The weary can breathe a sigh of relief: this isn’t a reflection on the beauty myth, anorectic models, or the billion dollar cosmetic industry. The hopelessly cynical may want to go back to reading crime reports though, cause I will stray into the idyllic. I recently watched two documentaries, which were connected in that each depicts a kind of ideal world from a woman’s perspective, regarding issues that affect us all.
The Goddess Remembered (1989) is a National Film Board of Canada documentary that I first encountered at the impressionable age of 19, while checking out the Saturday afternoon offerings of TV Ontario. It was my first exposure to the idea of the divine feminine, and I watched with uncritical awe, absorbent as a parched sponge, this hypnotic exploration of a past in which God was female, and matriarchy was more than an abstract concept in a first year anthropology textbook. The film alternates between archeological sites in the near-east, and discussions between well-known feminists about what the world might have been like in previous ages, and what it could be like if we reoriented our conceptions and priorities. If it leans on sweeping generalizations and some very broad assumptions, still, what lovely assumptions: a peaceful prehistory without hierarchy, where women participated equally in all spheres of life.
In a third year university course on women’s spirituality, I was delighted to watch the film again, then somewhat dazed to hear a critical analysis of it from a much more sophisticated perspective than I’d been capable of at 19. The soundtrack is Loreena McKennitt at her best, and the voice-over (by Martha Henry) is delivered in the smoothest, most compelling woman’s voice, yet with a tiniest whiff of menace, as though we’ll all be in trouble if we don’t heed the message being given, as indeed I believe we will be. My excellent and respected professor detailed for us the ways in which the documentary appealed to emotion rather than reason. Faced with a room full of callow, or at best dazed and intensely processing students with no firm opinions of our own to offer, she gave it as her opinion that it was a sad film. My deceptively vacant expression deepened. What she found sad was that women needed this kind of emotional resort, that idealization and a misty-eyed nostalgia were what most thoughtful women brought to bear on the topic of the divine feminine. 20 Years later, I’m still processing this reaction, and working out my own response, which is indeed an emotional one. Would a matriarchy be egalitarian and nonviolent? Were they? Did they truly exist? Would a matrifocal culture coexist with nature rather than exploiting it? We can only speculate, and idealize.
The second documentary I referred to is called Orgasmic Birth and is a personal and intimate exploration of natural childbirth, which is an even more personal and intimate subject than I’d realized. The essence of the film was distilled for me by one of the eloquent experts who I’ll paraphrase: if a beloved pet, or any animal is going to give birth, we find it a dim, quiet, safe and private place to do it. If you’ve ever lived with a cat who’s had kittens you know this. When a woman is going to give birth, we send her to a loud, brightly lit, bustling, impersonal place where there are a lot of sick people. “A sphincter is a sphincter,” and they don’t generally like an audience. Is it any surprise then, that an otherwise ordinary and healthy birth can turn into an event requiring medical interventions which are potentially harmful to mother and baby?
There’s no voice-over in this film, just the voices of mothers, fathers, midwives, and other medical practitioners who respect the intimate and sensual nature of birth, and feel that society does women a disservice by medicalizing it. They’re careful to distinguish between normal childbirth, and ones in which there are complications requiring medical interventions. Most often, these people say, birth can and should be a time for focus on the woman and her needs and sensitivities, not on fetal heart rate or how long the birth is taking. Pain makes others uncomfortable, and so women in hospital settings are often encouraged to accept interventions such as epidurals, labour induction or Caesarean sections because it will make others feel better.
These parents chose a birthing center or home birth, and were able to create the atmosphere they wanted. What struck me most was the intimacy between the parents during this most intimate of times. The parents kissed, cuddled, laughed, took alone time, were nervous, cried together, and experienced the birth of their baby as something they had control over. The film ended soon after a birth, with the mother and father soothing their baby by singing a sweet French song together. It was so beautiful!
Watching both of these films was an intensely emotional experience for me. What they have in common is the attempt to present an ideal of what the world could be like for women if we, and society at large made different choices. They contrast reality with an ideal. the widespread rejection of the female divine, the disconnection between the Earth and the sacred, the medicalization of one of the most profound of female experiences, and the attempt to fit it into a neat box that is convenient and compartmental, are set against an idealized past that revered and honored the feminine, and a possible future in which birth is normalized, and given back to women to define. The fact that these films exist makes me sad and happy at the same time. These messages shouldn’t need to be stated and restated; they should be built into the fabric of society. Since they’re not, I’m grateful that there are innovative film-makers who recognize the need for them, and who choose to bring their creative talents to the task of expressing them.