Monday, April 30, 2012

"What Does a Lion Say?" Some Thoughts on Mediated Reality

My 17-month-old daughter has never seen a lion. We've been to the zoo a few times, but the lions weren't out, so she has no real-life experience with lions.

But if you say to her, "What's a lion say?" she will roar. Actually, she sort of whispers a roar. In her world, lions are tough, but very polite.

She will also point to the picture of the lion in her book of wild animals. This is a real photograph of an actual lion. Sometime she says "lie-in" and sometime she whisper roars at it. She also has some books  that feature drawn lions. Some of them are realistic depictions, and some of them are cartoonish characters that don't really resemble actual lions all that much. They might walk on their hind legs and wear bow ties, for instance.

Frick Lion 1
From Coco Mault
But she still points to them: "lie-in" "Rawr."

So, here is this child who has never seen a lion. She does not know where they live, how they smell, or how big they are. And yet she already has a concept of what a lion is and what a lion does.

She has a mediated reality of lion crafted through the media she consumes.

Bradley Gorham explains in "Stereotypes in the Media: So What?" that "our idea of what is ‘‘real’’ is constructed from the social world around us, a social world that includes different social groups, with different power relations between them, and the media." In other words, the formation of reality is not as simple as looking around at our actual physical surroundings and taking notice of them. Much (perhaps even most) of what we know about the world isn't taken in from our five senses, but by what other people tell us about the world. 

Citing Walter Lippman's understanding of how media affects consumers, Gorham goes on to say that "While we have many images about the world, very few of them are actually based on personal experiences. Consequently, much of what we 'know' about the world comes from agreeing with other people that a particular fact is 'true.'"

Think about it. There are plenty of facts that most of us are inclined to agree upon that we have no firsthand knowledge of. I won't dispute that George Washington was the first President of the United States, yet I only have other people's accounts of that to form that idea. If I relied only on my own perceptions, I'd have no way of knowing that George Washington was actually a person at all, let alone that he held that distinctive position. If someone asks me to envision a rainforest, I picture lush vegetation and exotic animal species, but I've never been in a rainforest. I've formulated this understanding through media: images in magazines, documentaries on television, interviews with people who have been there. 


I'm saying all of this because I've gotten a lot of pushback over the way that I analyze and respond to media. When I was outraged at Huggies portrayal of dads as incompetent, I was told that I was overreacting. I was told that it was "just a commercial" and that it was "meant to be fun." Many people couldn't see why I was so upset at this tiny piece of the cultural fabric. (Luckily, many of the people who recognized the problematic aspects of Huggies' campaign made sure their voices were heard. Huggies responded by tweaking their campaign in a way that is less stereotypical). 

More recently, I've been working to draw attention to some problematic commercials from Kraft MilkBites campaign. After writing a blog post on the topic and starting a petition, I've gotten much of the same criticism. 

After commenting on Kraft's Facebook page, I was told that I was contributing to the "PC culture" that is "killing America."

Someone else said, "There are SO MANY more pressing issues out there. If this is seriously what the world is coming to I'm going to go jump off a tall building. YOU are offending me."

People have told me that I "over think" things and take them "too far." Then they start with all the "justs."

It's just a commercial. It's just a snack bar. It's just a joke.

There is no "just a" piece of media. All those pieces add up. They are all part of the sum total of media pieces that we use to put together our reality. We learn how to think about the world around us from the media we consume. Just like my daughter has processed out some pieces of those images of "lion" to create a reality of what those images mean, we internalize these messages and use them to make decisions about how to react to the world around us. Those decisions include how to treat other people and, yes, how to treat ourselves.

Media messages matter.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Identity in Balance Guest Post: Jennifer on Lipstick and Daughters

Jennifer blogs over at mama nervosa, a site about motherhood, pop culture, feminism, and the aftermath of quitting grad school. 

Jennifer says, "I teach gender studies and liberal studies classes at a midwestern university; I have three daughters; my house is small and messy; I grow a garden with tomatoes and peppers for salsa and mint for mohitos."

Her submission in the Identity in Balance series is cross-posted from mama nervosa

I am a feminist mom, and I wear lipstick.

To be clear, I am not interested in the question of whether feminists can/should wear lipstick. We can; I do.

What I am interested in is what it means to put on lipstick in the morning while my 5 year old daughter stands next to me in the bathroom, wanting just a couple more minutes with me before I leave for work. I love these moments together. Sometimes I tickle her nose with a fluffy powder brush. Sometimes she asks me for lipstick kisses, and I press my lips to a tissue for her. I find them behind the couch, in her bed, tucked under her plate when I clean up the lunch dishes. She holds them tight for a few minutes at the start of the day, when she’s missing me, and then they drift out of her hands.

She loves princesses, sparkly shoes, tiaras. She loves dinosaurs, frogs, digging for worms. So far, so good. I worried that going to preschool would mean immersing her in gender roles and norms, but she hasn’t let on that she has much of a sense of toys or colors being only appropriate for boys or girls. But she has asked to wear makeup.

“Can I wear blue sparkly eye make-up to preschool?”

“Nope. It’s for grown-ups.”

She pointed out that one of the girls in her class wears blue sparkly eye make-up. “She’s not a grown up, Mom. She’s 4 like me.”

“Every family has different rules, sweetie, and in our family, blue sparkly eye make-up is for grownups, or maybe for dress up, but not for school.”  She wasn’t satisfied, but she let it go. I went to pack my laptop; she went to the toy room. She reappeared by my side with her Ballerina Barbie doll.
“Ballerina Barbie wears blue eye make up.”

“Yup. Is she a kid, or a grown up?”

“A grown up.”  Pause. Then the kicker. “But I bet if she had a little girl, she would let her little girl wear blue sparkly eye makeup to preschool.”

I could not have imagined that there would be a moment when my child would compare me to hypothetical mother Ballerina Barbie and I would come up short. But there we were.

