During last week's episode of Parenthood, Julia panicked because Zoe—the young woman carrying the baby Julia plans to adopt—is caught eating sushi. With tuna.
After googling the relative safety of pregnant people eating raw lobster versus cooked lobster, Julia confronts Zoe about her fish/crustacean consumption. "You googled my eating habits?" Zoe asks, horrified. "And you talked to your husband about what I'm eating?" To which Julia replies, "We don't blame you at all for not knowing" … (flustered) … "Blame is the wrong word here." Later, when Julia broached the topic again, Zoe says angrily, "I got the message loud and clear. I'm not gonna feed your baby raw fish. You got it, boss."
Part of me is happy that Parenthood dealt with this topic. Tension and judgment concerning prenatal dieting choices is pervasive, and the show's nod to this issue evidences the female writers and producers behind the scenes. Yet, the "blame game" framing is too obvious, and its execution was forced. Later in the episode, we learn that Zoe is grateful to have Julia looking after her—so why was she so upset?
Well, because women always get mad at each other over this stuff, or so the media likes to remind us.
When it comes to prenatal health in pop culture, intra-female cattiness is a typical storyline. Foregrounding the fights between women draws attention away from the societal forces that are, ultimately, largely responsible. For example, as I discussed in my post about breastfeeding, health recommendations don't take into account barriers to breastfeeding, especially for women who work. Similarly, media coverage of the "scientific findings" concerning health during pregnancy rarely mentions the practical difficulties of following science's clear-cut recommendations. Unjust work policies, medicaid restrictions, and access to healthcare are chronically overlooked—leaving women themselves to bear the brunt of the blame.
In the grand scheme of things, the sushi dilemma is class-specific and not our biggest problem. But what about stress and diabetes? These are two of the most important health factors for pregnant women, and yet millions lack access to prenatal care, healthy foods, and healthy working environments. The media fails to connect these dots, instead blaming women. This New York Times piece on the negative health outcomes of stress during pregnancy talks about cortisol, but most certainly doesn't mention the role of socioeconomic factors. Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign emphasizes the importance of healthy foods and exercise, but has only this to say about factors that are outside a mom's control: "The new law and regulations make sure that more mothers have access to services they need to ensure a healthy pregnancy." This is a reference to The Affordable Care Act, which in fact does not ensure that women have access to prenatal care. Given the media's emphasis on cortisol rather than access to care, it's no surprise that clinical trials are now underway to test the effectiveness of giving Metformin, a common diabetes drug, to pregnant women in an effort to prevent obesity in her offspring. This solution is profitable to the pharmaceutical industry, yet does nothing to address the underlying causes—many of them poverty-related—of obesity and diabetes.
All this and much, more more is why I wish Parenthood had drawn attention to the failures of our healthcare system instead of Zoe's defensiveness. "But … didn't your doctor tell you about mercury and tuna?" Julia could have said. "Well, no … my insurance only allows three appointments during my pregnancy, and they never told me anything about diet restrictions," Zoe could have replied. (If you don't think that makes for an interesting story line, imagine Julia storming into Zoe's doctor's office, all full of righteous indignation.)
The blame game is not only misleading, it's also dangerous. Child and Family Services can take children away based on what their guardian feeds them. Custody battles over children include scrutiny of what mom and dad are feeding the kids. I wish we would talk about the food deserts in low-income neighborhoods instead of taking children away from their parents, who often have limited options when it comes to nutrition. (Read this recent investigation that uncovered corrupt federal support of infant formula-making and "food additive" companies.)
When this stripe of policing extends into the pre-birth period, I really get scared. Yesterday, Mississippians voted on Initiative 26, the "Personhood Amendment" that would have defined life as beginning the moment an egg is fertilized. This (defeated!) amendment would have made abortion, intrauterine birth control devices, and the morning after pill illegal. Depending on its interpretation, it could have rendered all birth control illegal. But the implications don't stop there. All pregnant women would be potential murderers. A woman who suffers a miscarriage could be arrested (this has happened), and her eating and drinking habits during pregnancy could be scrutinized. She ate tuna? Sounds like criminal negligence.
In related news, has anyone else noticed how Zoe fits the "Powerless Surrogate" trope? Her character isn't fleshed out, but she seems kinda pathetic and kinda bohemian. She wears black nail polish—is this a clue about something?
Previously, On Bringing Up Baby: The Desperate Housewives' Guide To TV's Childbearing Tropes, 1987's Baby Boom VS. 2010's Life As We Know It