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TV Review: Stand Up to Infertility

15 February 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1083

A question to all men: Do you feel your fertility is linked to how much of a man you are?

As absurd as the above question sounds, this was one of the main themes in BBC's new documentary: Rhod Gilbert's Stand up to Infertility. This overly falsified rhetoric reflects a very dangerous and scientifically ludicrous misconception that seems to echo monolithically across the globe. To think, with all our achievements in inclusion and diversity, we still cannot get men to talk, let alone talk about their infertility.

Infertility affects one in seven couples, and 50 percent of these cases are due to male factor infertility. It is estimated that globally, 2.5-12 percent of men are infertile or suffer from some form of male factor infertility. This is a significant number of men in the world, yet fertility treatment seems to be almost exclusive to women. The documentary tactfully exasperates, with a blend of humour and irony, that in the UK, there are 8000 registered gynaecologists and obstetricians, and less than 200 registered andrologists (the gynaecologist equivalent for men). For a condition with an equal prevalence amongst heterosexual couples, there are 40 doctors specialised in treating one sex, to every doctor specialised in treating the other. If there are not enough doctors specialising in male fertility, perhaps then, the reason men aren't talking about their fertility, is that no one else is.

The brave comedian Rhod Gilbert goes public about his infertility in a documentary on national television. He has also addressed the topic elsewhere, in a stand up special, in a shopping centre in Cardiff, and by becoming the face of his awareness campaign and website Him Fertility (which, by the way, is packed with very useful information on male infertility). In doing so, he opens the door for others to come forward with their stories and their experiences, to normalise talking about infertility. 

Gilbert dons his superhero persona and decides to do what many others before him have not dared to do. Through the eyes of our hero, the documentary takes us along on his infertility journey and the struggles he and his wife face as a couple. It's human, it's endearing, but to be honest, most of all, it's funny, and that is where it hits the nail on the head. 

Ricky Gervais once said: comedy is where the mind goes to tickle itself. And when a comedian talks about infertility, there is little that can be left to the imagination. This is definitely the documentary's strongest point. It didn't take itself too seriously, as you would expect from a documentary about infertility, but in doing so, it elevated itself to essential media on the topic.  

Through Gilbert's comedic delivery and approachable demeanour, he presents as a very relatable protagonist, who goes to fertility shows, running into Progress Educational Trust's very own deputy director, Sandy Starr, who gives him some of the most sound and relevant pieces of advice anyone can give in these settings; that is, to take everything he hears at the show with a pinch of salt, as he hands him a salt sachet and sets him on his way to explore a branch of medicine often accused of treating patients as customers.

Gilbert also talks to experts about male infertility, and approaches strangers in a shopping centre wearing a banner with sperm on it, trying to get them to talk about male fertility (which makes for some comical interactions). More profoundly, Gilbert starts a focus group in a pub for men suffering from male factor infertility to come together and talk. Here, the idea of men being supposed protectors and providers in a relationship, yet failing to give their partners a child stands out as a significant theme men struggle with in their dealing with infertility.

Through these interactions, the question I posed at the beginning of this review starts to make sense, as Gilbert peels back the layers of the stigma surrounding male infertility and its relation to pride and masculinity. Maybe it all does come down to how society has construed definitions of the terms 'male pride' and 'manliness', but in this documentary comedy allows Gilbert to reach out to his audience, to educate and engage others in conversations about male infertility.

Given that male infertility has increased considerably over the past four decades, likely as a result of our lifestyles and eating habits, this timely documentary and its resultant campaign can kick start the fight against this stigma and start the conversation about male infertility.

Rhod Gilbert: Stand Up to Infertility
BBC One |  25 January 2021
21 June 2021 - by Dr Helen Robertson 
A historic lack of investment in targeted treatments means that male infertility hasn't received the airtime that's needed to raise awareness, open up the conversation, or provide therapeutic options that focus on the cause...
16 November 2020 - by Will Spilsbury 
In 2019 BBC Three started filming a documentary about male fertility – specifically that of Love Island star Chris Hughes, and his elder brother Ben...
8 June 2020 - by Ahmed Amer 
'You just need to produce your sample in the pot.'...
6 January 2020 - by Richard Clothier 
As a former fertility treatment patient, I campaign to end the IVF treatment postcode lottery and I help to run a fertility support platform for men...
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