Weekend Review: Laboring Under An Illusion, Dir. by Vicki Elson
So much of what we believe and hold to be true is influenced, consciously and subconsciously, by the images that we see and the media that we absorb. In the documentary Laboring Under An Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing, Vicki Elson shows us examples of how birth is portrayed in a variety of media; from the frantic pace and inherent doom of birth on network TV to the tranquil calm and goddess worship of the alternative birth movement. She very poignantly asks whether these are the only two options: impending death or an "orgasm in a hot tub." What exactly is a normal birth and why don't we ever see them portrayed in the media?
The topic of this film is an important one, I believe, and one that I had never really thought about until I considered getting pregnant myself. It wasn't until that point that I started examining my assumptions about birth and exploring where those notions had come from. Like many people of my generation, I have never seen a birth in person. I live in an era in which birth is something that is hidden away in hospitals, the details of which aren't talked about in polite conversation. The hole that this leaves is quickly filled by episodes of ER, A Baby Story, and the evening news, leaving one to assume that all births are one step away from crisis at all points in time when in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth.
The structure of the film is such that Elson guides us through a series of questions, illustrated by clips from movies, TV, and videos from the natural birth movement. "How does labor begin?" for example, would juxtapose the sudden onset of labor in films such as Juno, in which labor seems to sneak up on a woman and progresses so rapidly that one must get to the hospital right now, with the almost leisurely pace of a natural home birth video. This set up allows Elson to draw effective comparisons between media representations, but ultimately it becomes a bit repetitive. The point being made here is an excellent one, but the low production value of the film is a bit distracting. There are plenty of funny moments, though, making this a great non-confrontational introduction to the issue of birth in America.