We have tried hard to provide options, not restrictions when it comes to gendered toys: Barbie AND dinosaurs. But I wonder about what she is learning from the ways I perform gender and femininity, from my lipstick kisses. Is this how she sees beauty? Am I setting her up to see herself as inadequate because on some level, I see myself that way? How much will she think pretty matters?

I’ve lived a lot of different versions of femininity. I wear lipstick most days now, but I haven’t always; but this is the only me she knows. How much will any of it matter to her, my lipstick, my shaved legs, my unshaved armpits, my perfume? I know what beauty looks like and feels like in and on my own skin.  I want her to know those things too. I’m worried the lipstick will distract her. I’m worried she’ll waste time feeling ugly or unlovable, the way most teenage girls do, the way I did. I’m a feminist mom, and I wear lipstick, and I want to raise daughters who know they are gorgeous through and through.  

The Identity in Balance Writing Series is all about looking at how different parts of our lives and identities intersect. If you'd like to submit a post, you can find out more about the series here 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stereotypes and White Supremacy in KRAFT's MilkBites Campaign

I truly can't believe that I have to write what I'm about to write. Via a Sociological Images post by Bradley Koch, I found out about a KRAFT campaign for their new MilkBites, a snack that is "part milk, part granola."

The campaign uses an anthropomorphized version of the MilkBite, a little male MilkBite named Mel. The series of commercials, which appear to be both TV spots and online-only "diary" entries to better introduce Mel, set him up as a confused character who "has issues." Here's his introduction.

His very first line, as he looks in the mirror is, "Who are you? What am I?" It's followed by an introspective, "Maybe you're nothing," as he sits alone on a park bench. He tries to convince himself that's not true: "I'm valuable." But that positive assertion is immediately undercut when he is ignored by a waitress as he tries to get a refill. "Mel has issues" pops up on the screen, and then he's back in front of the mirror. "Are you milk? Are you granola? What are you?" he asks himself. There's a shot of him sitting on a couch and looking at a bowl of granola and a glass of milk (his parents, we'll find out in a future commercial), then he's back at the mirror. "I don't know." 

The campaign is clearly setting Mel up as a biracial character, and its using that biracialism as a source of anxiety and confusion. As Koch writes:
The problem with a marketing campaign like this is that it trivializes the experience of people with multiple racial/ethnic identities who are still often met with derision and confusion. The first ad above perpetuates the self-fulfilling prophecy about “confused” identities. As a child, I remember family members telling me that they didn’t have a problem with interracial couples but worried about how others might react to their children.
I completely agree that those are problematic aspects that are blatantly present in this campaign, but I'm also going to go one further. Not only does KRAFT use the construction of a biracial identity (of which there aren't really a lot of pop culture displays to begin with) in a way that perpetuates stereotypes about "confused" identities and the tragic mulatto myth, but--upon a closer examination of the commercials--I also think they're using that trope to perpetuate a narrative of white supremacy. 

I know that sounds extreme. I know I sound like one of those people who overanalyzes things with my own agenda firmly in place and then stretches them to my will. But I truly didn't seek this out. Really. Take a look at these. 

Mel Confronts His Parents for What They've Done to Him

Mel is upset with his parents. "You didn't think, did you? You didn't think what life was going to be like for me. Mom? Dad? For your son." Deep sigh. Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. How could Mel's parents do this to him? Mix races and create a conflicted, identity-less monstrosity? 

Even more frustrating is what comes after the voiceover about the product--"a snack like nothing else." Mel appears again, forlorn and lonely. "Find me in the dairy aisle." Pause. "Please," a weak and desperate plea. 

First, the announcer's claim that Mel is "like nothing else" negates any similarity that he has to either of his parents, a parallel that suggests individuals of multiple races have no connection to any of the cultural pieces that make up their heritage--a preposterous and insulting claim, in my opinion. 

Then, Mel's plea to "find him in the dairy aisle" can be read as a plea to identify him as white. After all, the "dairy" part of his heritage is the "milk," the white parent. In this way, Mel could be asking for people to allow him to "pass" in a way that suggests he sees the white part of his identity as superior. 

Think I'm reading too much into that? Well then you clearly haven't seen this next commercial. 

Mel Erases His "Granola" Heritage to Get Dates

Here, Mel's on a blind date with a conventionally attractive white woman. She cuts him off mid-sentence to say "I just have a question. Your profile said you were milk?" He affirms. Then she says, "You just look like granola." Mel says, "I get that a lot." He doesn't admit that he actually is part granola, and he immediately decides "this was a mistake." The woman tries to stop him as he walks off. "No wait. Please don't go. I'm . . . I'm kind of into it!"

Her assertion that she's "kind of into it" is exoticism. She's shocked to find herself sitting in front of someone who doesn't read as "milk" (white), but now that he's in front of her, she sees him as an opportunity to explore an "exotic" date. This is a problem that many people of color face when they're dating, and a problem that Suheir Hammad captures beautifully in this poem, "Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic":

Mel's Dating Reveals More White Preferences

This video in the "diary" series--which begins with the tagline, "I'm milk, I'm granola, but mostly I'm confused"--and Mel introduces himself to potential dates. Eventually he lays out his preferences. His "one big thing" is "blonde hair." He then corrects himself with "or brunette." The he lays out a hierarchy of hair color, "blonde, brunette, strawberry blonde, redhead." By privileging "blonde" above all else, Mel once again demonstrates his preference for white.

Mel's Self Loathing Turns Outward

In one of the "diary" videos (probably the most bizarre of the series), Mel uses a spork to go on a rant about miscegenation that echoes a lot of disturbing themes about race purity. 

Mel introduces us to his friend Spork and shares that they're similar because they're both "two things." He starts by listing Spork's positive attributes, including his uniqueness. But then he says, "I'm sorry. I can't do this." He then goes on a long rant about how the Spork is totally unnecessary and a recent "invention." He says there were two "perfectly good utensils" a "fork and a spoon" and that there's no need for a Spork who's "only in fast food restaurants." He sadly says "I don't get you" and then says "I don't get me." Though he eventually apologizes for putting his own insecurities off on Spork, his rant is pretty revealing. 

