In my surfing around the internet this weekend, I came across this old piece by Katie Roiphe about women who use their babies as their Facebook profile pictures, and surprisingly, I found myself agreeing with her, a rare enough instance.
The mystery here is that the woman with the baby on her Facebook page has surely read The Feminine Mystique in college, and The Second Sex, and The Beauty Myth. She is no stranger to the smart talk of whatever wave of feminism we are on, and yet this style of effacement, this voluntary loss of self, comes naturally to her. Here is my pretty family, she seems to be saying, I don’t matter anymore......
This generation leaches itself of sexuality by putting the innocent face of a child in the place of an attractive mother. It telegraphs a discomfort with even a minimal level of vanity. Like wearing sneakers every day or forgetting to cut your hair, it is a way of being dowdy and invisible, and it mirrors a certain mommy culture in which its almost a point of pride how little remains of the healthy, worldly, engaged, and preening self.
Just as in the past and to an extent today, women are expected to show their love for their male partners by erasing their own identities and replacing them with his---going from Ms. My Name to Mrs. His Name---now there seems to be increasing pressure for women to "prove" they love their children through self-abasement. I suspect the backlash against feminism is taking this form because replacing men with children in the equation makes it harder for feminists to criticize without opening ourselves up to complaints that we're anti-motherhood, just as in the past suggesting women should keep their own names was equated with being anti-man. But the kid thing is basically a cover for the same ol', same ol', and boy howdy did Natalie Portman's comments drives that home last night!
She was as lovely and slightly awkward as she has been every time she's hauled home another prize for her devastatingly creepy turn in "Black Swan," thanking her fellow nominees, her parents, the directors who've guided her career, and then at last "my beautiful love," dancer and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, for giving her "the most important role of my life." That'd be when he impregnated her, I'd wager.
"Sure, I may have just won a prestigious award in a cutthroat business and be famous and wealthy, but hey, look at my partner and his Sperm Magic!" Awesome. Some days I look at what we're up against and feel like giving up.
I honestly don't understand the widespread cultural hostility to women being ambitious, accomplished, and self-assured. Needless to say, we don't expect men to suddenly and unceremoniously denounce their life's work as inconsequential compared to their job as boyfriends, husbands, and fathers. But there does seem to be immense pressure on women to subsume their identities in Mom when they give birth. In this most recent edition of Bitch, Sara McAbee has an article about mommy bloggers, and a lot of it focuses on the bile that's poured on a handful of mommy bloggers who've made a lot of money at it. (McAbee herself doesn't seem to have completely resolved whether or not making money as a mommy blogger is a good thing.) The problem is that these women made a lot of money as writers, but they're perceived by the haters to be making money as mommies. The criticism takes on a very "how dare you!" tone---how dare you make money! how dare you brand yourself!---and I think that kind of nastiness is rooted in this growing pressure for women to compete in the game of self-sacrifice and self-abasement to prove their motherly love. Also, I think people get confused, because the motherhood-trumps-all mentality makes people think someone like Heather Armstrong is making money as a mom, and that's considered mercenary, when in fact she's making money as a writer. I'll point out that in the day when women could be more openly bashed for not changing her name to her husband's, writers like Shirley Jackson or Erma Bombeck who made a living writing about their kids were not castigated as evil, mercenary bitches in nearly the same way Heather Armstrong is.
Seems to me we need a new feminist movement, one where women stand up and say that just because they insist on having lives and identities of their own after they give birth, and just because they refuse to downplay the importance of their non-motherhood careers once they become mothers doesn't mean that they don't love their children. We got to a point where the accusation that you don't love your husband/partner because you work or keep your own name---or don't get married at all---has lost its steam. Surely we can get there in pushing back against the mommy-uber-alles culture that we have now.