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.