Robyn Longhurst, 2009, You Tube: a new space for birth?, Feminist review, 93, 46-64
Robyn Longhurst analyses in this article the rise of a different space for birth, a more ‘public’ one at that: birth videos uploaded on You Tube. As she points out, women have long been expected to birth in particular ways, and in particular contexts. In the western contemporary world, birth is mainly done in private spaces, with only a few close members of family present, and it takes place in the hospital or (in a lesser number) in the home. But now, there is also You Tube, where millions can watch videos of women giving birth at the click of a button. For this study, Longhurst analysed hundreds of videos and its comments, and concluded that while You Tube has the potential to open up new windows on birth, at the moment this is not realised. As she states,
‘You tube does not overcome or render insignificant material expressions of power, instead it typically privileges US centric view of births, reiterates discourses of ‘good’ mothering, and censors particular (mainly vaginal) representations of birth.’
I was interested in this article because I am curious about the spatiality of motherhood, that is, the spaces in which motherhood is performed. And I am ever amazed at birth, love reading about it, and hearing birth stories. I am one of those people who can listen to your detailed birth story, without getting bored… yes, I know, weird. Reading this article was interesting as it figured a different space where motherhood, and in this case birth is done, which is complex, as it is at the same time, material but virtual, intimate but public, raw but edited. And of course, I had to go and have a look (hmmm, ‘interesting’ to see it from the other side…).
Coming back to the article, the author argues that bodies are always located, and what this means in this case, is that You Tube is not just a backdrop, but constitutes these birthing bodies too, as much as these bodies constitute You Tube. She shows how all the videos represented the birthing subjects as ‘good mothers’ –selfless, loving, kind, adoring – through words, images and music. Furthermore, a particular normativity of birth comes through, a particular way of ‘doing it right’, which includes feelings but also technologies (natural, induced and C-sections), positions, rituals (for example who cuts the cord) and places (hospital, birthing centre or home) of birth, and type of families too (hetero-normativity). This also reflects where the videos are being posted from, mainly, it seems, from the US. And who is posting these videos – people who obviously have enough resources (material and skills) to own a video camera, edit the video, and put it online. As much as You Tube is a technology that can be used to share videos globally, US users predominates and create a certain sense of what is normal, or expected. As the author points out, though there are examples of ‘other’ types of birth, most viewers will only see a narrow range of birthing experiences represented.
Finally, Longhurst analyses how certain types of videos are censored, especially vaginal births, and how also many are deemed inappropriate for minors, even though this is not the case for animal births, or even very graphic representation of c-sections. Objections to these videos do not come only because they cause abjection (as many comments make explicit) but she analyses how this has to do with vaginas being ‘eroticised orifices’. When women show their birthing bodies in public, instead of keeping them, modestly, in private, they are partly contesting mainstream notions of good mothers, even though at other times, it confirms these, as I described above.
Longhurst concludes this article with a cautious note. She shows how important it could be for birth videos to be more widely available, but also reminds us of the exclusivity of these virtual geographies, and of the ways that most of these videos reinforced normative western reproductive views of birth.
While this article had at the times the feel of being still a bit raw, it worked to give me tools to think about motherhood in more spatial ways as well as to remind me of the different ways in which images, spaces and bodies are co-constituted. The author ends with an interesting comment on the importance also of thinking about how these images will be seen, digested, used, which will probably depened on gender, on experience, on sexuality, class, culture and so on.
I remember midwives in the NHS prenatal day course were happy about being able to see some more real labours online, because before they only had some not so good 1970s videos only. I also think that visibility of birth practices, especially if it allows for difference, as Longhurst argues, can be beneficial. However, I was left wondering who would these videos benefit. Not that there is a need for beneficial outputs, I guess. But what I mean here is that I am not really sure if it is really that good for mums to be. Or more precisely, I am not sure it would have been so beneficial to watch these videos before ever having a baby. Because now I know how it feels, looking at women giving birth gives me less of a feeling of ‘otherness’. In other words, it would have probably been too far removed from my experience to be able to understand it (and not freak out). Also, because I was the person giving birth, the images I have are totally different from those that can be seen from a camera, and that were many times the object of these videos.
But obviously, it is not the same for every person. And I do think that health workers, midwives, and mums probably get more out of these, and well, it could do some good for men to look, in order to get a bit more appreaciation here 😉 (though there was a story within this article about using videos of labour for a pornographic film – it seems pregnant women are already a hit…how about that?? I am suggesting here another type of appreciation…).
What do you think? Have you watched videos of birth? Were they useful? Would you film your own birth?
ps: I edited it again after I published it, sorry, it felt a bit incomplete!