Surprise Pregnancies, Sensationalized T.V., and the Unruly Body

I have just discovered TLC’s show I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.

The program is in its fourth season and all the while I never knew about its hyper-sensationalized, dramatic stories of bodily terror. After reading viewer comments and several blogs and articles about the program, I decided to watch a few episodes for myself. My first question was why is I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant so outrageously popular? What has created its following, specifically amongst mothers? This blog post is my attempt to understand and uncover “why.”

After you have seen several episodes, you notice the emergence of a strong, repetitive structure: a woman recounts the somewhat normal moments leading up to her delivery, dramatic music plays, shocked faces are shown, and the subsequent narrative results in the arrival of an unexpected baby. These tactics harvest tension. We, as viewers, are wrapped into the horror-esque narratives we witness and this is exactly what the program feeds upon: shock, mouths most certainly agape.

Perhaps the narrative of the unruly body, the abject occurrence of the sudden birth, results in the physical reaction of shock that most viewers glean from the show. Arguably, it is what they come back for. I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant presents us with bodies that defy medicine: a woman who has regular periods throughout her pregnancy, another who delivers a baby despite having her tubes tied, and yet another who delivered even though she remained on birth control throughout her pregnancy. The commercials frame the show with the question, “How can a woman not know she’s pregnant?” This question beckons viewers, drawing them into the narrative. These bodies defy the women that inhabit them; their signs are illegible and undetectable. An event that hegemony dictates should be planned arrives without notice. Such unruliness speaks to a lack of control, and thus, the terror that both audiences and the women delivering experience.

What is this fascination, this draw to witnessing the astounding? Is it the secret desire to see someone else’s fate? To see the unexplainable? I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant is feeding a continual desire in viewers to see an unthinkable drama, a desire which says with a quiet, low voice, “I’m glad that’s not me” or in a more terrified voice, “could I find myself in the same circumstances?”

In these moments of bodily rupture, of pain and confusion, viewers follow the women and their stories before breathing a sigh of relief, or perhaps one of discomfort, and turning off their televisions.

A year old Time article points to the aspects of freakery apparent in TLC’s program. They also reflect on the humor that the show evokes in viewers. The author states that the reason for the shows great following among mothers is the envy that it prompts: “Viewers’ horror and repulsion may hide a perverse envy … the women of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant didn’t deny themselves of anything during those nine months, had few if any symptoms and still wound up with perfect-looking babies!”

While this discussion of envy is indeed an interesting one, I am not sure if there is a definitive reason why people (myself included) are drawn into these scenarios. Maybe it is because amidst the chaos, the unruly body, the shocking, traumatic delivery, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant presents viewers with a healthy smiling baby in the arms of a happy, smiling mother. The show presents us with an idealized, though surreal, moment. Ultimately, motherhood, regardless of its form, is presented as ideal. Surprise or not, it is presented for consumption.

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4 Responses to Surprise Pregnancies, Sensationalized T.V., and the Unruly Body

  1. RK says:

    Interesting. As someone who actually is pretty paranoid about unprepared pregnancies, I found this show really hard to watch. It’s intriguing how all of those surprise pregnancy stories end on a positive note – the show always has to remind us that even though these women were not prepared in the least, they became great parents once the baby arrived.

    Our society also has an unhealthy obsession with the pregnant body – it treats pregnant bodies as almost public property (many pregnant women have to endure strangers asking about their bodies/fetuses, as well as random belly-touching). The obscene number of “bump watch” sections of tabloids attest to that. Shows like “I didn’t know I was pregnant” arouse so much interest because these women somehow managed to fly under the tight surveillance of our society.

  2. Yes, absolutely. One of my friends told me that for her, the show reinforces the idea that whether you planned it or not, motherhood is a woman’s role. Perhaps this is why the show ends on a positive note.

    About our social obsession with the pregnant body, you are absolutely right. This show does add to the present discourse surrounding pregnancy. In many respects, these women avoided our culture’s social and medical surveillance. Viewers want to know how such a thing is possible.
    Thanks for your comments!

  3. A comment via Julie Huey:
    I think there’s another element to the show, though not as obvious, but women who disregard their bodies, who disregard pain, who remain strangely detached from the the communication their bodies are making with them because we’re told, even before pregnancy, that the things happening with our body (menstrual cycles, menopause, discharge, pains – physical or emotional, etc) are things we should cover up and ignore. When we suffer from pains it’s a form of hysteria. We’ve made up the pains in our minds. So doctors ignore us or we ignore the calling of our bodies screaming for assistance because we’ve been told to shut up.

  4. A comment via Jayna Zimmelman:
    i like it! and i’ve had similar questions about this show and other TLC programs that focus on the body as a location of “freakish” difference. there is, absolutely, a kind of horror to the show – the out of control body that produces a baby against one’s knowledge and/or will . . . a horror that is then relieved by the image of a smiling mother holding a miraculously perfect baby . . . what IS this text? my suspicious conspiratorial mind sees something a bit nefarious here. women, who DIDN’T want to be pregnant, women who resist motherhood, who have it put upon (within!) them (a form of violation?) and who, once it has occurred, “realize” that this is a good and “natural” thing – nature knows best, biological determinism wins. silly women (and isn’t there a sort of contempt provoked in the mind of the viewer that whispers the question, how “dumb” do you have to be to not “know” that you are pregnant?) and their attempts to control their reproductive bodies lose.

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