Whoever heard of a midwife as a literary heroine? Yet midwifery is the very stuff of drama. Every child is conceived either in love or lust, is born in pain, followed by joy or sometimes remorse. A midwife is in the thick of it, she sees it all.
It's hard to talk about poverty. It's harder still to write about it. To convey the experience on film is nearly impossible—without resorting to stereotypes, tropes, depressing statistics, or wildly unrealistic endings. For those who have experienced working and living with people in generational poverty, it can be an isolating. Beyond the challenges of everyday life, many enthusiastic and mission-minded Christians have found themselves stuck when faced with the burden of representing the experiences of their friends and neighbors in poverty. How do you do it well?
I recently found a show—on television!—that seemed to answer this question better than most. Call the Midwife, a PBS show based on the experiences of nurse midwives in the East End of London in the 1950s, succeeds in presenting the facts of poverty without sensationalism, evoking an emotional response without resorting to stereotypes. Call the Midwife has consistently impressed me with its attention to detail; its refusal to tidy up the mess of poverty; and its underlying emphasis on mission, purpose, and communicating love through word and deed.
The show is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth (Jenny Lee in the show), a nurse midwife stationed in a nunnery called the Nonnatus House. In the early 20th century, the poor of the East End of London were assisted in birth by friends or neighbors. Hospitals were grossly expensive, and women and children often died in childbirth (the show is quite realistic in this regard—this is a trigger warning to anyone who has experienced a fraught pregnancy). To remedy this, the church trained nuns, who had committed to lives of poverty and charity in the neighborhood, to become midwives. Jennifer Worth was paired with the nunnery in the East End, where she learned how to do her job in a variety of extraordinary circumstances, meeting characters that defy imagination.
How to portray poverty
Beyond any other show on television, Call the Midwife portrays poverty in all of its nuance: highlighting both the bad (abuse, addictions, prostitution, squalor) and the good (sense of community, family, belonging, care for neighbors). It is so easy to focus on one or the other, and usually our culture focuses on the negative. Shows like The Wire are recommended viewing, praised for the gritty reality of life in America's inner cities. I cannot count the number of times people have insisted I watch this show, just because I moved into an urban environment.
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