibility of rebellion is annulled by making her unconscious of the entire process. As Jane West points out in Birth Matters, birth becomes “a crisis to be managed and medical technology [is] the best resource to manage it” (West, 46).

[32] This is a strategy of containment, which lends itself to being read using the tools provided by Foucault in Discipline and Punish and The Birth of the Prison. Unceasing surveillance of the birthing woman’s body is an act of exercising power. However, what is of key importance is the reason for implementing this process of continuous control. In Discipline and Punish Foucault pinpoints the initial reasons for instituting practices of surveillance and documentation as a means of control and neutralization of dangerous social elements, the disruptors of the social order (Foucault 1995, 211). While Foucault’s argument in Discipline and Punish is not psychoanalytic in nature and the later Foucault expressed numerous concerns about psychoanalysis itself being a disciplinary discourse, it does make sense to put the two perspectives side by side in an analysis of the medical approach to birthing women. The roots of the fantasy of male control of the process of birth can also be located in, among other factors, the fear of the abject birthing body as potentially threatening. Thus, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, the medicalized birth actually works similarly to the comic birth: through displacement of fear. Here, fear is not completely erased, but outwardly and superficially seems to be fear for the (powerless) birthing woman’s safety, rather than fear of the (powerful) birthing woman’s body. This fear is usually cathartically resolved through the baby’s safe delivery.

[33] As a visual strategy, the medical birth also removes the birthing body from public view; the woman is unconscious, supine, covered with a sheet with an opening just big enough for the medical instruments used to rescue the baby. Alternatively, the woman may be conscious and pushing until the ominous beep of the fetal monitor signals the need for professional intervention. In either case, the tension results from the inadequacy of the female body and the obvious supremacy of technology. This is exactly the opposite of what happened in the instances of “metaphoric birth” discussed before, where nature had to triumph over technology to signify rebirth. Here, the camera focuses on the actions of the medical professionals and the viewer of a medical drama, as West shows in the analysis of Grey’s Anatomy, is socialized to empathize with the doctors rather than with the patients, if only due to being more interested in the lives of the recurring cast members (West, 49). The medical drama, the most popular genre using the conventions described above, in general thrives on objectifying patients (known as “cases”) and developing the subjectivity of the physicians by dwelling on their personal lives. This is one of the reasons why the medical drama, including ER, the American medical show with the highest ratings in 1990s Poland, features numerous and complicated sexual liaisons between the physicians.

American Influence on Polish Media

[34] The comic convention was never fully adopted by Polish cinema or television and both sitcoms and soap operas still usually omit the scene of birth itself. The standard protocol of showing pregnancy and childbirth in the 2000s in Polish daytime television programming includes an often classically American comic portrayal of the onset of labor, the omission of active labor itself and a final shot of the woman, fully dressed and reclining comfortably on a bed, holding the newborn in her arms (not breastfeeding). The birth of one of the most awaited babies on Polish daytime programming, little Lena Zdunska from the series M jak milosc (episode 646) is an excellent example. The pregnant character, Kinga Zdunska, is almost two weeks overdue and trying to do all she can to induce labor, including walking up and down the stairs until she gets a cramp in her leg (burst of laughter expected from the audience). Within seconds her condition changes from no contractions to frequent and painful contractions, necessitating a mad dash to the hospital (audience laughs again). Her husband is away from her and tries to make it in time to the hospital but catches a flat tire along the way. Yet another outburst of merriment logically results from this slapstick setup. Thus, even though the birth itself is not visible on screen, the convention has clearly been appropriated.

