"Call the Midwife" defies viewers' ageism

The BBC series finds beauty in elderly women's bodies -- and offers a corrective to TV's patriarchal subculture

Published July 9, 2013 9:18PM (EDT)

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© Neal Street Productions 2011      (Laurence Cendrowicz)
This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the rights holder. © Neal Street Productions 2011 (Laurence Cendrowicz)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of BooksJUDGING FROM RECENT cultural exports, Brits have a thing for old broads, the kookier the better. The women who went full-frontal in Calendar Girls were just the first wave of this British invasion, followed by the sweet old maids who ruled Cranford. More recently we’ve had Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who consistently upstaged her more glamorous counterparts on Downton Abbey, even when the third season erased the DMZ that separated upstairs from down and defanged the snobbery that was her principal charm.

In Call the Midwife — the popular new BBC costume drama about midwives in post-World War II London just finishing its second season in the US and renewed for a third — it’s Sister Monica Joan who steals the show, an elderly, aristocratic nun with a fondness for sweets, Keats, and astral prophecy. She greets the show’s protagonist Jenny Lee, when Jenny first arrives at the convent Nonnatus House, where nurses and nuns deliver ante and postnatal care to the women of the surrounding tenements, and Sister Monica’s back story provides one of the through lines that give the first season its narrative arc. Another venerable old broad, Vanessa Redgrave, bookends each episode as the voice of an older Jenny, offering sentimentalized reflections about love and loss, her low-throated delivery finding just the right balance between sweetness and schmaltz.

It is through such juxtapositions — between young and old, life and death, past and present, upper and lower, the old-fashioned and the modern — that the show finds its compassionate scope. In a poignant sequence that begins the last episode of season one, Jenny bathes a newborn while Sister Monica Joan stands barefoot at the seaside with only a frail nightshirt to protect her from the morning chill. The eccentricity that before seemed part of Sister Monica Joan’s endearing kookiness here is revealed as full-blown dementia. Redgrave’s voiceover, though, offsets this portrait of mortality by reminding us there is grace in all life’s stages: “Newborns are always beautiful. They can’t fail to make the heart sing, for even the plainest faces are alive with promise. But I’ve always seen beauty in old age too. Light shines through the bone, exquisite even as it flickers and flutters and dims toward the end.”

How refreshing for a show to find beauty in aging women’s bodies, especially on American TV! And what a change from what The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has deemed “television’s most esteemed category: the sophisticated cable drama about a patriarchal subculture”; shows like The SopranosDeadwoodBoardwalk EmpireGame of Thrones, or Mad Men, which display an interest in women only insofar as they navigate the limits of male-dominated institutions, and whose criticism of the sexism within these systems too often ends up aligning with it. (Is there really a meaningful difference between women’s naked bodies put on display to expose sexism and the voyeuristic pleasure viewers might take in those naked bodies?)

If women’s manicured and molded bodies are often the currency of such highbrow fare, Call the Midwife’s stock in trade are women’s faces contorted with the pain of childbirth, cut with squint-inducing images of bloodied babies’ heads emerging straight out of the birth canal. Simulated sex has nothing on these scenes for realism — or strategic use of prosthetics. Like other modern dramas and reality TV shows, the show taps into the inherent narrative drama built into childbirth, especially in a time and place when birth control was limited or nonexistent, home births were the norm, and poverty was a given. Few things are more intimate than giving birth; nothing is more revelatory in its exposure of physical and emotional truths. And the midwife has unique access to these dramas, positioned as participant and observer, insider and outsider. In the lines that begin the series, taken from the memoir by Jennifer Worth on which it is based: “Midwifery is the very stuff of life. Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife — she is in the thick of it — she sees it all.” The midwife gives us access to the domestic dramas that are usually hidden from view. Incest, adultery, prostitution, back alley abortions, domestic violence, miscegenation: such are the stories the midwives encounter over the show’s two seasons, all set against the privation of London’s East End.

