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Women's Bodies

Nothing “Ewww” About It

  

There is nothing sick or perverted, per se, about an image of a woman giving birth that it should "bleach (a feminist woman's) eyeballs" or cause a feminist woman to vomit, or give rise to the need for tranquilizers, or especially, that feminist women should take their leave to engage in hundreds of cheap shots masquerading as "responses" to this sculpture at the expense of all women who have given birth, meaning most of us as women worldwide.

I really appreciated coming across what Rachel at Women's Health News said in response to recent blogging about the Britney Spears birthing sculpture above.  Describing what she'd read elsewhere in the blogosphere, Rachel wrote:

Seriously, what is wrong with people that a statue depicting a birth is this disgusting to them? Is it because it's supposed to represent Britney, who they can only see as a sex object? Are women's vaginas really that terrifying? C'mon.

While I expect ignorance, anti-woman jokes, woman-hating in general from anti-feminists, misogynists and male apologists, reading the same from those who identify as feminists and view themselves as friends to women is beyond disturbing to me.  It's as though whatever is specific to mothers (meaning, by definition, specific to women; we're the mothers, full stop) is fair game for contemptuous, dismissive, ignorant, and yes, anti-woman commentary.  The sculptor may have had the worst intentions in the world in creating this piece; that's one issue and worth discussing.  The pro-life movement or the Religious Right may have seized on it as possibly useful for its anti-woman political agenda; that's another issue and worth discussing.  What a woman-hating culture has done and continues to do to demonstrate its destructive obsessing over yet another young, traditionally beautiful, gifted blonde woman is definitely worth dissecting from the point of view of feminism.  But how, as feminists, we respond to birth imagery, in and of itself, is another issue entirely, what we say about it, the way we approach it. 

There is nothing sick or perverted, per se, about an image of a woman giving birth that it should "bleach (a feminist woman's) eyeballs" or cause a feminist woman to vomit, or give rise to the need for tranquilizers, or especially, that feminist women should take their leave to engage in hundreds of cheap shots masquerading as "responses" to this sculpture at the expense of all women who have given birth, meaning most of us as women worldwide.

There are all sorts of reasons a woman might assume the position depicted in that sculpture during labor.  If your baby is presenting occiput posterior ("sunnyside up"), meaning the hard part of the baby's skull is pressing against the small of your back instead of against your pubic bone during labor, you are going to feel your contractions painfully, painfully right there, in the small  of your back.  Getting up on all fours in the "knee-chest position," in exactly the manner depicted in the Britney Spears sculpture relieves that pain, which can be severe, something I can attest to because two of my girl babies presented in that manner.  I birthed at home in my own bed, and so I was able to assume precisely that position, in one instance all the way through crowning as the sculpture also depicts.  My midwife had to get pretty urgent with me at the last minute so I would assume a position more amenable to her "catching" the baby as she emerged.  But the baby sure didn't need a "ladder" to be born as some feminists "joked"; she needed the attention and concentration of a midwife and my attention as well.  

 

And you know, what's up with feminists joking about this position being about Britney "taking it up the ass" or getting a "good hard rogering."  That is precisely the kind of  pornographic joking men do about us in the course of fetishizing, objectifying, and yes, hating us.  If I didn't know better — or, I suppose, hope for better — if it were not my practice to read feminists generously, I'd have to say that most of what passed for a "feminist response" to this sculpture was  nothing more than a sad and disturbing — and discouraging — demonstration of women's persistent and insistent self-loathing.  It's as though women will sell their own souls, will certainly sell out their sisters, if it means for one hot minute they can pretend that birthing women are wholly "other," as men have pronounced us other, as human beings not like them and therefore deserving our subordination and second-class status. 

It is women who give birth, eighty percent of us or so world-wide by the time we are 40.  Many of us, most of us,  have endured, or will endure, what amounts to institutionalized, medically-sanctioned torture during our pregnancies and births at the hands of a male supremacist medical establishment.   It's to be expected that women in our most vulnerable moments will be exploited and harmed and hated by a male supremacist culture; it's easiest to kick us when we are least able to resist or fight back (and it's so helpful in shoring up our stereotyping as passive, docile, submissive human beings who can't or won't fight back).  But for feminist women to participate in that?  It's a hair of the dog that bit you, my sisters.  In fact, women give birth.  In fact, we give birth.  And we are feared for it, and punished for it, and made to be the hated other for it by those who cannot give birth.  Participating in that particular manifestation of woman-hating — for nowhere is gender hierarchy more evident than in the way women are treated during pregnancy and birth — will not protect you.  Our protection as women lies in exposing gender hierarchy where it hasn't been seen before, illuminating it, for the purpose of ending the subordination that is the stepchild of hierarchy.  Similarly, to treat images of birth or birthing women with contempt and disdain is to participate in the subordination of our own kind, and there is nothing funny — or feminist — about that.

