Have we raised a generation that finds natural childbirth more personally disturbing than female circumcision or sexual slavery? Recently, I found myself surrounded by a sold-out audience of seven hundred people—primarily students—gathered in the darkened UMASS Bowker Auditorium for a community theater production of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues.” From a balcony seat, my inner anthropologist was fascinated by the audience’s dramatically fluctuating reactions to the lit stage’s performance. We were loud. We laughed, screamed, whistled & applauded with gusto. And we were as silent as seven hundred people can be during the monologues that detail accounts of ritualized female circumcision, Bosnian rape camp survivors and Asian “comfort station” survivors, with the exception of a few gasps. However, during a narrative about the birth of Ensler’s grandchild, groaning and other vocalizations of discomfort became prominent enough to compete with the monologue—even drawing my attention away from the stage at one point. People squirmed in their chairs, turned to talk to each other, and some got up and left. Others began to laugh nervously, and this spread to the point of rudeness. I felt for the young actresses trying to get through what was turning out to be an “unpopular” monologue.
The birth in question represents a typical delivery without medical complications—and while it depicts the birth of a child, it is no more or less graphic than any other accounts of what women have endured. Having given birth naturally & attended two deliveries, I know well the intensity—aesthetic and otherwise!—of bringing a human into the world, well beyond Ensler’s description. Given this, I was surprised to witness the audience’s uncomfortable, visceral and vocal squeamishness to birth, but not mutilation or torture.
We are a culture that portrays laboring women fairly routinely in film and television these days. Even so, are young women more affected—at least on a “gut” level—by the idea of enduring childbirth in a safe, supportive environment because it’s statistically a more probable fate for us as Americans? Did the writing or performances portray one more vividly than the other? Or has the reality of natural childbirth become foreign to young people, especially given the rising incidence of Cesareans in America? Why wasn’t audience reaction to violence against women at least as palpable as it was to childbirth? What disturbs us most—and why?