Is it good to have more public births?

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!

7 responses to “Is it good to have more public births?

  1. When I was pregnant my husband and I watched The Business of Being Born. I found it very empowering and wonderful to see women actually giving birth. I’d never seen it, outside a Hollywood rendition. I was planning a home birth, so I watched a few YouTube videos as well, and found those to be captivating. It was amazing to see babies being born…I wish we had the opportunity to see it happen more often. It’s powerful and I would love to see it normalized, instead of sensationalized.

  2. I have to say I love hearing birth stories, I could listen for hours! Totally not weird.
    My first instinct was to say, of course they are beneficial to bring “real”births to the public rather than the media images (and that of reality tv birth shows). After reading about this article, I realized that often when I watch, I do realize they are heteronormative and frankly, some are cheesy with music and inspiring quotes. In the end, it’s a mixed bag, I think they are important for US birth culture – to have exposure to “real” births, but then again it also speaks to the privilege of being American.
    On a personal note. I think I would video any subsequent birth, but just for myself, to see it from the outside. I can’t imagine it being something that I’d publish on the internet. At the same time, I would show it to a class, a closed group of participants.

  3. jumbleberryjam

    Very interesting, indeed! I am a home-birther, and as such, have applauded women’s willingness to share their powerful homebirthing experiences online. I had viewed it as an act of resistance against the normative western views on birth, and by sharing it on-line, as a source of empowerment for women. But, of course, it _is_, as Longhurst points out, for privileged women with the equipment, internet access, and time to sit around scanning the internet, etc. Blast it! Are there no pure sites of resistance out there? Damn these academics for always pointing out my myopia ;-). Thanks for another great review!!

  4. Thanks for all your comments! And for sharing this love of birth stories! I do think that videos are helpful in bringing birth ‘out’ – in the sense that it gives a much better understanding of this powerful moment, compared to say Hollywood movies when one contraction means rushing to the hospital, lying down in a bed and pushing the baby out in two minutes. And thus, especialy homebirthing or other ‘alternative’ births, is a source of women’s empowerment. But this is, at the same time, as Longhurst says, reproduces some normative elements of western health practices. There is no major escape it seems, but loads of cracks that need to be opened up more..oh, soryy for the choice of words, I seemed to be influenced by these videos…;)

  5. Third Culture Mamma

    I’m glad you touched on the idea of how whilst the videos are meant to give women a view of birth experiences, what you don’t get is the point of view of the woman and what she is DOING. Instead what we get is the birth partner/husband/midwife’s perspective and I think this is what is problematic about Westernized birth – taking ‘responsibility’ of one’s birth is not fully promoted in our health care systems. And by ‘responsibility’ I mean it in the sense of Michel Odent’s use of the French verb ‘responsabiliser’ – to make oneself responsible. That is not necessarily about choice but about experience. WOMEN give birth, no matter what sort of intervention occurs, it is WOMEN who experience it. I think the videos are educational and a site of resistance in terms of bringing birth outside of its normalised boundaries, to a certain extent. However, what I don’t think they do is contribute to women understanding what they have to undergo to give birth.

  6. Thanks Third Culture Mamma, I think you articulate here much better than I did one of the things I wanted to say, that these videos did not feel for me to give/pass on/help understand what you undergo to give birth. Maybe that is also the reason I like more birth stories, because it is usually told from the point of view of the experience of the mother…Thanks!

  7. Pingback: ‘Normal birth’ and ‘breast is best’ – the neoliberalisation of reproduction | genders, bodies, politics

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