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Call the Midwife

“Call the Midwife” Reminds Us What It’s Like When Abortion is Illegal

Usually, no one dies on Call the Midwife. And it’s definitely a good thing since the show focuses on giving birth. I mean, I for one, would not watch a dead baby (or a dead mommy) show. No, Call the Midwife uses death sparingly, unlike say Grey’s Anatomy where you can expect about a third of the patients to kick the bucket. So when in season eight Jeannie Tennant dies, I was surprised.

We first meet Jeannie as a new mother in Nurse Trixie’s dance class. She’s the mom who “got her figure back” and is weirdly good (even sexy) with a hula hoop. All this despite having two sons, the youngest one under a year old. Jeannie’s working part-time and saving to buy a house with her husband — this isn’t the typical 60s housewife the media loves to over-represent. Jeannie is a woman with a plan. She has her own agency and knows her strengths and limitations. But then she learns she’s pregnant again despite using protection (FYI/PSA: you have to get your diaphragm refitted after giving birth).

Jeannie doesn’t want a third baby. Trixie offers words of encouragement and so does the good Dr. Turner. But platitudes don’t help Jeannie. She’s a driven and dedicated mother but knows she can’t be a good parent to a third child. When the medical establishment fails her, she gets an abortion. In 1964 London. Where the procedure is still illegal and will remain so for three more years. Soon Jeannie turns gray and sickly, then a day or so later shaking, then cold under all the covers, and finally dead in the ambulance. Now, there’ll be no house for her boys, no mother to lovingly raise them. Jeannie dies but perhaps what hurts the most about this episode is watching all the points where she could have been saved by so many people with the medical knowledge to do so.

“When the medical establishment fails her, she gets an abortion. In 1964 London. Where the procedure is still illegal and will remain so for three more years. Soon Jeannie turns gray and sickly, then a day or so later shaking, then cold under all the covers, and finally dead in the ambulance.”

Call the Midwife has shown illegal abortion before with its many complications but this is the first time someone has died of it. In season two, we saw a mother of eight suffer from a poorly done procedure, barely surviving to tell the tale. Last season, Magda (Nurse Shelagh and Dr. Turner’s au pair) induces her own miscarriage after looking it up in the couple’s medical books. She collapses in the garden and is saved just in the nick of time (but alas, is their au pair no longer). Even earlier this season, we followed a woman through an abortion that ends with her losing her ability to have children.

Ill-fated Jeannie Tennant with her husband and youngest son

Clearly, the consequences of illegal abortion are bad — for women, mothers, and their children. With Jeannie’s death, Call the Midwife upped the stakes. This isn’t preeclampsia, which the medical community hadn’t found a treatment for yet. It’s not even the discovery that the drug thalidomide causes severe birth defects. Abortion is something doctors knew how to do safely in 1964 but chose not to. Because it was illegal. Because they could lose their jobs. Perhaps, because they objected. But whatever the reason, women suffered enormously, some even losing their lives.

It’s not clear what the nuns, midwives, and Dr. Turner actually think about abortion. Trixie wants to wring the abortionist’s neck but doesn’t offer an opinion on the procedure. Shelagh comforts her husband, reminding him that he was only following the law. Dr. Turner, one of the few men on the show, gets the most lines on the subject, telling the police by way of background: “Jeannie was unhappy. Jeannie was frightened. Jeannie did not want to have a baby… We see this all the time. Young, young girls. Exhausted older women. Mothers who don’t know where their next penny or their next beating’s coming from! And others who want to take control of their bodies and their lives. And all we can do is pat them on the hand and say ‘You’ll manage, everybody does.’ But not everybody does. Not everybody believes us. I’m so sorry, I can’t help you. But I’m even more sorry that I couldn’t help her.”

“Abortion is something doctors knew how to do safely in 1964 but chose not to. Because it was illegal. Because they could lose their jobs. Perhaps, because they objected. But whatever the reason, women suffered enormously, some even losing their lives.”

So would the inhabitants of Nonnatus House offer abortions if they were legal? If the show gets a few more seasons, we may be able to see. We only have to make it to 1967 for Great Britain to change its laws and allow abortionup to 24 weeks and after that for medical reasons. In Jeannie’s episode, we only see our favorite practitioners doing their job as good representatives of the state and its laws. In their practice, there are no options for Jeannie other than carrying that baby to term. In a later episode, we’ll meet the abortionist herself and hear her justification for offering these women dangerous, amateur services — she says she’s just trying to help, to provide something the medical establishment won’t even if some of her customers end up butchered along the way.

