Booby Traps Series: From “Ew, gross” to “Isn’t that too old?” TV and film depictions of breastfeeding.

the new normalLet’s state something right away:  TV and film are entertainment.  We get that.

We know that when we turn on the set or stream a movie, what we see is meant to make us laugh, cry, cringe, shudder, and maybe occasionally think.

But a mountain of evidence shows that these forms of media influence us.  They help to shape our attitudes and beliefs, and they share information that can be helpful or harmful.  So depictions of breastfeeding in these forms of mass media matter–they often have a huge impact on our cultural and our behaviors.

Depictions of breastfeeding are on the rise, and may even be getting better, according to one study (with the best title for an academic paper ever), “That’s Not a Beer Bong, It’s a Breastpump: Representations of Breastfeeding in Prime Time Fictional Television” by Dr. Katherine Foss.  So, let’s take a look at what TV and movies have to say about breastfeeding:

How Breastfeeding on TV and in Movies is a Big BoobyTrap in the U.S. and Around the Globe

Mom feeds baby, man thinks about sex.  A popular theme in comedic scenes is the man who ogles a mother who breastfeeding.  In her article in Mothering Magazine and in a podcast interview with me, Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis notes that in these scenes “breastfeeding as something that is sexual act or an act that is sexually intriguing to people viewing breastfeeding. These scenes are shot from the perspective of men.”  Sometimes the mother is aware and uncomfortable, sometimes she’s not in on the joke at all.  Some of the many examples of this include scenes on the The Office, The Sopranos and the movie Me, Myself and Irene.  The message to moms:  You may think you’re feeding your baby, but men are thinking sex.  Breastfeeding is probably best done out of public view.

Ew, gross…  A popular gag – seen on Friends, Meet the Fockers, and others – is that of a man accidentally drinking breastmilk (resulting in milk spraying out of mouth).  In an episode of Two and a Half Men, Jon Cryer’s character becomes so disgusted when his date breastfeeds at a restaurant that he can’t eat.  This reflects (and perpetuates) a theme in our culture: a 2001 Health Styles survey found that only 27.9% of people agreed that “it is appropriate to show a woman breastfeeding her baby on TV programs.”  The message: breastfeeding – and especially breastmilk – is disgusting.

Breastfeeding is dangerous.  Noted by Virginia Tech professor Bernice Hausman in Mother’s Milk, and this analysis, there appears to be a “dead baby” theme on television.  A recurring theme in medical and crime shows is the mother who kills or sickens her baby because she puts her belief in breastfeeding above the health of her baby.  Examples include House and Chicago Hope.  The message:  breastfeeding is dangerous to babies, and is sometimes practiced by mothers who put ideology above the health of their children.

Breastfeeding is something white, older, professional, married women do.  In my interview with Dr. Katherine Foss on this topic, she pointed out that we don’t see women of color or single mothers breastfeeding on television.  This, she says, conveys the message that “breastfeeding is only for one type of woman.”  It’s also a missed opportunity to show promote breastfeeding to a broad group of women.  The message:  only certain types of women breastfeed.

Breastfeeding mothers are overbearing ideologues or insane earth mamas.  Numerous shows, including Married with Children, Gilmore Girls, and House, have portrayed nursing mothers either as ideologues or as nutty earth mamas.  The message:  breastfeeding is a political act and breastfeeding mothers are either zealots or hippies – both roles outside of the cultural mainstream.  Probably the most extreme example is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Away We Go; her character is an older, nutty,  earth mama, white woman who is tandem nursing her infant and toddler.  Sigh.

Breastfeeding is too difficult (and it’s the mom’s fault if it doesn’t work out, not the barriers she faced).  An analysis of reality TV by Dr. Katherine Foss in the book Beyond Health, Beyond Choice link found that a predominant message is: “breastfeeding is too difficult for most women, but look at how much easier formula is.”  There is little to no mention of the various barriers facing mothers who want to breastfeed.  The message:  breastfeeding is hard, and if it doesn’t work out it’s your fault.

Formula feeding is the norm (cue close up on the same formula advertised at commercial breaks).  In the same analysis of reality TV, Dr. Foss notes that these shows “suggest that formula is a more common choice,” and that “the clear product placement in these episodes indicates that the feeding decision story lines were likely devices to focus on the Similac bottles, especially because some of the products are also advertised during commercial breaks.”  The message:  Formula feeding is the norm, and this is the brand you should purchase.

