Building the Perfect Mother

Lots and lots of people have commented on the People cover featuring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and all of their white children. Renée at Womanist Musings, however, says a number of things that drive the issue right home, both in yesterday’s post and the one that she wrote a few weeks ago:

As a society we pay a lot of lip service to respecting motherhood, but in truth unless you are of a certain colour or class, it is more likely that you will be punished, or somehow stigmatized for “choosing” to give birth.

Angelina Jolie is valued as a mother because she looks right, she has the right image – we are supposed to look at that People cover and think “This is what a happy family looks like”. The looks of love, affection and commitment to one another reinforce – these children will be cared for. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the other children, those ones we’re not seeing, the ones who would make us go ‘one of these things is not like the others’, and you’re thinking that they, of course, would be welcomed under that caring, glowing, rich umbrella image.

Renée has a good contrast post from earlier this month as well, looking at the way Erykah Badu’s pregnancy is being talked about in some media circles. Just in case we’re tempted to believe that the class concerns really do arise out of genuine desire to see children raised only in families that are capable of caring for them financially, that story provides a nice counterpoint.

I’d like to add, however, that the fetishization of Jolie as mother – and the construction of the perfect mother-shaped pedestal – is problematic in and of itself, not just in the contrast point. We’ve got a very nice mother version of the virgin-whore dichotomy going on up there, don’t we? One happily married, loving, generous spirit (the narrative on the nature of Brangelina’s early relationship has completely disappeared by this point – as well it should, because, y’know, don’t care, don’t judge, but that’s part of the character we’re creating here, the archetype the media is constructing), one a bed-hopping, ungrateful, outspoken slutty bitch. And it’s always obvious why that sucks for the one on the “bad” side of that dichotomy, but the damn am I also sick of the “good” side of it.

I really don’t have an opinion one way or another on whether or not Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt really are the wonderful people they play on TV. A lot of evidence suggests that they really do direct a substantial portion of their ample resources toward organizations that provide concrete support to women and children in war zones and areas of extreme poverty. My problem is not with the real Angelina Jolie, it’s with this character others are writing for her. That Jolie is not actually a person, she’s the perfect Hollywood mother, she’s the woman with the life toward which we should all aspire, she’s the lost little girl come around to finally find love with the man of everyone’s dreams, she’s hope incarnate. That half of the dichotomy is never allowed to make mistakes, and it reminds me, again, of this old post of mine about the impact of that self-sacrificing mother image, the playing out of the pressure for perfection.

Issues around motherhood often lead to some of the most heated debates in feminism, and frankly, I hate them. I think, often, they are yet another battleground on which we fight out our picture of what a perfect woman should look like, and none of those battles ever provide the space for women to just be human. There’s an all-or-nothing around a “good mother”, just as there is around a “good girl” and a “good feminist”. Just imagine the narrative if Jolie and Pitt were ever to divorce – say Angelina is caught having an affair. Pedestal broken. Now she’s nothing.

I could go on and on about various elements of this narrative – I already have, really, and since I have a headache, I suspect I’ve done a shitty job of it – including the father factor and how that comes into play, but the point is that there’s a perfect mother construction going on here, and it sucks because of what it says about everything that doesn’t fit, but it’s also built on a classically tenuous pedestal, and it sucks for that, too.

8 thoughts on “Building the Perfect Mother

  1. Sarah J says:

    I flipped open that tabloid while waiting for my overpriced chai at Barnes & Noble tonight. Ended up finding an article on Lauryn Hill, so missed the family-gasm entirely.

    I always liked Angelina because she was so frank about being a mess. She never seemed to want to play anyone’s little miss perfect role. Tattoos, blood, Billy Bob, bisexuality, talk of having lovers after her divorce that she didn’t bring around her kid.

    It does annoy me to see it all whitewashed on some damn magazine cover. I suppose that they were going to get stalked for baby pictures, so they might as well sell them and donate the money.

    And yes, it annoys me to absolutely no end that there’s a good end and a bad end to the dichotomy. Just let us be people, already.

  2. purtek says:

    You know, the whole “bad girl” storyline on Angelina seems to have disappeared *so completely*, I almost forgot about it. It’s so “happily ever after”, like now she’s got her perfect Cinderella story, she’s done, she can stop living. Put this one in the win column, and wrap it up.

  3. churmursounds says:

    Either way, the media loves to build people up because its so fun for them to tear them down, and women are definitely targets of this pattern, and unfortunately for women of color, its more about tearing them down, so the build up is rather quite quick if at all, and the tear downs more frequent, more “normal” think Whitney Houston…I think with white female celebrities, they spend an ENORMOUS amount of build up efforts, but in the back of everyone’s mind is how or if it all go down in flames….lovely isnt it?

  4. churmursounds says:

    Also, it interesting to see how others are responding to that article, no one really likes to get deep into the fact that marketing can be a really shady business in the entertainment industry, most are so used to images flashing at them, they are too lazy or to overwhelmed to dig deeper, to look at symbols and why and how they are carefully articulated and orchestrated. Thanks Purtek!

  5. Renee says:

    I have been criticized both online and in “real life” for writing those series of posts. People cannot seem to catch on that it is all about the social construction of motherhood. As a woman and mother how that is understood is of great importance to me. People should take this seriously as a childs first status in life is derived from its mother. They should also think that about it because this is just another mechanism of control encouraging us to modify our behavior to suit patriarchal needs…thanks for reading, the links and adding to tearing down of this harmful construction.

  6. purtek says:

    churmursounds, totally with you on the Whitney Houston analogy, and I think you’re right about the difference with white female celebrities. I can’t help but keep coming back in my head to how Britney Spears, once upon a time, was the sweet, blonde teenager saying she would stay a virgin until married. I bang my head against a wall at just how much the media enjoys tearing her down now, but the tear-down is dependent on her having had that particularly white period of sunlight and roses and whatever.

    And you’re welcome – I’m rarely complimented for thinking too damn much about, oh, everything, so I’ll take it when it comes. :)

    Renee – Agreed. I mostly avoid talking about this stuff in real life because I find it too frustrating to watch people rolling their eyes and verbally patting me on the head as kind of a silly girl. I’m not even a mother, but I think the social construction of motherhood is of great importance to women/feminism, to family relationships, and to children (as you say).

    I think people hear me start to talk like this and interpret it as getting all Orwellian-mind-control conspiracy theory or some such, because the idea that we’re living in narratives and society has constructs is often off the radar.

  7. Brown Shoes says:

    It’s kind of sad how some people interpret these sorts of ideas as somehow analogous to, say, the reptoids or some such thing.

    Anyway, it is sad because the social construction of motherhood has effects on children that can be hard to detect, but the children will occasionally/often be aware of them from a pretty early age – it does go back to your earlier post and those kind of attitudes can be a heavy burden on the children, too.

    Which isn’t to say that’s the primary reason for exploring this social construct because that buys into the idea that children are of utmost importance, still; thus, the construct remains.

  8. churmursounds says:

    Yeah! and I always get more of an uneasy feeling, when a new young teenage sensation/actress/singer etc..comes out with an image that is still highly adult(becoming even more adult since the younger britney days) but yet because of the fact that they are under 18, the media creates this image that has to be clean…so I feel more uneasy, when the “teenage sensation” or the celebrity newly weds, or the new families feed into the “perfect mold” identity projection, than when the projected identity is filled with flaws…Its just better for people to accept an image of someone with the flaws, than an even more made up image that is the “perfect” identity projection…These people just should not have that type of power.

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