Saturday, November 19, 2016


This is a doll.

Pornography as defined by our current American culture must struggle with its assumptions of what the taboos are.  As it turns out, you can get as nude as you want, so long as you wear a condom.  The sub-groups, sometimes covert, have been captured by youngsters, so that once-shocking just-out-of-combat S/M has devolved into trendy corsets, pinching and poking, plus a little bondage with clothesline or a pony crop.  At least that’s what it appears to me, but what do I know?  I’m outside all this, which to many people makes my opinions totally useless.

But it also frees me from assumptions and lets me be provocative.  So I will take advantage of that to claim that “Call the Midwife” is pornographic.  This opinion won’t damage their fans — it will attract more.  People are tired of conventional porn or they wouldn’t be watching those “Shades of Gray” and perverse murder series.  In fact, our whole Western society is having to radically reframe our understanding of the ideas clustered around coitus and flesh.  

We now know which molecules cause arousal, what the tissue consequences are, where the germ cells must go and what they do when they get there.  Maybe a few laggards still haven’t figured out that a vagina is internal, a vulva is external, and a clitoris is much more than the little tender button.  The interactions of drugs are known and not nearly so magical as was hoped, not even Viagra.  It’s the social and emotional elements that make intercourse magical, and these are the elements that also create and feed the stories on “Call the Midwife.”

Childbirth, which is the obvious continuation and consequence of the sex act, was once a matter of life and death.  Because of that it was surrounded with as much fantasy as the idea of a Muslim warrior being greeted in Paradise by all those virgins.  They were sentimental assurances to keep people doing what their culture wanted them to do.  Sentimental meaning knee-jerk conventions about what a mother might feel about giving birth and the consequences of an infant in the household, even one that has enough wealth and skill to sustain a new human being.  (Sometimes I’m tempted to write a satire about the Ayatollah trying to manage his young, obstreperous and flighty horde of virgins who want things, but aren’t sure what they are.  They brandish catalogs.)

“Call the Midwife” lifts up the act of childbirth to the level we normally expect of filmed “love-making.”  That is, the red-faced rictus grimaces are extreme versions of someone having an orgasm, complete with gripping the pillows and making rhythmic sounds.  Instead of one partner present, there are one or two nurse/nuns investigating the perineum which is never shown, which is also a convention in some porn.  (There’s no breast-feeding in this show, though women claim it may be the most truly erotic act of their lives.)  There is an almost jealous concern that a male not be present, unless he is a doctor.  Doctors have the ultimate privilege, the total access of lovers and husbands, in spite of never having babies if they are male.  The more money, the more access; the more access, the more money.

As though I were male, I’ve not given birth nor have I observed a birth, except animal birth.  Even that is impressive.  The whole idea of one animal coming out of the guts of another is shocking, a sci-fi seeming event that needs the mythic meaning element, the ritualistic understanding of “boil water,” the proper presentation, the moment before the infant begins to breath on its own.  (“Call the Midwife” never strikes a baby to make it cry.  They rub the back and use a rubber tube to clear the airways.)

On this show few mothers die, all babies are “beautiful,” and Christian ideas dominate because, after all, the nurses are either nuns or living with nuns.  During my chaplaincy in preparation for ministry, I was discouraged from visiting the infant ICU because I was Unitarian and therefore didn’t talk about God’s plans for babies.  Faulty or incomplete babies were there: babies with guts outside their bodies or their backs incomplete so that their spines were exposed.  Some of them were so premature as to teeter on the edge of survival and no one knew whether they would ever be complete.

One woman gave birth to a seemingly complete baby that was faulty inside and died.  It was because of her drinking and she knew it, but no one discussed that.  Instead the whole focus was baptizing the baby so it could go into Heaven.  But Catholic dogma at the time — and all chaplains were obliged to observe the dogma of the faith of the patient — forbade the baptizing of a dead baby.  It would go to Limbo.  The priest reasserted this.  The woman was very poor and often had to depend on the charity of her church, so she didn’t want to be defiant.  But she INSISTED that the baby be baptized.  

Someone in her family brought an elegant white christening gown.  The head nurse on that ward was Catholic and the church rules allow any believing Catholic to administer sacraments in the absence of a priest.  So one night she quietly baptized the baby, saying she could not leave a child on the stairs waiting for the Golden Gates to admit it to Heaven.  

Everything was fine then, except that they were all mad at me, holding me responsible.  I was safe to blame.  The exception was the mother, who took me into her confidence.  In her culture, the tradition was to give money to a new mother and her visitors had been doing exactly that.  She showed me the little hoard of bills in her pillowcase with great satisfaction.  Then I understood.  

“Call the Midwife” is not so direct about the religious rules of childbirth.  The nuns are Anglican, a more elastic system developed within English life.  Screenwriters are the “theologians” and they choose their dogmas carefully.  We see no love-making.  A few Golden Rules contain the hatred and destruction.  The nuns still sing praise.  Immigrants are treated gingerly.
The actor who plays the doctor and the doll who plays a baby.

The most shocking story might be about biology gone berzerk, partly because it is addled by technology: the story abut the thalidomide baby, which was made vividly horrifying by a babydoll of exquisite accuracy, even capable of movement.  I couldn’t help thinking of sex dolls.  Evidently there is a minor industry creating artist’s dolls which evolved out of artists using high technology of materials and molds to make super-realistic replicas of people, but perhaps out-of-scale so that an infant could fill a whole room.  Or maybe the artist makes only a head but as big as a room.

Giant head by ?

These are challenges meant to jog us out of assumptions and to think more deeply about what matters, what is possible, what consequences might come about from what seems delightful and private.  Granted, “Call the Midwife” is sort of gender-assigned porn, because they are female flights of fantasy about something males may impose arbitrarily, a way of softening something that carries pain, blood, and change.  Should it be stigmatized?  Should it be included in junior high sex education classes?

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