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Growing up

20 Jan

When I was little I grew three lemon trees which I named Socrates, Aristotle and Plato (I had just read Sophie’s World). These days I’m teaching their ideas to undergraduates…

The Gaga Palaver

28 Sep

I like some of Lady Gaga’s songs, she has some ‘banging tunes’ to quote my crazy ex-neighbour. But somehow it has always struck me as problematic how she portrays herself/is portrayed – almost as if she should be a sort of feminist icon, but just isn’t. Maybe she is, I haven’t examined what she does/sings/wears/says in any great detail at all really, but I am usually intrigued by analyses of famous women’s role in society.

Then I went to a great talk on a generally feminist topic, a quick google-stalk of the speaker brought up this paper, and all became clear. Taking apart Lady Gaga as a person/woman/fashion icon probably won’t do anyone any good or get us anywhere, so this paper deals with some of her lyrics.

“While Stefani Germanotta’s performance of Gaga reveals the constructedness and artifice of identity in true postmodern style, the lexical choices in Born This Way mobilise a conception of sexual identity that is rooted within essentialism.”

Check it out: Feminist Values make for more stable relationships

24 Sep

Very ‘ha! In your face!’ article . Take that, government which takes advice on families and relationships from abstinence-only groups.

The ‘Motherhood Penalty’

13 May

I came across a fascinating and outrageous phenomenon via the excellent Sociological Images: the ‘motherhood penalty’.

According to a 2008 article, mothers are frequently penalised for being parents. Their perceived competence in the workplace decreases, whereas men’s increases, when they become parents. The authors quote the following statistics, among others:

  • Employed mothers in the US suffer a per-child wage penalty of on average 5%
  • The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers is larger than the pay gap between men and women
One possible reason for this, the article’s authors hypothesise, could be that “cultural understandings of the motherhood role exist in tension with the cultural understandings of the ‘ideal worker’ role”: ideal mothers are expected to spend all of their time doting on their children, whereas the ideal worker spends all of their time working or being at their job’s beck and call.
The article is quite long and complicated as it necessarily has to give details of the study design, but it’s worth reading all of it for the fascinating insights into people’s unconscious evaluations of women, men and Afro-Americans it provides.
You can see Shelley Correll, one of the study authors, speak about the subject here.

That Time Cover: ‘Are you Mom Enough?’

12 May

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?

Body Language

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.)

The Child

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.

Some of that much-needed parenting inspiration

4 Apr

… and oh my god did it come at the right time.

Transitional Objects and Parenting

5 Apr

A couple of months ago I was beginning to get worried that something was wrong with my daughter because she has never sucked her thumb, has never had a snuggle blanket and doesn’t really care that much about her cuddly toys. She would still much rather play with a calculator than carry a teddybear around with her. But then I came across a very reassuring insight (unfortunately I can’t remember where!) which completely put my mind at rest.

Children whose parents practice Attachment Parenting are less likely to use transitional objects. Attachment Parenting includes practices such as breastfeeding, co-sleeping and babywearing. This means that the baby has a lot of physical contact with the mother and as a result simply doesn’t need an object which symbolically represents her.

This study found that “the use of a traditional TO [pacifier, thumb, blanket, toy] may occur as an infant adaptation to parenting practices”. The authors are quick to point out that their conclusion “in no way suggests that an attachment to a traditional TO is dysfunctional or unhealthy, rather that through individual differences and varying cultural child care practices, infants adopt a behavior that enables them to deal with stress”. The stress mentioned here is the transition from being awake to sleeping as well as nighttime waking, which can be difficult for an infant to cope with. To me this says that the long uncomfortable nights getting used to sleeping always in the same position were worth it.

So now I know that it’s fine that my daughter isn’t attached to any soft objects, because it means that she is securely attached to me.