It's #worlddoulaweek and interestingly HBO's Girls just aired an episode titled, "Home Birth." The episode, especially for those who work to improve birth in America, is an utter disappointment and missed opportunity. I posted the quote above in honor of #worlddoulaweek and the spirit of this quote is what I want to hear the world say about birth. This is the message women should be hearing in our media. Lena Dunham fails us all with tired narratives and tropes that we've seen and heard a million times. What a wasted opportunity.
Lena Dunham has missed the mark before, I don’t think I need to go into all the ways in withGirls is a problematic show. She finally really irked me though, in the last episode of the current season, in which she depicts homebirth. Dunham’s portrait of homebirth involves (poorly) planned, unassisted birth, an emasculated husband serving as doula, and a birthing mother who, though mid contraction, finds time to rail against the “birth industrial complex.”
I will walk you through the episode, minus the oh-so-quirky parts about Shoshana, and the painfully uninteresting parts about Marnie. The birth narrative begins with Hannah listening through the door at Laird’s apartment. Laird is, if you don’t watch the show, her downstairs, former-junkie but all around nice guy, neighbor. He is partnered with Caroline, Adam’s (Hannah’s ex) sister. We hear soft moaning as Hannah enters the apartment. She looks concerned. Laird remarks that the moans are, “Shouts of maternal celebration.” The first little nod of what’s to come in Dunham’s epic snub at home birth. He leads Hannah into the softly lit bathroom, where Caroline lies in the tub. She looks up at Hannah happily, “Hannah, it’s my birthday.” Hannah responds with trepidation, “You’ve got this girl.” Caroline and Laird explain to Hannah that Laird is doula-ing and that he’s learned everything from Caroline, who is “almost a doula.” The use of “almost” appears to me as Dunham’s dig at the doula career, and that it doesn’t take much to be one. Hannah: “I don’t think this is actually legal, to self doula.” Caroline spits: “Fuck the legal system,” which begins her ongoing “fuck the system” narrative in the episode. We learn that she has gone into labor a month and a half early—but they express their readiness to meet the baby and recite some stereotypical, “pro birthy” language. Caroline’s belly looks small, too small even for 34ish weeks pregnant. Not necessarily important, just something I noticed.
Now, I am certain there are UC (unassisted childbirth) birthers who are as ill prepared as Caroline and Laird, but the ones I know in person tend to have more than dim lighting and laboring in water on their birth plan. Planned UC should not be chosen lightly—and there are many who do not support this way of birthing. It’s definitely on the fringes of even the natural birth movement, so it’s interesting, though somewhat unsurprising, that Dunham would choose this type of homebirth for her show. It’s more television-worthy to show a wreck of a birth, than to depict a calm, safe, midwife assisted one. Licensed midwives are, after all, medical care providers who know what to do when complications arise. If Caroline was under the care of midwives, and she experienced pre-term labor, her midwives would have transferred her care immediately to a hospital. That wouldn’t be so interesting for HBO, I guess.
Continuing on in the narrative, Adam shows up, expressing that his sister’s plan for home birth is “dumb.” Hannah agrees. Caroline says, “Don’t be so western, you two.” Oy vey. Could Caroline be more of a paper doll character? Goodness sakes. Another parroted retort from the book of stereotypical home birthers. Sure, all of Dunham’s characters are caricatures, but it seems lazy and easy to make Caroline the poster child for “crazy” home birthers. Adam wails about, “modern fucking medicine” and his sister passionately responds: “Fuck the modern fucking medicine, okay? I am not going to distance myself from the beautiful and natural process that is birth by tubes and drugs and fucking white lab coats. I am going to inhabit my body and bring this baby into a world of aware, peaceful individuals, and not fucking drug addicted robots.” Adam asks: “So you’d have open heart surgery in your living room?” Caroline: “Yeah, maybe I would.” Then Hannah, always interjecting her wisdom, declares: “You know I watched the Ricki Lake produced documentary, The Business of Being Born, and it let me know that there’s a lot of different angles on this.” SIGH, huge, sigh. I’m sorry, Lena Dunham, I’m sorry you hate women so very much that you make an utter mockery of the desire of some women to choose out of hospital birth. Do we need hospitals and “modern fucking medicine”—absolutely. Any smart person, including a home birther, understands this need. But belittling the fact that birth is beautiful (in its many forms), natural (and by natural I don’t mean unmedicated, I mean the physiology of birth is a natural human function), and that some women want to be present for it, is a real shame. Dunham has an opportunity to show a positive birth experience, but she sinks back into old small and big screen tropes of disastrous hippie births, husband-hating, and the hospital coming to the rescue. Don’t get me wrong. I am a home birth advocate but I am a birth where you feel safest advocate too. For a lot of women, that is the hospital. I am extremely supportive of informed hospital birth. I am, however, hesitant to outright support planned unassisted birth. I certainly cannot attend one as a doula, but I do respect that some women are given no other option, or feel confident that it’s the right choice for them. Dunham seems to think it’s all a farce and that women don’t deserve choice in birth. She had the opportunity to show a wide range of positive birth stories: home, birth center or hospital. I could imagine Caroline having a lovely home birth with a midwife, closer to term, possibly breech, and with Laird being the tender partner he yearns to be (and is, but is stripped of any confidence by the rest of the cast).