In a way, this working-class community functions as its own character in the story, just as Yorkshire does in another British fish-out-of-water series, All Creatures Great and Small, or more recently, Portwenn in Doc Martin. In Call the Midwife, rubble from bombed-out buildings mark the wounds of war, now 12 years past, even as laundry lines festooned across corridors and alleys signal the ongoing life of families crowded into scarce housing. Children run loose in streets and hallways, well before the era of helicopter parenting would deem such freedom unwise, if not actual child abuse. Babies are parked outside in their prams, taking in the sun. Granted, the show doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of such environments — the bugs, filth, stench, and, in one horrifying scene, a rat that bites a baby in her pram. The opening shot of the series consciously marks this culture as an alien, even menacing world. Men whistle as Jenny makes her way to the convent — we see them through her eyes as they stop and glower. There’s even a catfight with women calling names and ripping clothes until a nun and a policeman arrive to restore order. But it doesn’t take long for the show to move closer to nostalgia in its depiction of the docklands, shifting from fear to fondness, almost yearning, for an era of shared hardship. Deprivation looks better from a distance, and the show’s backwards gaze romanticizes the grim conditions it exposes, marking them as remnants from a long-ago past, like the black and white photos the show uses to begin each episode.

Cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo coined the term “imperialist nostalgia” to describe the phenomenon whereby cultures mourn the things they themselves destroy (witness the fetishization of the Native American following genocidal campaigns in the late 1800s). A comparable operation informs Call the Midwife since the working class culture it depicts as full of life and vibrancy is now a shadow of its former self, its potency diminished by technology, globalization, and the hegemony of free-market ideology. Once stripped of its influence and, to some extent, its relevance, working-class culture can be more readily transformed into a symbol of a lost way of life, a more authentic existence where life is imagined to have been lived more fully, more intensely, where extremity strips away inessentials to bring us closer to foundational values of love and bravery. It’s also easier to read working-class culture as quaint rather than threatening when it’s located in England, where the histories of colonization and slavery don’t tangle up class and race as much as they do in the United States, allowing viewers to dodge the racist filters that read black and brown bodies as sources of menace and subjugation.

Call the Midwife’s dramatization of the transition into the modern era of big government distinguishes it from other period dramas that foreground class relationships (Downton AbbeyLark Rise to Candleford). Critics in this publication and elsewhere have noted the way Downton Abbey, for example, portrays the shift into an industrialized economy — and the irrelevance of the landed aristocracy to this brave new world. Between the scenes of grunting women in labor and the streets overrun with children, Call the Midwife tells a story about the consolidation and centralization of governmental power, where bureaucrats decide on appropriate housing and where charitable services from religious orders are superseded by the National Health Service. The show documents an ambivalence about this new order, on one hand celebrating the access to free health care that give a woman with rickets, known as the “pauper’s disease,” the Cesarean that will finally enable her to bear a child and on the other pointing out the catch-22 of governmental regulations that condemn buildings without having first built ones deemed capable of housing the large families from the East End.

Hygiene, progress, and modernity: the values promoted in the government’s massive postwar rebuilding are weighed against smaller, local, feminized values, like memory and love, resistant to large-scale efficiencies. In this rendering, the new state is implicitly gendered as masculine, with hospitals and courtrooms filled with arrogant male authorities while the nurses and midwives from Nonnatus House model a different type of care, one governed by compassion rather than adherence to the rules of law. The convent itself is filled with refugees from such institutions — a housecleaner emotionally scarred from a childhood spent imprisoned in a workhouse, and Jane, a nurse who grew up in a sanatorium for disabled children. Fred, the nuns’ caretaker, gets in trouble with the Ministry of Health when one of his DIY operations, candymaking, has an unfortunate encounter with another — raising quails; Sister Monica Joan, arrested and (mistakenly) charged with shoplifting, makes a mockery of the male barristers who attempt to prove her mental incapacity. In episode three of the first season, Jenny is assigned home visits for Joe, an elderly World War I vet who needs daily treatment for the open sores on his legs. At first revolted by the dirt and vermin she finds in his tenement apartment, she eventually learns to see the dwelling through his eyes, the filth completely obscured by the memories it holds of his wife and two children, all killed in World War II. So the news of the building’s demolition and his forced relocation to a government-sponsored institution is greeted by both Jenny and Joe as a virtual death sentence, as indeed it becomes when the institution fails to provide the attentive care he needs.

