Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
One of the most life-changing concepts I encountered in my twenties was that of the male gaze. The idea draws on an assumption that we see the world not as it is, but as we’re taught to see it. Then it points out that the people who have taught us how to see in Western culture (artists, writers, photographers and film makers) have been predominantly male and have therefore taught us, men and women alike, to see the world from a masculine point of view.
The term ‘male gaze’ itself is attributed to Laura Mulvey, whose field was cinema studies. She pointed out that it was heterosexual males who were holding the cameras, presenting an entire cinematic world of stories and images from a heterosexual male perspective. John Berger later ran with the idea, arguing that this particular masculine perspective reinforced the objectification of women so that not only men but also women were being taught to see women (themselves) as objects. So the concept has been a hugely useful tool in gender studies and frankly seems to me to explain a hell of a lot.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been reworking these ideas in my head lately to see how they apply to motherhood and non-motherhood and wondering about the possibility of a comparable parenting gaze. I think of The Simpsons as one of the most normative media phenomena in existence, spoon-feeding multilayered generations of viewers with a steady stream of normative ideas about ethnicity, religion, gender, age, social class etc. And along with the consistently reinforced messages that whiteness is normal, Christianity is the religious default, men are breadwinners, the elderly are foolish, the working class are happy/moral etc, are some very fundamental messages about motherhood and non-motherhood.
Marge is the relatable adult female character with whom the viewer is to sympathise and identify. Her two childless sisters, Patty and Selma, present the alternative – grotesque, angry, unhappy, unfulfilled, unhealthy and undignified. They substitute children with iguanas. They substitute romantic relationships with pointless fantasies about tv stars. Despite the trials and tribulations of Marge’s family life (including infidelity, gambling problems, drinking problems, multiple arrests) the viewer learns to watch in perfect faith that by the end of each episode, Marge’s position will be validated as a matter of course by virtue of the crucial role she plays as mother in her family unit. In direct contrast, despite the many different endeavours at happiness undertaken by Patty and Selma (relationships, jobs, travel, make-overs, personal interests, pets) the viewer can be equally certain that each episode will end with their lives reduced to their original state of miserable indignity.
British family television series Outnumbered features the same dynamic with Sue, the attractive, relatable mother of three, contrasted with her flighty, irresponsible, bitter, sarcastic, childless sister, Angela. The Brady Bunch brought up an earlier generation with an image of the sunny, glamorous, respectable Mrs Brady contrasted with the dowdy childless housekeeper, unlucky-in-love, silly old Alice.
One of the reasons I think these kinds of stereotypes sneak under the radar of political correctness (or indeed any sense of a fair and compassionate way of viewing our fellow human being) is that they are packaged as humour. Not having a sense of humour is one of the greatest social crimes of our time, so it’s unwise to query any political or ideological aspect of this kind of entertainment publicly, no matter how powerful or pervasive the ideas it perpetrates might be. The Simpsons in particular builds into its worldview a strong sense that any kind of resistance or activism is inherently ridiculous, immature and pointless. To quote Marge herself, “I guess one person can make a difference. But most of the time, they probably shouldn’t.”
Returning to the concept of the gaze, these ideas form the way the Simpsons generation is being taught to see the world. (I believe they also relate strongly to my previous post that touched on many young women’s reluctance to identify with feminism.)
The idea of a pervasive parenting gaze might not seem very uplifting, but I think it has the potential to be a positive thought. It certainly offers some challenging context for the idea, upheld by many mothers and non-mothers alike, that non-motherhood is inherently unfulfilling – an idea that might otherwise seem so deeply rooted as to be mistaken for ‘common sense’.
Perhaps more importantly it is difficult, but I suspect not impossible, to rework a gaze. So maybe one way forward is to become increasingly conscious, critical and discerning about the normative ideas, images and entertainment through which we continue to learn to see ourselves and the world around us.
If you’re interested in tracing the parenting gaze through history you might enjoy this post about biographies of childless and childfree women. And whenever you need a dose of systematic bombardment of fabulous, validating, inspirational images of non-motherhood, please check out my ever-evolving project, the pinterest board.
But in the meantime, how about you? Have you noticed any of these trends in the media you watch? Any interesting exceptions?
[The beautiful image above is shared with permission from Yataro.]