“Isn’t that too old?”   Depictions of breastfeeding in both fictional and reality TV nearly always show newborns or young infants.  A common comedic theme is the crazy mother who breastfeeds “too long,” which suggests that at some point breastfeeding crosses the dividing line between wholesome and perverted.   Case in point: a reality show on extended breastfeeding is reportedly planned. Actress Maria Bello in Grownups nurses her 4-year old, while reprimanding her overweight, and very rude older child; meanwhile, Salma Hayek shields her daughter’s eyes.  The message:  breastfeeding past infancy is deviant and dangerous, and leads to poorly behaved children.

Breastfeeding as private.  There are very few depictions of mothers breastfeeding in settings outside their homes, in both reality TV and fictional TV and film.  When breastfeeding is done outside the home (and sometimes even at home!) it’s done under a cover, and there are many depictions of people taking offense at it.  The message:  breastfeeding is a private activity that shouldn’t happen in public.

Breastfeeding as normal.  This is the rarest of depictions – a scene in which breastfeeding is not the butt of the joke or even acknowledged at all.  It’s just happening, or as Dr. Foss puts it, “It should just be, ‘Oh, feeding the baby, just like doing everything else with the baby as part of the show.’”  Some examples of such depictions include Precious, older Sesame Street clips, a Mr. Rogers clip, and the movie Ponyo.  Of course we loved it when John Travolta shared an adorable story of Kelly Preston nursing their 2-year old son on the Ellen Degeneres Show. (Check out our famous interview with Kelly.) And occasionally there is a joke about breastfeeding which isn’t at the expense of nursing moms, such as Tina Fey on 30 Rock calling a breastpump a ‘baby megaphone.’

There are a few more gags – men breastfeeding (as Robert DeNiro famously did in Meet the Fockers–see below) and breastfeeding as ruining breasts – but these are the main themes.   What is scary to contemplate is that not only are negative depictions of breastfeeding spreading misinformation and turning the masses off in the U.S., but since our movies and TV shows are consumed voraciously around the world, they contribute to a poor attitudes towards breastfeeding in other countries–and a few, low-budget public service announcements from non-profits are no match for Hollywood!  (Continue reading below the video.)

And a special mention of one show that covered it all: Before I wrap this up I have to mention one recent episode of a sitcom which touched on so many different themes (and is on balance pretty supportive) that it made my head spin to watch it.  In this episode, titled Dairy Queen, a mother is in a public park with two gay men, who instead of leering, comment on how beautiful it is (presumably because he isn’t interested sexually in breasts)  There is a flashback to one of the men being breastfeed when he is “too old.”  Then someone walks by and gives the mother the stink eye for nursing in public.  This incenses one of the men, who organizes a breastfeeding flash mob in a restaurant accompanied by the song Milkshake.  I have to hand it to the writers of this episode – they nearly covered every theme!

What’s your most and least favorite depiction of breastfeeding on TV and in the movies (feel free to post links)?  What messages do they send?



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4 Comments | Last revised on 09/26/2013


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4 Responses to Booby Traps Series: From “Ew, gross” to “Isn’t that too old?” TV and film depictions of breastfeeding.

  1. Emily says:

    The episode synopsis on the website is TOTALLY supportive:
    “Prepping for a baby of their own, Bryan and David spend some quality time in the park with Ian and Megan, who also happen to be brand new parents. When Megan begins breastfeeding her baby in the park, Bryan looks on in fascination and envy. There’s truly no connection between mother and child like nursing; he wishes he could have that himself. Not to mention, there’s no debating the nutritional benefits of breast milk.”

    Sounds like writers working toward re-normalizing breastfeeding to me :)

  2. Alicia Dermer says:

    I kind of liked a scene in the Coen Brothers’ comedy “Raising Arizona,” where Holly Hunter is sitting at home giving the infant she and Nicolas Cage have abducted a bottle, and John Goodman’s character (who has just escaped from prison,) asks her why she’s not breastfeeding. When she answers that it’s none of his business, he says something to the effect that maybe if he had been breastfed as a baby he wouldn’t have ended up a criminal. Way out there, and very funny, but still in a weird way supportive of breastfeeding :)

  3. Sam says:

    Friends (the sitcom) was actually very pro breastfeeding. In Season 2, ross’s son is breastfed, and while two of the characters find it uncomfortable, Ross and the others basically tell them it’s natural and to get over t. And that if they have any questions they should just ask.

    In another episode, while half of the 6 friends are ‘grossed out’ by the thought of drinking breastmilk, the other 3 ‘Friends’ are fine with it and argue their point, saying ‘it’s just breastmilk’.

  4. Nicole says:

    Many of these examples could be looked at as positives in some way. When we are talking and laughing about breastfeeding it is normal. Also even a weird character who is tandem nursing introduces the idea that tandem nursing is possible. A lot of moms still don’t know that. Some depictions make me cringe, but as time goes by they’ll get better and the fact that there are so many examples to point to is good news.

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