Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

the parenting gaze

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.]


26 comments on “the parenting gaze

  1. Kaitlyn
    April 12, 2012

    I’ve noticed that the women in the media (except for a few shows) are unhappy without children. Most shows have the woman as a thin, attractive superwoman with at least 2 children, and a less-than-perfect husband (Claire from Modern Family, Sharol(?) from According to Jim, Marge from The Simpsons, and Lois from Family Guy . . .). In each of those shows, the woman seems to be ‘happy’ but only after her kids and husband have drove her up the wall. Sex and the City seems to be one of few exceptions.

    • olivia
      April 12, 2012

      Kaitlyn, it seems to be a common enough trend, doesn’t it. I guess it’s reasonable for producers of this media to assume that the majority of their adult female viewers will be mothers, so it makes good sense to align their most sympathetically portrayed characters with motherhood.

      Satc is such an interesting exception, though. Even though its characters are definitely relatable, at the same time their context is a completely impossible (for the vast majority of viewers) fantasy of wealth, conspicuous consumption, barely-there work, eternal beauty/youth and a steady flow of enthusiastic eligible bachelors. In some ways I think Carrie/Samantha’s contented non-motherhood comes across more as part of that fantasy than as a real possibility for everyday women.

      (I still appreciate that they are glamorised rather than mocked/vilified though 🙂 )

  2. Amy
    April 12, 2012

    I’ve noticed that too – so many sitcom couples revolve around overweight, dim-witted husbands (who are just funny enough to remain lovable) with their entirely-too-thin, and entirely-too-tolerant wives! I was unaware of the male gaze – but that makes perfect sense now. These sitcoms are almost like fantasies for men.
    This also explains why so many women (especially young girls) obsess about looking “sexy” (ya know – skinny and big boobs)….because this sneaky male gaze has been feeding this to us as ‘normal’ (and desired) all along!

    While I think that many more ‘gazes’ exist today, I think the parenting gaze is extremely prevelant in advertising targeted to women: smiling babies in absorbent diapers, happy children jumping on a bed of freshly laundered sheets, or silly just-wipe-it-up with a paper towel messes! [Although, perhaps that isn’t as much a gaze as it is just marketing.] Regardless, I think these idealistic images really influence women, and contribute to the shocked reactions that occur when we express our childfree plans.

    • olivia
      April 13, 2012

      I think so too Amy – they create such a limited vision of possibilities for women’s lives, don’t they!

  3. valkyrie5959
    April 13, 2012

    Such an interesting post Ms read! I used to watch “On the buses’ with my
    family in the 1960s. The whole show revolved around one bus driver trying
    to trick women who were portrayed as promiscuous and stupid into having sex with him and the rest of the show was about denigrating his married sister who had a
    nasal drip and extra thick eye glasses. I now have a comment for people who
    tell me I have no sense of humour. I smile and say “I didn’t find that funny”
    Also I think blond jokes are a double banger of misery, sexist AND racist.

    When I was an Aunt I would return people’s children and say “oh how do you do it!
    I am exhausted” They actually replied. “It is different when it is your own”
    Another news flash. It isn’t different. One get’s even more tired. LOL.

    • olivia
      April 13, 2012

      Ha! Thanks for the heads-up valkyrie5959 🙂

  4. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    April 13, 2012

    If Marge was the one they wanted me to identify with, they missed the mark – I always identified with Lisa – a loner with a compassionate heart, smart, Buddhist, and surrounded by idiots. 😉

    • Emily
      April 13, 2012

      Having grown up on that show (the Simpsons) and looking back on it now, I’ve always felt it was more satire than anything. (Or at least the first eight or nine years or so were. Now it’s just the Simpsons meets and does ) Their mediocre family life was the focal point of a humorous commentary on mainly white, conservative, lukewarm religious, lower-middle class America. Everyone could think of someone in their own lives who they were reminded of by a character on the Simpsons, and Groening has said as much – he based much of his creation on real life people, places, and events.

