The History of Medicine, Midwife Speaking

By Anna Reser

Though we are prepared to roundly condemn The Knick to the purgatory of promising-but-ultimately-a-huge-bummer-entertainment, we haven’t given up on the potential for sensitive, interesting and nuanced depictions of the history of medicine on television. The beacon of that hope is the BBC show Call the Midwife. The series follows the life and work of a group of midwives who serve the working-class community of Poplar in the East End of London in the late 1950’s. The premise is based on a series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth recalling her own experiences as a midwife. The first episode sets the tone of Call the Midwife’s approach to medicine with an amazingly frank depiction of a young mother’s fourth delivery- crumbling chimney, hot water enema, amniotic fluid and all. The hour long episode is rounded out by the stories of a mother with untreated syphilis who suffers a miscarriage and a husband and wife who don’t speak the same language and struggle to bring their 25th baby into the world.  Many of the most serious faults with the series we have discussed are the same substance of Call the Midwife's most important strengths.

Resisting the Romantic Past

The Knick is less guilty of romanticism than something like Breathless, just because its hard to feel nostalgic about Thackeray’s disgusting world. Breathless comes dangerously close by naturalizing virulent sexism and misogyny within a glitzy, jewel-toned version of the past that is designed to be as attractive as possible. Call the Midwife manages to not only avoid romanticizing its own setting, that of the late 1950’s (almost contemporaneous with Breathless), but it also actively dissuades the characters from romantic feeling about their own past. The specter of the workhouse is a perpetual presence in Poplar and a persistent concern of the show. The show’s intimate portraits of working-class lives in the late 50’s form a much needed bottom-up retelling of the period, and reveal the realities of poverty and hardship that shows like Breathless are designed to elide.

No Anti-Heroes/ No Heroic Medicine

Both The Knick and Breathless rely on the perversions and moral questionability of their heroes to generate interest. If you’ve been watching a lot of TV recently you’ll be familiar with their type, and perhaps a little worn out by the endless string of tragic, addicted, self-destructive genius men who somehow come out on top despite being cynical screw-ups who inflict staggering collateral damage on everyone and everything around them. Call the Midwife contains no such characters, and is undeniably refreshing for it. The midwives and nuns, the patients and community members are all finely drawn characters with flaws, of course, but there’s not one megalomaniac among them. This is possible only in a setting that doesn’t privilege stories of progress in science and medicine. Unlike Thackery and Otto, the midwives aren’t the heroes of the show or of their own stories. The show is adamant about this, and the characters articulate this structuring of the narrative as their understanding of their position in the community. In the very first episode, Trixie tells Jenny, “I thought she deserved all manner of medals [for long hours and lots of hard work]...and then one day I realized, I didn't’ deserve any medals at all...the mothers are the brave ones, baby after baby in abominable conditions, and they keep on going. They’re the heroines. I’m just here to help.” (S1, E1)
 
Patients are People/ Women are People

Patients are the raw material that powers Thackery’s single-minded pursuit of his own genius in The Knick. They don’t need to be well-drawn or even have names (or faces!) because they are only so much grist for the mill of progress. Otto’s patients are social bargaining chips and medals on his lapels that signify his status and power in Breathless. Patients in Call the Midwife are fully realized people. Because the practice of midwifery relies on house calls, we see patients in their own homes, with their families and their belongings, and we hear and understand their concerns and hopes. They are never unnamed, or shown covered by surgical sheeting. Their stories often arc over multiple episodes when they are not the sole focus of one episode.

Through the complex stories of patients, Call the Midwif tackles, of course, questions of gender and social order, but also race, class, disability, cultural difference, mental illness, and death and grieving, to name just a few of the show’s themes. Witness the sensitivity with which the show handles the complicated relationship of a brother and sister who grew up together in a workhouse, and now must face the brother’s terminal diagnosis. If you’re not sold on the show after watching episode 5 of the first season, there’s simply no convincing you.

Importantly for us, Call the Midwif tells women’s stories. Their stories aren’t filtered through the experiences of men or progressive stories of history. One of my favorite things about the show is that it doesn’t shy away from the physical realities of being a woman. There are no modest cut-aways when women give birth. There is no euphemistic hedging about sex and love and marriage and adultery. When a relative of a patient cheerfully asks Jenny to save the afterbirth for him (it’s great for the tomatoes) as she heads upstairs to deliver the baby, you understand that the show doesn’t care if you think women’s bodies are gross. If we can sit through a scene of Thackery having a nurse inject cocaine into his penis, we can listen to the nuns describe the purpose of the rubber sheet, and gleefully prepare enemas for the expecting mothers (high, hot and a hell of a lot!).

Thus Call the Midwife is at the top of the Lady Science List of Awesome TV. It is the only show if its kind I have ever seen that is just...about women. So often when we find fault with the treatment of women in media it is because we are pointing out a ham-fisted attempt to “put some women in”, as though female characters are written only grudgingly or to meet some imagined quota. It often feels like other shows strain to meet laughably low standards for the inclusion of women (like the Bechdel Test). To put it frankly, Call the Midwife succeeds where others fail because it takes as a given that women can lead full and interesting lives that are worthy of retelling on television.  

Further Reading:
Charlotte Brunsdon and Lynn Spigel, eds. Feminist Television Criticism (Open University Press: 2007).