[35] While Polish television programming has been somewhat ambivalent in adopting the full convention of the comic birth, the medicalized birth has quickly become the primary vehicle for depicting birth on Polish television. It is often implied, though not presented directly, in the most popular soap operas such as Klan or M jak milosc, through hushed whispers about “complications” exchanged between friends and family anxiously awaiting news of the arrival of the new baby. The convention is used without exception in the highly popular Polish medical drama, which has enjoyed a run of almost eleven years at the time of writing, Na dobre i na zle [For Better or Worse]. While it may not seem strange to the American audience that a medical drama utilizes the convention of the medicalized birth, this was not necessarily the case in pre-1989 Polish medical dramas. For example, the 1970 mini-series Doktor Zosia features the life of a female physician, who, in episode 6, attends a very non-dramatic home birth which takes place without any medical intervention. The drama in the episode is an ethical dilemma which Doctor Zosia helps resolve, not a medical one.

[36] Na dobre i na zle follows the happenings at a rural hospital, located in an idyllic natural setting and aptly named Lesna Góra (Forest Mountain). Physician-patient relations are exemplary, the doctors not only highly professional but also caring and sympathetic. This setting is so divorced from Polish reality that it is difficult to view the show as anything but a utopian vision. The plot is more closely inspired by the “idealism” of Chicago Hope than by the “dramatic realism” of ER. Still, the basic plotline for all stories involving pregnant women is similar: if a pregnant woman appears on screen, complications are due. She either needs to be hospitalized for a lengthy period of time in order to be monitored and then induced; in the majority of cases the birth ends in a c-section. If it does not and the birth takes place vaginally, the baby’s breathing is inevitably weak and several episodes follow the baby’s fight to survive. Obviously, from a feminist standpoint shows such as this one socialize them into expecting medical intervention as the norm.

[37] However, what interests me the most is why this convention has gained such popularity in Polish visual media. If we claim that pop-cultural conventions for representing birth are in fact strategies of coping with the abjection entailed by birth, why is laughter inappropriate for displacing the unrepresentability of the birthing body, while strapping it to monitors and cutting it open have become the predominant representations in Polish popular culture? The Polish paradigm of “motherhood as a source of suffering,” to use the title of Agnieszka Mrozik’s article, suggests an answer. The convention of medicalized birth emphasizes the danger to the woman’s life brought about by the pregnancy and, in consequence, the sacrifice she must undertake in order to become a mother. By necessitating the complete technological takeover of the birthing woman’s malfunctioning body, it also strips her of any agency, which, as had been discussed, played an important part in generating the humor of the comic birth. Here, she usually ends up being unconscious and only that state can guarantee a successful outcome. The willing abdication of agency is a structural element of the cultural process of becoming a mother, something of a primary sacrifice, an initiation into the selflessness required of Matka Polka (Polish Mother).

[38] Secondly, and even more to the point, it is the woman’s longing to be taken care of and respected that lies at the root of the popularity of medical dramas such as Na dobre i na zle, which, just like soaps, are “mass-produced fantasies for women,” to quote Tania Modleski’s title of her influential analysis of three popular genres consumed almost exclusively by women. This show also has an almost exclusively female following and it is hard to imagine that the viewers believe in the show’s realistic portrayal of the Polish medical system. The show presents a fantasy of how they would like to be treated as patients but also as women: with care, sympathy and understanding. The childbirth episodes should also be read through this framework, as they speak to the women’s desire to avoid humiliation at a time when they are physically vulnerable. Being treated as genderless patients, and not birthing women, ensures such treatment and if cutting the women’s belly open is required, so be it. Complications and the resulting c-section provide a possibility of being treated in a dignified manner.

[39] Finally, the presentation of the female body as a site of surgical intervention turns it from a threatening monstrosity or a grotesque oddity to a “case”, which can be scrutinized and controlled, thus removing it from the realm of the abject and making it (re)presentable. It is telling that in these tales of gruesome surgical procedures the only blood which appears onscreen is neatly contained in plastic pouches, to be administered through blood transfusions. The blood is thus something added to improve the failing human body. It is not a bodily waste, something expelled, which according to Barbara Creed’s analysis of horror films, signifies abjection (Creed, 252).

