Rack Focus: Breasts, Bottles and Babies in the Movies

Rack Focus: Breasts, Bottles and Babies in the Movies

Breastfeeding on screen is as rare as it’s ever been, but in a handful of recent films, Gemma Gracewood has noticed the ancient and mundane act quietly coming into focus. Reflecting on her own nursing journey, she seeks out several directors for insights into bringing babies and the boobs that feed them into the frame, and the need to normalise parenting diversity. 

The final ten minutes of Roseanne Liang’s wildly entertaining film Shadow in the Cloud are supreme “She did that!” canon. As a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress burns on the beach behind her, an exhausted and bloodied Maude Garrett beats a gremlin to death with her bare hands. Then she plops down on a sand dune, unbuttons her khaki jumpsuit, and lifts her baby girl to her breast. 

It is a show-stopping maternal moment that is duct-tinglingly deserved. It is the morning after a long flight, and the baby needs to be fed; Mum (Chloë Grace Moretz) just needed to deal with a rogue beast, some Japanese fighter planes and a sexist Scotsman first. Phantom let-downs all round! (Apologies for the spoilers, but too many people have slept on this feminist genre treasure.)

“I’m a huge action designer,” Liang tells me. “I think deeply about the logic of why people are doing what actions at what times.” A mother of two herself, Liang wrote Maude Garrett’s breastfeeding scene into Shadow in the Cloud, which won the TIFF 2020 Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award. “She has to take care of business. I mean, she could start feeding the baby, but the gremlin’s going to come and fuck her up, right? So she has to neutralise the gremlin with her bare fists before she can actually feed the baby, because you need peace and you need time to feed your baby.” 

After a long night of increasingly off-the-chain mid-air action, the scene was almost jarring in its straightforward depiction of nursing for nothing other than a baby’s nourishment. In the context of a bonkers genre film, it felt like the most abnormal act. “It seems dangerous,” Liang agrees. 

“Society has somehow decided that breastfeeding is gross. There’s lots of monstrous breastfeeding, if we go through the horror canon. Monstrous mothers. But, as a breastfeeding mother, there is just a normalcy to it. And, I’ve gotta say, a heroism to it, actually.” 

In the recent documentary Street Gang: The History of Sesame Street, you can see a clip from the beloved Children’s Television Workshop show in which Cree musician (and Academy Award winning songwriter) Buffy Sainte-Marie breastfeeds her baby son, Cody. “Lots of mothers feed their babies this way,” she tells a curious Big Bird. “Not all mothers but lots of mothers do.” In 1977, as ever, Sesame Street was sensitive to the different ways in which babies are fed. And for Saint-Marie, it was a platform for activism that had sprung from unforgivable treatment of Indigenous mothers

But despite a succession of stars across many decades sharing their nursing stories – from public health champion Audrey Hepburn through to Ilana Glazer and her compression socks – the decades have not really provided a normalised approach to babies feeding on screen. In Ithaca College professor Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis’s 2008 study of breastfeeding on the big screen, she found an abundance of mixed messages from Hollywood towards nursing. Across 150-odd films from the 1970s to the early 21st Century, breastfeeding has been regularly mocked, judged, fetishised, made grotesque, and turned into a punchline. Very few films have allowed it to just be. 

It’s all tied up with America’s general problem with sex in cinema (as the great Kate Hagen has written about in detail), and with double standards in nudity, which comedian Alice Snedden, the co-creator of BBC comedy Starstruck, explored in this excellent dissection of sexual objectification and censorship on screen. But why can’t we have nice things, including breastfeeding? 

One of my favourite nursing scenes is in Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 New York romance, Crossing Delancey. Like the whole gorgeous film, the moment is an ordinary, tender detail. Issy is visiting a new-mother friend, just chatting away, when she recognises her friend needs the nursing chair. She makes space, she pays attention. 

It completely serves the story of Issy, who is 33, single, and facing down her biological reality, but what I love is that the baby’s presence alone would have served Issy’s story; having him being nursed adds an extra touch of the everyday feminine divine. 