First Mel rejects calls for diversity appreciation by saying that he "can't do this" after giving lip service to Spork's "individuality." By talking about how there were two "perfectly good utensils," Mel calls up "separate but equal" ideology that maintains that it's not racist to insist that the bloodlines stay "pure" (a ridiculous narrative that's actually meaningless as race is a cultural--not biological--construction). He then falls back into the now familiar trope of the tragic mulatto, claiming that his biracialism has left him unable to fit into any group. "They're gonna say you're not a fork, you're not a spoon," he warns Spork. He's trying to convince himself that he has an identity, but the commercial ends with little hope. 

Bottom Line

These commercials outrage me. As the mother of a biracial daughter and a white woman married to a black man, I am frustrated with narratives that suggest people who "mix" are irresponsible and unconcerned with their children's well-being. But even more than that, I am absolutely sick and tired of white supremacy narratives cropping up everywhere. This is a commercial for a breakfast snack, for crying out loud! Do we really have to racialize that?!

This is not to say that I don't think race should be portrayed in pop culture. I am not of the "colorblind" camp. Of course race is an issue, and it would be ridiculous to pretend that it's not. But part of the reason race is an issue is because of campaigns like this one, campaigns that perpetuate stereotypes and marginalize people who don't neatly fit into preconceived categories.

I think it is immensely important that we call this type of narrative out when we see it. I know that people are going to say it's "just" a commercial, but that's how stereotypes work. There's no one, big, overarching thing that we can destroy to fix racism. Racism is an insidious presence that entangles us through multiple avenues, many of which are subtle and easy to overlook. This KRAFT campaign is an example of that, and I think we have a responsibility as ethical consumers to be conscious of that.

Boycott KRAFT

I find this campaign unacceptable. It perpetuates damaging stereotypes about multiracial people and a narrative of white supremacy. I will not be buying any KRAFT products as long as this campaign continues. 

If you feel the same, tell KRAFT that this is unacceptable.

You can post on their Facebook page for MilkBite or tweet them at @kraftfoods.

Edit: If you agree, please sign this petition telling Kraft to stop this campaign and consider their messages more carefully in the future.

Update 5/13: Like the Facebook page "Kraft MilkBite: Say NO to #TragicMel"
Use #TragicMel on Twitter to share your thoughts on the campaign and to get updates.

Entertainment/Social Activism: What Dave Chappelle and David Simon Can Teach Us (or Learn)

I'm writing a paper about Dave Chappelle. Actually, to be accurate, I'm writing my second paper about Dave Chappelle. The first one was a textual analysis of some of Chapelle's Show most racially-charged material. Dave Chappelle walked off of his show (and away from a $50 million contract) during the filming of the third season. In interviews later, he cited that a staff member laughed "the wrong way" during the filming of a sketch about racist pixies. He called his work "socially irresponsible" and lamented on Oprah that he didn't fully consider the way people would "use" his work.

In that first essay, I used Wayne Booth's understanding of the duck/rabbit metaphor to examine Chappelle's claims that his work was socially irresponsible.

Booth maintains that we can see the above image as a duck or we can see it as a rabbit, but once we see that it can be either duck or rabbit, it ceases to be a representation of either one. From that point forward, we can only see it as an optical illusion.

Similarly, Chappelle's questioning of his material's social responsibility questions whether his work (which frequently relied upon parodying racial stereotypes) was funny because it ridiculed the stereotypes into absurdity or functioned as reinforcement that drew laughs at the disparaged group's expense. This is also known as the Archie Bunker question: does showing racism in humorous popular culture work to expose and eradicate it, or does it work to reinforce and normalize it?

But here's the thing: it's going to do both. I know this hurts. It hurt Dave Chappelle so much that he fled to Africa without even telling his wife where he was going and hid out while the American media speculated on his mental stability and potential drug use. Some of your audience members are going to see the duck (reinforced racial stereotypes that support their own racism); some of your audience members are going to see the rabbit (lampooned racial stereotypes that offend/disgust them). But some of your audience members are going to see both, and this is where social commentary takes place.

But you can't control your audience. You have to take those who see the duck right along with everyone else. If you don't, you don't reach anyone.


David Simon recently responded after he gave some heart-felt criticism of people who he says are using his show The Wire the wrong way. I love his response. It is intelligent, passionate, and demonstrates a man who cares about his art and his art's impact.

But it also worries me.

It worries me for the same reason that Chappelle's departure worries me. It's not that I don't think Chappelle made the right choice. If he was tormented by what was happening on the set of the show, he was right to follow his ethics and get out. But I, like many other people I know and have read, saw Chappelle's Show as a powerful force that could do some good. I saw it deconstructing racial stereotypes in a medium that was accessible. I took part in conversations sparked by the show, and they were good conversations--conversations where people questioned their privilege, confronted their prejudices. You know, the type of conversations that suggest people can change.

But that's apparently not what Chappelle got to see. Chappelle was faced with hordes of fans screaming "I'm Rick James, bitch!" At one live performance, he went off on his fans:
You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you're not smart enough to get what I'm doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.
I bet they just laughed at him.

I can't help but notice the similarities between Chappelle and Simon. Chappelle laments people screaming meaningless taglines at him, and Simon laments bracketology over the best character and fan sites devoted to which season is best. In both cases, fans have boiled down their intelligent, thoughtful commentary into sound bites and platitudes.

And both of them are trapped by their industries. They work in television, and television is consumed by the masses, masses who want to be entertained. As Simon explained:
I know there’s a low end.  There’s always a low end.  And as an apostate reporter taking a check from the entertainment industry, I’m certainly not entitled to any illusions about what the low end can be.  A more calculating fellow would withdraw.  He’d make some television, take the check and tell everyone that they’re right:  Omar is the bestest.  He’d say thanks for thinking so, then go hang out by the kidney-shaped pool with the rest of the people we overpay to keep us entertained.
But maybe we can take that same idea and spin it around, look at it through a different perspective.

