A few things can be said with certainty of the BBC’s Call the Midwife: None of those babies are swaddled tightly enough. Car births aren’t the greatest, but I’ve seen worse than the one in Season Four. And if Sister Evangelina doesn’t know why Sister Monica Joan paired the ass and the angel in her crèche conversation groups, it’s not the latter whose mental acuity should be in question. After that, interpretations are up for grabs.
Call the Midwife is placed in London’s East End around 1960, and based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her work as a nurse midwife. Nonnatus House is home to a group of midwives, some of whom are sisters religious in an Anglican order. When a local lady finds herself in an imminently family way, she knows to . . . you got it. Someone at Nonnatus answers the phone and hops on her bike to catch the newest Londoner. Additionally, the midwives of Nonnatus hold open health clinics in the parish hall for mothers and children. They have carnal or spiritual love interests (sometimes simultaneously, since the ecclesiastical setting puts so many clergymen on the scene). They occasionally get sloshed or muddle untagged newborns (not simultaneously). They also happen to be charming, brilliant, and/or very nice to look at.
Who likes this show? Pregnant ladies. Ladies who have been pregnant. Ladies who would like to be pregnant. Ladies who know better than to get pregnant but secretly want to know all about it. Ladies who never did get pregnant. Maybe also the consort of one of these ladies, on whom the classical allusions of Sister Monica Joan have not been lost, nor yet the wonder of Trixie’s pajamas.
The funny thing about ladies is that they think all kinds of things. The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Slate praised Call the Midwife at the same time homeschooling hausfraus were turning it on for company while they folded laundry at night. Why are these ideologically disparate ladies pounding Ghirardelli Squares together around one show? In a word: babies. In two words: babies, relationships. At least two babies are born (with realistic but not gross-out cinematography) in most episodes. The remaining time goes to the personal lives of a group of generally appealing characters. Call the Midwife is A Baby Story without the intellectual embarrassment of watching TLC. It’s history, medicine, and all that smart stuff Sister Monica Joan says. It’s thalidomide, Grantly Dick-Read, Compline, and uncredited Churchill. It’s practically a graduate seminar . . . with love stories and at least two babies born in most episodes.
But tear out the effectively universal female interest in the birth of babies, and we arrive at the real utility of Call the Midwife. The show is a diagnostic tool for one’s own philosophy. If you like the playing kids, billowing laundry, chanting nuns, and chatting mums in pretty dresses pushing prams, all centered around a parish fixing to bust with life, you’re a conservative. If you like the candidly portrayed female pain, you’re a liberal. Alternatively, you’re a liberal if you think each season is better than the last. You’re a conservative if you recently quit watching.
The alternative diagnostic steamrolled viewers in the fourth season, when Call the Midwife went queer. Previously, there had been knowing digs about contraception (old news for Anglicans by 1960, really), and the obligatory back-alley abortion episode, nicely set off with opaque moralizing from Vanessa Redgrave’s voice-over. But then came the episode with the pregnant lady and her secretly gay husband, followed by aggressive development of a lesbian storyline. At that point no one was watching Call the Midwife anymore. We were just watching TV.
Even before its fists got hammy, though, Call the Midwife was not quite up to the task of dealing with the questions it was so eager to bring up. Someone wants to prod us with the relentlessness of natural fertility, children conceived out of wedlock, pregnancy’s danger to the mother—problems as old as sin and renewed every morning. But this provocateuse will not allow serious conversation about them. When a woman in a family-planning class objects that contraception is unnatural, the normally clever nurse has no cleverer rejoinder than that rubber is natural, and a good laugh is had by all. We have Protestant seminary cafeterias for this depth of ethical insight. In another instance, a midwife contends that a young prostitute’s ability to become pregnant again is no comfort for her illegitimate child being adopted out from under her. A priest man splains that it comforts him, and the scene ends. Obviously, there’s no good reason, because the priest didn’t have one! P.S.: Priests are jerks.