      And, despite having watched that show, I turned out childfree and atheist. At least the Simpsons somewhat accurately portrayed (again, way back, in the very beginning, not so much now) how essentially underwhelming and day-to-day family life can be. I’ve always felt like shows such as Friends were much more offensive and stupid – six emotionally dysfunctional, immature young adults live unrealistic lives as beautiful people and can’t have a normal relationship to save their sanity, but then two of them have a baby together and everything is great. Now that’s insulting.

      No big surprise, I always identified with Lisa, too – smart, quiet, misunderstood, and feeling trapped by everyone else around her.

      • olivia
        April 13, 2012

        Emily, I think you’re absolutely right about the Simpsons being satire. I think its in the assumption that their lives are mediocre and that their world reflects a relatable reality that it becomes normative.

        Friends! I had forgotten that show. I don’t think I made it far enough through to get to a part where people were having babies, but you’ve inspired me to look it up and see how it was portrayed – sounds like a really interesting case!

    • olivia
      April 13, 2012

      Audrey, I always liked Lisa best too 🙂

      I think that by attributing those traits to a child character rather than an established adult, maybe there’s an assumption that they’re part of an identity to be grown out of?

      When episodes show Marge and Homer as young people, they’re often portrayed as having been less conventional in their youth too, but it’s understood to have been a phase they matured past.

  5. Nicole
    April 13, 2012

    This is a really awesome and thoughtful post. I will be thinking about this for a while. When I was in college, long before i thought of anything about having or not having children, I took a race, gender, and the media class that helped us to see and dissect stereotypes in all forms of media, and how they perpetuate our societal thinking and standards.

    I too from time to time notice things about parenting/moms/single women in movies or TV.

    A recent issue I noticed was on the TV show Breaking Bad. The 1st season opens w/the main male character working as a high school science teacher, while working a 2nd job at the car wash to help make ends meet. The mom, is a stay at home mom, who is pregnant with an unexpected 2nd child. They have a son who is physically handicapped and high school.

    The show emphasizes that the main male character is busting ass to make ends meet, while it is perfectly fine that his wife does not work. The story goes on to where the main male character starts cooking meth to better support his family after he’s diagnosed w/cancer. But,there is never a criticism at all that the wife does not work. I found this very bizarre and hard to accept as real – that the wife would not have a job. But, it is painted as entirely acceptable and that of course the man should and would go to all lengths to provide for his family, while the woman tends to the house and children. Definitely looking through the parental gaze in my mind.

    • olivia
      April 13, 2012

      Nicole, I haven’t seen Breaking Bad but it sounds like a really interesting portrayal of gender/family. I hope we get it here – I’ll be looking out for it now!

  6. Pingback: In just one family… | swimming upstream

  7. Living my Life
    April 27, 2012

    Breaking Bad has been on ABC TV, but not for a while. It’s worth a look and had a bit of a cult following.
    This post kind of frightens me as I feel that I’ve been quite blind to the male gaze in TV, not that I’m a big watcher of sitcoms, but reading this I’m a bit horrified to think that maybe I’m closest to Patty and Selma. Bits of Lisa as well (but probably more so when I was younger – yep I’m a great stereotype), but I have way more than my fair share of unhappy, unfulfilled and undignified and even anger at times. I feel I’m really letting down the strong independent childfree women team. I struggle daily with how to find meaning as a single childfree woman and how not to feel like a complete failure for not having achieved anything I wanted with my life or anything society values. I know that I see myself through the parenting and male gaze and that certainly doesn’t help with my own self concept. Anyway baby steps for me at this stage I guess and thanks for pointing this out.

    • olivia reading
      April 27, 2012

      Living my Life, I don’t think you’re letting ANYONE down! Everyone single one of us is a work in progress and there isn’t a soul on this earth who doesn’t have days of feeling a complete failure.