Cheryl

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Nothing “Ewww” About It

  1. Good stuff, Cheryl!

    Posted by Rachel | April 9, 2006, 4:14 pm
  2. Thank you, Rachel, and thanks for being a voice in what seems to be a feminist wilderness when it comes to issues like this!

    Cheryl

    Posted by womensspace | April 9, 2006, 5:52 pm
  3. Powerfully stated; thank you.

    Posted by anonymom | April 10, 2006, 5:23 am
  4. hey cheryl!
    this is an excellent post!!
    i personally was not at all offended or otherwise “eeeww”-ed out by the brittney thing except on the level that i think that it does very much hyper sexualize the birthing process in a way which is quite negative–i don’t think it is because it was brittney–i think it was because she was holding that stupid goat head or whatever it was. i myself was in that position when i gave birth, so i looked at the little things–the gentle touching of the ears, the delicate way the legs are off the floor and toes pointed, and plesant look on the face, the balancing of her body wieght on the elbows–all while the babies head is crowning?? i think since this sculpture was made specifically with kids in mind, it buys into the virgin/whore dichotomy thing about motherhood that kids (and adults) so easily lose themselves in–either giving birth is a wretched horrible experience meant to punish whores, or it is a purifying masterbatory experience meant to reward virgin mothers. you know?
    but having said all that, i think that you are right on the money about people’s reactions to it–i myself didn’t nuance much of my thought on the subject when I posted this picture on my site, except to say that I was chewing on the bedframe when I was at the point in my birth that she was at in this picture–and a few people did mention the getting it hard in the ass thing–which i laughed at rather than challenged. and i can only imagine what was said on some of the other blogs. why do we feminists allow others to define what giving birth means and what it looks like? we buy into the idea that if it’s not a jesus save us minute like the christian right says it is, then it must, by default, be a devil torture us minute.
    anyway, thank you for making me slow down and think critically about the sculpture as well as my response to the sculpture…
    a very thoughtful post!

    Posted by brownfemipower | April 10, 2006, 10:09 pm
  5. Wow, thanks. I was one who thought it was a sexualized expression. There are images of this postion which are indeed sexualized. However, your analysis really did make me look at it differently and I am glad of that correction.

    Posted by rhondda | April 11, 2006, 3:15 pm
  6. Yay, brownfemipower is here! Thanks for those great words!

    why do we feminists allow others to define what giving birth means and what it looks like? we buy into the idea that if it’s not a jesus save us minute like the christian right says it is, then it must, by default, be a devil torture us minute.

    EXACTLY. There is this huge resistance on EVERYBODY’s, just about’s, part, including feminists’, to women defining, describing, shaping, taking control of our own experiences of pregnancy and birth. It feels like internalized misogyny to me– an attempt on the part of women who don’t really like women, or like being women, to distance themselves from birth and pregnancy because they ARE something only women do. Or sometimes it feels darker than that, something like, “I may be a woman, but at least I haven’t done THAT gross thing like SHE did.”

    I like what you said about the statue. I have a little different take on the way Britney doesn’t seem to be noticing that her baby’s head is crowning. :/ You were chewing on the bedframe, when I’ve been in that moment, I was making sounds I’d never heard before! (Since last time.) There was nothing serene about the experience, that’s for sure. I think there’s a message in that sculpture about women as wild, free, beast-like (that’s what the bear rug meant to me– it was a connecting of women with nature in a sort of essentializing way, women are wild, we have some sort of natural connection with animals and the earth that men don’t have.) I read the head crowning as both literal and metaphorical, that Spears is giving birth to not only a child but a sort of genre of American girls and women who look like her, or try to, who emulate her. And I think there’s contempt in that sculpture. She’s so stupid and vacuous she doesn’t even know what’s going on. There’s a head crowning there — the most painful moment of labor — and she’s oblivious to it. Just like she’s oblivious to the effect she’s having on the girls and women who admire her. She (and they) thinks she’s free but what she really is is totally disconnected and completely pretentious, caressing a bear head as though there is reverence there or some sort of affinity when in fact that’s a dead bear, so what kind of reverence for nature is that?

