Monday, November 03, 2008

Mixed Messages (Sorry this is crazy long - I suck at the whole brevity thing)

Last night I watched a couple hours of TLC: first, a show on what happened to two girls who were once in child pageants called "Painted Babies at 17;" and second, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant."

I meant to mention the first one only in passing - child pageants are creepy - but there's actually a little more to it than that. One of the girls has continuously competed in pageants since age 5 and has won tens of thousand of dollars will no discernible skills other than keeping a plastic smile pasted on her face while being serenaded by a very weird pageant MC. The other quit pageants at 7, goes to an expensive boarding school and works for minimum wage at a local buffet diner in Appalachia. At first I thought the point was going to be that the girl who quit is better adjusted and is focusing on a real future (career as a tv news anchor), while the other wants to get married and have a big family. (She also had some career aspiration, but I forget what. I remember thinking it was something like Medical Assistant, which I think of as a career you have to make money on your way to something else, not something you dream of being at 17.)

As the program progressed, they began to reveal more about the circumstances in which the two girls find themselves. The one who quit didn't just up and quit out of the blue at 7 after winning thousands of dollars and a car with more than 20 titles: her little brother was born with disabilities and her mom didn't have time to devote to pageanting any more. Although they never say it (BBC4 is too subtle for that), the clear message is: "Baby pageants are driven by the mothers and that's all there is to it. Little girls would never choose to do this on their own." The girl who continued in pageants, meanwhile, did so with the support and participation of both parents until she was 15, when her parents divorced. At least that's how they described it in the beginning. Later they gave more detail. Her father, Boo (no - I'm not making that up), just walked out on his wife and seven children one day and 10 months later married some other woman. They ask her if she misses him, if she ever sees him, if it's hard. It's all very tasteful and non-exploitative. And then explaining why she doesn't see her dad, she says, "Well, the state took out a restraining order on him, so..." The interviewer asks something and she says, "Oh, it was real bad, he was real abusive mentally... emotionally... physically..." She kind of swallows the last adverb and her grandmother swoops in with, "He was a real bad sort." Or something along those lines.

I think this is interesting because there didn't seem to be a clear message any more by the end of the program. At the beginning, I would have said that the theme was "pageants are bad for little girls, they're creepy, and they turn Moms into raving lunatics." By the middle, it seemed to have moved to "Pageants may be creepy, but they make bank, and if you're a poor family with seven kids, having one or two little beauty queens might be your best bet for a new car." It was sympathetic. By the end, though, it painted both girls as victims of circumstance. Certainly one has a brighter future, with real world goals. One could argue that she was either saved or robbed by her brother's disabilities. The other girl, though... It seemed to conclude that she was a survivor and this was what she knew how to do. She's burdened by family obligations, she had an abusive dad who ran off and this is how she's dealing with her emotional scars. So, are pageants creepy? Yes. But maybe that's not the worst thing you have to deal with?

The other program, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant," is about women who didn't know they were pregnant until they went into labor. It had some serious message problems. They make a big deal over the fact that none of these women had any prenatal care. "And without prenatal care, she may have endangered her baby's life without even realizing it." Well, duh. She didn't know there was a baby, guys. And I think this is an important message. (Prenatal care: it's good for fetuses.)

But they also make a big deal about the fact that all of these women went into labor at home (again: duh, they didn't know they were pregnant). The message is, "Babies will die if they are not born in a hospital. With an OB. With a mother lying supine, in a hospital gown. Seriously, without these things babies cannot be born and survive." I think this point of view is totally misleading. The risk in these pregnancies was not because they didn't arrive at the hospital until late in their trial of labor; the risk is that they didn't know they were pregnant and thought they were dying of tumors or organ rupture or something. Additionally, no mention is made of the fact that all five women profiled were overweight. Well, one of them has "obesity" described as a risk factor for her pregnancy. But it seemed like maybe it was worth mentioning for all of them. Perhaps I'm just judgemental, but if we're going to talk about risks and pregnancy, I think obesity (and it's BFFs "hypertension" and "gestational diabetes") would figure high on the list.

