Wanderlust: Shaping our Responses to Birth Representation
Written by Emma Culley-Morgan email@example.com
I am a mother of two young boys and I’m also very lucky to be able to support women and their partners in preparing for a positive and empowering birth experience, in my role as a hypnobirthing teacher. I am also a college teacher of Film and Media and have been for many years now. I am always striving to develop analytical skills in my students and to encourage them to confidently engage in discourse about how meaning is generated for the spectator. Considering my two professional roles it probably won’t surprise you to know that my radar is hyper-sensitive to media representations of birthing, most of which I am utterly disgusted by as they only serve to perpetuate the myth of childbirth as trauma, disempowerment and down-right ugly. However, I recently came across a construction that appears to offer a refreshingly different representation in a Hollywood comedy called Wanderlust (David Wain, 2012) starring Jennifer Anniston and Paul Rudd.
Note from Mark: it’s the best clip I could find😔
Linda (Anniston) and George (Rudd) leave their life in Manhattan after George loses his job and they can no longer afford their micro-loft apartment. Due to the American financial crisis they lose money when selling the apartment and George cannot find a new job. Disillusioned, they set out to travel to Atlanta to stay with George’s rich and obnoxious brother who has offered him a job position. On the way the couple stumble across Elysium: a, what seems to be, idyllic community with open arms and a no-door policy. They enjoy their stay but leave to continue their journey. After events quickly turn sour in Atlanta, the couple return to Elysium where they felt so welcome.
The film contains a sequence where a woman (named Almond, although her name is not used much in the film or at all in this sequence) gives birth on the porch of the shared house without any medical presence and seemingly without any pain. In fact it is made quite clear that she is actually enjoying the experience. Enjoy giving birth?!! Who would have thought it! This could certainly be read as a representation of orgasmic birthing as the woman embraces the experience and becomes an instinctual mammal, squatting low to the ground, using guttural tones to aid the descent of the baby and birthing with ease, reaching down to receive the juicy newborn herself. So, at least on the surface, it seems a positive and refreshing construction that is the antithesis of the homogenous Hollywood portrayals: Woman in hospital (of course), legs in stirrups, screaming at the husband, the doctor stepping in and taking control of the situation and after the loudest, final shrill scream, producing what appears to be a completely clean, well-fed three month old, from under the hospital gown. These constructions are hilarious to many but insidious nonetheless.
It seems perhaps the filmmaker of Wanderlust wanted to shake things up and provide the audience with a representation that challenges the status quo of Hollywood. However, like I always preach to my students, what the filmmaker intended is almost irrelevant as it is the reader that holds the power. I know from reading online forums that this scene was interpreted by many as an empowering representation of birthing but to determine whether this construction is positive or not, whether it really is a genuine challenge to the hegemonic portrayal, we must first have an understanding of context of the entire film, of indeed western culture and also how we are being positioned as an audience.
Let us firstly ask: Who are we encouraged to identify with in the film? This is clear from the opening. George (Rudd) and Linda (Anniston) are framed slightly differently with George taking up slightly more of the frame in the conversation sequence in the real-estate agents. The camera is positioned in closer proximity to Rudd’s character than it is when framing Linda and when Linda is the focus of the shot, George’s profile is still visible so we can also read his reactions as well as Linda. This subconsciously (for most) encourages us to identify with George more. In the first ten minutes of the film George is also established as the hard working provider in the relationship while Linda is fickle, fleetingly going from one career idea to the next without making any significant financial contribution. George as the “provider” makes him the archetype that the majority of viewers can relate to as he conforms to the “ideal” in our culture.
George is the only other character present during the birth on the porch and in this scene there is an abundance of reaction shots of him as he responds to the unfolding birth with abject horror. The majority of these reaction shots are in medium close up (framed from the chest upward) revealing his contorted facial expressions and hand gestures that change dramatically from one reaction shot to the next. The editing cuts between these shots and the woman delivering her baby. Where the pace of this sequence is at its fastest is when the baby emerges from under her dress as she catches him. The reaction shots of George are intercut with high angle shots looking down at the birthing woman from George’s perspective. We are therefore positioned with George as he witnesses the child being born. For me, the fast intercutting between George and Almond here has different effects. It hides the details of the birth from the audience, so as not to disgust them too much (just enough disgust is good though as it reflects George’s disgust and allows laughter to be generated). We can’t quite process the little detail we are seeing as we are not given enough time. However, withholding information from an audience can often have an interesting effect in that it allows the spectator to imagine the detail. Many of us are afraid of what we can’t see (the horror genre has been built on this concept) and so what we imagine can be so much worse than the “reality”. We are given very short duration glimpses of the baby emerging and shown how we should be reacting to it by seeing the principle character’s reactions. The pace of the editing encourages us to feel tension and mirror George’s reality. In another shot in the same sequence George is framed from a low angle with the birthing woman in the foreground, squatting close to the floor. Although the camera is closer to Almond here, George takes up more frame space and is positioned centrally, drawing our attention to him.
