I met Ricki Lake last week. At a movie premiere, even. One in which she appears naked! Jezebel.com quoted her vagina as “awesome,” by the way. Oh, and she’s giving birth.
What I knew about Ricki Lake a month ago could be summarized like this: talk show host, Cry-Baby (her character Pepper enhanced my sexual education with “The first thing a Cry-Baby girl learns is our bazooms are our weapons.”), and Hairspray. So I was a little dubious when I heard she had recruited filmmaker Abby Epstein to create a documentary exploring the way in which babies are born in this country. Apparently, her first birth experience was not so good, and she went looking for answers. Personally, I think that is a hell of a lot better use of time than looking for people to makeover on her show. Turns out Ricki found out more than she thought, that the birth business is BIG business, and she documented it all in The Business of Being Born.
Like many involved in the Bay Area birth community, I fancied myself up and went to the premiere at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco on January 17. Among midwives and doulas, nursing babies and extended families, we all watched Ricki Lake’s vision unfurl to reveal two facts: she was preaching to the choir with THIS crowd, and she honestly and passionately cares for this subject. With our “Birth Celeb” buttons, we cheered, cried (happened every time a baby was born), and hissed our way through the film like it was The Sound of Music night at the Castro Theater.
From liability issues to the way in which doctors are trained to standardize the birth process, Lake and Epstein clearly and graphically show the disconnect between what is natural and what women have been led to believe about birth. The film presents political, historical, and scientific background in a straightforward manner, but it is the human element that sells the message. The honest accounting by the participating mothers as they try to give their babies, and themselves, the best and most gentle start in this new life is emotional and rewarding to watch. The comments made by certain medical staff, and the statistics they bring along with them, is shocking. A lot to take in within 87 minutes.
Ricki Lake has received a bit of criticism and a lot of praise. Some feel she is glorifying homebirth, sacrificing safety for the experience. Now, having had two home births myself, I can say with great authority that the experience for me was worth it. I was low-risk, I educated myself (and found that having a home birth is as safe, if not safer, than going to a hospital), and I trusted my midwives who were there for me during pregnancy, through my labor and delivery, and postpartum. Both still send my boys birthday cards.
But about the safety part: will women jump on the bandwagon without thinking about what is the right choice for them? I doubt it and so does she. It simply isn’t for everyone, midwives don’t take high risk pregnancies, and women can decide for themselves where they would be most comfortable giving birth. Her goal is to make women think about how we treat one of the most sacred and natural of experiences a woman can have, and what the medical management and unnecessary interventions do to us, physically, emotionally, and culturally. After all, the film does cover women giving birth in birth centers and hospitals as well as at home.
But what about using technology to our advantage? Why do we trust it more than our own bodies? When I asked her about that at the after party at Bruno's in the Mission, her response was something like this: we have to be careful about using technology to our benefit and to our detriment. It can greatly enhance our lives, but it can also take away what is essentially and intentionally human. (Epstein’s surprise pregnancy and birth during filming proves the point on the appropriate use of technology.) I agree with her sentiments, obviously, but god I love a woman who can think, and encourages others to do so too.
Want to see it? It’s playing now at the Roxie Theatre and coming to the East Bay next month. Queue up on Netflix now, by the way, because the list is growing quickly. Or check out thebusinessofbeingborn.com.