These failings of imagination are more fully realized in larger plots. The child conceived out of wedlock arises as regularly as reality demands. Also commensurate with reality is that the defense of the child’s rights necessarily falls to those who appear heartless toward the mother’s broken heart. Her terror and tears cannot but occasion our sympathy, while the child’s future without a father . . . well, we don’t know what it would be like, but could it be worse than this? A dangerous question, which is why we have quit thinking it through to the end. Cartoonist Scott Adams writes, “You know Dad; he’s the a– hole who makes the hard choices.” The problem with not having a dad around is that there is no dad to make the hard choice about what to do when there’s no dad around. An abstract future of shapeless trouble for someone who’s more prop than person is placed into competition with a sobbing woman who just gave birth. We’ll take the ending where she smiles before the show is over.
The sisters of Nonnatus are penny wise in such cases, but that’s no reason to have handed over the pounds to them also. Caring for a pregnant streetwalker certainly means seeing her through the terrain of childbearing with charity and gentleness. It does not mean maneuvering things so that she can “keep” her baby; that is to say, consigning a human being to growing up in a brothel. The private nature of those sisters whose work is public allows them to show the personal kindnesses that help the frail children of dust live under the holy will of God. That’s the whole beautiful point of sisters of mercy. When a midwife is adorned in the garb and goodness of the Church, it adds to her patients’ knowledge of the Church’s true character. But defining goodness under the ethical principle of “It’s nice to be nice” is not true, and no kindness.
Moreover, back in reality, the prevailing perception of religious orders is of the Roman Catholic variety. Particularly in this context do the nuns of Nonnatus end up looking like Church Lite. Their immediate compassion is never cross-checked against a longer view or a firm rule outside the law of the state. A sister stands by nodding and chuckling while our clever midwife teaches her roomful of women to install a condom—hey, here are a bunch of old-timey people and nuns laughing about hose hiders. Who was ever uptight about this, anyway? A sister leaves the order to marry, and one mean lady says something, but it’s really no biggie otherwise. Ditto for the foregone approbation of abortion among those in the medical know, the uneven application of sympathy to cheating wives as opposed to cheating husbands, and the situational criteria by which perversions are judged.
This all sounds familiar, and not like the 1960’s. It sounds like the 1990’s, when Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and the American people shook a heartfelt finger at him for being a scamp after hours. Call the Midwife means to show us history, but it can’t figure out how. Its writers have simply transported the 90’s version of themselves back a few more decades and put on fun costumes. (See also Mad Men.) They have failed to grasp a worldview other than their own. The longer the show runs, the more sacred cows it sends back in time, like needing women to feel unfulfilled without paying jobs, and decrying the comeliness of language honorable people once used for uncomely parts.
It’s too bad, because nothing is more boring than the cowpaths in one’s own brain. The show’s early seasons present ostensibly historical situations that really challenge viewers. A woman gives birth to a baby of a race different than that of herself and her husband, and they all live happily ever after; a shipping captain keeps his daughter on board as the comfort woman for his crew; a mother and a midwife manage the birth of surprise triplets in a dark flat, and everybody’s fine. We’re supposed to believe these things? That might send a person to the library. (In fact, it did. The first story is in the 2002 edition of Mrs. Worth’s memoir; the latter two are not.) But, Patsy and Delia pop over to France together? Yawn. We could watch that on PBS Kids.
Let us not despair. There are a few people on Call the Midwife with their heads on straight: the pregnant ladies. When everybody else determines that a diabetic girl must have an abortion, she refuses to comply and runs away, risking her life to save the baby she and her fiancé love. When that soap-sweet husband turns up gay, his pregnant wife has the good sense to react in the way people were free to until the 1990’s. And when one teenager gives up her baby for adoption, she graciously swallows what’s in her head after her tactless mother promises to remember the baby at this time every year—just one pain the girl bears in the lifetime of pain she takes up to lessen the pain of her child.
Good old female pain. Even if that’s not what draws us to Call the Midwife, what’s the human condition without it? It’s certainly louder than the male variety, as the agonies of travail carried upon the breezes of the East End demonstrate. But there’s a reason people gather when a woman is laboring. The awful wail finally gives way to a different one, a tiny one! And the crowd goes wild. Champions of female pain might pause to consider the tremendous, natural sympathy with which people listen when the voice is of childbirth rather than choleric tweets. So, no, we’re not going to despair, darn it. The ear of the hausfrau is better tuned to perceive that the pregnant ladies have got this. The nurses, nuns, lesbians, and the BBC can have whatever silly ideas get them through the day. As long as they keep delivering babies, we’ll probably keep watching.