“I don’t know when my vagina and my butthole are going to feel like two separate entities again, but I’m really looking forward to that.” So opines Hannah Horvath to her mother while naked in the bath after having her son Grover. And while the Girls finale skips the visuals of Grover’s actual birth in favor of flashing forward five months later, the audience is not left in the dark about baby Grover’s delivery.
Hannah had a vaginal birth.
The episode nods to the myriad ways that mothers are shamed for the choices they make, but the Girls finale nonetheless addresses what for me is The Big Question: the ambiguity of Grover’s arrival. “I’d be chasing you too, if my vagina wasn’t so busted from having a baby!” screams Hannah ― sans pants, naturally ― and we remember why in six years we have rarely been surprised by Hannah’s vagina.
In a show that has exposed (often literally) the ways that women are caged by social convention, mention of Hannah’s vaginal delivery is a very Girls-eque retort (being both puissant and pussy-centered) to the normalization of surgical delivery. Today, nearly one in three women delivers via cesarean section, making c-section the most common surgery performed in the U.S. And yet, women who deliver surgically have higher rates of risk, a longer period of recovery, and a bigger hospital bill. We would be joining the World Health Organization, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and other illustrious company in asking why U.S. women today are finding appeal in (or, at minimum, a lower level of resistance to) cesarean delivery despite the dangers it poses?
My research suggests that those same social conventions ― into which Girls has always swung a pickaxe in hopes of exploration and excavation ― may help in understanding why cesarean delivery has become such a jewel in the crown of today’s medicalized birth culture. We’ve long known that birth is not merely a physiological event, and I join quite a list of sociologists who have demonstrated that culture shapes childbirth in some remarkable ways. This isn’t to suggest that childbirth practices are somehow immune from the ever-shifting winds of insurance protocol and hospital policy, nor the punishing medico-legal environment that mars our approach to medicine. But I do wonder if there is some small sociological seam that has, as of yet, remained largely unexplored?
The question to which I keep returning is: Does growing up in our culture somehow prime women for surgical delivery? Do those early, fraught, body experiences (is it alarming that half of normal weight teenage girls see themselves as fat?) slowly accrete into something more sinister? Does growing up in our society mean that a woman comes to know her body as a nemesis, a foe? And does any of this body anxiety follow women into the delivery room to contour their experience of childbirth?
And, since we’re being ominous, I wonder sometimes too if the tyrannical norms of femininity also slip in through the hospital door. Does a lifetime of being good ― of being a girl ― shape a woman’s response to her doctor when s/he says it’s time for a cesarean? Because the last 20 years have seen cesarean delivery rise 53 percent, and now even doctors are asking why women go along with this stuff?
I wonder if, in Hannah’s vaginal delivery, Girls may have offered a possible anti-answer to that very question. Hannah was many things, but in her lack of body shame she was always an incongruous icon of femininity. As with so many things Girls over the past six years, I wonder if Hannah Horvath and her vagina have in some small way changed what it means to birth like a girl.