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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Call the Midwife includes many scenes of pregnant women with large exposed bellies plus breasts and pelvises covered by clothing or sheets. The women are sometimes in labor, and panting or screaming with pain. The viewer sees many scenes of babies emerging from a mother, though the mother's body is shielded by camera angles. There is some blood and gore, as when one mother hemorrhages after giving birth and we see the blood on a nurse's hand. There are also shots of a stillborn baby, and concepts such as prostitution, incest, rape and adultery are discussed frankly. Expect mild cursing and rough language such as "ass" or "whore." One central character dies, and infants and mothers are frequently in mortal jeopardy. Teens who watch may gain a deeper understanding of what their mothers and healthcare providers went through to bring them into the world, and may have more sympathy for moms and grandmothers.
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What's the story?
Based on memoirs written by a real-life nurse/midwife, CALL THE MIDWIFE centers on Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), a nurse who takes a job at what she thinks is a private hospital in London's deprived East End. That hospital turns out to be Nonnatus House, a convent devoted to the women of the East End that helps them give birth to and care for their numerous infants. Jenny is from a privileged background, and is at first horrified by her new patients, who live with fleas and bedbugs, syphilitic chancres and 24 kids in just a few rooms. But under the gentle guidance of the other women at Nonnatus House, particularly the serene but playful Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), Jenny gradually finds her feet and begins to love living at Nonnatus House and helping the women who need her help so badly.
Is it any good?
Lovers of Downton Abbey's sumptuous Britishness and Mad Men's vintage style will be in absolute ecstasies just soaking in the visuals of Call the Midwife. Trim 1950's cotton dresses! Fancy old chairs! Nun's habits and nurse hats! But very soon, the fripperies cease to be a distraction from the main point, which is women and the struggles they go through to bring children into the world. It's odd that while there are so many cinematic representations of the battles men fight, there are so few about this most timeless and universal battle that only women undergo: labor and birth.
And so, like Jenny Lee affirms in Call the Midwife's first episode, the viewer very shortly begins to see the cursing, sweating, smoking East End moms onscreen as heroines, getting on with life despite pregnancy, sickness, and death. They cheat on their husbands, they ignore syphilis sores, they smack their kids, or let them pee on the floor of the convent waiting room. Or they feed their fragile preemie babies in the night, drop by drop, and cry with their adult daughters as they shriek in birth agony. The nurses and sisters of Nonnatus House watch over it all and lend a hand where they can. "Midwifery is the very stuff of life," says Vanessa Redgrave as the voice of the older Jenny Lee, "Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife. She is in the thick of it. She sees it all." And on Call the Midwife, so do we.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why there have been no television series that focus on childbirth as a medical specialty, despite reams of medical shows. Is there something more intriguing or dramatic about a hospital setting such as, say, an emergency room or a large hospital? Is childbirth, which necessarily involves nudity and extreme intimacy, inappropriate to show on television?
Have you seen other televised births? How are the births on Call the Midwife different from those? How often do the tropes of TV birth, such as birth taking place while characters are trapped on an elevator, occur on Call the Midwife?
How do the creators of Call the Midwife show that the nurses on the show have more money than the patients they treat? Do they dress differently? Speak differently? Have different types of objects in their rooms?
- Premiere date: January 15, 2012
- Cast: Jenny Agutter, Jessica Raine, Judy Parfitt, Miranda Hart, Pam Ferris
- Network: BBC America
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Great Girl Role Models, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Compassion, Teamwork
- TV rating: TV-14
- Available on: DVD, Streaming
- Last updated: May 15, 2020
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