When I came across this excellent analysis, I thought it might be interesting to analyse the composition of the controversial Time cover.
A particularly interesting point raised in this article is the fact that the cover photo is engineered to evoke sexual undertones. And once you start seeing the photo through this lens, it becomes clear just how carefully the portrayal of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son has been engineered.
Clothes and Hairstyle
First, there’s her appearance: in some articles discussing the photo, Jamie Lynne is referred to as a ‘willowy bombshell‘: she’s skinny, she has flawless luminous skin, she’s blonde, she wears fashionable clothes. She might practise attachment parenting, but the mother on the Time cover (I feel it’s important to distinguish between the mother-representation on the cover and the actual person Jamie Lynne Grumet, as they are likely to be different people) is no earth mother who knits her own lentils. But neither is she too fashionable, hence the sensible flat ballerinas. See, she’s just right – not too crunchy, not too plastic – everyone can relate to her.
The way this mother is represented creates a tension: her hair is modestly pulled back, and the colour of her blue tank top and skinny jeans seems deliberately chosen to hint at common representations of the virgin Mary (albeit a bit more 21st century). But wait, her shoulders aren’t covered and she’s not wearing a bra, so is she a woman of virtue or of loose morals?
Her facial expression is both docile (closed mouth, neither smiling nor not-smiling) and defiant (head held high). The fragility of her thin frame is called into question by how strong and robust her posture makes her appear, while the allusion to the virgin Mary, who is usually portrayed in passive positions, contrasts with the active supermodel-hand-on-hip pose.
The mother’s posture is supermum through-and-through: her hip-jutting says she is ready for any criticism the viewer wants to throw at her, while her arm protectively cradles her son’s shoulders. She is both hard and soft, alluring and motherly.
At the same time, her facial expression is quite blank, and so are her clothes – they are simple and a non-offensive colour. She is a blank canvas ready for any viewer’s feelings to be projected onto her: is she making breastfeeding fashionable? A ‘hippy’? Aggressive? Submissive? Outrageous? A pervert? A role model? Just an average mother?
Text and Image Interaction – Questioning Mothers’ Shagability?
Then there’s the big red question mark superimposed on her nether regions – surely an accident, one might think. But this is the cover of a major magazine, there are no accidents, and text and image are designed to interact for maximum effect in the reader’s mind. So perhaps the question mark is placed here deliberately to call into question the sexuality of mothers who breastfeed for an ‘extended’ period.
There are two questions an uninformed reader might ask themselves: first, does breastfeeding give rise to sexual feelings once the baby is one day older than an arbitrary number of weeks, and secondly, can a breastfeeding woman still be sexually attractive? Is motherhood incompatible with stereotypical conceptions of womanhood? Not just motherhood as it is commonly represented in the media, because that is often seen as the epitome of femininity, but motherhood when a woman shows such extraordinary dedication to her children? (NB I am well aware that the average world weaning age is around 2.5-7 years according to Dettwyler, but nevertheless, breastfeeding a child or several children for several years is a special commitment which can occasionally take a lot out of mothers.)
Grumet’s little boy is dressed in trainers and camouflage cargo pants – very ‘big boy’ clothes that seem to hint at a child who is happiest running around in the countryside or playing football. They make him look more grown up than he actually is, so that he appears as a big, strong, stereotypically masculine figure next to his mother. While it is obvious that he is standing on a chair, this nevertheless serves to make him look taller, and thus older, than he really is, thereby increasing the outrage factor.
The composition of this image and its interaction with the chosen text serve to press different buttons in each reader’s mind, so that it’s simultaneously possible to be filled with admiration or disgust at the 26-year-old mother who feeds her three-year-old son and her five-year-old adopted son, and the fact that she has two children and manages to look so glamorous.
Personally, I think it’s great that there are mums who breastfeed for several years, including adopted children, and it’s useful that attachment parenting might gain more attention in the mainstream media as a counterweight to all those ‘Supernanny’ techniques. I don’t think the competition which the headline is trying to create is necessary or beneficial for anyone; surely it’s time to leave the mummy wars behind. In addition, I can’t help the impression that Grumet and her son have been exploited for the sake of magazine sales.