They're paid to entertain; without the element of entertainment, they wouldn't get the money to put forth these creations at all.  This fan base, the ones who are merely entertained, the ones who are "misusing" this socially relevant and intelligent commentary are actually providing the means for it to exist. And once it has the means to exist, it can reach the segment of the audience you're really aiming for.

That's not to say that I don't see why the artists are annoyed. I get it. But I'm worried that if they focus too much on trying to manage the audience (which is, I'm fairly certain, impossible) that they'll stop creating at all. Chappelle has been largely absent from the mainstream stage since his departure from Chappelle's Show, and I mourn that loss. I don't want to see other socially conscious, risk-taking artists lose hope.

For every fan who is making a bracket of whether Stringer is better than Bubbles, there's a fan who is having a conversation about the drug war. Okay, maybe there's one fan having a conversation about the drug war for every ten fans making brackets, but--and this is the important part--that's still a lot of people!

And, perhaps most importantly, putting these difficult, abstract social problems into concrete, accessible pop culture texts allows the people who do get it to talk about it more easily with people who don't get it yet but might get it in the future. These artists are giving people tools. Like any tool, it sometimes won't be used the way it's best suited. Sometimes someone's going to bang in a nail with the handle of a screwdriver, but that doesn't mean we should stop making screwdrivers.

"Just wrap this around your leg a few times. It should totally stop the bleeding."
Just as I said in a previous post that cruel online comments shouldn't keep people from writing on the internet, fans who oversimplify complex narratives and ignore commentary for entertainment's sake shouldn't keep brilliant artists from producing their works.

Of course insane trolls who write in all caps and sling racial epithets like they're pixie dust are going to stand out more than carefully-crafted responses on blogs. Of course fans who shout "I'm Rick James, bitch!" at live performances are going to get more attention than ones who are having serious conversations about racism and society back in their living rooms. Parts of the audience may be quieter, but that's because we're thinking. Please don't stop giving us things to think about. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Is Motherhood the "Hardest Job in the World"?

I'm about to say something that I'm sure is going to step on some toes. I'm sorry, but this is important to me. If you want to tell me I'm wrong, feel free, but please hear me out first.

I just watched the P&G ad for the London 2012 Olympics.

There's a lot to like here. The way that the stories traverse both time and space in such a short window is impressive. The music and sparse use of dialogue are striking. The emotions come across as sincere, and all those moms watching their babies grow into successful world champions made me tear up. 

At the end, the commercial declares "The hardest job in the world, is the best job in the world. Thank you, Mom."

I want to disclaim that I'm not criticizing this commercial, per se. (Side note: I am going to criticize the comma between "Thank you" and "Mom," which is either unnecessary or indicates that "Mom" is thanking us for giving her the opportunity to do the hardest job in the world--a totally different message from thanking Mom for doing it. Then again, the comma between "world" and "is" is also unnecessary). In fact, I think that this is a more positive display of the "hardest job in the world" trope than just about any other one I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot. They pop up on social media feeds pretty often, and I'm sure you've seen images like this one:

We've also seen this theme emerge in the political Mommy Wars after the Rosen-Romney dust-up. Mitt Romney himself said, "There is no tougher job than being a mom." [Edit: The source I read wrongly attributed this to Romney, but it was Obama who said that line. Romney said "all mothers are working mothers" and supporters of his campaign have been spreading the message that mothering is the hardest job following Rosen's comments].

The thing that bothers me is that this message is so positive that we're slow to question its true impact. Mothers often feel that the work they do (and it's a lot of work) isn't valued. This message seems to answer that call and give credit where credit is due. But does it really? What's at stake by positioning motherhood as the "hardest job in the world," and is it worth the price?

The impact that the rhetorical construction of mothering as the "hardest job in the world" has on parenting is three-fold: 1) It sets up a definition of motherhood that alienates women who don't fit those narrow confinements. 2) It creates a standard of "best" that leaves mothers constantly striving to do better with no hope of being satisfied with their performances. 3) It causes defensiveness that distracts us from collaboration and policy-level advocacy. 


At the conference I attended recently, I saw presentations about "Other Mothers" that looked at the portrayal of non-traditional mothers in pop culture. I heard from two single mothers, one who was also a lesbian. Both women talked honestly and passionately about the assumptions made about their lives and feeling like they were not fairly represented in everything from parenting books to doctor's offices. 

In particular, one of the single mothers mentioned how frustrated she is with the "I don't know how you do it!" exclamations. (One I've been guilty of myself). She explained that these well-meaning exclamations make her feel isolated and alien. She said "I do it just like everyone else does it." In short, her life is not a spectacle, but a life, a story like any other story. 

And single mother stigma runs deep.  It got me thinking about that interracial marriage Pew poll I blogged about a while back. One of the questions was about the social acceptability of interracial marriage compared to other hypothetical family arrangements. Respondents got to rate whether they thought each arrangement was a "good thing" or a "bad thing" for society. By an overwhelming margin, more people found "single women having children" to be the arrangement that was worst for society (69%).

Part of the problem is that defining mothering as "the hardest job in the world" means that we have to define it as a "job," and a job comes with very specific parameters. Framing mothering as a job means that we see mothers in narrow definitions. This pushes mothers that don't fit within that definition to the margins. They are othered by our rhetoric. If a married woman who has financial support from a husband taking care of a household does "the hardest job in the world," then we set single mothers up for failure. We may sympathize with them, pity them, or even admire them, but we first other them. This becomes true of any other mother who doesn't fit within those narrow confinements as well. 

"Best" is Not Always Best 

I started thinking about this in the context of the "Breast is Best" campaign.  A well-meaning campaign on all fronts, it promotes breastfeeding and is based on the well-documented benefits of breast milk. However, by using the word "best," the campaign also allows formula companies to capitalize on it. 