    I also see something in the fact that she’s on a bearskin rug; traditionally, babies get their pictures taken on bearskin rugs. So there’s some statement in there too about the child giving birth to the mother, something like, she’s lying there doofusly, pretentiously, hypocritically and obliviously– she has no idea what she’s in for and is too stupid to be thinking about it.

    Well, that’s some stuff. 🙂

    Cheryl

    Posted by womensspace | April 11, 2006, 5:40 pm
  7. I think there’s a message in that sculpture about women as wild, free, beast-like (that’s what the bear rug meant to me– it was a connecting of women with nature in a sort of essentializing way, women are wild, we have some sort of natural connection with animals and the earth that men don’t have.)

    I should say there’s a message in there about the way women are conceptualized as wild, free, and beast-like, or that some women conceptualize themselves that way, view themselves as free and wild when they are everything but, again a contemptuous kind of a statement.

    Cheryl

    Posted by womensspace | April 11, 2006, 5:43 pm
  8. I would like to add though that the pictures you have presented are somewhat different than the statue of Ms. spears. Your pictures look as if the women are in deep internal discomfort and there is that sense of trying to get comfortable Ms Spears is posed holding the head of an animal which by association is extended to her. Don’t get me wrong on that. It is an association that claims the link between women and nature and is denigrated in our society. We are inferior because of it in Christian theology, and animals are used by science because they are inferior.
    There is something very exploitative about it . I think the artist gathered up all the memes about her and tried to stick them in one image. Remember that rumour that she was going to have her child on TV? She is the expression of teenage sexual liberation and by association this image conveys that, combining the dichotomy of sex and birth. The “taking it up the ass” is one interpretation which is juxtaposed with the title birth. The word and the image just don’t match. It is the artist who is the problem and exploiting her. He got the attention he wanted using confusion. She does not look quite in pain, but does give the expression of expecting something. The viewers fill that in. I do not like it for these reasons. However, I will admit that when I first saw it, I reacted to it negatively and did not know this was a birth position. It may be one women have used forever, but it is not one used in modern hospitals. I just do not believe women feel serene giving birth which is the flavour he gave to the fundies. It is hugely physical and full of feeling which your pictures convey, but not his in our sexually stimulated society.

    Posted by rhondda | April 11, 2006, 6:03 pm
  9. Interesting discussion. I must say that I agree with most of your analysis. I myself labored in that position with my eldest daughter. Though, due to serious medical conditions I had to give birth in a hospital, my birth experiences were very “me” centered.

    I’ve had three children and three very different birth experiences, but because I had educated myself beforehand (thanks to my mother and great-grandmother) I wasn’t railroaded by the medical establishment. And in the case of the third birth, my husband was the only male in a room full of women.

    It bothers me that any image of a woman given birth or laboring could be seen as a pornographic image. And that those comments would come from feminists is most disturbing indeed.

    Posted by Me linda | April 21, 2006, 11:12 pm
  10. Ok, so I can TOTALLY agree with SO MUCH that has been said here. The one thing that I am sort of taking “personal” offense to is the idea that a woman isn’t or can’t be in a “serene” state or place while giving birth. I’ve had two children and while my 1st experience was a little more traumatic, my youngest sons birth was indeed a “serene” experience for me.

    Was there discomfort and pain, yes, of course… it’s CHILDBIRTH. But I was also able to get myself into an amazing meditative state where there was very much a “serene” aura about me (I’ve seen all the pictures and video, so I swear it wasn’t all in my head).

    That’s all really… I just wanted to object the the idea that there’s no way a woman could look so “serene” during childbirth.

    Posted by Shannon | April 19, 2007, 3:53 am
  11. I don’t even understand what someone would find offensive about that. If you hadn’t highlighted the idea that it repulsed people, I never would have given the idea any thought.

    What bothers me about it is that the press releases I’m reading are calling it a “pro-life” sculpture and that it doesn’t look anything like Britney Spears.

    Posted by gingermiss | June 2, 2007, 10:19 pm

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