As this scene begins George stands on the candlelit porch at night. Almond is sitting on a bench further down the porch and invites him to sit with her. The image has yellow and orange tones and she looks glamorous in the soft lighting. George at first thinks she is flirting with him as she touches his leg, looks into his eyes and proceeds to breathe heavily. George reciprocates by mirroring her breathing. However, any perception he has of this being a sexual encounter is stopped abruptly when she informs him that she is having her baby. George’s reaction to hearing this epitomises a perception in western culture that sex and childbirth are completely separate entities and to sexualise childbirth would be extremely inappropriate. For many of us in the birth world our perception is somewhat different. We know that the same hormone, oxytocin, is circulating in abundance when we reach orgasm as when we are giving birth and therefore, we know birth can be an orgasmic experience (many women will testify to that).
Upon realisation of the situation George actually finds himself in, he almost immediately orders “No! Stop doing that!” which can be seen as an explicit representation of a patriarchal society’s need to dominate and impose order on the process of childbirth and women in general. He exclaims “I’ll call the hospital!”. The character assumes that because a baby is being born there is immediate danger and an immediate need for medical presence which is an assumption held by most in western culture: childbirth must be medicalised as the mother and baby will surely need rescuing from each other.
In a scene that follows shortly after the traumatic (for George) birth, we see a sobered George the morning after (sobered from his experience of horror and not from inebriation). He is making a drink for himself in the communal kitchen where many other community members are having breakfast, mostly at the kitchen table. The image now carrying grey/blue tones to emphasise his new “real” perception of life at the commune. The new family walks in. Almond is carrying the newborn in her arms and Rodney, her partner, is following her holding a bowl. They are welcomed by the others (except George) by their version of applause. The couple seem to be attached by something and it becomes clear (to me at this point as it is a familiar sight to me but to some, perhaps later) through a reaction shot from George and followed by a close up of the bowl’s contents that the placenta and umbilical cord is still attached to the baby. When Almond tells George they are leaving the placenta and cord to fall away by itself, George once again expresses disgust which is seen in a close up of his expression. “Urrrgghh!” he says. Rodney says “We’re going to use it to make soup”. We then see another close up of George expressing disgust. This seems to be the last straw for George and he proceeds to unleash an almighty attack on the community that has adopted him. He orders: “Almond, cut and discard that shit off of your infant immediately. It’s gross!”. Although he dishes out hurtful remarks and the other characters do react to them, their reactions are subtle (except for one exaggerated, comical reaction to George saying “Blow me!”). One of a director’s most effective tools for encouraging identification with a character and their emotions is the close up, of which we see a complete absence when framing these victimised characters. Their reactions are also fleetingly represented with a much greater focus on George. The kitchen sequence ends as George follows Linda outside (as does the audience).
For a while in the narrative, it is unclear whether George and Linda will fully embrace their new community or return to their “normal” way of life in Manhattan. However, the shiny coating of this idyllic haven is stripped away when members of the commune are revealed as either deceptive or just plain “crazy”. The representation of these characters are caricatures, relying on stereotypes to generate a sense of familiarity and laughter. For example, the senile old man on a mobility scooter who keeps repeating himself and the over-friendly nudist with a disregard for personal boundaries. They are, for me, never represented as “real” people with “real” feelings. They are there to be laughed at and then to be forgotten about just like our principle characters do when they predictably return to their technology-saturated life in New York.
The act of reading a text is not a one-way communication between producer and viewer, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It is a complex interplay between the cultural ideologies held by the producer (this involves a collaboration of many different belief systems and attitudes, of course) and that of the viewer. We all interpret the same text differently because we all have unique, complex life experiences, beliefs, knowledge, relationships etc. The Hollywood culture that the film was produced in has such a strong, deeply rooted perception of birth that even if a director, or several members of a production team wanted to construct a positive representation of birthing, it would be extremely challenging to succeed due to the system and social context they are working within.