      I just read your snake dream post:

      What a fascinating dream! I thought it was so interesting that you weren’t initially afraid because you had some experience with handling the potentially scary thing you were facing. Even though it was bigger and faster than you expected, I feel that somewhere in your dream is some knowledge that you have the skills and experience to cope.

      And the other thing I thought was especially interesting in the dream was that you’re not sure what deal you made with the snake. I bet it was an amazing deal. Even though it felt scary and uncomfortable, the families were just standing around while you were running ahead, being propelled forward out of the ordinary.

      You’ve reminded me of one of my favourite Buddhist stories about Milarepa, the monk who had to face the demons in his cave. Just in case you find it helpful too, it’s told in the first four paragraphs here – I think your snake might be the final demon:

      • Living my Life
        April 28, 2012

        Thanks for your lovely take on the dream and the link; maybe the snake is my final demon….

  8. Living my Life
    April 27, 2012

    Okay I’ve just had another look at the pinterest board (I’m so glad you have made this) and feeling a bit better now – I think I’ll make it my mission to find a new suggestion for your board.

    • olivia reading
      April 27, 2012

      I’m so glad! I keenly await any suggestion you may have :).

      • Living my Life
        April 28, 2012

        Okay, so I want to suggest Chellis Glendinning, but I don’t know for sure that she doesn’t have children…how does one find out…

      • Living my Life
        April 29, 2012

        Well I’m nothing if not tenacious…I’m thinking Julia Butterfly Hill might be a candidate. I haven’t been able to find any quotes directly from her – but I did find this comment on her blog:
        “I am the Canadian ecovillage activist who strongly shared your views and supported your message about reducing our human numbers through an intentional childfree lifestyle.”
        However I do understand if that’s not enough evidence as it’s always preferable to have something directly from the person.

        • olivia reading
          April 29, 2012

          Result! I had a look too and found this:

          “CG: If you were to have children, would you build them a tree house in the back yard?

          JBH: First of all, I’m not going to have children because I know that every choice comes with a responsibility. I understand the magic of wanting to have your own child, but I also understand that we’re not doing a good enough job of taking care of the earth that we’re bringing those children into. On top of that, there are a lot of babies already here who need love. Personally for me, I tell people that if they want to have the experience of a child, have that experience with one. I honor that desire to be a part of the magic of creation. And then extend your love beyond that child and adopt those children who are already here.

          For me, I experience the magic of creation every day so I don’t have to bring a child into this world as a validation of who I am. When my life settles down and I have some kind of a space that allows me to nurture, then I will adopt children. And I will probably adopt children who are at an age when no one wants them anymore. And about the tree house—if they wanted one, we would probably build it together.”

          Adding now – thank you so much for this!

          • Living my Life
            April 29, 2012

            What a lovely quote, thanks for finding that! It is in some respects how I feel as I’ve always said I think it’s a selfish thing to have a child. Interestingly I was given her book years ago by an ex boyfriend who said he thought I was similar to JBH – I feel far to burnt out and cycnical and lacking passion at this stage, but I can see aspects that would make him say that.

  9. khh1138
    May 11, 2012

    I identified with Lisa, too. But I liked Patty and Selma – any efforts to make them look bad were lost on me!
    I will say, I am grateful that the Simpsons provided us with this great quote (Marge is comparing her life with a chic childfree woman):

    Bart: “Mom, Maggie puked in your purse again!”

    Lindsay Naegle: “That’s too bad Marge, the only thing my purse is filled with is disposable income. Now if you’ll excuse me, i’m late for a skydiving-massage.”

    • olivia reading
      May 11, 2012

      khh1138, that is hi-LAR-ious – I must have missed that episode!! If I may, I’ll borrow your quote for a future blog post. I love it :D.

      • khh1138
        June 9, 2012

        Please do! I wish I had it on a T-shirt.
        And thanks for this lovely and amazing blog. 🙂

    • Jen
      August 9, 2012

      Oh this quote is pure gold! Thanks for posting…

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