The Miracle of Life: A Film Review

December 18, 2014
The male sperm as captured in a screenshot from The Miracle of Life.
This is a corresponding comment left by a YouTuber who was impressed by the flagellating movement of the male reproductive cell.

Stories and illustrations by: Michelle Cho

After publishing my last blog piece on the largely ineffective nature of sex ed in public high schools, I decided that I was onto something and that I wanted to push this topic one step further.

So I did what any college writer interested in the state of crisis our public sex ed system is in would do - I got into my comfiest pajamas, poured myself a glass of wine, and decided to watch the 1983 PBS documentary, The Miracle of Life.

Yes, this is the infamous birthing video many of us watched in FLE (Family Life Education) and yes, I reviewed it in all of its bloody goodness.

That last statement was an exaggeration. Contrary to popular belief, there is little footage of any blood (or any human “fluids” for that matter) in the entire film. This documentary mostly takes us inside the human body and does so with some really rad imaging technology. So not too much blood, I’m just dramatic.

Before reviewing the film, I comically told one of my professors, Lisa Spiedel of the Women, Gender & Sexuality program, about this project. She warned me about some implicit sexism I might encounter, and to my dismay, this turned out to be exactly what I experienced.

What I basically found was that while The Miracle of Life does its best to present everything it does with “scientific” integrity, the film’s script is loaded with gendered talk. Here are two lists of moments and phrases that explain what I am talking about:

Descriptors used in reference to the female body:

Descriptors used in reference to the male body:

  • The mother’s womb is as “salty as the sea.”
  • The vagina is “dangerously inhospitable”; “a hostile, acidic environment.”
  • The woman’s defense system “attacks the sperm…. They are potential enemies.”
  • The woman’s cilia create “a downward current that the sperm must swim up against.”
  • “The sperm is on a journey.”
  • The sperm “delivers itself quickly and precisely to the woman’s egg.”
  • The sperm “approaches the fringes and searches for the egg.”
  • There is “remarkable communication networks to the nurse cells” in the man’s body.
  • The male tendrils “enable the nurse cells to feed and protect the maturing sperm.”

From the above descriptors and the narration of the film in general, we are given a clear story of what human reproduction is like. Even in describing these natural, biologically programmed bodily processes, we are told that fertilization occurs when the male sperm (brave, apparently super intelligent, and equipped with impeccable precision in delivering its master’s DNA) penetrates the belligerent and destructive passageway of the woman’s body. We are provided a hero and champion to root for – that is, the almighty and courageous sperm – that must face disparaging odds against the hostile woman’s body.

Another still from the film. Alas, the miracle of life: a human baby.

While it is true that the woman’s body is indeed designed to protect itself from unwanted or too many fertilizations, the way this is explained in this documentary is very unsettling. Even once the sperm and egg have fused (and technically both reproductive cells begin working together as a team to divide and grow), The Miracle of Life informs us that the sperm does most of the work and that it is the driving force throughout most of the embryo’s gestation period. The film, of course, conveniently leaves out that all of this is occurring in the female body which is now solely responsible for the nutrition, safety, and development of the fertilized cell’s existence.

Must we illustrate the process of fertilization to 9th graders in a manner that almost demonizes the female body for what it naturally does? Do we have to characterize and personify wombs and sperm like they are actual people, protagonists and antagonists in some sort of epic? My guess is probably not, and that these same principles could probably be explained without employing the heavily charged descriptors that The Miracle of Life does.

So what are the consequences of presenting such a skewed narrative in a public education setting? First of all, it teaches both female and male students to feel polarized by each other’s, and maybe even their own, bodies. Male students almost certainly will feel very off-put by how their sperm are treated after laboring so arduously to enter the harsh woman’s body. Even female students may feel alienated by how their bodies work and may feel berated in learning about how “inhospitable” and treacherous their wombs are, although this is something that they have no control over.

Second of all, the ramifications of that alienation make discussions lopsided and awkward. By telling a story of how the two reproductive sex cells duke it out inside the woman’s body in an intense battle against one other, doors close to conversations about healthy sexuality. That is, if you are taught that male and female reproductive cells are more independent than they are inter-dependent in creating a baby, you are more likely to believe that males and females have more differences than similarities in all aspects of life. And as we hopefully all know, this is simply not true – young boys and girls generally have more in common than they do in difference. The myth that there is a fundamental “battle of the sexes” is perpetuated by this narrative that says cosmic forces are working against each other in the journey of forming human life.

To my disbelief, The Miracle of Life has achieved quite the number of accolades. The year it came out, it won an Emmy and Peabody Award. The year after, it received four more awards. Apparently critics love this film. And with its sexist “all mighty sperm penetrates the docile woman” narrative, this is problematic.

This documentary produces gender divisions more than it works to give a balanced look at the phenomenon of human reproduction. Viewers should rightfully question what ideologies we are passing on by continuing to incorporate it in sex ed curriculums all across the country. Perhaps we should scrap it all together and instead make concerted efforts to build a healthy, constructive, body-positive language in explaining the processes that make life a miracle.

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