Friday, September 16, 2011

Why even mothers with beachy hair might have a point

I have pulled myself out of blogging hiatus and its accompanying guilt spiral to discuss this post on Slate's "XX Factor" blog, in which Jessica Grose reports on a special screening of the new working-mother comedy I Don't Know How She Does It. The event included a post-viewing Q&A with star Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Pearson, author of the best-selling novel on which the film is based. Grose writes that she was so unnerved by the mothers in the audience—their post-viewing questions turned the event into something resembling a 1970s-style "group therapy session/modern consciousness raising circle"—that she fled before she was forced to "consider sterilization" (Grose has no kids, but apparently intends to someday).

Sarah Jessica Parker and Allison Pearson speak at the screening.

For what it's worth, I haven't seen the movie (and didn't finish the book). Judging from the trailer, it doesn't look very good, and I suspect my own reaction will resemble Mary Elizabeth Williams' review on Salon. But that's probably beside the point here.

I have an essayish article coming up in the fall issue of Brain, Child (I'll link to the actual piece once it goes online) about the phenomenon of feminist, progressive writers—people you’d normally expect to support women's choices and viewpoints—turning critical and contemptuous when the women in question happen to be mothers expressing some discontent with their lives. Surprisingly often, writers trivialize mothers' complaints, casting them as excessive or overwrought or whiny or merely First World problems of privileged women.

My essay offers a handful of illustrations (including, sad to say, a couple from "XX Factor"). Grose's blog post, having just appeared yesterday, long after my deadline, isn't one of them. But it could be.

Let me interject that I respect Grose as a writer. And that we've all been in groups whose aesthetics, opinions and so forth didn't match our own. And that it's possible there's something she's trying to convey in the post—some truly eye-roll-inducing aspect of the event she attended—that I'm just not grasping.

But. Come on.

... (T)he crowd did not look much like journalists: It was almost exclusively women (I counted two men), and almost all of them had the perfectly set "beachy" waves that are meant to look tousled but clearly took at least an hour with a curling iron and various products to create. When the heavily made-up moderators (one in fetching leather pants) got on stage to announce the movie, I realized that this was an event for mom bloggers ...

Could we feminists agree to avoid pointing to the scarcity of men at an event to implicitly undermine the event's seriousness (when the real reason might have to do with the nature of the event itself, or possibly even with men's obliviousness to a legitimate issue)? Could we, further, declare a moratorium on discrediting what women say based on their hairstyles, makeup and clothing? Is it really all that odd for women to spend some time on their appearance before sitting on a stage next to celebrities, including one who is famous for her stylishness? Please bear in mind that I am a person who has never owned leather pants and whose hair would only be described as "beachy" not in the “curling iron and products” sense but in the "she obviously spent all day at the kids' swimming lessons and hasn't been near a comb since" sense.

Grose's description of the session is laced with implicit contempt. The woman introducing SJP "squealed with delight." The moderators' questions were "somewhat coherent." Audience members engaged in "bizarre baby proselytizing" and spoke of their lives in a "groovy '70s emotional mode." The actress and writer "did their best to relate to the women, to soothe them" (not, Grose suggests, because the stars genuinely empathized or agreed, but because SJP has good people skills).

As she listened, Grose found herself "saddened" because the attendees "were clearly in need of some outlet for their discontent." And because the poor things were deluded enough to think they'd find "a satisfying answer" from ... well, an actress who starred in a movie on the subject and frequently publicly discusses her own family life, and an author who wrote a whole book about it and has undoubtedly talked to thousands of mothers since then.

As for the attendees’ actual statements, I have read through Grose's post numerous times and still can't for the life of me figure out what she found so ridiculous or out of place about them. A stay-at-home mother of five said she often feels trapped and envious of working friends (and vice versa). Another woman feels guilty about leaving her son with his grandmother rather than taking him to play dates. Another is annoyed at friends who wanted to bring their children along on a group trip.

These are individual predicaments, but they touch on some of the very real problems that many mothers experience: isolation, envy, guilt, the often-thwarted need for respite.

Instead of making fun of these squealing women in their overdetermined hair and makeup, I think it makes sense to consider the extent to which their feelings might be shared by many other contemporary mothers, including those with suitably unstyled hair and pants made of cloth, and to wonder whether these potentially widespread problems just might be of interest from a feminist perspective.

Take the at-home mother who feels trapped. One wonders whether 21st century mothers are particularly subject to this sort of isolation, restlessness and envy, as well as to cultural pressures that would lead an intellectually active woman to choose staying home over a career in the first place. Might there be structural and institutional causes for—and possible solutions to—this dilemma?

Grose's post links the term she herself chose—“consciousness raising"—to a Wikipedia entry defining that dated-sounding phrase. It describes groups, common in the '70s, in which ordinary women discussed problems in their own lives and learned the ways in which these represented more universal issues. They're one of the ways feminist ideas initially spread from writers and intellectuals to women across the country. From Wikipedia:

Early feminists argued that women were isolated from each other, and as a result many problems in women's lives were misunderstood as "personal," or as the results of conflicts between the personalities of individual men and women, rather than systematic forms of oppression. Raising consciousness meant helping oneself and helping others to become politically conscious. Consciousness raising groups aimed to get a better understanding of women's oppression by bringing women together to discuss and analyze their lives, without interference from the presence of men.

The term is a good fit here. Grose describes an event in which women discussed and analyzed their lives, by chance without the presence of (more than two) men. But she missed its real significance in this situation. Instead, she categorized her subjects’ problems as personal rather than political, the "sad" needs of overdressed "mom bloggers" rather than potential evidence of systemic forms of ... well, some might consider "oppression" too strong a word, but you get the point.

It's too bad Grose didn't take her own analogy more seriously.


  1. Hi Katy,
    I loved your commentary. In addition to the financial risks women take to opt out of the workforce and become mothers we all know their are also emotional risks in the lose of self-esteem and personal development. While men have a complete support system in having a wife (babysitter, child advocate, housekeeper, social coordinator, holiday planner, chef, bookkeeper etc ) - women have their husband's pay-check - sometimes only paid as long as the husband approves of his wife's behavior, looks, age, or anything else. I think this can also make a women feel trapped and certainly insecure. I know this type of arrangement isn't always the case but it is a slippery slope that is often ignored in the bliss of a new relationship and new babies. I am personally knowing women in their 50s working at Target and living in apartments after their very well to do husbands ask for a divorce. The women have given up child support because their husbands use it as leverage in exchange for the full payment of the kids college expenses. Not fair. Thanks for letting me vent. I am a happily married stay at home mom of two in my early 40s. Yet I am beginning to see the risks more clearly and wanting to get my financial house in order (good for both my husband and children anyway)!

  2. I won't comment on the issue itself, because it's honestly way out of my league, but I've always been amazed how much women can turn on each other sometimes. It's... weird.

  3. It's sad, but that's how society roles. We disparage mothers as a matter of course, especially those who choose to stay home.

    I have no real insight to offer here, other than this: the writer of that article? Is going to change her tune dramatically once she has children.

    Except by then it will be too late. Because she, too, will be "just a mom."