Wall Street Journal
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
May 11, 2012Hollywood's Last Taboo
Sex, violence and language are one thing; showing babies being born is quite another.
Like the straight-talking pregnancy manual "What to Expect When You're Expecting," the movie of the same name deals explicitly with gas, hemorrhoids, vomiting, intense labor pain and epidurals. What the film, starring Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks and Chris Rock, conspicuously doesn't show in any detail: babies being born. There is no crowning, no view below the waist, barely any blood and only a glimpse of an umbilical cord.
Thus does "What to Expect" hew to Hollywood's long-standing Rules of Childbirth. On TV, some of this is explained by standards and practices, which allow no genitalia and therefore, generally, no babies in birth canals. In movies and cable, with notable exceptions, filmmakers apply similar standards to avoid grossing out viewers (not including documentaries). Some in Hollywood say this constitutes a double standard: Why is it OK to show a man's intestine curling out of his belly, but not a crowning baby? A lighthearted comedy, "What to Expect" is loosely based on Heidi Murkoff's decidedly non-fictional pregnancy guide that has sold more than 15 million copies since 1984. The film doesn't shy away from difficult emotions HUGE SPOILER
—a hospital scene involving a miscarriage with actors Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford is wrenching—but it avoids visceral detail.
The movie's director, Kirk Jones, says, "When it came to the actual deliveries themselves, I thought the best way to retain the comedy and the motion and the humor and continue to engage the audience was really not to show the blood and guts."
Almost every director of a movie or TV childbirth scene has made the same decision, from "Look Who's Talking" to "Friends" to NBC's "Parenthood." A doctor's hands drop beneath a sheet and emerge a few seconds later with a clean, usually unbloodied baby. For some in Hollywood, this convention is a bizarre whitewashing of a universal experience. "It's a confusing 'ick' factor," says Emily Spivey, creator of NBC's "Up All Night," which flashed back to career-mom Reagan (Christina Applegate) viewing her dilated cervix during childbirth then disgustedly pushing her hand-mirror away. "Dudes just don't want to think beyond a certain point when it comes to lady parts."
The childbirth convention is not new: In a 1976 episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Mary and Lou Grant disappear behind an apartment wall to deliver Mrs. Baxter's baby while Mr. Baxter fiddles nervously in their living room. One minute later, Lou returns to declare, "It's a boy!" By 1989, birth scenes had evolved to such a degree that "Look Who's Talking" actually showed a disheveled woman (Kirstie Alley) in a hospital bed. But just minutes after she begs for Demerol, the doctor is cutting the cord.
It wasn't until the early '90s that birth scenes started to resemble reality. A 1992 "Murphy Brown" episode starred Candice Bergen with contractions so painful that one reviewer likened her to Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." A year later, CBS's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" made its debut with a C-section scene in which Jane Seymour displays a bloody hand and leaves the viewers to intuit the rest; "E.R." in 1995 focused on a baby whose shoulders were too big to fit through the birth canal.
As standards loosened to the extent that Dennis Franz was allowed to flash his rear end on "NYPD Blue," TV shows inched toward more realism, but there was some retrenchment after the 2004 Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident. "You talk to a standards-and-practices executive and they're saying, 'Fine, childbirth is natural, but if we show that, the network's going to get a $200,000 fine from the FCC and I lose my job,' " says Joe Sachs, a Los Angeles emergency-room doctor and writer-producer for "E.R." and "NCIS.
Makers of feature films aren't necessarily worried about what rating they will receive from the Motion Picture Association of America. They could get bumped to a PG-13 from a PG because a screaming mother-to-be might scare children, but beyond that, the ratings depend on the context of the images. Two films that pushed: Last year's "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2" (PG-13) depicted Bella giving birth to a half-vampire baby: the scene reportedly induced seizures in some viewers. In 2007, the R-rated "Knocked Up" portrayed a baby crowning for comedic effect. Some studio executives wanted to excise that scene, but director Judd Apatow fought for it, especially after early screenings. "There are three different cuts to that shot," recalls Clayton Townsend, one of the producers. "I remember vividly the repeated gasps from the audience three times—'Oh, oh, OH!'...Judd [was] a little bit like, 'Yep, that was what I was going for.'"
As for pay cable, compare the breaking-water scenes in "What to Expect" and Showtime's "Shameless." In the former, when a character's husband steps in a puddle in the hospital, she responds, "That's my water, you idiot!" In the latter, a young woman in labor unleashes a string of curses before wondering whether she just urinated on herself. True to that spirit, the "Shameless" birth scene leaves nothing to the imagination, and the show's props workers devised what co-executive producer Mark Mylod calls a "prosthetic rig" to simulate crowning: "It was almost like part of a small tennis ball, really."
"There wasn't any debate," Mr. Mylod says. "It just seemed the obvious thing to do, just because of the whole tenor and tone of our particular show and the liberating circumstances of being on pay cable. If we want to do that, we can do that."
The 2009 birth scene in "Mad Men," of course, went in the opposite direction. This was the '60s—Betty Drapers weren't supposed to glimpse the ugly details of their own births, and Don Drapers were expected to wait, smoking, in the hospital lobby.
In the episode, a drugged Betty hallucinates about meeting her dead parents, then awakens, sweaty and confused, to find a newborn in her arms. "It all depends on where you are dramatically in the story," says director Phil Abraham. "I don't think we need to approach this particular thing from a documentary perspective."