To date, I’ve written 19 posts about representations of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care in the media. I’ve proffered examples from a variety of television series and films: Up All Night, The Office, True Grit, Glee, Knocked Up, Look Who’s Talking, The Rachel Zoe Project, Raising Hope, Modern Family, Parenthood, The Borgias, Dexter, Baby Boom, Life As We Know It, and Desperate Housewives. While a handful of these shows include women of color in title roles (none of the films do), only one of these women has children: Gaby Solis, a Latina character on Desperate Housewives.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any examples of pregnant/birthing/infant-caring women of color on TV, but it’s uncommon—and the scant representations that exist are usually rather limiting, to say the least. For example, the “black man committing a crime” trope is one that’s pounded into our heads, and “scared black woman with kids during raids” is most certainly another. In scripted films and TV, cops burst into a room, where they inevitably find a group of cowering non-white women with small children and wailing babies. Often, a woman points the cops in the direction of the man they’re looking for (who just escaped out the back window, of course); otherwise, she lies to protect him.
These scenes are dehumanizing. As viewers, we see the SWAT team come into the house. The women in the house are shown as anonymous victims. Victims of what, we’re not told; we’re supposed to feel sorry for them, but we know nothing about who they are. And even when women of color are portrayed in a more positive light, all too often we’re seeing them through another (usually white) character’s eyes. A classic example is from Save the Last Dance, in which Julia Stiles’ character befriends Chenille, a black teen mom. The viewer experiences Chenille’s struggles not through Chenille herself, but through her white friend. In one scene, Stiles’ character accompanies Chenille to a clinic because Chenille’s baby is sick, and Stiles looks around in wide-eyed horror at the clinic, which for the most part is occupied by women of color and their young children. While it’s great that Save the Last Dance shed light on subpar pediatric clinics, the clinic was seen through the eyes of a dismayed onlooker—not the woman who was actually affected by her limited healthcare options. How often do we see the world through her eyes?
In previous posts, I wrote about issues of control and informed consent during childbirth. This is relevant to all women, but women in poverty (who are more likely to be non-white) face a host of other problems, like access to care and insurance, and non-white women face racism in healthcare as well. Let’s look at the (appalling) statistics: According to Amnesty International, African-American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women. An African-American or Latina woman diagnosed with hypertension is 9.9 and 7.9 (respectively) times more likely than a white woman to die of complications. A study of maternal death in one state found that 46 percent of the deaths among African-American women were potentially preventable, compared with 33 percent among white women.
Barriers to reproductive healthcare amongst non-white women are multifarious, and affect not only childbirth care, but access to birth control and abortion services. I’m pointing out the maternal death rates here because these figures are not widely known. Further, although poor outcomes are influenced by a confluence of circumstances—insurance coverage, previous health problems, low social support, difficulty in taking time off work, lack of transport to clinics—during childbirth care, straight-up discrimination is a glaring factor. In Amnesty International’s probing examination of maternal healthcare in the US, they found that non-white women were not treated as well in the hospitals, regardless of insurance-related variables, and some cases of maternal death were unambiguously the result of discriminatory, negligent care.
How does this relate to representations of non-white pregnant women on TV? Simple: We perceive that those who live in shame don’t deserve help. Instead of seeing silent non-white women with crying infant babies, or pregnant non-white women walking around in drug dens, we need to see women of color humanized as characters who control their own stories. Women who have a voice, and who, with that voice, can seek justice.
Currently, there is no federal requirement to report maternal death and injuries before, during and after childbirth. There is very little accountability. One way to take action is to click here and ask your representative to support The Maternal Health and Accountability Act of 2011, which to date has received very little attention.