Mad Medicine: Social Power and Medical Knowledge in "Breathless"

By Anna Reser

The LA Times recommends PBS’s six-part Masterpiece Mystery Breathless if you wish you could watch The Knick or Masters of Sex but just can’t get past how “gory” and “graphic” they are. And they’re right. If you are pining for some period drama with a medical twist, you won’t find anything less confrontational, at least at the moment, than Breathless. Some reviews have even praised it for its superficiality, noting that “the project feels timely and provocative, but can just as easily be savored strictly for its “Peyton Place”-like attributes.” It might actually be unfair of me to pick on Breathless because it’s really more of a soapy mystery than a fictionalization of the history of medicine. The show centers around the life and work of Otto Powell (Jack Davenport), brilliant surgeon with a dark secret. The cut of Davenport’s suit and his immaculate quiff recall Don Draper so strongly that the writers go out of the way to show Powell being compassionate (especially to women) in the first moments of the first episode. Powell, we soon understand, is burdened by circumstance, not narcissism.

Breathless is not nearly as well written as Mad Men, however, and nowhere is this more clear than in its lazy characterization of the leading man, and the sidelining of women characters. Powell and his colleagues are OB-GYN’s and thus naturally the patients that we see in the show are all women. But because the show is about Powell’s secrets and the relationships of the hospital staff, both personal and professional, most of the women are just props to signify Powell's specialization. In addition to Powell’s specialization in obstetrics being used to make him appear more compassionate to the viewer, Powell’s supposedly privileged knowledge of women’s bodies places him in a position of superiority in social situations, most of which have everything to do with sex, marriage and childbirth. The active women characters exist to be either protected and rescued by Powell, or seduced by him. The inactive women, most notably the women to whom Powell administers clandestine (and illegal) abortions, serve as pitiful emblems of the humane version of Powell we are supposed to come to understand. As the main mystery begins to unravel, the abortion subplot is dropped entirely, because by this point we should be on board with Powell. 

The odd thing about Breathless is that it has very little to do with the actual practice of medicine. Powell’s authority and control over the women in his life is enacted socially. The writers use his specialization in obstetrics, and his merciful provision of abortions to women in need, to give him social power and moral authority. One of Powell’s patients, Margaret Dalton, is a middle aged, unmarried woman that runs her own business (strong female character alert). Powell diagnoses her with terminal cervical cancer and in choosing a nurse to provide palliative care, Powell selects the wife of Margaret’s lover (Powell’s younger colleague Truscott), in a twisted bid to bring the estranged couple back together by having them bond over the death of ‘the other woman’. Powell is afforded influence in Margaret's life and the marriage of his colleague by his specialization- his power is connected to his knowledge of women's bodies, even though he never has to treat Margaret, only prescribe end-of-life care. 

Like other period dramas, Breathless has been praised for letting us “revel in what has changed, culturally and technologically, and to cringe at what has remained stubbornly embedded in our collective nature across the decades, most notably sexism.” But the show doesn't comment on illustrate contemporary forms of sexism. Rather it fetishizes 'vintage' sexism in broad stokes, and plays up its irrationality. We don't often see the kind of overt sexism that the show displays, which makes it easy to dismiss as old fashioned. The creation of these kinds of archetypes undermines contemporary efforts to combat sexism that takes subtler forms today. 

The re-presentation of vintage sexism, by pretending to a kind of historical objectivity that portrays past 'how it really was,' is a missed opportunity for television, which has a great capacity to give voice to critical interpretations of the past. The emphasis on women's medicine feels more like a lazy stab at 'putting some women in.' Making the leading man an OB-GYN doesn't count as telling women's stories. Making him a merciful abortionist (who charges a fee for that service, by the way) doesn't count as telling women's stories. Using women to tell Powell's story, in other words, doesn't count as telling women's stories, and the superficially 'objective' re-presentation of a sexist social milieu isn't criticism or commentary. 

The show at its heart is a rather uncomplicated mystery- the plot could work in any number of settings. Why women's medicine then? It seems to me that Breathless is part of a growing group of uncritical shows that rehash stories about the professionalization of medicine, using advances in obstetrics as a shorthand for scientific progress. Using women's medicine in this way reinforces problematic ideas about women's knowledge and skills. In Breathless, it is Powell's knowledge of women's bodies that allows him to exert power over the women in the story. In such a universe, women with knowledge about women's bodies are dangerous and backward, while men who control such knowledge are modern and necessary to prevent suffering. In the same way that we are confronted with the boogeyman of mid-century sexism, Powell's abortion practice is supposed to remind us how lucky women were to have him, and how far we've come. Even puff like Breathless should be part of a conversation about the way period television and movies encourage us to think about scientific and technological progress as the sole, benevolent driver of history, and how the engine of this kind of progress is invariably driven by men. 

Further Reading:
Katherine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation and the Origins of Human Dissection (Zone Books, 2006).

Rima D. Apple, "Constructing Motherhood: Scientific Motherhood in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," Social History of Medicine vol. 8, no. 2 (1995).