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Private view, public birth: making feminist sense of the new visual culture of childbirth

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

<mark>Journal publication date</mark>2013
<mark>Journal</mark>Studies in The Maternal
Issue number2
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in media representations of childbirth, notably within cinema, reality television and television drama, online video-sharing platforms, pornographic film, and in fine art practice. As yet, however, there is little feminist scholarship on the meanings and implications of this new visual culture of childbirth and its relationship to what has been described as ‘the taboo aesthetics of the birth scene’ (Tyler & Clements 2009; Tyler 2009a). This taboo aesthetics constructs the act of birth, especially the moment of crowning, and maternal experiences of pain and pleasure in childbirth, as taboo through the systematic occlusion of these aspects of childbirth in popular, medical and artistic representations. Until recently, the scene of birth has been represented, but staged around a series of lacunae, gaps or missing images, particularly of the maternal vagina ‘holding’ the head of the emerging foetus, and the maternal face in pain and pleasure, such that the birthing subject is both there and not there simultaneously. As the artist Jessica Clements (2009) points out, for instance, in relation to her study of medical texts depicting childbirth, ‘the photographs were cropped tightly on a draped body. They showed hands working on someone inanimate. Somewhere above the pubic bone or between the legs, scissors cut open a space’ (Tyler & Clements 2009, p. 134). Outside the important work of a small number of artists who opened up childbirth as a viable artistic subject during feminism’s second wave1, and the medical, health and
instructional contexts that have allowed, and yet simultaneously ‘confined’ its visualisation, childbirth has until recently remained ‘the great unseen’ of European culture. Today the taboo of childbirth is being broken as birth is becoming routinely witnessed and represented in more graphic and public ways. If, as both European philosophical and psychoanalytic traditions have variously argued, maternal origin - the fact of our birth - is the obscene ‘open secret’, which we must psychologically disavow in order to emerge as distinct and bounded subjects (Beauvoir 1953; Arendt 1958; Kristeva 1986; Baraitser 2009a), then the new graphic visibility of birth within public culture is suggestive of a significant historical and psychosocial shift that bears close examination. It is not simply that representations of birth have multiplied and changed, but that the many different forms of public representation of birth raise their own social and political questions: What, for example, are the implications of birth taking its place alongside other mundane and everyday subjects that provide material for reality TV?
What does it mean that women can now routinely make and watch home movies of themselves giving birth, and share those movies with a nebulous online ‘public’ around the world? How do we understand the emergence of those publics through the millions of ‘hits’ some birth movies are receiving on video-sharing platforms? What is the significance of the fact that a generation is now able to watch audio-visual footage of themselves being born? Given the way birth has been imagined as unrepresentable and unknowable in the history of philosophy, how might the new
visual culture of birth change our understandings of the relation between representations of the female body, and maternal subjectivity and sexuality? And how might we understand an emergent feminist politics of these public cultures of birth? Finally, in a more theoretical register, do theories of abjection, so prominent in feminist scholarly and aesthetic work during the 1980s and 1990s, still offer helpful ways of understanding the simultaneity of over-exposure and selective sanitisation and normalisation of childbirth in prevailing media and televisual representations?