Stereotypes and Archetypes

Reviewed: The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels. Free Press. 352 pages. $26.

Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes by the Guerrilla Girls. Penguin Books. 96 pages. $20.

American popular culture has long cast women -- and in particular, mothers -- according to rigid scripts. Two new books take on the age-old myths that have shaped our ideals of womanhood. Both books craft feminist history with the tools of irony and humor.

Arriving in the wake of Lisa Belkin's October 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story on women who "opt out" of fast-track careers in order to stay home with their kids, books questioning media-generated images of motherhood couldn't be more timely. In The Mommy Myth, authors Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels harness the anger of Cathi Hanauer's The Bitch in the House and the critical prowess of Ann Crittenden's The Price of Motherhood in a witty look behind popular images of motherhood.

Surfacing at a time when manifestos are out of style and mass market fiction featuring the antics of the working mom, such as Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It, is decidedly in, The Mommy Myth is a wise-cracking indictment of what the authors call "the new momism": a set of ideals that daily assault and guilt-trip women by tacitly insisting that, to be fulfilled, they must have children and be their primary caretakers.

The authors reclaim "momism" from the journalist Philip Wylie, who coined it in his 1942 bestseller, Generation of Vipers. Wylie used the term to attack the mothers of America for smothering their sons and turning them into mama's boys unable to fight for their country. Douglas and Michaels adapt it here to refer to a highly romanticized view of motherhood in which the standards for success are impossible to meet.

Speaking as two sardonic mamas and savvy media consumers, the authors lead us on a whirlwind romp through the magazines, movies, television shows, and political debates about motherhood over the past thirty years. They sneak in terms like Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" (from his design of a round prison with a central columnar guard tower) to describe how motherhood has become, in their view, "a psychological police state." From the fawning coverage of the celebrity mom to the staging of the "mommy wars," media messages about mothers, the authors maintain, have been fueled by unacknowledged conservative -- and ultimately unattainable -- mores.

The journey begins with a backward glance at the heady days of the 1970s -- a time when women (many of them mothers) articulated a collective "we," resisting and fighting rigidly constructed gender roles. The idealization of the era is thick, and it is here that the authors risk losing younger readers more inclined to identify with the barbed rants of Kate Reddy, working mom heroine of I Don't Know How She Does It, than Jane Alpert, underground seventies radical and author of "Mother Right." Yet the storytelling is rich, and readers are treated to a detailed recount of exhilarating moments: WITCH's Mother's Day Protest in 1969, the eleven-hour sit-in on March 18, 1970, at the offices of Ladies' Home Journal, the founding of Ms., the publication of Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born.

"Once feminists disrupted the common sense about motherhood and the family," the authors contend, "the mainstream media had to respond. The feminine mystique was out -- but what was in?" The bulk of The Mommy Myth posits answers to this question, offering a scathing look at the media environment that has surrounded American mothers since the early 1970s.

That environment always has been full of contradictory impulses. The authors unearth scads of conflicting icons across the decades. In the 1970s, as the number of famous-kid shrinks and celebrity pediatricians rose, the child-rearing advice column became de rigueur, advocating a kind of intensive mothering that undermined feminist successes. At the same time, for a brief period, the feminist insistence on the political aspects of motherhood found its way, circuitously perhaps, into the mass media via the voices of mouthy TV moms like Maude, Florida, Ann Romano, and Alice.

In the early and mid-1980s, working mothers were caught in cultural contradictions. Take 1984, for instance, the year the McMartin day care child-molestation scandal made headlines and "The Cosby Show" premiered. While the media framed the day care scandal as a morality tale about what happens when mothers go to work and entrust their children to others, "The Cosby Show" suggested that you could, in fact, work at a demanding job, express exasperation with your kids (and even jokingly threaten to murder them on a regular basis), and still have a loving family and be a good mom.

In the 1990s, the romanticized celebrity mom vied with sensationalized images of maternal delinquents (Susan Smith, most famously) and welfare mothers, offering another dizzying set of conflicting images for mothers to absorb. Meanwhile, the toy industry enlisted mothers as early childhood educators "whose job it now was (on top of everything else) to ensure that not one fleeting second passed that was not an enriching learning experience." Dr. Laura, the "chief spokeswoman for rightwing momism," urged women to quit their jobs and stay home, the authors write. An exploration of Lisa Belkin's "opt out revolution" and the deluge of responses it engendered would make a fine concluding chapter to this tale of how the media exalt the new momism. It is a shame we do not get to hear the authors sound off on this latest note in their book, though Douglas covers it in a recent In These Times article.

Ultimately, Douglas and Michaels urge readers to learn "to name the new momism every time and everywhere you see it, to ridicule it (preferably out loud, in front of others)," as they have done, relentlessly, in print. They also implore readers to take a critical look at their own concessions to it. At times, the sarcasm thickens to the point of distraction, and the hard-hitting tone occasionally overshadows the argument's underlying integrity. But the cumulative effect is convincing, and readers willing to stick it out are in for quite a ride.

In Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers, the Guerrilla Girls similarly seek to mitigate the power of female stereotypes over women's lives. "By taking a closer look and poking holes in some auras," they write, "we will praise the good ones, take back some of the negative ones, and propose ways to escape them if we want."

In a thin, campy volume peppered with dashing visuals, the Guerrilla Girls critique images and ideals of womanhood that have made their way into popular culture -- "Mom" included. The authors -- a group of anonymous feminists with a well traveled website and a penchant for the outrageous -- set out to catalog the origins, histories, and namesakes of some of the "most beloved and most notorious" female stereotypes of our time.

"Whatever life a woman leads, from biker chick to society girl, there's a stereotype she'll have to live down, or live up to," the book begins. Differentiating between stereotype ("a box, usually too small, that a girl gets jammed into") and archetype ("a pedestal, usually too high, that she gets lifted up onto"), the authors breeze through scores of both, including those that grow out of religious contexts, those rooted in "real" life, those invented to sell products.

"Stereotypes are living organisms," they insist, "subject to laws of cultural evolution. They are born, they grow, they die and/or change to fit the times. They have an umbilical connection to language. They gestate in popular culture and are born in everyday slang."

Tomes have now been devoted to exposing female stereotypes -- Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch, Inga Muscio's Cunt, Leora Tanenbaum's Slut, and Betsy Israel's Bachelor Girl, to name a few. And perhaps this book will spawn more, for surely its entries are partial. But interestingly, what set this panoramic take on female stereotypes apart are neither rigorous analysis nor startling historical acuity, but a kitschy aesthetic and an unremittingly humorous beat.

Has humor become the latest weapon in the feminist arsenal? The Guerrilla Girls' campy philosophy-lite, combined with Douglas and Michaels's mocking scowl, are destined to make readers laugh even as they get mad. To wit, these books supply much-needed tonic at a time when real-world politics are no laughing matter.

If humor is a painful thing told playfully, then every survival kit should contain a vital dose. And who knows? Maybe sarcasm is one way to rouse a jaded younger generation often hesitant to rally behind a feminist "we." Perhaps these authors are on to something: Anger, expressed ironically, may be one way to bring together the "smart and sassy" set and the old guard, uniting them once again in a common cause.

Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., is a freelance writer living in New York City. A Research Scholar at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, she is co-editor of the new web journal The Scholar & Feminist Online.

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