What also makes for the perfect storm of sales-driving sensationalism: the child in question is three years old and has a model-looking mother, whom some news outlets have inevitably referred to as a "Milf" (from American Pie: "Mom I Would Like to F…").
Friday, the issue is set to hit newsstands nationwide. While the edition is likely to remain controversial for the obvious issues – that late-stage breastfeeding is/isn't weird; that child will/will not grow up well-adjusted; and (sadly) that mom pictured is/isn't hot – the cover is not problematic because it's polemic. Rather, the way it is presented distracts us from having a meaningful discussion of motherhood and sexuality, which is a discussion we need to have.
We get so caught up in the "weirdness" of the situation that we don't really address the bigger issue: uneasy Americans flip out whether Mamma Madonna is a goddess or a bitch, and will criticize her if she's sexed up or completely desexualized.
Some evidence? Let's start with Annie Leibovitz-shot Demi Moore Vanity Fair cover. As described by the Los Angeles Times, "It was the photo that spawned all manner of celebrity mom to bare all along with their bellies, among them Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera," but "at the time, some retailers were so taken aback by the shot that they sold the issue in a brown paper bag as if it were an adult title like Playboy." Moore said she felt it gave women "permission to feel sexy, attractive when you're pregnant."
But the preg-celeb photo shoots that have followed over the past 20 years, such as the Jessica Simpson's Elle spread of late, suggest that women still don't have the permission to celebrate pregnancy or motherhood without charges of indecency.
Reactions to the frilly lingerie for lactating mothers, as detailed in a New York Times' article "Nursing Bras That Show Mothers in More than Work Mode" also support this.
There were women who felt that the traditional "matronly" models were sufficient and practical; that the post-partum period was no time to worry about unmentionables' unattractiveness. There were women who felt bogged down by the demands of motherhood, who wanted to boost their self-esteem with nursing bras and matching thongs. And then, there were women who felt that being a mother in a simple, lingerie-free way was given a bad rap; that they should be thought of as sexual beings even if they're wearing a white or flesh-toned bra – in the words of one garment maker said: "I love being a mother, but lingerie is not for a mother … It's for a woman." As Koa Beck wrote on Mommyish:
"Apparently being a mother is not the same as being woman on the pure basis of undergarment choice. If you're not wearing a lacy push up bra or matching lingerie set, you're not a woman to the heads of these bra companies. And motherhood and a fancy balconette bra are just not compatible."
Adding to the confusion, of course, are the sexless shrew tropes we constantly see on network sitcoms, which send the message that moms are moody but never in the mood, à la Everybody Loves Raymond. Also among the countless, confounding examples in pop culture are the young women of Teen Mom, who sometimes seem more concerned with plastic surgery than their kids.
The portrayal and perception of motherhood in America is messy, to say the least. Deconstructed, here's how Time relates to all of this: the cover feels inappropriate not just because of its shock value; instead, the imagery fosters the attitude that breastfeeding is freakish per se, and it then links this notion to society's complicated, contradictory prescriptions about mothers' sexuality.
Some might counter that despite the overt opportunism, this is a liberating, challenging portrayal of breastfeeding. After all, the line of reasoning goes, isn't the young mother on the cover challenging stereotypes by proudly, publicly defending her choice to breastfeed – while simultaneously embodying a strongly sexual being?
That does not seem to be at play here, though. The Time photo shoot doesn't set out to challenge taboos so much as exploit them: because it is such an extreme, link-baity example, it prompts a gut reaction based upon what we already believe about appropriate ages for breastfeeding.
Because the "weirdness" element is foregrounded to the exclusion of any other considerations, the Time cover precludes a necessary public debate about the underlying theme: that mothers – be they foxy or frumpy or somewhere in between – should be free to express their sexuality as they so choose, without feeling pressured by shame or constraining stereotypes.