I have a very different perception of birth to Hollywood but it has not always been this way. I grew up on a diet of Hollywood entertainment and so this was key in shaping my attitudes toward this major life event. What Hollywood had to offer me, combined with a few negative comments from well-meaning relatives, taught me what I “needed” to know about giving birth. WRONG. Whereas, I don’t believe this particular representation of birthing is a ground-breaking or very positive one, I am able to see some encouraging signs. A significant positive is that this kind of birth representation is being seen by a mainstream audience and not all will read it as “disgusting” or in my cynical way. Another glimmer of hope is that the western ideology of birth as a dangerous and therefore, medicalised event, although reinforced in other ways, is not reinforced by the birth going “wrong” and an emergency medical situation arising. Almond delivers her baby without assistance as it is not required. She is confident and instinctive and is not proven to be foolish by a rush to hospital. The only character who needs medical assistance, it seems, is George when he faints at the climax of the scene. This is encouraging. However, in a more subtle way, by George and Linda’s ultimate rejection of the commune and their return to civilisation, isn’t the same message there? Aren’t we encouraged to distance ourselves, as our main characters have, from those at the commune and their beliefs and behaviours and to view them as the “other”? I feel we are, and in doing so we may reject the credibility of their actions and therefore the credibility of the natural, empowering birthing scene. Of course, for many the scene may not have credibility in the first instance. If you are an individual for whom this kind of birthing is so far removed from your reality, this construction of birth may not carry credibility in a “real life” context and it may even fail to have verisimilitude for you (believability within the world of the film’s narrative) and you may reject it straight away.
So, does this film have the potential to change any individual attitudes towards birthing and women’s ability to birth? I don’t think it is likely. If you are coming to the text with the reality that birth can be for the woman, like it is depicted here ( instinctive, empowering, beautiful ) you are less likely to forget about Almond, when George and Linda return to Manhattan and your reality will be confirmed. If you are coming to the text with an ideology of birth as a highly medicalised, dangerous event (which most unfortunately will be), this film can very successfully reconfirm that ideological standing. The producers attempt to manipulate our response to empathise with the characters who are more “like us” and to distance ourselves psychologically and morally from the “other”. They use very effective tools to do this. The concept of birth as trauma and painful is still perpetuated. The birth scene is deeply traumatic and painful. Does it make a difference whether the pain and trauma is felt by our lead character or by the woman giving birth? It is a birth and it is traumatic. The association of the two is reinforced. One reviewer described the birth scene with these words:
While quick-witted and zany one-liners drive the movie forward, extremely raunchy and some downright disgusting physical gags pepper the film. A vile example of this comes when a woman gives birth standing up on a porch and her newborn infant stays attached to the placenta for far too long. While these parts would be distasteful on their own, because the wonderfully absurdist nature of the film makes one not really mind the truly gross elements. (From Highrise to Hippie,2015)
For representation of birth as empowering and therefore woman as powerful, perhaps it is a case of baby steps where Hollywood is concerned. However, if their representation of issues surrounding ethnic minorities and homosexuals is anything to go by, baby steps is going to take a very long time indeed. So what can we do if the representations offered to us are mainly negative? Well, wouldn’t it be a positive thing to look at these representations differently and encourage others to do the same? Common representations of empowered birthing women may not come for a long time yet (I’m hopeful they will) but empowerment could be found sooner in our ability to recognise how the filmmaker is attempting to shape our response and how that mediation is connected to a wider social context. We have the power to read a text differently to the producer’s preferred interpretation. Let us exercise that power. If you are aware, Hollywood is disempowered and you are empowered.
Note from Mark: here is the best Utube Clip I could find:
Who is Emma?
I grew up in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. At Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge I fell in love with film having chosen it as my minor in the first year. I discovered a passion for filmmaking and analysis and after leaving university I worked on a number of freelance projects for television and theatre. One of the most interesting jobs I had was being an assistant to a blind theatre director.
After becoming disillusioned with the television industry I started working in education supporting teenagers with learning difficulties on Film and Media courses which I found to be really rewarding. I discovered I was quite good at working with young people so I took up an opportunity to become an A Level teacher, completing my teaching qualification alongside work in the classroom. I now teach Film and Media A level at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge.
When I became pregnant with my first boy in 2010 my husband and I found hypnobirthing which enabled us to have two wonderful birthing experiences. This gave me a passion for birthing and, more specifically, for spreading the word that birth can be and should be awesome! As well as my college teaching I now teach the Katherine Graves method of hypnobirthing to couples in and around the north of Essex.
Note from Mark: Emma’s writing is exciting to me, offering new ways of ‘seeing’, check her out. This blog would make a great conference presentation. Brilliant. Thank you Emma.
From Highrise to Hippie: A Wanderlust Review, 2015. Available from: <http://dailyfreepress.com/2012/02/29/from-highrise-to-hippie-a-wanderlust-review/