[40] The birth of baby Amelia Burska is representative of the handling of pregnancy and birth in the Polish medical drama. In the opening years of Na dobre i na zle, the main romantic plotline revolved around the possibility of an intimate relationship between the show’s two lead characters, both physicians at the hospital in Lesna Góra. Indeed, Doctor Zosia has it all: she is a successful professional, is beautiful, leads a happy personal life and, right from the first episode, exhibits the maternal qualities required in a loving mother. After an appropriate number of complications and unexpected turns of events, the couple do get married and Doctor Zosia becomes pregnant. A routine ultrasound reveals that the fetus suffers from a severe heart condition. Accordingly, Zosia spends most of the pregnancy in the very hospital she normally works at, bonding with fellow patients and waiting for expert help. She is, rather mysteriously, released from hospital toward the end of the pregnancy, a move which allows the depiction of the onset of labor at home. She is rushed to the hospital, where a c-section is performed.

[41] Doctor Zosia’s experience is presented and perceived as the perfect birth. She is well-cared for by a sensitive hospital staff, throughout the birth she retains her dignity and is treated with respect. Her birthing body is sanitized and made representable by being turned into a site of surgical intervention. In Poland, dignified birth takes places via c-section. It is easy to blame shows utilizing the convention of medicalized birth for contributing to the rising rate of c-sections. Yet, there is more to this story. The narrative of medicalized birth not only creates, but also taps into women’s pre-existing fears and longings, while simultaneously offering a solution. The thrill delivered by medical dramas has to do with the fulfilled expectation of the inadequacy and weakness of the female body being resolved through the use of technology and with the help of skilled professionals.

American Influence on Polish Women’s Experiences of Childbirth

[42] While the convention of the comic birth may not have stamped itself very strongly on Polish television programming - most sitcoms still leave the birth scene out even though they utilize the conventions of comic birth when representing pregnancy and preparations for birth (preparing baby’s room, packing hospital bags etc.) - it has certainly made a deep impression on Polish women. As I have previously stated, the most readily available representation of labor in the early 1990s in Poland was Look Who’s Talking. Despite all the movie’s shortcomings and its implicit anti-choice position, as discussed by E. Ann Kaplan in “Look Who’s Talking Indeed. Fetal Images in Recent North American Culture,” what the film provided for Polish women was a visual representation of birthing possibilities hitherto unimaginable: giving birth in a private room, in the presence of another person (not even the baby’s father!), the possibility of alleviating pain and a friendly and helpful hospital staff. While the movie – and the sitcoms which used the same convention – seemed like a fairy tale, they were also seen as the standard for “civilized and western” birth. Providing concrete examples, they opened the way for the demands proposed by the birthing reform movement of the 1990s.

[43] It should be noted here that although the comic birth accurately portrays certain elements of the reality of hospital births in America, it necessarily misrepresents others in order to heighten the comic effect. These include the rate of inductions (no inductions in sitcoms), the rate of c-sections (no c-sections in sitcoms), the rate of episiotomies and the overall rate of complications (no complications). The presence of any of these complications would reduce the comic effect: c-sections and episiotomies through their anxiety-heightening nature (presenting procedures which require cutting into the body while maintaining comic conventions is unthinkable even today), while inductions would preclude the comic effect evoked by unexpected and public onset of labor. The speed of the progression of labor is yet another such element. Sitcom births start off with a sudden race to the hospital “to make it in time” only to allow labor to drag for hours afterwards (to provoke the gags resulting from the woman’s increased irritability). The race to the hospital in sitcoms constitutes an element of slapstick comedy as does the father-to-be’s dramatic passing out in the delivery room.