The mystery of the breast-to-baby relationship is still in the very early stages of being fully revealed. But how incredible it is that, at a point where a baby cannot communicate what they need beyond crying and eye-rubbing, their gut can send instructions to the milk to make more of some nutrients, less of others, as they grow. 

And yet how depressing that this biologically brilliant, run-of-the-mill, positively ancient act is, in the West at the very least, still the subject of scorn and titillation. 

When you have been busty since about five minutes after you turned double-figures, and you have experienced all that comes with walking around in this male-gazey world packed into a bra-size at the far end of the alphabet, it is a daily psychic battle to carry yourself through. 

And when you have waited a very long time for your one living baby, as I did, it is a small miracle to put those sexualised, fetishised and expensively-housed breasts to their life-giving use. But even as my newborn and I figured out this new, nourishing dance, the psychic battle raged on. Unless I was prepared to stay home, or to wean quickly, I knew I was going to have to get the girls out in all sorts of scenarios. I am gutsy, but my bravery was about to be very stretched. 

There is a photo of me with my then-11-month-old, on the Washington Metro, on the way to the 2017 Women’s March, boob out, peacefully—gleefully!—feeding him in the middle of an energetic feminist maelstrom. But there was another time, on another train, when I was the only woman in a carriage packed with overly interested men. As my toddler screamed with hunger, my teen stepson fashioned a shelter for us. I don’t know what I would have done if he wasn’t there. Got off the train and missed the flight, I guess. 

And once, in a park with my mother, a man approached to try and sell us some shit, I don’t remember, I don’t care. I did that polite-woman thing, “No thank you”, “Really, no thank you”, “You’re very kind but no thank you”. It got us nowhere, and then – my poor mother – I was suddenly full-throttle bansheeing for him to fuck right off, and in that moment, he snapped. “You’re a bitch.” Thanks, man. I’m just feeding my baby. 

The very best conditions in which to feed are a relaxed parent, a safe babe, a comfortable corner, a shutting-out of the world. But real life is a battle of spaces and cultures and sideways looks, of stretched finances and rattled relationships. Self-advocacy is near impossible when you’re not sleeping through the night and the mastitis is setting in. My son and I had a really good run – but I am sad to say I felt like a weirdo so much of the time. 

The thing is, media influences social perceptions. Normalisation matters. Movies can literally change lives. 

It’s highly apt and wholly reassuring that two of the loveliest incidental nursing moments recently committed to screen appear in a pair of explicitly feminist films. In Julie Taymor’s The Glorias, in the best nursing scenario I can think of, Janelle Monáe, as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, feeds her child while riding along with Gloria Steinem (Alicia Vikander), as they build the women’s movement alongside other American activists of the 1970s. 

And in Philippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, an unnamed attendee of the first Women's Liberation Conference at Oxford in 1970 breastfeeds while feminist historian and organiser Sheila Rowbotham (Jo Herbert) makes a rousing call for change. Again, an ideal environment if ever there was one (just along the hall from the meeting, a makeshift crêche is being run by male partners and supporters of the activists). 

“It was something that was true to that event,” Lowthorpe tells me, when I ask her how the conference moment came about. “I looked through the original photographs and there was a picture of a woman breastfeeding. A woman breastfeeding in public was such a rare thing in 1970, so it felt very important to show this – it was all part of what these women were fighting for.”

Breastfeeding scenes happen by design, not by accident. They have to be written into the script. They need to be cast (“We had to go through lots of levels of agreement for the shot of the baby at the breast,” recalls Shadow in the Cloud director Liang). Then a shoot day must be built around the baby's feeding schedule, and finally, attention needs to be paid in the edit. 

“It was important to make the mother and baby really count in the scene rather than a passing glimpse,” says Lowthorpe, of Misbehaviour. “The editor – also a woman – and I foregrounded them in the edit and also in the way I shot the footage of them. I made sure they were sitting in a good place where it made it easy to get great shots.” 

Most babies have routines, but they sure aren’t suited to the make-the-minutes speed of a film shoot. The trick, Lowthorpe says, is to make the mother feel as comfortable as possible. This means ensuring she and her child have a quiet, private place to relax off-set, and that the on-set vibe is as calm and concentrated as can be for the 15 minutes at a time that little ones are allowed to be on camera. 

