Giving birth is a beautiful miracle of life and a thing on TV that is usually just lots of screaming. And more screaming. And, unfortunately, being too late for an epidural.
But does all that drama affect what women think producing a small human out of their vagina will actually be like? As it turns out: more than you'd think!
A study by Danielle Bessett of the University of Cinncinati's sociology department found that fictional pregnancies impact ideas about real-life pregnancies, even for highly-educated women who consider themselves immune to such trivialities as Monica Potter saying, "Oh, God," over and over on NBC's "Parenthood."
Bessett found that TV's representations can have an impact on "unacknowledged 'pregnancy mythologies.'" (That's some Roland Barthes for critical theoreticians and "stuff you know and don't even realize you know" for everyone else.)
There's a wide array of coverage of the inaccuracies at play in depictions of pregnancy on TV. As Bessett wrote, summarizing a series of papers by TV scholars, shows tend to "over-represent high-risk pregnancies in comparison to low-risk ones [and] normalize biomedical interventions." Basically, it's all mostly wrong, because drama.
What Bessett wanted to find out, though, was what kind of effect that had on women preparing to give birth.
Bessett conducted a series of longitudinal interviews with sample of 64 pregnant women. Among the small, qualitative sample, she found that even those who disavowed TV as a source of information for the birthing process later referred to fictional scenes when describing their expectations. The disadvantaged women within the study were more likely to consult reality TV in their "information gathering" efforts, but were also affected by the screaming, excessive water-breaking and screaming of prime time.
Overall, Bessett argues her results suggest that women "underestimate or underreport" the true impact of pop culture on their ideas about pregnancy.
Her findings contain an important nugget of truth for health professionals trying to negotiate the media's interference on their patients' understanding of pregnancy. Her research is yet more evidence that fictional representation matters, that TV depictions translate to cultural understanding and that watching Rachel give birth on "Friends" has a real-life impact, regardless of whether or not you think the whole "will they/won't they" thing with Ross was gratuitous by the end of the series.