“Call the Midwife” and “The Mindy Project:” Two Takes On the Lives of Women’s Health Providers

Vewers have been treated to two very, very different new shows about women’s healthcare providers, rife with birth scenes and women being examined.

This Fall, viewers have been treated to two very, very different new shows about women’s healthcare providers, rife with yowling birth scenes and women being examined in stirrups. As different as they are, I thought it might be fun to look at them both at once.

“The Mindy Project” is a smartalecky sitcom by and starring Mindy Kaling centered around a group of young, single, verbal barb-slinging Ob-Gyns at a shared practice; “Call the Midwife” depicts a group of nuns and midwives in the post World War II slums of London. In both shows, delivery scenes abound and births are occasionally the fodder for jokes, and while the first trades in wit that verges on being too sharp, the second trades on emotional melodrama that can verge on treacly.

“The Mindy Project” has its laugh out loud moments, and reasons to root for it:  a trailblazing heroine who is neither tiny nor white, nor entirely likable, and has a classic comedic self-centeredness. It has, for the most part, a non-shamey attitude towards sex and relationships and its heroine’s body. 

But for me, at least, it verges too often towards mean-spiritedness, particularly in its depiction of a central male-female friendship. Like many other reviewers, I can’t get over the line in the pilot when Danny, Mindy’s colleague, frenemy, foil, and presumably someday romantic-interest, tells her to lose weight and the line just sort of hangs there, nastily. I was appalled that we were then supposed to accept the banter between the two of them as a core part of the show’s brand. But Kelsey Wallace at Bitch thought this was simply the show being realistic. Women get hated on for their weight–this is life. 

I’m not ready to entirely give up on the show yet. When “Parks and Recreation” became a goofier and gentler show in its second season, it won my heart. And I admire Kaling tremendously. But I hope “The Mindy Project” resolves some of its own inconsistencies–and those include the way it portrays the characters’ workplace.

Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress argues that the show fails to capitalize on the premise of the Ob-Gyn office, rarely using the setting for humor or even for interrogating cultural taboos about women’s health. An early scene in which Mindy triumphantly delivers a baby belies a subsequent “total disinterest in actual women’s health,” she writes.

My discomfort with the show began in the pilot when Mindy flat-out missed a delivery, blew off another in the midst of a date, and faced absolutely no consequences for her flagrant disregard for her patients. Obstetrics and gynecology are delicate health care issues, and I’d initially hoped that The Mindy Project might break television’s normal awkward silence around them. As that hope faded, I hoped that the show might at least redeem Mindy’s immaturity in other areas by demonstrating her basic competence as a doctor, something that provided the emotional and M.I.A.-scored climax of the pilot. But we’ve never seen Mindy in an extended scene with a patient since.

“Call the Midwife,” the BBC drama just ended at PBS (you can still watch it here) about midwives and nuns in London in the 1950s, is made up almost entirely, it sometimes seems, of extended scenes at the bedsides of patients, or by those patients sides in fish shacks, gutters, and other places where babies show up, demanding to be born.  Its cast of nurses and midwives deliver babies (sometimes baby animals) at a regular pace, changing discreetly-filmed bowls of bodily fluids, and regularly calling for more hot water, towels, and “just another push, dear.”

This is quintessential British TV: unabashedly sentimental and piercingly brutal, too. To illustrate this contrast, I’ll describe a shocking moment in another series “Call the Midwife” creator Heidi Thomas wrote recently: her adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Cranford,” memorably full of venerable older british actresses chewing the scenery. After a long romantic plotline unfolds for the maid employed by Judi Dench’s character, the show’s creators suddenly kill off both mother and baby in childbirth. The time-period-accurate plotline concludes with the maid’s husband riding away from Cranford, having lost everything he loves in an instant. Dench’s Miss Matty, who was longing for a baby in her home, sits alone in an entirely empty house. It’s devastating. Then some young people whose parents objected to their match are finally allowed to marry and we all cry again. Then more people die.

The death in childbirth described above prefigures a similar sudden maternal death in an episode of “Call the Midwife,” and its tone encapsulates this new show’s approach to heartwarming drama too: it will warm your heart but only if it breaks it too. Consider the impossibility of lasting through an episode without laughing over the unexpected birth of triplets or the shenanigans of “Chummy” the blue-blooded, clumsy nurse with a heart of gold, then sniffling over the miraculous c-section birth of a baby to a disabled woman–thanks, NHS and medical technology–then weeping at the death of a noble old soldier, or at the authorities removing the child of a young mother coerced into prostitution, an adulterous woman who sobs as she gives birth to a baby of another race, or a brother and sister pair who live out the end of their lives traumatized (possibly into incest) by growing up in the workhouse. 

This is the no holds-barred vibe that on the other side of the pond, beat “Downton Abbey” in the ratings. The show also presents a somewhat simplified, problematic approach to class, with its nice middle class girls “learning so much about love” from the destitute folks to whom they tend. But for the most part, the show’s format works. It has the production values of BBC television–painterly shots that both show and soften the gritty realities of life in London’s East End (although it never gets, say “The Wire” level gritty, there’s prostitution, violence, death, lots of fairly graphic childbirth scenes, and some really nasty urban insects).  But it also has that other British quality that I love: blatantly pushing a social message. As Amanda Marcotte noted in her podcast when the show premiered:

I knew going in that the show was going to be a love letter to the NHS. The midwives portrayed were part of the national health insurance England installed after World War II, which basically made health care free to all and is now being attacked by those who wish to privatize it.  The show really emphasizes the quality of care that was made to women by the NHS, both in terms of regular prenatal visits from midwives, but also post-natal check-ups to make sure the babies were doing okay, all at the home.

I do wish “Call the Midwife”, which certainly makes it clear that contraception might have been helpful, had been more upfront about the realities of abortion at the time.  Jennifer Worth, the midwife whose memoirs are the basis for the series, confronted the need for abortion, approaching it in a completely straightforward way:

In 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, and abortion was no longer illegal. When I was a gynaecology ward sister at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital in London, I was sometimes asked whether or not I approved of it. My reply was that I did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore, it must be done properly.

I’d love to see “Midwife'”s Thomas take that on.

For both shows to live up to their promise, there’s always next season. My message to their creators: “just push, dear!”