Birth Control and the Media: Sanger, Disney and Beyond
Manon Parry had me at her first-paragraph revelation that Donald Duck was the star of Family Planning, a 1967 film produced and promoted globally by Walt Disney. Who knew? What was that about? Her meticulously researched book, Broadcasting Birth Control, is jam-packed with surprising historical tidbits on ways the media has been used by the family planning movement since its inception. In a quest to transform the subject of birth control from a private to a public discussion, proponents have taken many odd turns with many odd partners. Donald Duck and Disney are only the tip of the iceberg.
Parry, however, is after something much more serious than a book of funny anecdotes. She seeks to chart a history of the birth control movement’s extensive engagement with mass media by mining what she calls “the rich and relatively unexplored archive of media materials and archival documents describing their production and use.” She wants to shed light on how increasingly sophisticated and professional media campaigns began not only to reflect the movement’s goals but also to shape those goals. Often, she maintains, this happened in ways that strayed from the family planning movement’s roots in female sexual liberation.
Parry takes on the significant question of whether birth control advocates, by using mass culture to build broad support, may have distorted the original mission of empowering women into one of controlling them. This question has been asked before in more general terms by BBC executive John Cain, who pondered whether educational broadcasting was geared towards “informing people with a view to encouraging them to make up their own minds or [whether it was] in the business of persuading and pressuring people to change their way of life.”
But I get ahead of the story Parry tells quite eloquently in what is part academic treatise and part whodunit. She begins, as one would expect, with the mother of the movement, Margaret Sanger, who put publicity at the center of her approach. Ellen Chesler’s definitive biography, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, examined Sanger’s brilliant use of media. Parry’s laser focus on the role of social issue films in those nascent years of the industry gives full credit to Sanger, but shows she was not alone.
Standing beside Sanger—and the 1917 silent move she produced, starred in and aptly titled Birth Control—are pioneering women filmmakers we’ve never heard of before. Lois Weber was a respected Hollywood director when she created pro-birth control films with much more provocative titles such as Where Are My Children? and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. These films, like Sanger’s, courted controversy that could then be used to increase public awareness about how women could control their fertility and, by extension, their lives.
Parry carefully guides the reader from these early movie-making years to show how leaders of the birth control movement skillfully found ways to work within each new medium—from film to radio to early television—usually provoking outrage then censorship then awareness. For example, much of the content dealing with contraception from Weber’s film, Where Are My Children? was cut before reaching audiences in Pennsylvania, even though this move was challenged by the Supreme Feature Film Service, owner of the rights in some states. “Despite the controversy (or perhaps because of it),” Parry says, the film was well-received by film critics, audiences and most censorship boards, and it was one of several films that “contributed to the growing dialogue on the topic” of making birth control available across social classes.
Weber and Sanger were among the courageous, inventive, persistent pioneers who deserve our deep respect. But one of Parry’s most telling critiques is that “as they negotiated for access to public platforms for promoting their cause, advocates minimized the connections between contraception and sexual freedom. In this way, the medium helped shape the messages of the movement: campaigners for legalized birth control (and, later, family planning) gradually deemphasized sex.” That early shift will come back to haunt us decades later.
In the meantime, Parry shows us how the birth control movement is present at each stage of media evolution. The twists and turns from frank public discussion to court battles over the right to talk about the facts of family planning are all news to me. Small historical details stand out as clear evidence of why this fight is so important and how insidious censorship can be. In the 1950s, growing limits on what could be said or shown about birth control spread to one of the most popular American TV comedy shows of all time—I Love Lucy. Many of us remember from original broadcasts or countless re-runs how Lucille Ball mined her 1952-53 real-life pregnancy for comedy gold. But were any of us aware that the word “pregnant” was never used once on that show? It had been banned from the air by the Federal Communications Commission.
Despite such rigorous censorship, the increasingly popular Planned Parenthood Federation of America was confident about using the nation’s television screens to broadcast its message. It supplied 200 affiliates with TV and radio spots in addition to traditional print materials. Planned Parenthood even took advantage of the 1965 World’s Fair to staff a booth that proved extremely popular for visitors. In the same year, 75 percent of Catholics supported birth control information for anyone who wanted it, up from 53 percent two years earlier.
One new heroine I discovered in this book is Martha Stuart, a pioneering filmmaker who used film and TV to destigmatize abortion and promote feminist views. I’d heard of Stuart but never understood how truly trailblazing she was in the 1970s. Parry reveals that as Planned Parenthood became out of step with the goals of the growing women’s liberation movement, Stuart left the organization to create a TV series called Are You Listening? in which she showcased real-life stories of black women on welfare, prisoners and the police. In 1974, Stuart produced Women Who Have Had an Abortion, bringing them on TV to talk with each other, not with experts and pundits. These media “speak outs” made abortion an issue many women were talking about in public, and on TV, for the first time.
At that same moment, Parry argues, Planned Parenthood “eradicated sexuality from its media messages.” Faced with broadcast TV conventions on what could be advertised and how, “the organization took a particularly timid approach…. Appeals to emotion, graphic imagery, references to sexuality and humor were all sacrificed, despite their value for persuasive communications.” And, most importantly, when the US government became involved in global birth control campaigns, the same approach was taken by international family planning groups.
When I was a communications novice first engaged by the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, I saw first-hand what Parry calls “the terrible consequences of this shift.” As a white privileged male transformed into a feminist by women’s health advocates from Asia, Africa and Latin America in the 1990s, I am intensely interested in Parry’s quest to reveal why and how this shift in messaging occurred. That she succeeds in this endeavor is testimony to the quality of her research and to the trust in her insights she carefully builds throughout the book.
Another new hero I met within its pages is Miguel Sabido, who proposed the idea of a prosocial telenovela in Mexico and developed six TV soap operas for Televisa from 1975 to 1982 based on his entertainment-education strategy. The impact of these telenovelas on family planning in Mexico was enormous, with 2,500 women registering as volunteers in the national family planning program, inspired by one idea suggested in the show. The Mexican government determined that after the program aired, contraceptive sales increased 23 percent in one year. The section on the innovative use of media in promoting family planning in Latin America and other regions of the world is compelling reading. We even learn how that animated cartoon called Family Planning, staring Donald Duck, was called ‘‘‘the most effective of all the Motivational films’ of its time.” I’m still puzzling over that claim.
The one place where Parry’s narrative falls short is in the 21st century. After such a detailed examination of the 20th century, she fails to delve as deeply into how media is being used effectively, or not, by birth control advocates today. I would love to hear her analysis of TV reality shows that purport to deal with real-life issues, such as 16 and Pregnant, especially given a recent study that says the show may have helped educate teens and encourage the use of birth control in a significant way. In addition, while the true impact of the Internet on behavior cannot yet be fully known, I’d hoped for more than a few pages of relatively light analysis. Much more needs to be examined, and this researcher is the one to do it.
Manon Parry has done a major service to the family planning field by capturing the history of its early engagement with the media and the evolution of that engagement with all the pitfalls and challenges along the way. Any serious communications professional or women’s rights advocate needs to read and learn from this excellent book. Now if only some publisher or university will give Parry the resources to fully tackle the field’s transition into the first decade of the 21st century, I will be the first to get my hands on a copy.
Broadcasting Birth Control: Mass Media and Family Planning
Dr. Manon Parry
(Rutgers University Press, 2013, 210 pp)