The nuns and their order offer an antidote to this centralized government model. By living amongst the community they serve — rather than dictating policies from above, where judgment is easy because context is absent — this order bears a closer resemblance to the do-gooding of the settlement movement, started in the late 1800s in London’s Toynbee Hall, which in turn influenced the Jane Addam’s Hull-House in Chicago. Settlements sought to alleviate poverty by moving the well-off into the neighborhoods of the poor, opening up spaces that would promote cross-class relationships, a sort of reverse Occupy Wall Street. And though the model they envisioned was primarily one sided, whereby the poor would benefit from the wisdom of the wealthy, it still offered an alternative to another, more popular and ultimately more influential model of do-gooding: that of the journalist or reformer who immerses him or herself among the poor and the outcast to expose their conditions for a middle-class audience. From Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) to modern-day practitioners such as Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) or Nicholas Kristof (in particular, his columns on sex workers in The New York Times), this model uses an implied distance between subject and audience to incite moral outrage at the conditions it exposes. But exposure can sometimes align with exploitation, and voyeurism can be legitimized under the mantle of service. There can be an uncomfortable affinity, in other words, between “slumming,” or the pleasure privileged groups take from interacting with the disenfranchised, and acts of benevolence, such as what is now dismissively termed “voluntourism,” where well-intentioned groups similarly seek to find meaning from short-lived interactions with the impoverished.

The memoir that was inspiration for the show at times itself lapses into sensationalized accounts of poverty. We get extensive descriptions of how revolted a young Worth (the narrator, Jenny) is by the conditions she finds. Five chapters are given over to an account of prostitution in the East End, so lurid that they start to read like one of those late-night HBO “documentaries” exposing vice for our titillation (the show includes the same storyline, but with a much less sensationalized tone). Another three chapters focus on Mrs. Jenkins, a mysterious old woman who haunts the midwives as they bring babies into the world. Worth describes Mrs. Jenkins as particularly repellent: she sees the old woman pissing and defecating in the street, and notes a “brown stain on her face” the narrator fears might be related to the newspaper she sees Mrs. Jenkins use to wipe her “private parts.” Eventually Worth is called to Mrs. Jenkins’s quarters to treat her for angina and malnutrition. Not surprisingly, the living conditions are appalling — a hovel with “no bed, no sign of a light, nor of gas or electricity,” filled with the stench of cat urine. What is surprising is Mrs. Jenkins’s response to Worth’s ministrations: she violently refuses them, so much so that Worth is unable to even approach her. In this story, an old woman’s body upends the usual feel-good stories about do-gooding, with their familiar cast of victims and saviors. We can’t cast Mrs. Jenkins as a victim because we don’t know anything about her. Her refusal exposes the limits of charity or compassion as well as our ability to make connections across difference — what can we know really about the people we seek to help? — and denies us the self-satisfactions pity can afford, throwing us back instead onto the inadequacy of our own preconceptions.

Frustrated, Worth reluctantly calls in Sister Evangelina, a nun who comes from a working-class background, even though Worth knows Sister Evangelina will use Worth’s failure to treat Mrs. Jenkins as fodder for an ongoing class grudge. And to Worth’s secret satisfaction, Sister Evangelina initially falters when her attempts to draw Mrs. Jenkins into her care are also repelled. After exhausting every other technique, Sister Evangelina tries one last strategy, one that definitely doesn’t appear anywhere in Jane Addams' autobiography: she “leaned over Mrs. Jenkins and as she bent down she let out the most enormous fart. It rumbled on and on and just as I thought it had stopped it started all over again, in a higher key.” Worth is shocked, of course, as a proper middle-class woman would have to be, but the strategy works. Mrs. Jenkins begins to laugh and soon the two old broads are rocking “with laughter about farts and bums and turds and stinks and messes, swapping stories true or false, I couldn’t tell.” Here, the body and its mortality, its indignities and embarrassing odors and noises, humbles us all, flattening the distance between the haves and the have-nots, between nuns and cat ladies. Everyone farts, whether or not we admit it, and true charity begins within such identifications.

