The "Dummies" series is reborn on television.

The "Dummies" series is reborn on television.

The "Dummies" series is reborn on television.

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May 9 2002 3:46 PM

Stirrups for Sissies

The "Dummies" series is reborn on television.

Robin Etzler during her ultrasound at Mt. Sinai Hospital
A pregnancy ultrasound

In 1991, a bumblebee-colored paperback called DOS for Dummies—a smiley corrective to austere computer manuals—was published; it eventually sold 6 million copies. The wicked DOS operating system was the ideal subject before which readers could feel comfortably dumb. Faced with those cryptic C-prompts, who wouldn't want to confess to bewilderment? And presumably being a dummy about DOS—i.e., buying the book—also signaled that you weren't a smarty about DOS, and thus weird. You could read the book and just feel relaxed—and dumb.

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

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Thanks to the success of that book, there is now a dizzying range of topics before which to formally humble ourselves. The "For Dummies" series no longer sticks to artificial, recondite systems whose intricacies no one can be expected to intuit; it has moved to nearly every area of modern human experience. The series invites readers to be dumb about anything. The payoff is that one need no longer fear the arcana of aquariums, aromatherapy, art, beer, biology, blues, cats, champagne, diabetes, divorce, drums, England, Europe, ferrets, Judaism, NASCAR, opera, philosophy, quilting, red wine, relationships, success, weddings, or thyroids.

The idea of learning a subject from scratch—dropping the pretense that you know anything about any of it and just starting over—has enormous appeal. Nevertheless, as an accessory, the totemic yellow books can be hard on your confidence. It can't be easy, for instance, to imagine you're Jimi Hendrix when you've got Rock Guitar for Dummies under your arm.

Last week, the $120 million ego-blow empire crossed over into television with Pregnancy for Dummies, a four-part series on Discovery Health Channel. At least you don't have to be seen carrying it. The show's theme is not technology; it's nature, sex, and motherhood. Which are just the subjects about which a woman, elsewhere, might be forgiven for wanting to display some intuition—some mysterious, atavistic wisdom—or even some feminist authority. But not here.

On Pregnancy for Dummies, documentary Jane Does and a cartoon gal named Wendy compete to see who can get through a highly supervised pregnancy with as little pride and as much shallowness as possible. Consenting to be a "dummy" about pregnancy means drawing upon impressive reserves of humility, but the women throw themselves into the role—playing anxious, clueless hypochondriacs. Many segments of the endless, droning, washed-out show are pointlessly dedicated to countering myths that must have a narrow following in modern America. (If you step over a rope, you'll choke the baby.) Two other segments are dedicated to shopping—essentials for mama's special hospital suitcase and baubles for the baby's room.

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Presiding over this infantilizing setup are two obstetricians from New York's Mount Sinai Hospital: the sexy, camera-ready Dr. Joanne Stone, with very smooth skin and an equally smooth auburn blowout, and Dr. Keith Eddleman, a courteous simpleton. They are also the authors of the book Pregnancy for Dummies, which gets hard-core promotion throughout the show. With most of its ads merely plugging other Discovery Health shows, in fact, it seems clear that the new series will pay for itself chiefly by serving as an infomercial for Stone and Eddleman's book—and for the "Dummies" way of life. (That way of life will get a further hearing, as "For Dummies" plans to roll out several new shows based on its books in the coming year.)

Dr. Stone is a little terrifying. She's definitely not the dummy here. Instead, she's the talent, the expert, and the arch debunker. For her stand-ups, she wears sequins, tank tops, and immaculate cosmetics. She talks unflappably about hard science. When Dr. Stone saunters in to the examining rooms in cocktail clothes, she is elaborately solicitous of her patients. She is staunchly pro-amnio for women over 30, but she has nothing against midwives, and she's occasionally even permissive: She recommends a glass of wine to a woman with cramps. She also believes in waxing, that "A woman should feel good and be hair-free." But (Oh why does she bug me so?) there seems to be a note of tension and impatience in her "everything's going to be just fine." It's as if she has almost, almost had it with unlettered, hysterical patients and their squalling babies—and she'd rather be in TV.

Though they rarely appear together, Dr. Keith Eddleman is Dr. Stone's sidekick: a quiet, barely there partner who kicks in a word about sonograms or fontanels every now and then. His stand-ups are shot in a dismal hospital hall, next to a thatch of baby snapshots tacked to a bulletin board. When he's on camera, the dim video looks especially faded. His role is chiefly to start each hour with this mealy-mouthed explanation of the "Dummies" message: "We know you're not dumb. But some of the information you get about pregnancy can be scary."

Between their professorial scenes are vérité sequences of white women weathering pregnancy—especially emotional turbulence and medical tests. ("Neural-tube defects" seem to come up a lot, but only hypothetically; everyone's pregnancy goes fairly smoothly.) Much of the footage suggests that a modern-day "lying in" is not uncommon; many of the women spend nearly the whole show groaning on their living room sofas. Around them, blond wood gleams. Décor for expecting mothers seems to tend toward IKEA/Ramada. The women are not very interesting (except Kayla, who doesn't show up until the fourth hour, a severe New York woman married to an older-looking guy), but that may be the fault of the show. Viewers of Pregnancy for Dummies don't get the stories of the women's lives, their relationships, their families, their decisions to bear children. Instead, we hear their symptoms: Who's nauseated, rashy, forgetful, diabetic, moody. (Moody is everyone; there are a lot of tears.)

Anxious cartoon Mom-to-be
Anxious cartoon mom-to-be

Bookending the segments are animated sequences with sweet Wendy. Wendy is a cross between comic-strip Cathy and Daria of MTV; she wears Capri pants and halter tops, sits on a vintage green sofa, and has what looks like a Miró on her wall. She is always alone. And, like the others, she cries almost all the time. Except when she's squealing. In her Daria voice, she says things like: "My breasts are getting enormous. They're hard as rocks. And they hurt." A voice-over tells us that Wendy is "in control of her life. Confident. And rather opinionated!" And also that "She may remind you of someone you know."

Aha. That must be me—the viewer—the one for whom the show exists—the dummy. Well, here I am. Admittedly not very knowledgeable about pregnancy. But, for some reason, also not quite ready to submit to the geeky "Dummies" character as he pontificates about bloating. Nor am I ready to accept the twin ideas that technocrats have made everything, even birthing babies, as recondite as DOS, and that a "good" expert—a nifty pro like Dr. Stone or plain old uncle Dr. Eddleman—can set me straight.