by Kama O’Connor, Milk Drunk Contributor
Think back to all the movies and television shows you’ve watched recently (before you only half-watched, half-zoned whatever was on during the witching hour of the midnight feeding). How many of the programs showed new moms figuring out the nuanced world of infant sleeping/feeding/tummy-timing schedules? Of those, how many got it right?
You know what I mean.
How many TV moms were up feeding every half hour, their hair a mess, their clothes days old and milk-stained? How many were heading back to work and wondered how and when to pump the 16-48 oz. a baby needs per day? How many wrestled with a diminishing milk supply or another barrier to feeding and struggled with what to feed their infants?
Not many, huh?
That’s a problem, because new mothers get their parenting information primarily from three sources: pop culture, friends and/or colleagues, and social media. Nielsen, a technology and media-based company, published an article in 2017 that states, “Regardless of market, all moms have one thing in common: TV is their top choice to view content daily [at] more than two hours and 46 minutes.” Imagine how that statistic has warped under the current stay-at-home orders affecting families across the globe. Experts think the 2017 statistics may have tripled. What this tells us is that, with all of the content meeting moms where they are at, the information had better give moms what they need.
Now, I don’t want to take this too seriously. Mainstream media is there to either inform, send a message, or in the case of sitcoms and movies, entertain. Sometimes producers use their platform to do a combination of the three. The question that bears asking, especially because every moment we don’t give our children is earned through opportunity cost, is why the media can’t entertain more responsibly? Audience members want to see their struggles and triumphs reflected in the entertainment they take in.
A look at some of TV and cinema’s most memorable mothers breaks down how Hollywood got it wrong… and how it could have done it better (to the delight and sanity-saving of mothers everywhere).
1. Rachel Green, from Friends
Rachel Green (played by the inimitable Jen Aniston, who, side note, is not a mother as of yet) doesn’t become a mother until the season finale of season 8. The birthing scenes include a humorous revolving door of suitemates, as well as some labored breathing. Then, pop! Out comes an infant, the darling Emma. Rachel’s hair is not only unruffled post-birth, but her stomach is magically almost back to its pre-pregnancy flatness hours later. There’s so much to unpack here. First of all, birth is hard. They call it labor because it sure as heck isn’t a picnic. Why not show a mom in the throes of labor— no makeup, hair feral, and body contorted into the jigsaw that modern women are asked to bend into to coax a tiny human from our bodies? What would be wrong with getting that right? A star looking less than perfect? A price worth paying.
Then, there’s the issue of Rachel’s “challenges” with breastfeeding. She seeks the advice of more than a couple lactation consultants in the hospital before getting Emma to latch, at which point she celebrates her win as a new mom. Now, I’ll hand it to the producers in the 90s who allowed even that small struggle to make it out of production. But, it’s just not realistic. In a study done by the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, out of 319 new moms, 55% of them couldn’t produce enough milk to feed their babies in the first month postpartum. That’s over half of new moms who struggle with feeding long after they’ve left the hospital and no longer have access to hospital staff or resources.
I’m just saying, producers on Friends could have done better to reach their 50 million viewers. Especially when it was “The One Where Rachel Has A Baby” was the third most popular episode of the series.
2. Hannah Smotrich-Barr, The Office
Ooooh, there could be an entire book on the cringe-worthiness of The Office. However, if we focus on the way mothers are presented in the show, we have more than enough fodder for conversation. One character, Hanna Smotrich-Barr, arrives mid-Season 3 in “The Merger” as a financial guru-slash-new-mom. In her debut episode, she is seen pumping at her desk which, of course, draws a male (and Angela) audience. They all watch on as she works to produce milk for her infant, and no one tells them to get back to work. Not even Hannah, except to advise them to “take a picture, it’ll last longer”. There are myriad issues with this, starting with the privacy afforded women in the workplace and discomfort many of them may have pumping or feeding in public (see Milk-Drunk’s article on workplace feeding issues here). I applauded the character at first for being brave enough to stare down the onlookers and do what needed to be done for her child. Yet, later on, when her breast is photographed by a male colleague and again, no one says that’s a despicable thing to do, I turned from a fan to a disturbed viewer. When a show glorifies the new mom as a sexual object, it sends the message that kind of ogling is not only tolerated, but accepted. Sure, it’s TV, but it’s also a reflection of real life.
3. All the moms in What to Expect When You’re Expecting
When I found out they were turning the wildly successful birth and parenting how-to, What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, into a feature film, I got a little giddy, as did many mothers I knew. Here was a chance to see the challenges of parenting, birthing, infertility, feeding, and other pregnancy-related topics given mainstream attention. Perhaps, I naively thought, it would open up some previous tough topics, making them modern and relatable. So, when presented with the actual movie—a montage of loosely-connected couples all acting out tropes of honest triggers in pregnancy and child-rearing—I was more than a little disappointed. The movie was all fluff, with a mere wisp of a promise there might be more beneath the surface. Each mother was turned into a caricature rather than a human with nuanced problems.
This was an entertaining movie, but that was about it. I got no more than a superficial gloss-over of issues I wanted to see take more prominence. Issues like infertility, which Jennifer Lopez’s character struggles with; it affects more than 12% of couples having unprotected sex for at least a year. Or being unable to breastfeed according to your birth plan—an issue that leads up to 42% of new moms to supplement with formula. If we were having these conversations, and being shown them front and center in the media, parents wouldn’t be as worried about the stigmas surrounding alternative feeding options for their babies. Moms would know they weren’t alone in the constant worry and struggle to do right by their newborns.
It’s about time we started opening up to the idea that motherhood isn’t always pretty, idyllic, or even comfortable. Movies, television, and other pop culture references own at least some of the responsibility in helping shift that conversation to one of inclusivity, trustworthy information and trending away from stereotyping women’s issues.
Come on, Hollywood. It’s time for a change.