Visceral and real: Why the portrayal of birth in The Handmaid's Tale has broken new ground

Updated: Dec 14, 2019


To say I was "enjoying" The Handmaid’s Tale might be a bit inaccurate given its subject matter, but despite it's gruelling watching I am gripped to the screen as Sunday night rolls around. If you’re not up to date then please note there are SPOILERS BELOW.

A chilling and brilliant adaptation, the second series is possibly the best thing I've seen on TV this year`. Stylised, menacing and utterly gripping, Elisabeth Moss anchors the show, with her best work (which is really saying something) in last Sunday's episode (Season 2, Episode 11 "Holly").

While there have been plenty of scenes in both seasons of The Handmaid's Tale depicting pregnancy and newborns, I hadn't yet been overly blown away by the accuracy of some of them. An hour old newborn able to hold it’s head up? The surprise on a labouring woman’s face when another contraction came along?

Yet last Sunday's depiction of birth was a different story. As June, the lead character, gives birth to her daughter, Holly, all alone in a deserted house (temporarily free from the perils of Gilead, The Waterfords, Aunt Lydia, a snowstorm and a wolf), she gives an unshakably honest depiction of a woman giving birth. The scenes are contrasted with scenes of the birth of her first daughter, Hannah, several years earlier, in a hospital setting. In the hospital she is surrounded by medical staff and equipment and asking for an epidural (something we find out she wanted), and she is lying on her back. Back in the present time she has no birth partner or medical team, no medical equipment and no drugs. She is on all fours in a dark room and has lit a fire to keep her warm. An entirely humanised portrayal of birth, the scene is realistic, unsanitised and evocative, and stands in stark contrast to how birth is so often portrayed on screen with a "push, push, here's your clean baby" approach often favoured.

While some directors may have chosen to portray the birth scene as a filtered summary of an experience or to focus on the drama of her being alone and unsupported, the episode's female director Daina Reid focussed on the visceral reality and true power of women and while most of what goes on in Gilead is beyond bleak, this is something certainly worth celebrating. For once, the experience of women that actually give birth, was not sold short.


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