As Diane Wiessinger explains in "Watch Your Language!" the term "best" is problematic:
Best possible, ideal, optimal, perfect. Are you the best possible parent? Is your home life ideal? Do you provide optimal meals? Of course not. Those are admirable goals, not minimum standards. 
As Dou-la-la examines in this Mad Men-inspired parody, it has marketing potential for a formula company:
We focus the whole campaign on helping women navigate the terrible, perilous, grim experience that breastfeeding is likely to be. We mention every single thing we can think of: Sleep deprivation, slow weight gain, cracked and bloody nipples, [PETE winces] how hard it is to nurse in public and how hard it is to have to stay home instead, and on and on. We’re the good guys, we’re just trying to help – it’s not our fault that breastfeeding is so difficult and unpleasant. We look altruistic and supportive – we’re not trying to get women not to breastfeed, we’re just here to support them in case it doesn’t work out.
"Best" is not always the realistic goal; it's the ultimate result. Our goals usually fall somewhere short of "best." When we set up a standard as "best," we're actually moving that standard beyond the range of "normal," which is--biologically and culturally speaking--where breastfeeding should actually be. 

So, if the job of mom is the "hardest" and "best" job out there, what does that mean? That means that the standards for this "job" are likely unreachable. In order to achieve the standard of "best," you must also achieve the standard of "hardest."

As Meghan Daum points out, that means that we have to overcome some pretty big contenders:
Look, I would never suggest that being a mom — or a dad — isn't very difficult at times (and when severe disabilities or illness are involved, it can be unfathomably difficult just about all of the time). I would even make the argument that parenting may in fact be the most important job in the world, given that it involves overseeing the physical, intellectual, social and moral development of small humans who will eventually grow up and take charge of the planet. But off the top of my head I can think of several other jobs that are tougher than being a mom. For instance, president of the United States. Or coal miner. Or teacher in an underfunded urban public school. Or Amish farmer.
So, if we want to be the "best" we have to work the "hardest," and that means that so many moms are trying to fight an impossible balance. Does working hardest mean we have to work full-time in demanding corporate positions, attend all of the Little League games, bake all of fundraiser cupcakes from scratch, wash all of the laundry, have amazing sex with our husbands, maintain our weight through strict diet and exercise regimens, buy local produce from the Farmer's Market that's only open for four hours on Saturday, read a bedtime story every night, get a promotion, do the dishes, and balance the checkbook? Does working hardest mean that we can't let our partners take responsibility for any of the child-rearing or housework? Does working hardest mean that if we don't go to bed every single night feeling like we couldn't handle another second that we've failed, and now we're not the best? So do we have to try it all again tomorrow?

Framing motherhood as the "hardest" and "best" job is the foundation behind the Supermom trend that's wearing us all thin. It undermines attempts to equally share our parenting responsibilities with partners, and it puts us all on the defensive. 

Policy and Motherhood

Over at the blog When Did I Get Like This, there's a post that explains another frustration behind this "hardest job" issue (emphasis mine):
I hate when people say that. I really do. “Motherhood is the hardest job in the world.” Because the person who says it is usually someone who couldn’t have any idea whether that was true or not. (viz: Oprah. Joe Scarborough.) It’s patronizing, devoid of meaning, and wrong. Was getting my kids to school this morning harder than working in a Chilean mine? Of course not. Is juggling dinner, homework, and bathtime harder than rush hour air traffic control at JFK? (About the same, I’d say.) There are times when being a mother is way, way harder or soul-sucking or monotonous or impossible than anyone who hasn’t been one can imagine. But painting us all as selfless saints is a ridiculous generalization that allows public figures to pay lip service to motherhood without standing behind it.
Framing motherhood as "the hardest job in the world" and then sparking this do-or-die battle over anyone who suggests otherwise (even tangentially) allows people (politicians in particular) to gain "Mommy Points" without actually doing anything to help parents. Just coming forward and sticking up for those hard-working moms who are doing the "hardest" job out there is supposed to appease us all, even when it comes from someone like Mitt Romney who, mere months ago, was championing his plan to send moms on welfare back to work as soon as their children hit two years. This was not because it would save money, but because those moms needed the "dignity of work." I could not possibly care less if Mitt Romney says that our work as mothers is important, but I care a whole hell of a lot about the policies he puts in place that help or hinder our ability to do that work, policies ranging from maternity leave to domestic violence to adoption.

Extreme Rhetoric Yields Extreme Results

And that's what it all comes down to for me. Anytime that we enter into extreme rhetoric like declaring something the "best" or the "hardest," we dichotomize the conversation and turn into warring factions. Since we all think we're doing the "best" job, we have to vilify anyone who's doing it differently. (If I'm breastfeeding and I'm best, then that formula-feeding mom is not best. If I'm staying home with my child and I'm best, then that working mom is not best. If I'm using cloth diapers and I'm best, then that disposable-diaper-using mom is not best. And so on and so forth.)

It's as if we think not framing motherhood as the "hardest" job immediately means framing it as the "easiest" one, but that's not the case.

In short, when someone tells you that you are doing the "hardest" job by mothering, it's not necessarily a compliment. It could be setting you up for unattainable standards, driving a wedge between you and other mothers, making you hesitate to ask for a more equal partnership, and distracting you from advocacy that could make that "hardest" job a lot easier. . . for everyone.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Identity in Balance Guest Post: Shannon on being Catholic and Feminist

Shannon is a writer, blogger, and feminist activist. You can read her thoughts on contemporary feminism and women's rights at The Feminist Mystique.

I am feminist and Catholic. Or, at least, I was. I’m not sure right now. They’ve become so antithetical to each other that I don’t know if I can keep them in balance anymore – even if that balance was always somewhat precarious.

I grew up enamored with the Church. Stories of saints and the Virgin Mary peppered my childhood. I admired them. Women like Saint Catherine of Siena seemed smart, sure of themselves, powerful, and even rebellious. Indeed, they seemed much smarter and powerful, and more dynamic and interesting than any Disney princess.

As I grew older, I began to realize that my feminist values didn’t fit so neatly with Catholicism. Things that were important to me – reproductive rights, women’s equality, and sex positivity --suddenly put me at odds with the Church.  