Lowthorpe has had more filming experience with babies than many: she was the lead director on the very first series of Call the Midwife, and tiny newborns were common on set. “We had a consultant midwife, Teri Coates, who helped us film the birth scenes and also took care of the babies and their parents off set. So if you are doing anything complicated I would always get someone like Teri to be there for the welfare of the mother and baby.” 

I personally can’t think of anything lovelier than having a baby on a set, and I have gladly lent mine to a creative partner on more than one occasion. These small humans are real people, and their presence infects the cynical, tired adults around them. “I remember the crew on Call the Midwife being reduced to tears in some scenes because of the awe a newborn baby can inspire in us as human beings,” says Lowthorpe.  

“In the past, we just didn’t show mothers breastfeeding, let alone proper birth scenes. Mother and babies were hidden away. Now I think it’s so important to continue to make nursing mothers part of the fabric of film and TV. They should be fully visible.” 

And they should be contemporary. The Glorias, Misbehaviour, Shadow in the Cloud and Call the Midwife – they’re all stories from the past. It is hard to find modern nursing mothers in movies, unless the narrative is explicitly about mothering. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; society needs thousands more movies about non-monstrous mothering. 

Charlize Theron’s portrayal of a depleted mother-of-three in Tully, for example, is one for the ages. Diablo Cody’s raw 2018 story about postpartum depression is a hard watch if you have shared any aspect of this experience, but the film is also extraordinary in its depiction of the other parts of nursing: the leaks, the engorgement, the pumping, the blockages, the spills, the bottles, the bottles, the bottles. 

Writing, talking, and making art about breastfeeding is, naturally, charged with complex, deep, sometimes very painful feelings. 

Not every person who gives birth will breastfeed that baby, for so many reasons: choice, tongue-tie, adoption, surrogacy, hypoplasia, past surgery, past trauma, illness, chemo, postpartum depression, parental-leave limits (if they exist at all), an evil capitalistic plot to get certain demographics of mothers onto formula-feeding from day one, and, you know, just the day to day strength it takes to ignore other people’s stares and reckons in our society. 

As much as positive images of breastfeeding can have positive public health outcomes, it is also a gift when artists normalise the different experiences of all kinds of parents. In Julia Hart’s (seriously underrated) 2020 crime drama I’m Your Woman, Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, the childless wife of no-good gangster Eddie, who suddenly presents her with a baby and says it’s now hers. Eddie disappears, and an associate, Cal (Arinzé Kene), arrives to shepherd Jean and the child to safety. 

Amidst the nail-biting gangster stuff, there are deftly directed, beautifully wordless moments as Jean and Cal skirt around the question of breastfeeding this helpless orphan. When ‘natural maternal instincts’ fail to instantly materialise for Jean, Cal gently steps up with his paternal experience—and his sweet little finger. 

Yngvild Sve Flikke’s Ninjababy, an absolute smash at 2021’s SXSW, is equally kind, whilst also being very funny and very raunchy. Rakel (Kristine Thorp) finds she is pregnant. She very much does not want to be, and it’s too late to turn back. The film takes place across the course of the pregnancy, as Rakel and her hilarious cartoon unborn try to decide what happens next. 

No spoilers about who parents the child after birth, but the arrangement is such that there’s no hurry, and there is a stunningly compassionate nursing scene in which Rakel has full autonomy and no judgement. 

Another 2021 comedy, Nikole Beckwith’s Together Together, follows Ed Helms as solo dad-to-be Matt, whose baby is being carried by a surrogate, Anna (Patti Harrison). In one scene, Matt earnestly practises wearing a bottle-feeding vest. It is a moment that in any other film would be played for huge yuks, but it is carried with care by Beckwith and Helms. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter who feeds the baby, it matters that the baby is fed. All of the different ways in which precious tiny humans get sustenance are small acts of everyday heroism. 

But I also want full-noise Charlize Theron in a Humvee, mid-action, yanking up a tank top so her baby can feed, before taking out some more bad guys on her way to save the world. 

Gemma Gracewood is the editor-in-chief of Letterboxd. She likes to watch, and make, movies and television shows that surprise and delight. 

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