Bringing Up Baby: Women of Color with Wailing Babies in TVLand

screen shot from Save the Last Dance of a black family with a crying baby--a white woman looks on

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.


Previously: The Overrepresentation of Fatherhood in TVLand, on Pregnancy and Sex


by Katherine Don
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8 Comments Have Been Posted

When are you going to do a

When are you going to do a post about Scrubs? That had a strong pregnancy story arc from inter-racial couple Carla and Turk with an exploration of postnatal depression. What do you think?

I've only seen a handful of

I've only seen a handful of Scrubs episodes so I don't know enough to write anything about it .... but when I was writing this post and trying to think of non-white women on TV who had a pregnancy plus baby, Carla was one of the only characters I could think of.

also, Community!

There's also Community, which features Shirley, a black woman, as part of the main group of characters (which is hugely diverse anyway!). She started out as a divorced mom with two(?) young sons, and in season 2, she had sex with (Ben) Chang, although she didn't remember it (due to Army intervention--it was during the Halloween episode about mind-altering substances causing zombie-like reactions in people in Army surplus food at the Halloween party and the government administered drugs that caused them to forget the whole party [if you don't watch Community... well, it's very out-there for network TV]).

Shirley is a woman of faith, and so when she learns that she had a one-night stand with someone she doesn't particularly like... which could have resulted in her getting pregnant... at the same time she was reuniting with her husband... and now she *is* pregnant and doesn't know whose it is... it's a major crisis. The pregnancy was a storyline that played out over the course of the next 14 episodes (they managed to make it pretty realistic timing too!). The baby's father ended up being her ex-husband, but they named the baby after Chang. "Ben... Bennett? Well, okay." It was handled wonderfully and we got to watch Shirley work out how this affected her morality, her sense of self, her relationships with her ex and with Chang, her relationship with the rest of the group... I loved it. The writers didn't really fall back on any cliches (except the not-making-it-to-a-hospital birth) at least as far as being a woman of color with regard to being pregnant went in my opinion. It was very much about Shirley as a character. It helps too that Community is first and foremost an ensemble show, so we don't watch reactions through anyone's "eyes" much of the time.

I highly recommend that everyone start watching Community. For serious. NBC is shelving it for a few months at midseason because the views are down, etc., and I'm so afraid it will get cancelled. The seven main characters are Christian, agnostic, Jewish, atheist, Jehovah's Witness, Muslim, and "Buddhist" (actually a bizarre cult). When do you ever see that? Of those seven, two are black and one is Indian ("Palestinian" on the show). Four men and three ladies. All three ladies are strong characters, and one is an atheist feminist. Of side characters, there's further diversity, and the newest addition to the ensemble credits is the dean of students who is pansexual. The show has its problematic moments. (Or, uh, plotlines. Episode 3.06, I'm looking at you.) But it's so so so much better than most of the crap that's out there. I love it deeply.

Grey's Anatomy---Miranda

Grey's Anatomy---Miranda Bailey---was pregnant on show, gave birth, has son, is now single mother--issues of her work/childrearing appear on the show. Granted, her most recent storyline has concentrated on her post-divorce relationship/sex life, but her work/home life has been represented on the show... not always pleasantly but it is a pretty realistic representation of the working mother struggles.

Miranda Bailey--Grey's

Miranda Bailey--Grey's Anatomy. Very realistic representation of a powerful woman and mother---her struggles with the balance are demonstrated on the show. Granted, she has been "punished" for having a very demanding career as demonstrated by the downward spiral of her marriage--she is now divorced. The struggles many women face with the guilt of putting a career ahead of day to day childrearing has been dealt with--I'm not saying all of the situations offered completely fair repercussions--a bookshelf falling on her son because he was looking for mommy? but at least is has been explored.

sorry about repeats... I

sorry about repeats... I can't get my computer to recognize this comment format...

Wow! I've never heard of

Wow! I've never heard of this show. I hardly ever watch network TV because it seems like it's all crime dramas and reality shows. But this sounds like something I would really be interested in. It's on hiatus right now? Wonder if episodes are available in some other format...

One of the main characters on

One of the main characters on Modern Family, Gloria Pritchett, is featured raising her son Manny.

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