Joanna Weiss

‘Babies’ gives the West a spanking

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 25, 2010

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ACCORDING TO A string of cheery TV news reports, a big pastime for women across the country is a group trip to the multiplex, wee ones in tow, for a moms-and-kids screening of “Babies.’’

Thomas Balmes’s documentary is, indeed, catnip for mommy-and-grandma types: a beautifully shot vérité look at four infants around the world. This isn’t just 82 minutes of cute babies, but of carefully cast and gorgeously costumed multicultural babies, hailing from tribal Namibia and rural Mongolia as well as the light-and-wire-lined streets of Tokyo and San Francisco. It’s proof that we’re all human, a Putumayo statement about the smallness of our world.

And it’s an exercise in self-flagellation, which is why “Babies’’ might just be the meanest and most senseless “feel-good’’ movie of the year.

The critics’ line on “Babies’’ is that it doesn’t judge; its languorous scenes simply show the world from the babies’ perspective, watching as they wallow in their parents’ unconditional love. Sounds nice, but any movie that’s been edited makes judgments by definition, and in “Babies,’’ most of those judgments come at the expense of the Westernized kids. Worst off is baby Hattie, the stand-in for Americans, a blonde girl from San Francisco whose parents try to expose her to other cultures. At one point she fingers an Asian-looking mobile, and the suggestion is clear: Silly Californians, trying to be part of the world.

Never mind that faux global awareness is the very point of the film. And never mind that Hattie’s parents actually live in Oakland; San Francisco is a better metaphor for the hippie-dippie, high-tech, overprotective parenting set that this movie takes every opportunity to mock. Something else you never learn from the film: Hattie had a home birth just like baby Ponijao, who took her first breaths on the dirt floor of a primitive Namibian hut. But we first glimpse Hattie in a hospital, hooked up to beeping and hissing equipment.

How sad, the film suggests, that we Westerners are so addicted to intervention. We fret over seatbelts, while baby Bayar rides home from the Mongolian hospital on the back of a motorcycle. We help our kids get rid of the gross parts of the banana, while Ponijao lies face down in a stream and laps the water. We read parenting books, the horror — yep, that’s Hattie’s mom again, flipping through the pages of “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.’’

Poor Hattie is portrayed as the victim of this eagerness, hamstrung compared to babies who are left unattended and free. Hattie plays with a Fisher Price plastic farm set; Bayar, half-naked in Mongolia, wanders alone among a herd of cows. Hattie gets rubbed with a lint brush; Ponijao chews a bone covered in dirt. Worst of all, Hattie is forced to attend a hippy-dippy music class where the facilitator chants, “The earth is our mother, she will take care of us.’’ At which point Hattie gets up from her own mother’s lap and heads determinedly for the door.

That’s the movie’s biggest punch line, but it’s also the best critique: the earth is not, in fact, taking care of everyone equally. Yes, helicopter parents are easy to malign; the luxury of wealth and health gives us time to overthink, makes us susceptible to wipe warmers and crawling-baby knee pads and services that charge obscene rates to childproof homes to within inches of their lives.

But the idea that there’s no difference among kids across the world is oversimplistic and wrong. Sure, life in Namibia looks fun when you’re 8 months old. But what are the prospects for Ponijao’s health? What does she have to look forward to? When your daughter is 20, whose life would you rather she have: Ponijao’s or Hattie’s?

That doesn’t mean we should Westernize every kid, or that we can. But some Western interventions, in the name of health, safety, and sanitation, aren’t bad things to export. And if we happen to be born where safety is an obsession and good health a likelihood — where we have the time and fortune to be able to wipe cat lint off our kids — we should be thankful, not embarrassed, for what we have.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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