By Leila A. McNeill
Waiting for new episodes of Call The Midwife on Netflix means that I’m always a season behind everyone else and that I end up binging the season in one go, wearing me down into a blubbering lump curled up on the couch. Some have written off CTM as sentimental puff, a charge commonly leveled against media that features women actors and centers women’s lives. Sentimental it is at times, but puff is certainly is not. After five seasons, this is still one of the best shows on TV.
At the end of season 3, Jenny, the woman whose memoir provided the foundation for the series, left the show entirely, and the memoir’s stories had been exhausted on screen. A lesser show with inferior writing would have fallen apart with the departure of its main character. But from the beginning, CTM was never just about Jenny or her stories. She was a fringe player in a story that has always really been about the experience of women during a specific moment in time.
Some of the characters have been mainstays, like nuns Sister Julienne and Sister Monica Joan and midwives Trixie and Cynthia. And others have joined in later seasons, like Patsy and Barbara. Each woman is unique unto herself, and they never fall into a tired female character trope. From the oldest nun to the youngest midwife, each woman is a fully realized character. They are portrayed at once as products of their historical moment and active creators of the culture around them. More integral than even the nuns and midwives to creating a full picture of women’s experiences is the diverse population of women that they serve in London’s East End: poor women, prostitutes, and Indian, Chinese, and African immigrants. The back stories of these characters back stories are unique to their individual experience but what ties them all together is the act of childbirth.
Aside from consistently solid representation of female characters, CTM confronts many of the quiet shames that society foists upon women. Shame of their reproductive bodies, their aging bodies, their sexual bodies. The shame of not performing womanhood, pregnancy, or motherhood in an ideal way. Season 5 deals in all of these.
Most television, even series with well-written stories about women, focus on young women, reinforcing a general understanding that aging women must be shut away and their bodies must be hidden because they have run out their purpose of being desirable. With CTM, not only do we continue to see older women being useful in their jobs, but we see them living out full lives. In this season, the oldest midwife, Nurse Crane, begins a romantic relationship with the charmer from her Spanish class. Sister Monica Joan, the oldest nun and now retired midwife, continues struggling to feel like she matters since she can no longer practice midwifery. Trixie teaches a fitness class where fat women and older women, their bodies on full display exercising, find a place where they don’t have to be ashamed or hide themselves. .
Season 5 had 3 episodes that featured pregnancy outside of marriage. In one of these, a young teacher is kicked out of her apartment, fired from her job, and abandoned by the father of her child. To try to get her life back, she attempts a coat hanger abortion, which sends her to the hospital. Since abortion at any stage or by any means was still illegal, she faced arrest and prosecution. When women aren’t allowed to raise their family with dignity, they are left with limited choices.
Also in season 5, the story of the thalidomide disaster finally comes to a head. Thalidomide was touted as a cure-all drug and was given to hundreds of pregnant women to help them sleep and manage morning sickness. At first it held so much promise, but it was responsible for debilitating birth anomalies. The fallout from thalidomide led to stricter drug regulation with the unanimous passing of the Kefauver Harris Amendment in US Congress. But instead of following the historical significance of the thalidomide episode, CTM opts for a more personal perspective, providing an unflinching look at how the pharmaceutical and medical industry failed women, especially the poor and working class who couldn’t afford sufficient care for a disabled child.
In the end, it didn’t matter who was actually responsible for the birth defects because the women blamed themselves. In a culture that positions women as the responsible party for reproduction and childrearing, mothers shouldered the burden of thalidomide. Even though they could not have known what would happen, many women had yet another reason to feel shame, believing they selfishly chose personal comfort over the well-being of their baby.
The personal lens with which CTM tells stories makes watching the show an immersive experience, and this is one of the main reasons I love the show. Rarely do I have the pleasure of feeling like I’m part of something when I watch a TV series, even ones that I love. Maybe it’s because I’m a feminist historian who has spent years researching midwifery and reproductive health, so it feels like I have a behind the scenes look that I don’t get with other shows and that other people don’t have. Maybe it’s because every time I watch I have my phone nearby to text Anna so we can process something that happened, and it feels like I’m sharing the experience with someone. Or maybe it’s because CTM is one of only a few shows written by women, about women, and for women, and I can finally watch a show that makes me feel like an “us” rather than a “them.”