Instead of leaving the Church or writing off feminism as heretical, I studied both Women’s Studies and Religion simultaneously. I explored the idea that the Church could be empowering for women; learned more about women within the Church; and examined women’s spirituality and relationship to the Church. Studying these things simultaneously was and is exhausting, as I constantly have to question my beliefs, values, and assumptions. Today, I know there is a tradition of strong women within the Church. But I understand, and celebrate, the fact that these women have always been subversive. Some might be saints now, but their writings, beliefs, spirituality, and leadership were often at odds with the Church and patriarchy more generally.

As the (American) Church continues to equate womanhood with motherhood, restrict access to contraception and abortion, and ban women from the priesthood, I’m tempted to abandon it. It’s hard to belong to a Church that doesn’t fully respect you as a person. I know that the majority of Catholics think I’m not a good Catholic, or that I’ve already excommunicated myself. And I feel at times that by even belonging to Catholicism I’m not a “good feminist.” But the women who have come before me also inspire me. They not only managed to balance multiple identities, they disrupted systems of oppression and made their voices heard. Perhaps if the women who are working to change the Church today continue to balance their multiple identities, we’ll effect change too. And create a new generation of saints.

The Identity in Balance Writing Series is all about looking at how different parts of our lives and identities intersect. If you'd like to submit a post, you can find out more about the series here 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Google Confirms We're (Politically) Doomed

Just out of curiosity, I wanted to see what Google suggested at the top searches for the phrase "(candidate name) is __________."

Here's what I got:

Barack Obama is . . . 
your new bicycle
an idiot
a muslim
what number president

Obama is . . . 
a muslim
a socialist
an idiot
a cactus

Mitt Romney is . . . 
an idiot
a tool
a mormon

Romney is . . . 
an idiot
a mormon
a liberal

Newt Gingrich is . . . 
an idiot
a douche
a joke

Gingrich is . . . 
an idiot
not a conservative
a liar

Ron Paul is. . . 
an idiot
a racist

("Paul is . . ." came back with results for the old Beatles "Paul is dead" insanity.

So folks, there you have it. Everyone's an idiot. Or at least that's what the public is looking to confirm. Perhaps if we spent a little less time seeking out confirmation of our negative biases and more time seeking out confirmation of positive policies, our political system would run a little smoother.

Identity in Balance Guest Post: Mitch Lee

The next guest post in the Identity in Balance Writing Series comes from Mitch Lee, an educator who shares some reflections on the balance of being both a conservationist and a hunter.

From bagsgroove
I wear the apparently incongruous labels of “bird hunter” and “conservationist,”  but they do go well together. Every legal hunter participates in conservation, an odd kind of tree-hugger, by definition. Buying licenses and paying a special tax -- a tax which they themselves proposed-- hunters fund the conservation not only of game species but also of habitat, which supports non-game species and humans as well.  Like most hunters, I believe that doesn’t go far enough, so I support several other habitat-specific organizations.  That may be self-serving, but the alternative is unthinkable. Without hunters, funds and perhaps the will to support sustaining habitat would dry up or have to come from someplace else, and these days, people don’t seem too eager to volunteer to be taxed, even for things that benefit them directly. 

I think of conservation because my love of hunting encompasses a lot of different loves. I love my quarry’s unpredictable and cunning ways, and, yes, I love to match my skill to their evasion skills. The killed bird in my hand fills me with a sobering mixture of joy, pride and sadness. I love the complex beauty of their feathering. I love preparing them, and I love sharing them with family and friends.  I love everything about them.  I love where they live. They thrive in cooperation with conservation-minded farming, providing a natural biological gauge of the health of the relationship between agriculture, wildlife, and food supply. So when I think of hunting, what I’m really thinking about is a conservation relationship between those three elements which sometimes seem to conflict, but which we must hold in balance.

The Identity in Balance Writing Series is all about looking at how different parts of our lives and identities intersect. If you'd like to submit a post, you can find out more about the series here

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links)

Here's what I've been reading that made me happy, sad, and thoughtful. Feel free to add anything you've read or written this week in the comments.

The Good
  • "Why I Submit to My Husband"--This post over at from two to one is a great read that both challenges some traditional assumptions about Christianity and feminism and looks at the difficulties of making that balance:
I submit to my husband.  My husband submits to me.  We mutually submit to one another.  For those who will pray for our souls given our "radical feminist interpretation" of these difficult verses to swallow, so be it.  We do not see this as a salvation issue, and we do consider this to be an incredibly complicated, personal matter for husbands and wives to respectfully decide together. 
  • "Feminism is Squashing the Thin Ideal"--SPARK looks at some research that suggests women who spend their time reading feminist materials are less likely to internalize a thin ideal. 
  • Over at The New York Times, Anne Lamott is answering reader's questions. Lamott is one of my favorite authors ever, and I'm currently reading Some Assembly Required, the book she wrote together with her son upon the birth of his own son.
I wish I had thrown out the bathroom scale at age 16. Weighing yourself every morning is like waking up and asking Dick Cheney to validate your sense of inner worth. I wish I had known that I was beautiful by my 20s, and that what makes a body so lovely is self-love and care — smoothing delicious lotions onto your thighs like a gentle yet ferociously committed mother would. I wish had not felt so shy and self-conscious in a swimsuit all those years, because I don’t look quite as much like Brigitte Bardot or Sofia Vergara as I hoped. I wish I had plunged into even more oceans and swimming pools than I did, in front of God and who-cares-who-else-who. 
I wish I’d known what I wrote to my grandson, Jax, in “Some Assembly Required,” that everyone goes through life thinking that he or she missed school on that one day in second grade when the wise Elder came and taught the kids the secret of life, of living to find your self and your own purpose and voice, instead of needing to become addicted to people-pleasing or domination. 
But that no one was there that day. Everyone is flailing through this life without an owner’s manual, with whatever modicum of grace and good humor we can manage.

