Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

Babies: The Movie

How representative of the world's cultures is the documentary "Babies?"

Almost from the moment the film was released, I was bombarded by queries from students, colleagues and friends: "Had I seen Babies and what did I think about it?" "Was it an accurate portrait of cross-cultural variation?" With all good intentions to satisfy their and my curiosity, I didn't actually see the film until I was on a flight to Madagascar last October. It seems that only while traveling at 900km/h was I able to slow down enough to take in a film.

Poster for Babies

Poster for Babies

First the facts. The documentary film is the work of French filmmaker Thomas Balmès and Studio Canal. The film records episodes in the first year of life of 4 babies from San Francisco, Tokyo, somewhere on the Mongolian Steppe and a remote area of Namibia. It was released in May 2010 and earned $7.3 million in its first two months of circulation. Its appeal arises from two factors-the babies!! and the excellent cinematography. Nearly every shot is framed by a baby and whatever else is in the vicinity or moving through the frame. So, in 75 minutes, you do begin to get a baby's perspective on the world.

I reviewed the film again last week for the benefit of a gathering of students. In the process, I paused it periodically to comment or reflect on aspects of culture that had been revealed. As in my classes, I tried to tease apart idiosyncratic, culturally patterned and universal aspects of childhood. The four cases are not particularly representative. The US and Japanese cases represent the modern elite: urbanized, educated, 2-parent, 1-child families. Lower class or slum communities (representing the fastest growing demographic in the world) were not represented. The Mongolian and Namibian cases are both nomadic herding cultures, leaving unrepresented foraging and farming as important subsistence types. How people make their living has an enormous bearing on the lives of children and accounts for much of the variability we can expect to see in any thorough comparison. Three of the four communities had access to modern, high-tech hygienic obstetrics care. I could only wish that this reflected the portion of the world's expectant mothers who had access to such care but it surely won't happen in my lifetime.

In at least one respect, the Japanese and US cases misrepresent the larger society they're drawn from and that is in showing fathers to be deeply involved with their new offspring. Father involvement with infants is extremely rare. The level shown here has been documented for only a single society in the world-the Aka pygmies in Central Africa. (1) Japanese fathers, whose work and leisure keep them from home, are not expected to participate in the lives of their children. And, government attempts to change that status quo have been a dismal failure. (2) Indeed, many seem to suffer from kitaku kyofu, an "allergic" reaction to their own homes. (3) The "new" fathers in Babies exemplify what the Swedes have (hopefully) called the "velveteen daddy phenomenon." (4)

The greatest anomaly of the film, for me was the extreme rarity with which mothers were shown to be working. One of the most important contributions of anthropology to the eradication of long-standing stereotypes was to demonstrate, through careful fieldwork, that women really are the breadwinners in most societies. It is only with the rise of plow agriculture and irrigation that men supersede women in their relative contribution to subsistence. (5) In Babies we catch a brief glimpse of the US mother in the kitchen, and of the Mongolian mother milking but, when we see women they are engaged in childcare or at ease with their offspring. A far more common scene would be one in which a mother treks home from a foraging or gardening expedition carrying her baby attached to her hip and a sack with her harvest on her back and, perhaps, a calabash with water or pile of firewood on her head. That is, women, almost universally, engage in infant care while doing something else or as a brief interlude in their labors.

A Himba woman, Mbapaa, and some of her children, nieces and nephews, stand befor

A Himba woman, Mbapaa, and some of her children, nieces and nephews, stand before her father (Katere)'s homestead.

On the other hand, mothers of young children are also likely to have helpers or "alloparents" and we do see evidence of shared childcare, especially in the Himba village in Namibia where mothers are looking after and nursing others' offspring and older girls are looking after their younger kin.

Aside from the biases, I really enjoyed the film for its ability to get inside the baby's world. The scenes of sibling rivalry in Mongolia and Namibia were delightful and characteristic. I also appreciated the striking contrast between the relative autonomy of the Mongolian and Himba children contrasted with the US and Japanese children. While the Namibian babies crawl in the dirt, tasting whatever they find, Hattie, the US baby, is confined to a sling like apparatus which keeps here more or less stationery and off the ground. If you enjoy babies, you'll enjoy the film.


1. Hewlett, B. S. 1991. Intimate Fathers: The Nature and Context of Aka Pygmy Paternal-Infant Care. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
2. Kingston, J. 2004. Japan's Quiet Transformation: Social Change and Civil Society in the Twenty-first Century. London: Routledge Curzon.
3. Jolivet, M. 1997.Japan: The Childless Society? The Crisis of Motherhood. London: Routledge.
4. Welles-Nyström, B. 1996. Scenes from a marriage: Equality ideology in Swedish family policy, maternal ethnotheories, and practice,' in Parents' Cultural Belief Systems: Their Origins, Expressions, and Consequences. S,. Harkness and C. M. Super (Eds), pp. 192-214. New York: The Guilford Press.
5. Boserup, E. 1970. Women's Role in Economic Development. London: Allen & Unwin.

 

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.

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