Where does the message get mixed?, you may be wondering. Okay, all this talk about risk risk risk. But for each woman, they say, "Luckily, she quit taking birth control and never drank or smoked throughout her pregnancy." Only one woman delivers prematurely; she has twins at 30 weeks. That's very early (by about 10 weeks), but after lung development. And twins are often born prematurely (although not necessarily that prematurely). So over the course of the show they build a profile of a risky pregnancy for you: no prenatal care, labor outside a hospital. And then they totally undermine it by only showing healthy, happy resulting families.

What really got me was that at the end of the show. There's a title card that says "In loving memory of..." someone, but went by too quickly for me to read. So I rewound and paused. It was in loving memory of one of the premature twins. !! So one of these pregnancies did not have a happy outcome; one of those poor twins died less that three months after her traumatic birth. Here is your message about the importance of prenatal care, TLC! Here is your example of why you should take care of yourself, keep your weight and blood pressure under control! And all that poor baby gets is passing mention because, well, it's a downer.

Anyway, while I thought both programs were interesting, I think maybe not for the reasons intended. Both shows were produced ostensibly to be both educational and a little sensational. Fine - prenatal care good; baby pageants bad. But it was like they lost their nerve about 2/3 of the way through. Uh, prenatal care good, but, um, nothing bad ever happens to babies. Baby pageants bad, but, erm, we guess they're better than developmental disabilities and child abuse. Unless they are a form of child abuse. LALAlalalalala - I can't hear you!

Is this a symptom of something larger growing in our culture? News outlets seem to have a hard time with issues that really only have one perspective. "Human trafficking: we know the sex slaves hate it, but how do the pimps and coyotes feel?" No! There is only one perspective on this. Human trafficking: it's really bad. And also illegal. And immoral. That is the perspective. Are we now pulling punches on educational programming as well? Where does this take us? Today we have High Risk Pregnancies With Zero Risk Outcomes - Don't Worry, Careless Ladies: Evidently You Have Nothing To Fear. And tomorrow? STDs: Maybe They Suck, or Maybe You Love Having Sores On Your Genitals, We Really Couldn't Say. Sometimes things have unhappy endings. Sometimes things are bad and they make you feel sad. But that's part of life. Maybe we should bring back all the old fairy tales where children are lured into the woods and eaten because they ignored their parents, but update them for the issues we face now. I will leave you with my attempt. Keep in mind, I'm going for pastiche here. Terms like "fetal alcohol syndrome" and "hip dysplasia" don't really fit the rhythm.

Blue Belle and The Unrecognized Pregnancy

There once was a girl named Blue Belle, for her eyes were the loveliest shade of sky blue. She was well loved and indulged in her every desire by everyone throughout her young life. But as she blossomed into the flower of womanhood, she found her desires had grown beyond the healthful norm and she suffered for it.

First, she grew overlarge as she indulged in great quantities of food and drink. "More wine!" she called. "More mutton! More pies!" But never more vegetables; never more fruit. The old village wise woman clucked her tongue and said, "You should eat rich treats in moderation, my girl! They'll poison you from the inside if you don't!" But Belle just laughed her tinkling laugh and shouted for more beer.

When food and drink began to bore her, she began to crave entertainment. "More shows! More performers!" she cried from her couch. And no one could deny those sparkling blue eyes, that gay and ringing voice, those perfect smiling lips. Except the old wise woman, who again admonished: "You should get up and see the world for yourself. Go out into it - explore, meet new people, make your own entertainment. If you don't, your world will be very small indeed and you'll never quite fit in it." But Blue Belle just shushed her as the next performance began.

And when she had seen every show, witnessed every performance, she found that she was filled with lust, especially for one man against whom she had been warned by every other woman in the village. She took up with this young man, covered in tattoos, coarse of language, boorish and uneducated, and for a time they were very happy. They drank and ate and smoked and made love together day in, day out. The old wise woman shouted up to her window, "He's made you no promises, nor you him! Without commitment there can be no real trust - only foolish blindness!" Blue Belle simply shut the windows and drew the curtains.