The Bad 

  • This Salon article about adjunct instructors definitely made me sad:
Lara, a graduate student at the University of Mississippi, told AlterNet that student teaching salaries are so low that those making $8,000 annually “are the rich people.” She added that the glut of graduate students desperate for work ensures that employers in the surrounding area have access to a ready supply of cheap and essentially disposable labor, which forces most graduate students to take out large loans to meet living expenses, while working two or more jobs in addition. 
  • This Mommy Wars: The Political Edition has seriously got me ready to swear off reading the news until after November. In particular, this re-surfaced clip of Mitt Romney saying that he was willing to spend more money on daycare so that parents on welfare could get jobs and have "the dignity of work" drives me crazy.  When women are rich and married and stay home with their children (as his wife did, and who--when it was said she'd "never worked a day in her life"--became the center of the GOP's claim that there is a "War on Moms"), it is hard work worthy of respect and accolades. (And I'd agree with them). However, when poor women do it, it's not work, without "dignity," and a drain on the rest of society.

The Curious

So as much as I resent the limited range of desire that it seems (Black) men have and the ever-present male privilege that allows them to never have to interrogate their sexual and romantic investments, I hate my limited partnering prospects much more.  As un-feminist as I’m sure it is, and as much my Sagittarian self wants to say f**k the world and embrace my life of singleness in a blaze of principled feminist big girl glory, the #truestory is that I’m seriously trying to figure out how I can get my J.Hud on. 
  • Then, the Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss posted a response piece that was equally thought-provoking:
Big girls have to live, date, and eventually love in this environment. It's especially difficult as a feminist--admitting you're doing it because you want to benefit from the patriarchal bargain of being more of what men want to look at--because during 22.5 hours of the day, you're fighting the patriarchy . . . but there's an hour and a half of the day you're working hard to increase your ability to benefit from it.
  • Latoya Peterson has a post over at Racialicous that looks at what kind of female characters make it onto the television screen and what kinds don't, even when they clearly have a large fan base and support.
  • Tami Winfrey Harris writes at Clutch about men, housekeeping, and the value of work:
We live in a society where childcare providers–mostly women–are barely paid living wages. American parental leave pales in comparison to that of most European countries (Parents in Sweden receive a whopping 16 months to care for newborns, for example). And when a woman forgoes a career to help a man reach the pinnacle of success by tending to home and hearth, and then divorces in the face of infidelity, some folks greet the idea of equal division of family wealth with, “Bitch, you wasn’t with me shooting in the gym.” I guess child-rearing skills just aren’t as important as tossing a ball through a hoop with amazing accuracy. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Identity in Balance Guest Post: Emma

Today's guest post in the Identity in Balance Writing Series comes from Emma. You should check out Emma's blog Laughter in the Lou where she writes about laughter yoga and leading a laughter club. Her blog is full of great perspective on happiness, life, and health, so even if you aren't in the Lou, it's a great read!

upper middle class
i do not own my own car
life in saint louis

people drive cars here
traffic and parking are fine
stuff is all spread out

you don't have a car?!?
*staring at me like i'm alf*
how do you...what the?

defending the life i love
calmly explaining

still getting the look
then guilt and "i just could never"
i'm not asking that

somehow this prompts you
to point out your shortcomings 
as if i had judged

once the shock wears off
"oh you are so good and green"
martyr's not my name

ride the thirty bus
explain my iPad daily
"is that for movies?"

mine's almost always
one of few good winter coats
or boots, bags or books

can't carry? don't bring
on bicycle riding days
planning carefully

"what if it might rain?"
you the western wicked witch?
water is okay

intersection of:
i have the means for a car
but not the desire

gasps, awe, jealousy
guilt, questions, confusion, fear
nice to meet you too

The Identity in Balance Writing Series is all about looking at how different parts of our lives and identities intersect. If you'd like to submit a post, you can find out more about the series here

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Balancing Jane's Terrible Twos

Balancing Jane is two years old today! Since I started writing when I found out I was pregnant, I still have a few more months before my daughter hits the dreaded "Terrible Twos," but this blog is there.

When I started writing, I never thought that I would have readers. But Balancing Jane has slowly grown into a place that I'm proud to have crafted. It has helped me tremendously to figure out how to (or, in some cases, how not to) balance the different parts of my identities. I have heard from several of you that are going through the same juggling acts and many of you who are balancing completely different parts of your identities. In the end, though, we all have to learn how to navigate spaces where we are many things at once, and that's what Balancing Jane has been all about.

So, to commemorate this, the start of the third year of Balancing Jane, I have a couple of announcements.

First, I've had a few people who have asked if they can guest post for Balancing Jane. My initial response was, "Of course!" but I also knew that I had to have some sort of policy in place if I was going to start accepting guest posts. I have no illusions that I will be flooded with tons of requests for people to be featured on my humble little corner of the web, but for those of you who would like to write something that fits with the (rather broad) theme of this blog or to cross-post something you've written on your own blog, I now have a Guest Post policy.

Along those lines, I would also like to host a special series to celebrate Balancing Jane's birthday. Since Balancing Jane is all about . . . well. . . balancing, I propose a writing series.

We all wear many labels. Some we wear our whole lives, and some shift as our relationships to those around us change. We are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, teachers, students, friends, feminists, Democrats, Republicans, daughters, sons, employees, bosses, and a host of other identities that weave together to make us who we are in any particular time and space. Sometimes those identities easily merge together, but often there are excesses in the overlap, spaces that might confuse us, spaces that make it challenging to figure out who we are. Balancing Jane maintains that it is in those spaces that we find out the most about ourselves, that when we are forced to simultaneously own two labels that we might not have placed together we figure out what we stand for. It is also by inhabiting those spaces that we learn to appreciate other people, for if we can be more than one thing, then so can they, and that means that our preconceived notions of them are always--at best--an oversimplification.  
Pick any two labels that you wear (by choice or necessity) and reflect on how they intersect. Start with I am _________ and _______. Of course, these are not your only two labels, but these should be two that have, when combined, given you some insight into yourself or the world around you. In no more than 250 500 words (Edit: People just have a lot to say. Who am I to hold you back?), share what wearing those two labels has meant to you. 