Call the Midwife airs in England months before it comes to the US so its ability and propensity to respond to American news is limited. That said, with the recent abortion bans in Georgia, Alabama, and other states, it’s hard not to feel like this season is directed towards us stateside. We know what happens when abortion is illegal. Women don’t suddenly decide to keep every unwanted pregnancy. They still terminate — they just do so risking their health and their lives.

We know what happens when abortion is illegal. Women don’t suddenly decide to keep every unwanted pregnancy. They still terminate — they just do so risking their health and their lives.

As Sister Monica Joan says “do you ask how the fish in the murk of the ocean finds the light? How the rat in the rubble locates the air? In extremis, necessity finds a way.” In this case, many women encounter preventable death and injury just to find it. The costumes and cars of Call the Midwife are cute, but as a woman, the nostalgia stops there. I don’t want to live in the 1960s — visiting for an hour a week or so is fine. Let’s not take our laws and our bodies back there. The price is much too high.

The clothes are cute but that doesn’t mean I want our lives or laws to resemble “Call the Midwife”
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Jane, Eve, Issa

Some 75% percent of our media comes from the white, male perspective and it all feels the same to me: tired. Men have been speaking for so long, it’s like they’ve run out of things to say (not that the prospect of repeating themselves is getting them to shut up).

Luckily, there’s a lot of amazing, women-centered media out there from comedies to thrillers to prestige dramas. To help you avoid the same old, I’ve pulled together the ten shows I’m most looking forward to in 2019 — that all just happen to center women (last year’ spoilers ahead):

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

The award-winning first season of Big Little Lies featured Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley as mothers in the elite community of Monterrey, CA, subverting the superficial suburban mom trope and portraying domestic violence in a more thoughtful way than I’ve seen before.

The second season, set to premiere in 2019, is a bit of coup — partly because the first season wasn’t supposed to be a “season” at all but rather a self-contained mini-series and partly because it was based on a book with no sequel. But the market talks and season two is bringing in none other than Meryl Streep, promising more of Zoë Kravitz’s character Bonnie Carlson, and (finally) featuring a woman director. Count me in.

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife

Taking place in 1960’s London, each episode (for seven seasons and counting) of Call the Midwife features at least one birth, depicted with unusual candor, sympathy, and heroism. The show has not been great on race (the first two plots with Black characters featured interracial babies born of affairs between Black men and white women) but Call the Midwife added a Black nurse in season seven and has since been clearly trying to address its wrongs.

Centered on women and our bodies — both the act of giving birth and the physical nature of nursing — Call the Midwife dramatizes aspects of the human experience we rarely see. With season eight coming in 2019, tune into this show for beautiful costumes, a warm vision of humanity, and women as nurses, nuns, and mothers.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Round Up

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

This musical comedy exploring mental health issues and the false romance narratives that bombard women, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manages to leave you humming and thinking. This year will complete its final and forth season and lots of questions remain: what does a happy ending look like when it comes to mental health? Will Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca end up with one of her past flames? Or would she be better off alone?

As I’ve written before, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a feminist project, featuring a diverse cast and re-writing the rules of who can be loved. It’s also one of the least watched shows on television so it’s good to support and show content makers that audiences will tune into quality, feminist content. Plus, there’s lots of salty pretzels.

The Crown

The Crown

Netflix’s budget-busting juggernaut, The Crown, is back for a third season with a new cast as the Queen and her royal family age. I’ll miss Claire Foy’s ability to be emote without emoting, simultaneously expressing power and insecurity. That said, I trust the show creators to cast well again and this time hopefully without a gender pay-gap from the beginning.

I’ve learned a lot of history from this show as the Queen engages in nearly seven decades of world events. And while the colonial perspective can be rough (who cares how the monarch feels when its millions of brown people risking their lives for their self determination?), the show explores the difference between public and private personas beautifully while offering a unique insight into privileged British life.

