Even the New York Times' Jason De Parle, one of the
more sympathetic white male journalists to cover welfare,
gets blinded by class privilege. Roslyn
Hale, he wrote in 1994, who had been trying to get off
welfare, had a succession of jobs that "alternatively
invite and discourage public sympathy." She had worked
as a maid and as a clerk in a convenience store during
the overnight shift when drunks came in and threatened
her with a knife. Hale "blames economics for her problems,"
De Parle reports, since these were crappy jobs that
paid only minimum wage. "And sometimes she blames herself.
'I have an attitude,' she admitted." Hello? What middle-class
woman would not have "an attitude" after having been
threatened at knifepoint or being expected to be grateful
for such jobs? In the Boston Globe's "Welfare Reform
Through a Child's Eyes" we see little Alicia, who now
has a room of her own, Barbies, four kittens, and a
ferret because her mother got a job. But although this
story appears to be through the child's eyes (never
the mother's), it's actually through the judgmental
eyes of the press. Sure, the mom has quit drinking,
quit crack, and is now working at a nursing center.
But the apartment is "suffused with the aroma of animal
droppings and her mother's cigarette smoke." Presumably
everyone but welfare mothers and former welfare mothers
knows how to make their litter boxes smell like gardenias.
of the sentences most commonly used to characterize
the welfare mother is "Tanya, who has ____ children
by ____ different men . . ." (you fill in the blanks).
Their lives are reduced to the number of successful
impregnations by multiple partners--like zoo animals,
but unlike Christie Brinkley, although she has exactly
the same reproductive M.O. And while the celebrity magazines
gush that Christie, Kirstie, and Cindy are sexier than
ever, a welfare mother's sexuality is depicted as her
In the last three years, we've seen the dismantling
of the nation's welfare system. Meanwhile, the resentment
over the ridiculous standards we're supposed to meet
is rising. Sure, many of us ridicule these preposterous
portraits of celebrity mom-dom, and we gloated when
the monumentally self-righteous "I read the Bible to
Cody" Kathie Lee Gifford got her various comeuppances.
But the problem is bigger than that: the standards set
by celebrity motherhood as touted by the media, with
their powerful emphasis on individual will, choice,
and responsibility, severely undercut sympathy for poor
mothers and their children. Both media characterizations
have made it easier for middle-class and upper-middle-class
women--especially working women facing speed-ups at
work and a decline in leisure time--to resent welfare
mothers instead of identifying with them and their struggles.
does the media offer us this vision? Not surprising,
many reporters bought into the myths that began in the
Reagan era, with its dogma of trickle-down economics,
its attacks on the poor and people of color, and its
antifeminist backlash, through which patriarchy got
a new name--family values. Becoming rich and famous
came to be the ultimate personal achievement. Reagan's
message was simple--the outlandish accumulation of wealth
by the few is the basis of a strong economy.
that context, celebrity-mom profiles haven't been just
harmless dreck that help sell magazines. They have encouraged
self-loathing, rather than reassurance, in those of
us financially comfortable enough not to have to worry
about where our kids' next meals are coming from. And
they play a subtle but important role in encouraging
so many of us to think about motherhood as an individual
achievement and a test of individual will and self-discipline.
That mind-set--the one that promotes individual responsibility
over community and societal obligations--justifies letting
poor women and their children fend for themselves until
mom makes the right lifestyle choices.
stories suggest that we, too, can make it to the summit
if we just get up earlier, laugh more, and buy the right
products. These stories are about leaving others behind,
down below. Phony images of joyful, ever-nurturing celebrity
moms sitting side-by-side in the newsstands next to
humorless, scowling welfare mothers naturalize a pecking
order in which some kids deserve to eat well, have access
to a doctor, or go to Disney World, and others do not.
Under the glossy veneer of maternal joy, generosity,
and love lurks the worst sort of narcissism that insists
it's every woman for herself. Paying lip service to
a collagen-injected feminism, celebrity momism trivializes
the struggles and hopes of real women, and kisses off
sisterhood as hopelessly out of style.
Douglas teaches communication studies at the University
of Michigan and is the author of "Where the Girls Are:
Growing Up Female with the Mass Media" (Times Books).
Meredith Michaels teaches philosophy at Smith College.
Her most recent book (with Lynn Marie Morgan) is "Fetal
Subjects, Feminist Positions" (University of Pennsylvania
Press). Douglas and Michaels are working on a book about
media representations of motherhood.