Media Week #3: “You Don’t Want to Drink? What are you, Pregnant?!”: Representations of Alcohol Use During Pregnancy on Television

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Eric Harding is a graduate student in the History Department at Laurentian University. He is also an Academic Writing Coach and a Research Assistant contributing to several projects on FASD and FASD prevention.

There are a variety of reasons why women may drink while pregnant. Misinformation or a lack of access to information, as well as the cultural norms of alcohol in society, may contribute to drinking while pregnant.

For example, research regarding the attitudes and beliefs of women indicates that up to one third believe that a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy can usually be safe. Additionally, women have reported getting their information about alcohol use and pregnancy from multiple sources, but media programs, such as television, as well as articles and magazines remain the largest reported sources.

While research on the role of television as a socialization agent is well established (e.g., how we acquire knowledge about culture to assimilate into society), there is limited research exploring the influence of portrayals of alcohol in popular television shows. Additionally, there appears to be no existing research examining the portrayals of alcohol use during pregnancy on popular television. However, these portrayals are important, given that television provides vivid insights into the lifestyles of influential and often aspirational characters, and research has suggested that alcohol on entertainment television can act as an alcohol educator.

The current on-going study explores television portrayals of alcohol consumption during pregnancy in mainstream prime time television. The shows were selected from the top 100 most popular cable and streaming service programs, as well as shows suggested by targeted social media posts. Notable examples include: How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office (U.S.), and The Mindy Project. Relevant content regarding portrayals of alcohol use, alcohol use and sex, and alcohol use before/during/after pregnancy was analyzed using ethnographic content analysis.

We identified that these television programs (N = 30) depicted highly problematic alcohol use in general, as well as alcohol use and pregnancy.

Alcohol use in general was commonly portrayed as:

  • Socially constructed notions of normalized alcohol consumption
  • Bar locations as a staple of popular television shows (e.g., Joe’s Bar, MacLaren’s Pub)
  • Frequent association of alcohol consumption and sex
  • Alcohol as the ‘go-to’ substance for both highs and lows (e.g., celebrations; break-ups)

Alcohol use and pregnancy was commonly portrayed as:

  • Misrepresenting the safety of alcohol consumption during pregnancy (e.g., How I Met Your Mother, The Mindy Project, Grey’s Anatomy)
  • Outright disagreeing with official recommendations (e.g., Black Mirror)
  • Commonality of drinking alcohol prior to pregnancy recognition (e.g., Chicago Med) or while trying to conceive (e.g., Friends From College)
  • Difficulty keeping a pregnancy private when not drinking socially (e.g., Friends, The Office, Grey’s Anatomy)
  • Storylines that villainize women who use substances during pregnancy (e.g., Private Practice, Law & Order)

While this project is still on-going, the results of this media analysis have several key implications:

  • There is a need to provide clear, consistent messaging about the risks of alcohol use during pregnancy as mixed, inaccurate representations of alcohol use during pregnancy in television programs may contribute to misinformation among pregnant women, their partners, and women of childbearing age
  • There is a need for further education concerning “safe” levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy among the general populace and the media
  • Popular culture television shows may provide a unique platform for Level 1 FASD prevention strategies to reach the general public and women of childbearing age

The results of this study generate interesting questions regarding the ethical responsibility (if any) of show-runners, writers, and directors when it comes to storylines that focus on alcohol use and alcohol use during pregnancy. Many storylines presented on mainstream television shows glorify excessive alcohol and substance use in general, which may in turn reinforce potentially harmful messaging about the safety of alcohol use and substance use in general, as well as during pregnancy.

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