Selling Old-School Motherhood With the Groceries

Today my mail included a supermarket coupon booklet which made me mad. I am a Mom seeking ideas for easy dinners and healthy snacks as I send my kids back to school. But before I could appreciate the helpful tips from Stop & Shop, the feminist sociologist in me was listing the things wrong with this booklet.

1) It is saying that children’s lives are the domain of Moms–not parents, not caring adults, just Moms.  Moms are mentioned three times before I even open the booklet.  No, Stop & Shop, you will not drag us back to the mythical 1950s. I resent this message, which is obviously seen not just by Moms, but also by Dads and by kids. The kids get another reinforcement about Mom’s primacy, and Dad gets another reminder of his irrelevance.

I might pass this booklet on to my husband–he’s the supermarket regular who has memorized which products are in which aisles. Embracing a booklet of “mom-inspired solutions and savings” wouldn’t faze him (I must brag), but this is one of a thousand examples of how our culture still marks involved parenting as being feminine. (For alternatives to that marking, see here and here.) As Gloria Steinem said, “Women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”

2) It is saying that mothering is a competitive enterprise. The back-to-school season is portrayed as “the big test,” with readers invited to the website to “steal other moms’ back-to-school answers.” I get it: tests, school. But the image suggests the worst version of American mothering: an anxious, competitive, individualistic project that we’re going to be judged on.

3.) It is saying that Mom should put the lunchbox and the backpack on diets. The lunchbox needs a literal diet, so that kids don’t consume too much fat and calories; the backpack needs to slim down so it doesn’t injure its little carrier. The booklet provides “four weight-loss tips” for the backpack, including a purge. (Really!)  Then there are five easy steps to take the lunchbox from a “flabby” “blubber box” to “trim [and] tasty.” As the cover boasts, it’s “lunchbox liposuction.”  Really!!  Gosh, are purging and liposuction the reason that none of the anxious Moms on the cover are overweight?

In all, this little specimen of regressive advertising is emblematic of too much of the media aimed at American women.  Like a passive-aggressive acquaintance, it first takes a friendly stance, then feeds insecurities and enforces the most regressive gender norms. It feels liberating to recognize and reject the trickery.  [For alternatives to that trickery, see here and here–and get Ms. magazine!]

Image courtesy of Flickr user x-ray delta one under Creative Commons 2.0.


Assistant professor in social sciences at Johnson & Wales University