It can be an essay, story, poem, photograph, etc. Send me your submissions at balancingjane [at] gmail (or through the email link in the blog header) or post it on your own blog and send me the link so I can share it here. Be sure to include a short byline about yourself (and linking to your own blog, if you have one) if you want. I look forward to reading your reflections!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Profits from the Mom Wars?

I just read Mary Elizabeth Williams' Salon piece calling to end the mom wars. Since she works part-time from home, she calls herself a "spy in two houses," able to sit in with groups of stay-at-home moms as they ripped apart their working counterparts for not really loving their children and with groups of working moms who tore apart their stay-at-home counterparts for not having real lives.

With the political hijacking of the mommy wars, these problems are fresh on my mind. I know that Williams is absolutely right. Women are often terrible to one another, and motherhood seems to be a battleground filled with the horrendous potential to judge and dismember. I also agree that this kind of bickering "stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities." The easiest way to prove to ourselves that we're doing it right is often to make sure everyone knows those other women are doing it wrong.

From tamdotcom
But I know it doesn't have to be this way. I truly believe that we are capable of better. At the conference I attended last week I had the opportunity to have dinner with two other mothers who were presenting (if either of you are reading this, hi!). We all had babies born within a month of one another, so we had a lot in common. But we also had some pretty different approaches to how we handled this juggling act of parenting and the rest of life. One of the women had brought her baby to the conference with her. She also stays at home. The other woman works full-time and has a husband who stays home to care for their two children. My husband and I, on the other hand, both work full-time and use daycare for our daughter.

So, there we were. Enemies. Or so the media would have us believe. Unable to find even a sliver of common ground.

But that wasn't the case at all. We had plenty to talk about, plenty to share, and plenty to learn from one another. Parenting, as it turns out, isn't particularly easy no matter how you do it, but it's also full of joy and rewards. Those are the things we should focus on: helping each other out through the difficulties and celebrating each other's happiness. You can't tell me that's not enough to break down essentialist barriers.

During this conversation, we also began to talk about who really benefits from tearing mothers apart. I posited that this kind of divisive rhetoric is a tool that keeps women from attaining equality in all spheres. We could target things like pay gaps, leave policies, health care (like why we have nearly double the infant mortality rate of countries like Sweden and Iceland), and inadequate or stereotypical media representations. If we're busy tearing each other apart over every parenting decision, we're not very likely to come together and recognize these more pervasive influences.

But something that I hadn't put a lot of thought in came up in that conversation as well. One of the women mentioned how much businesses profit from the niche markets created by in-group fighting in mothers. After all, if you're going to belong to a particular club, you have to have a way to show it. Everything from the stroller you push (or the carrier you use so you don't have to push the stroller) to the baby food you buy (or the baby food maker you buy so that you don't have to buy baby food) to the bath products you use to the toys our children play with have been marketed as making a statement about who you are and what you believe.

I'm not saying that none of these statements have a real-world basis. I'm not saying that there's no difference between Johnson and Johnson's baby shampoo and Angel Baby's or between carrying your baby in a sling and using a stroller. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't care about those differences. I'm just saying that what appears to be an informed decision based on ethics and ideals is also a way for companies to make money.

Just as in high school wearing Vans meant something different than wearing Nikes, buying Fisher Price means something different than buying Oompa. And all of those companies have a bottom line to worry about. The mommy wars create lovely little niche markets where advertising can be targeted.

And, as this infograph from Frugal Dads points out, that makes for a very bolstered industry. Note that statistic at the bottom: "37% of new mothers surveyed express guilt over not being able to afford a certain baby product." Is that because we're letting these products mean more to us than they should?


Boo! Are you Healthier Now?

Sociological Images has a really interesting post  by Christie Barcelos today about anti-smoking campaigns.

Now, before I analyze this, I want to make a disclaimer. I am firmly anti-smoking. I think that the tobacco industry used years of insidious advertising to create a vast target audience with no regard to the safety of their product. Today is the third anniversary of my father's death, a man who died before age 60 from arterial disease, very likely a direct result of his decades of smoking. I suffered myself from excruciating ear infections from infancy until I moved out of the (smoke-filled) house I grew up in at 18. I have not had an ear infection since. I will not let anyone smoke near my daughter or in my house or car. I seek out restaurants with smoking bans, not just non-smoking sections. I dislike cigarettes very much.

All that said, Barcelos brings up some really good points about the CDC's new graphic anti-smoking ads. These ads--titled "Tips from Former Smokers"--feature people who are suffering from smoking-related debilitations such as cancer and vascular disease.

Barcelos questions these ads on a number of levels:
In addition to the whether these ads will be effective in persuading smokers to quit, we might ask whether fear and stigma are appropriate health promotion strategies. Is it possible or ethical to scare people into changing their behaviors? What are the implications of using stigmatized people to serve as a warning label to others?
I immediately thought of two other ad campaigns.

The Milwuakee PSA that aimed to reduce co-sleeping through fear by showing pictures of babies with knives:

And the Georgia ad campaign targeting childhood obesity:

Like the anti-smoking campaign, these ads were focused on health outcomes and aimed to reach that goal by shaming people who had made these "bad" health choices (smoking, co-sleeping, being obese) without considering to what extent they actually are choices (ignoring the complexities of actual lives and boiling everything down to a simple choice between "good" actions and "bad" ones). As Barcelos points out, using the body as a space to enact fear has some consequences in the way we understand bodies' purposes:
The ads invite us to feel disgust at their bodies and fear at what could happen to our own.
But is that really what we want from a health campaign? The fear of what will happen to us if we don't behave and make the "good" choices? Shouldn't motivations for health come from a desire for positive outcomes rather than disgust at the negative ones (and, by extension, disgust at the people that we perceive as representing them)? Is fear really the way to get healthy?