We are in an age of great period dramas. AMC’s Mad Men is a phenomenal glimpse into life in 1960s America. There are two fantastic British shows aired on PBS that give us a window into British life. Downton Abbey allows us to see what life was like for British nobility in the World War I era. The newest addition to PBS’ line-up is Call the Midwife, a drama about midwives in London’s East End in the 1950s.
Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series centers on a young midwife named Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine, The Woman in Black). She is fresh out of nursing school and has been sent to Nonnatus House for her first assignment. What she doesn’t realize is Nonnatus House is an Anglican convent in London’s impoverished East End. Upon arrival, she witnesses a brawl between two women and realizes she has no idea what she is in for.
There are two distinct groups of women working in the convent. First are the nurses, like Jenny Lee. The other two nurses are Trixie (Helen George, The Three Musketeers) and Cynthia (Bryony Hannah, Dead Boss). Like Jenny, they are both fairly young and recently out of nursing school. The superiors who run the establishment include Sisters Evangelina (Pam Ferris, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Bernadette (Laura Main, Murder City), and Julienne (Jenny Agutter, The Avengers). Finally, there is Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt, Ever After), an elderly woman who helped establish the convent but is now a touch on the senile side.
The drama in each episode comes from the patients the midwives see. The first episode primarily focuses on a woman who is on her 23rd pregnancy, as well as a woman Jenny discovers has syphilis. Outside of one scene between Jenny and Trixie where they discuss if Jenny has a boyfriend, there is no mention of the anyone’s love life. Just about every single scene in the first episode passes the Bechdel test, because the characters’ love lives are not the focus of the show.
It is a breath of fresh air to see a female-driven show in which the characters are not on a quest to find a husband. So many shows centered on women feature scenes in which they just sit around talking about men and their problems with them. While there is certainly a place for this in some shows, many of them completely ignore the fact that women have interests and desires outside of finding a husband and settling down. Next week, I’m planning on doing a series of posts where I look at each show I watch on a weekly basis and determine how many of them air episodes that pass the Bechdel test. The number will probably be astonishingly low and make me rethink my entire viewing schedule, but we’ll see.
Back to this show. All the women featured in this show are incredibly strong medical professionals. Midwifery is an incredibly underrated and misunderstood profession. Many people assume that the only way to have a child is for it to be born in the hospital, but this series just goes to show that midwives have been around for quite some time and they have been effective. There is one instance in the first episode where a doctor has to be called because the mother is hemorrhaging, but even the doctor says the midwife was incredibly capable and kept the woman alive.
From a sociological standpoint, I find this show fascinating. First of all, it does a remarkable job of showing the medicalization of childbirth. It’s something I learned very briefly about in college and it’s great to see it addressed in a larger fashion. I have two friends who plan on becoming midwives and it’s really cool to see something they’re so passionate about be represented more accurately. I feel like a lot of midwives are generally represented as kooky hippies who don’t really know what they are doing. Most people don’t know what midwifery actually entails and how skilled midwives are.
Secondly, I really enjoy seeing the socioeconomic dynamics of the show. While we don’t know yet what Jenny’s background is, it is clear she has not seen such poverty. She flat out says at one point that she “didn’t know people lived like this.” While many shows would set the story up to be more “privileged person saves the day,” this one focuses on what Jenny can learn from these people. It shows how people from more privileged backgrounds can go into impoverished areas without showing the privileged ones as the saviors or exploiting the people in poverty. It’s just an interesting look at how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds interact and live different lives.
All six episodes have already aired on PBS, so it is getting ready to go on hiatus for the season. However, it is available on DVD as well as on Amazon Instant Video. It’s absolutely worth checking out.