Grey’s Anatomy

Set to become the longest running medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy will finish up its 15th season and probably run the first half of its 16th in 2019. Shonda Rhimes is no longer involved in the day-to-day but seasons 1-7 veteran Krista Vernoff is at the helm and bringing the show back to its old stalwarts: love-triangles, extreme medical situations, steamy hospital romances. I love Grey’s and having it made it this far, plan to see it to the end.

Grey’s Anatomy has always featured a diverse and inspiring depiction of leadership, excellence, and sexuality and that hasn’t changed. And as the titular Dr. Grey has gone from starry-eyed intern to widowed, award-winning physician, these fifteen years have allowed us the rare treat of watching a complicated woman’s evolution and continued adventures, sexual and otherwise, into middle age.

Insecure

Insecure

I’m excited for the fourth season of Issa Rae’s Insecure, coming out in 2019. Following a group of “basic,” 30-something Black women in LA, Insecure deserves all the awards for its hilarious exploration of identity, romance, and what it means to be a striving Black woman. It’s fixed everything you hated in Girls and Sex in the City, somehow making you nostalgic for your old, shitty apartments and ringing humor out of racial injustices large and small.

Season four promises to be just as good with the group’s lives only getting messier as Issa and her best friend Yvonne Orji’s Molly Carter date roommates and Issa seemingly going into business with her ex’s current partner. Bonus points of you watch live with Black Twitter.

Jane the Virgin

It’s Jane the Virgin’s final season and I’ll miss the Villanuevas. This Americanized telenovela started with an accidental, artificial insemination and has built upon this fantastical premise to explore motherhood, class, racial identity, Catholicism, and immigration to name just a few. The original love triangle seems to be back with Brett Dier of Michael Cordero fame returning in the season four finale to mess up the expected proposal between Justin Baldoni’s Rafael and Gina Rodriguez’s Jane.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more thoughtful, fun, and heartwarming portrayal of Latina identidad on television. In fact, the show’s secret weapon seems to be its compassion for all its characters — mothers of all stripes and types, people rich and working class, women with hugely different attitudes toward sex — allowing the viewers to sympathize with each end of spectrums we normally find so polarizing. Also Jamie Camil is an international treasure.

Killing Eve

Killing Eve has everything spy aficionados could want: globe trotting, international intrigue, double crosses, and murder. Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri, the bored M16 operative, became the first Asian women nominated for a lead actress Emmy and is set to host the Golden Globes. Her talent is met by Jodie Comer’s diabolical assassin, Villanelle. The binge-able BBC hit is now on Hulu and season two is slated for release in 2019.

With all the trappings of a traditional thriller, the woman-ness of Killing Eve is unmistakable. Both the killer and detective are women and that opens up new avenues of psychological intrigue like when Villanelle, obsessed with Eve, fills her suitcase with beautiful, perfectly fitting clothes and sends it to her house, managing to fulfill a female fantasy and threaten her love object at the same time. The sexual tension between Eve and Villanelle further heightens the drama (particularly in contrast to Eve’s relatable but boring relationship with her husband) as does the female-gaze of the camera work. With Oh and Comer signed up for the second season, 2019 is sure to bring more of the steamy, pulse-racing fun.

Shrill

Based on the book by the same name by Lindy West, Shrill is set to premiere in 2019 starring and co-written by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant and produced by Elizabeth Banks. Those names are enough to get me excited — especially because I love Lindy West. She came up as a journalist under Dan Savage, helped pioneer Jezebel, and has since graduated to a feminist New York Times column and writing best-selling books.

Shrill is West’s memoir, telling the story of a fat young woman who’s striving to improve her life and career but not her body. All of which makes it the perfect vehicle for Bryant and I can’t wait to catch it on Hulu.

Vida

Vida

Latinas are the least represented demographic in media so a show that’s Mexican, queer, and ambitious has me tuning in. Starz’ Vida follows two Latinx sisters returning to Boyle Heights to take over the family business after their mother’s death. There, they confront gentrification, their mother’s lesbianism, and aspects of their own identity.

Picked up for a second season in 2019, Vida is clear in its intention to expand the portrayal of Latina and Latinx experience on TV. Latinx show creator Tanya Saracho has spoken out about how she uses her success to lift up la raza and the show even has a Latina behind the camera in Carmen Cabana — this despite the notoriety of cinematography for how few women fill its ranks even in the sexist entertainment industry.

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