Eventually Jessa (one of Hannah’s friends) shows up. We can hear Caroline screaming from the bathroom. She sounds like she’s in active labor and not coping so well. Gee, I wonder why? Could it be the pre-term labor, the guffawing birth partner, or the apartment full of unsupportive friends and family? Laird bursts out of the bathroom saying something is wrong: “I know that that should not happen unless… you’re supposed to be 5-10 dilated for that kind of pain, right? And she is only 3 fingers wide.” So, presumably, he has checked her cervix. Adam insists they call an ambulance, but Laird warns them not to, that it’s “not her birth plan.” Adam replies, “what the fuck is a birth plan?” Hannah, always the one with answers, states, “I think it’s pretty self explanatory. It’s the plan you have for how you are going to give birth. Like I’m going to take the stuff that Michael Jackson took to sleep.” (Way to perpetuate that stereotype about birth). Laird: “We will not call a doctor, we will not go to the hospital. She will murder me. Are you kidding? No.” Jessa, fed up and sensing the immediacy of the situation, says, “You guys are all pussies, every one of you,” and goes to Caroline. Laird follows.
Caroline is on hands and knees, screaming that she thinks the baby is breech. I’m not surprised that a birthing mother could sense that, but based on what happens next, it sure is odd that Laird measured her cervix as three fingers, and didn’t feel the baby since the lapse in time appears to be minutes. Laird offers to check again, but Caroline shrieks, “Stay the fuck away from me!” (More of the husband blame trope). Caroline returns to her back, my guess is for good television, and Jessa sticks her head underwater to see what’s going on. The camera shows us the perspective of Caroline’s vagina, and we see Jessa open her eyes under the water, a look of shock on her face. “I saw a foot,” she declares, dripping wet. Since women in labor don’t have, ya know, just, gaping vaginas, that means the baby’s foot would have to at least be partially out of Caroline. Just to keep stock, we are talking about a first time, unassisted, footling breech birth at 34 weeks gestation. Quite a combo. Anyway, Laird insists on going to the hospital, and Caroline once again rails at the system, and Laird: “Oh god, you’re just like the rest of them. You’re all part of the birth industrial complex. It’s a goddamned conspiracy. I can deliver this baby by myself like a teenager in the heartlands if I have to.” Have I seen women in transition and/or pushing phase be vocal, yes I have. But this reeks of Dunham’s inexperience with birth, and her desire to mock the very real movement for improved perinatal care in this country. I mean, “like a teenager in the heartlands”? Who says something like that, let alone in the thick of labor? It’s ridiculous, makes Caroline seem even more ridiculous, and makes her desire for a home birth appear like a foolish dream of a raving lunatic. I too question Dunham’s continual emasculation of Laird. Jessa tells him he needs to get Caroline out of the tub. That he needs to be a man. “But I’m not a man,” he cries. Why make such a mockery of the supportive birth partner? Her insistence on bringing in the “act like a man” thing shows how misguided Dunham is about gender.
As Laird carries Caroline, naked, into the living room, she screams, “Fucking baby murdering cunt monsters.” Gosh, I sure do use “fuck” a lot in my day-to-day speech, but can we get a count on how many times it’s used in this episode? I digress… As they all walk to the hospital, carrying Caroline, she goes into typical television/ movie birthing woman mode of hating the husband, yelling at him not to touch her. I have been to many births, and while I have seen women ask not to be touched or talked to, it is rare that I see the kind of man-hating that is typical of on screen birth scenes. No, “I hate you for doing this to me,” in any of the birthing rooms I’ve been in. I’m sure it happens, but not with the frequency television would like us to believe. It’s a tired narrative, I’m tired of it, and I think birth partners deserve more credit for the support they provide.
We get no actual footage of Caroline birthing the baby. There’s no mention of vaginal birth versus cesarean. The lack of birth itself is disappointing. The scene opens in a shared hospital recovery room with no partitions (I can’t imagine NYC is that behind the times), and the couple announce the birth of 4 ½ lb baby girl: Jessa-Hannah Bluebell Poem. Of course that’s her name. Because of course this couple is the epitome of cliché. Because of course Dunham went for what is easy, rather than, I don’t know, a somewhat complex and true portrait of life (you know, that which she promotes her show is all about?).
The one piece of this episode I like, is how Jessa really does stand up as the most responsible support person in the bunch and gets everyone to do the right thing: which is to transfer to the hospital. Is Jessa an emerging doula, perhaps? That’d be fun, though Dunham and her writers would certainly fuck it up in some way.
The episode ends on Hannah and Adam standing on either side of Jessa-Hannah’s warmer in the (dimly) lit NICU. Adam tries to get Hannah back, but Hannah firmly says it ain’t gonna happen. That was a refreshing end to disappointing episode.
I am certain I have missed some points, that others won’t agree with some of my assessments, but there you have it.
Until next time, Lena….