[44] Polish hospitals balked at allowing fathers not only to step into birthing rooms but even to set foot in hospital, citing the risk of spreading disease as the reason for this precaution. Yet, on television Polish women could see American women accompanied not only by their husbands but even by their co-workers (Murphy Brown), sisters (Roseanne) and male acquaintances (Look Who’s Talking). No wonder that they saw hope for ending their loneliness in hospitals and pursued it. In her book describing American men’s journey from the hospital waiting room into the delivery room, Make Room for Daddy, Judith Walzer Leavitt makes the case that American men cleared their own way into the delivery rooms, even if their reasons for doing so had more to do with patriarchal control than with the desire to bring comfort to the woman (Walzer Leavitt, 78-95). In contrast, Polish men were dragged into the hospitals headfirst by their wives, tired of the isolation they experienced and desiring some protection from the callous hospital staff. The presence of the woman’s partner throughout labor was the primary demand made by the birthing reform movement and the availability of popular American depictions of birth facilitated this demand. Others included the right to give birth in a private room and the right to hold the newborn baby.

[45] Interestingly, while Polish hospitals did, albeit slowly, begin to allow husbands (and only after proof of ID was provided) into the delivery rooms in the 1990s and cautiously gave in to the other demands of the birth reform movement, Polish sitcoms and soap operas went much further than hospital reforms did. Programs produced in the 2000s show a statistically impossible number of births accompanied by persons other than the birthing woman’s lawfully wedded husband, or even by multiple lay attendants. To prove my point, in the period 2009-2011, of the four births that took place in the most popular Polish soap opera M jak milosc, three take place in the presence of persons other than the woman’s husband (episodes 646, 699, 805). In episode 805 the birthing woman, Sylwia, is actually accompanied to the hospital and into the delivery room by her boss; which may be in line with the program’s advocacy of an ethics of care in the professional sphere, but which certainly bears no relationship to the reality of Polish hospitals. Similarly, while all of the abovementioned episodes leave out the stage of pushing the baby out, they do, without exception, include a shot of the new mother resting in a private hospital room with her baby after the birth. The possibility of having a private hospital room at one’s disposal remains a privilege of the wealthiest members of Polish society, a luxury afforded by less than 1% of birthing women. In these aspects, the birthing experiences of characters in M jak milosc resemble those of Murphy Brown and Roseanne, not of actual Polish women.


[46] The two conventions from the early 1990s American cinema and television which had the largest impact on Polish televisual representations of birth and on birthing women’s expectations were the comic birth and the medicalized birth. While the convention of the comic birth was never completely reproduced on Polish grounds, it significantly influenced women’s expectations related to birthing conditions in a hospital setting. To an extent, such representations of birth facilitated certain demands of the birth reform movement, such as the presence of the woman’s partner in the delivery room, but they also squalled others, like the birthing woman’s right to choose an upright birthing position. The convention of the medicalized birth has been most readily reproduced by Polish filmmakers and is embraced by the viewing public, quite possibly as displacement of fears connected with the abject birthing body but also fears related to inhumane conditions in Polish hospitals. Both the comic birth and the medicalized birth, even though outwardly quite different, utilize the defense mechanism of displacement to alleviate fear of the abject. In both, the resolution, the moment when the woman holds the newborn in her arms, occasions a catharsis: the boundaries of the self are re-drawn, the stability of the symbolic order confirmed. While the metaphoric (sometimes: catastrophic) birth seems to operate in a different register; it does not need to sanitize the abject in the same way as the previous conventions because it is not really about the birth. In fact, the visual explicitness of this convention can strengthen its ideological premise: the possibility of the restoration of the threatened “natural” order, where the act of birth allegorically stands for the power of nature.

[47] This analysis can also be used as a contribution to the study of the dialectics of transgression. As such it suggests that the breaking of cultural taboos is not necessarily a transgressive enterprise by default but that it can reinforce the same ideological premises which lay at the basis of the formation of the taboo. The proliferation of birth scenes in American visual culture – and also in Polish popular, culture in result of the cultural domination of Hollywood in post-1989 Polish cinema and television – is not transgressive as such. It does not signal the disappearance of cultural anxiety related to female reproduction but offers a coping strategy through culturally appropriate renderings of the female body and of labor.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. I would like to thank the entire team of Rodzic po ludzku [Dignified Birth] Foundation for their contribution to this article, the anonymous peer-reviewers of Genders and Ann Kibbey.


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