Eventually Blue Belle began to notice that she was missing her womanly cycles. "No matter," said she. "I am very anxious about life. Where will I find more entertainment? Who will bring me a delicious pie? Where is my beer? Why does everyone whisper about me behind my back?"

For the better part of a year Blue Belle lived this way, until one day her anxiety seemed to take root in her back and belly and began to rip through her in waves of nauseous pain. "Oh, oh! I am rent in twain!" she cried. Her tattooed beau ran for the doctor who attended her posthaste. After seeing the condition Blue Belle was in, and knowing of her habits and her past, he sent for the village midwife.

Upon her arrival, the midwife smiled down at the pained and crumpled Blue Belle and told her the happy news. "You are not being rent in twain! You're having a baby!" Blue Belle's eyes sparkled with momentary relief, and then grew dull with renewed anxiety. "But I'm not ready for a child! Where will it live? How shall I feed it?" The midwife smiled kindly. "Don't you worry. I'm sure your young man will help you provide for your child and you'll make room. You'll make due. These things always work out."

But things were not going well for Blue Belle. Her eating and drinking with abandon had made her fat and unhealthy. Her heart raced, her blood pumped through her veins with ferocity, and she felt weak. Her obsession with entertainers and performers had kept her housebound for some many months, and her joints were not used to a wide range of motion. As the baby pushed and shoved its way into the world, she felt her body tearing, her hips popping, her life draining.

As the midwife caught the baby, the smile faded from her face. The baby made no sound and the woman turned away from Blue Belle and conferred with the doctor. The doctor sent for the wise woman. Upon her arrival, she took the baby from the midwife and clucked her tongue at the sickly new mother. "It's as I said it would be. Your insides are poisoned - look at you! And your baby is poisoned as well." Still the baby made no sound. "What's wrong with it?" cried Blue Belle. "It's a syphilitic, like it's mother. Without commitment, there is only foolish blindness! You blinded yourself to that man's failings, and where is he now?" Blue Belle looked around but he was gone. Her azure eyes filled with tears. The wise woman did not relent. "It's also very small and clearly suffers from your alcoholism. It may well be brain damaged, but we shall never know because it has expired its last breath before even taking it's first." Blue Belle cried and cried, suddenly alone in her very tiny world.

The wise woman sat on the bed and took Blue Belle's head in her lap. "If only I had listened," Blue Belle wept. "If only I had taken my pleasures in moderation and sought to better myself. If only I had been the least bit..." but she could say no more, for she too had expired.

From her burial mound in the local graveyard, a rose bush grew and bloomed with the loveliest pale blue roses, but only for a season, and then they too were gone.


Yvonne said...

Now that is a story to be told.

SonicLlama said...

Your potential children are going to hear some awesome bedtime stories, Sydney. Awesome and odd, sure, but awesome nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

i've read this three times, and im still not sure waht the point is, but it's very disturbing...i guess that is the point?

Sydney said...

Yes, sorry - probably should have made the point clearer up front. You know how old school fairy tails always start out happy, then there's a warning that is ignored, and everyone is eaten by trolls at the end because they didn't throw spilled salt over their left shoulders or listen to their mothers? That was kind of the point. That 200 years ago, our "educational" story telling was all about scare tactics dressed up as bedtime stories. And now our "educational" story telling is all bedtime stories dressed up as scare tactics. So I thought it would be, er, funny (for lack of a better word) to take our modern educational story (TLC's "Omigod your baby will die without prenatal care and an OB except in all of our examples they were totally fine and healthy, and the one that wasn't we're not going to talk about" program) and retell it like an old school fairytale. Except no one is eaten by a troll; they just all die.

Sydney said...

Yes, I just misspelled fairytale and then spelled it correctly. Or more correctly, anyway. ::sigh::