Sunday, June 01, 2003

Backlash 2003

It's become trendy in some feminist circles to dismiss Susan Faludi's Backlash as an overwrought and hysterical polemic. Faludi's 1991 analysis of sexist subtext in popular culture is at odds with the current direction of Pop Culture Studies which tends to celebrate transgressive and revolutionary messages in seemingly mainstream texts. In the light of this trend, Faludi seems like a fuddy duddy hold out from the '70's - the great aunt who's still crying sexism while the younger generation is having a great time deconstructing '50's sitcoms using queer semiotics. Sadly though, I'm beginning to feel like the wolf she warned us about is sitting at the door.

Faludi's argument is that 1980's and early 1990's American popular culture was rife with hidden messages encouraging women to return to more traditional roles. Like the Nazis, American conservatives wanted (and continue to want) women to focus on "Kirche, Kueche, Kinder" (church, kitchen, and children), rather than economic independence or careers. The majority of Backlash is an analysis of the subtle and not so subtle ways this message was incorporated into popular tv shows, books, and women's magazines. Some of Faludi's readings of these texts do seem a little farfetched or twisted to support her argument. For example, she relies heavily on certain episodes of the 1980's drama thirtysomething which she claims are pro-marriage / stay at home mothers and anti single and career women, without discussing other episodes which contextualize these ideas and do not support her thesis (at times, Faludi seems unable to differentiate between texts that encourage traditional roles for women, and those which are examining the exact tension Faludi is exploring - the conflicting pressure on women to be successful in the public sphere and to also maintain Donna Reed perfection at home). However, her basic premise is sound: in the face of rapid changes in women's roles in American society, reactionary elements stepped up the pressure to convince women they'd be happier and more fulfilled at home. These forces have not backed down in the intervening decade, instead they recently seem to be stepping up their campaign and becoming increasingly blatant about it.

A whole cadre of conservative women have written non-fiction books endorsing stay-at-home motherhood and decrying the evils of feminism; Danielle Crittendon (What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman), Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue), and Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children), are some recent examples. Now Danielle Crittendon has written a novel, Amanda Bright@home (Salon article - watch the short ad, read the story), to further spread her message that a woman's place is in the home. These women are not arguing that parents should structure their lives so that one or the other parent is providing the majority of caregiving for young children - they're advocating a return to the 1950's when men were macho breadwinners and women were nurturing caregivers and everyone knew his or her place (nevermind that this idyll never really existed except for a fairly small group of middle and upper class families). In their view, men who stay at home with their children are wimps, women who work part time or from home are unfairly dividing their attention and not focusing on their children, and only women who devote themselves full time to parenting are real mothers.

I recently plugged Adrienne Martini's column in austinmama.com. Apparently not everyone who read it found it as accurate as I did. A poster to the austinmama.com comment boards was appalled by the idea that a mother would willingly allow someone else to take care of her child so that she could engage in personally fulfilling work. The vitriol in this letter is breathtaking - the anonymous poster closes with "I don't pity poor, bored, creatively-challenged you for one second. I do, however, pity your child. Imagine being a small child who realizes that Mommy is too busy "being creative" to raise you." Because of course, only full time stay at home mothers are "raising" their children - if someone else takes care of your children for any amount of time, then you're farming them out to "strangers" and abdicating all responsibility for their upbringing. Of course men can still be real fathers no matter how little time they spend with their children, in fact, they'd better get out there and work some extra hours - someone's got to make a living, and obviously it can't be mom, since she's devoting every moment of her life to nurturing her little darlings.

The true believers out there (like the austinmama.com poster) may believe that they are doing what's best for their children, but I don't for one moment believe that the conservatives who are pushing this agenda are doing so out of altruistic motives (these are the people who are currently engaged in a. gutting the Head Start program, and b. denying tax cuts to the poorest and most deserving Americans, while handing them out to those who need them the least). After all, if this were really about giving children more time with their parents, there are many ways to achieve this in a non-sexist manner. The most obvious would be to extend family leave laws (which apply to mothers and fathers) to include more unpaid time off or expanding the program to include paid leave (perhaps out of unemployment funds). Or you know, we could stop pushing unemployed single parents off of the welfare rolls (apparently it's only middle class women who need to be at home with their kids, the poor ones need to get off their lazy butts and work, no matter how substandard their daycare options are). No, this is isn't about children at all. Call me cynical, but I think it's about stripping women of financial and professional power, and making them dependant upon men. Possibly, it's also about making things easier for big business by encouraging women to remove themselves from the workforce at a time when businesses don't need as many employees.

I'm not taking the opposite tack and damning all stay at home mothers, after all, for all practical purposes, I am one right now. I would love to see mothers and fathers have the opportunity to spend more time with their children. I am also sympathetic to some parents' concerns about the daycare system. Families need to examine all their options and find the solution that works for them - whether that is two parents employed full time, one parent at home full time, or some combination of full and part time work. The right solution for each family will vary depending on the personalities involved (parents and children) and the skills and abilities of each parent, and these solutions are likely to change over time. Parents also need to think through the ramifications of their choices, realizing that some choices are more risky than others - what will happen if the working parent loses his or her job? what are the opportunity costs (in terms of lost seniority, rusty skills, and reduced retirement savings) for the non-working or underemployed parent? - and develop contingency plans to minimize these risks. Finally it's important to examine the underlying implications of our choices, and what they communicate to our children. I want my children to know that men and women can both nurture children and be breadwinners, and that parenthood does not mean effacing yourself and your dreams in favor of total devotion to your children. Because of this, it's important to me that my husband and I co-parent as much as possible, and that my children see us both pursuing our avocations and career goals. I believe we can communicate these values without both of us working full time, but it takes more conscious effort and planning to do so. Whatever solutions you find for your family, I encourage you to fight those who would limit women and men's choices. Do it for yourself, for the men and women who fought to expand our options, and especially for your children.

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