Regrettably, the BBC is too genteel a forum for fart jokes, even in the service of do-gooding, and the fart doesn’t make it into the show. But the program does take up the question of cross-class relationships, most vividly when a midwife from the upper class, Camilla Fortescue Cholomondeley-Browne, familiarly known as Chummy, joins the Nonnatus House in the second episode. Picture the British equivalent of Julia Child in stature and demeanor and you’ll get a sense of her, set apart from the community of nurses and East Enders by her posh upbringing as well as her size. Sister Evangelina takes an instant dislike to Chummy, calling her a “tourist” and predicting “they’ll eat her alive.” But Chummy is undeterred, even when she faces the challenge of learning to ride the bikes the midwives must use to reach their patients (Chummy is more used to horses). Her first attempts cause injury to herself and others — and expose her to the mockery of the neighborhood’s children, who crowd around to watch the display of this ungainly woman wobbling precariously on a bike. But she eventually triumphs, winning the children’s admiration and protection, and also striking up a romance with a policeman after literally bowling him over. Unfortunately for Chummy, her mother (“Mater,” as Chummy calls her or, as she ever so graciously allows herself to be called by the nuns, “Lady Browne”) arrives to put a quick end to her daughter’s romantic plans. In a scene that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, her mother tells Chummy she’d rather have Chummy remain a spinster than wear “crinoline.”

If romance isn’t enough to cross class lines — Chummy is made of strong stuff, but not strong enough to say no to her domineering mother, at least at first — the show finds another model of connection located, like the fart, within a deliberately unglamorous representation of women’s bodies. After Chummy breaks up with the policeman, she is called out to help an unwed mother deliver not one, not two, but three babies, one popping out right after another, in a building without lighting or any of the usual props necessary for delivery. Chummy and the overwhelmed mother work together as a team in the hard and important work of birthing babies; when they exhaust their supply of linen tending the first baby, Chummy literally strips away the markers of her difference by using her uniform to wrap the two additional unexpected babies. After the births, naked underneath her coat, she makes her way to the police station where she accepts the policeman’s marriage proposal and consummates their relationship. When her mother begs her to wear white for her wedding Chummy tells her, “Sorry — no longer entitled.” Do-gooding shifts here from an act of pity, which only reiterates and solidifies the differences between the classes, to a mutually transformative act, creating bonds of identification between mother and midwife, husband and wife.

In our current era, when inequality between the haves and the have-nots flickers in and out of mainstream attention, perpetually unable to gain political traction, it’s perplexing that most American highbrow cultural productions are so bereft of actual poor people, arguably even more scarce than old broads in prime time. As income inequality increases in this country, and the well-to-do retreat into private neighborhoods, schools, and parks, we become increasingly reliant on reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty to produce class difference as spectacle. These shows perform a version of so-called “white trash” culture that confirms our broadest stereotypes, often using the body to assign morality to class position (obesity, for example, functions as shorthand for a lack of self-discipline that explains class as individual failure). Call the Midwife performs an alternative version of reaching across difference, highly sentimental, yes, dependent on the rose-tinted glasses that filter out the fear and shame viewers might attach to poor people, and admittedly not so helpful when it comes to reforming the institutional drivers behind income inequality. This version hails from two gender-based models of charity: the settlement workers who performed charity through proximity and the nuns who practice service as self-sacrifice. But more so than those predecessors, the show’s model involves making connections through the messiness of the body, through farts and afterbirths and sex, rather than its transcendence. Such connections require a fundamental willingness to humble ourselves before others, acknowledging the limits of what we can know and stripping away the flimsy dignities we use as protection. Most importantly, they involve shifting our framework for understanding difference away from judgment and towards compassion, opening ourselves to the beauty in old bodies and the love and memory found even within decrepit buildings. These localized acts aren’t going to change the world, but the empathy and generosity they model might be a good place to start.

By Stephanie Bower

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