Some Thoughts about Call the Midwife

Complete with spoilers. You were warned.

I’ve been sick. I’ve been watching a lot of TV.

So Twitter friends told me about Call the Midwife and for the most part I find it fascinating. You don’t get too many TV shoes that focus so exclusively on women’s lives, and while there’s at least one baby born and delivery scene per show, there’s so much more. I particularly like that the main women characters are friends. I know, what a novel idea! Women! Can be friends! On TV, just like in real life. Some of the minor characters have rivalries and are catty, but in about a proportion that’s way more true to life than most depictions of women’s lives.

And the childcare, childbirth, reproductive options and economic situation is fascinating. In a lot of ways, it seems like the 1950s wasn’t that much different from any of the centuries that came before in terms of giving birth (although sanitation and penicillin are no small miracles). In other ways, it’s clearly a time of transition, where old ways and new technology and new ways of thinking are butting up against each other, sometimes clashing and sometimes co-existing. A lot of times I want a running commentary on the science–like we don’t treat pre-eclampsia this way anymore, or we now know that’s a myth, or the fatality rate from TB was such and such.

I’m also constantly wondering how much has been dramatized for the program and how much is based on the memoirs of the Jennifer Worth. I guess that’s what the book is for. I think we often think that our time has a monopoly on certain kinds of social situations, and shows like these make us see that isn’t so. I’m thinking of the white woman who had a one-night stand with a black man and had a black baby in the extremely white London neighborhood. Or the twin sisters living with one man. In a marriage? It’s not exactly clear. Or the sister and brother who possibly have an incestuous relationship that the nuns know about and look the other way.

OTOH three episodes of Call the Midwife really pissed me off. The first is the one with the story involving a white woman’s affair with a black man and subsequently giving birth to a black baby.  CTM is extremely white. I’m willing to give it some leeway for time and place yada yada, while acknowledging this is probably white obliviousness/privilege, both past and present, and laziness on the part of the producers. What I am not willing to forgive is only having black extras for this episode. If, going forward, they had continued to include black extras it wouldn’t have bothered me quite so much. But it is so incredibly egregiously messed up and racist to have one episode with a slightly more diverse cast and then to go back to white, white, white everywhere you look.

OK, crap, the second one totally fell out of my head. Some other time then.

The third is the abortion episode. I was both surprised and not surprised that there was finally an abortion on the show. After all, abortion, illegal or otherwise, is, has been and probably always be a fact of women’s lives, whether the government, the media and men want to acknowledge that or not. It actually wasn’t too terrible–except for the framing. The voiceover at the beginning, older Nurse Lee, says something like I wish that I could say all the women were brave and all the women were happy. And then in opposition to this we get the woman who desperately wants an abortion because she already had 8 children. Basically, CTM is telling me that this woman is not brave. Well f** you, CTM. Any woman who knows that she is at the end of her capacity with 8 children, who knows what she wants and goes after it in spite of the opposition of sanctimonious Nurse Lee, the public health system, social mores and the law IS a hero. And it is definitely not her fault that her only option is a woman without the training or compassion or something to give her a sanitary illegal abortion. Plus the plot didn’t make sense. One minute the woman is in a coma and her children are kissing her good bye, and the next she is miraculously recovered because they got a new flat outside of London and she can gallivant through the fields? How does that work if she was in the hospital? Still, I was happy they didn’t kill her off to punish her for daring to have an abortion.

I hope that they do more abortion episodes in the future. Was there any British equivalent of the Jane Collective?


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