December 8, 2012

Compulsory Motherhood: Is Woman Synonymous with Mommy?

Compulsory motherhood is commonly seen within the media and throughout society. How did "mother" become a synonym for "woman" in our culture?

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Mother with Child

Mother with Child

As it stands, I find myself constantly unable to normally watch TV. It seems this inability to comfortably sit down and enjoy the telly is partly (if not mostly) due to my desire to dissect and analyze every gender role presented on the screen. My mind is never at rest; I’m always asking myself the same questions regarding the awful reality shows, shows about teen pregnancy, makeover shows, and lest we forget, cooking shows I find my self returning to time, after time, after time: How is this person’s gender represented? What stereotypes does this person or this person’s  “character” subscribe to? Does this person challenge any of the preconceived notions attached to their body, gender, and representation?

However, apart from the few queer representations on TV today, in the end I find that my answers to all of these questions seem to be the same: the hetero-normative gender roles so many have been trying to dismantle and make obsolete for so long remain untouched, crystallized even. One of the most unchallenged, preconceived gender roles ever present in our seemingly always-changing culture is that of motherhood. So often, the opposite of manhood as represented in popular culture, is motherhood. Not womanhood. Motherhood.

Compulsory Motherhood on Television

Case and point: the DIY network’s remodeling TV show, “Man Caves” and its HGTV spin off, “Mom Caves.” Even the titles of these shows dictate a sense of compulsory motherhood, or the assumption that being a mother is a woman’s primary purpose. The title of “Mom Caves” as well as its website’s declaration, “It’s time [mom] had a space of her own, and don’t even think about the kitchen!” assumes not only the women on the show first and foremost fill the normative role of mother, but the audience fills and wants to fill that role as well, seeing that the show is of an instructional nature. The title, “Man Caves,” in theory allows men to be dads, among other things. The title, “Mom Caves” then, puts women in a motherly chokehold.

While the creators of these shows could have simply wanted a congruency in the titles of the two shows, its hard not to read a bit deeper (for me anyway) into the reasons why “mom” is so accepted as a synonym for “woman.”

Socio-Scientific Reasons Women are “always” Mothers

Historically and socially, the biological distinctions between men and women seem to have dictated the normative gender binaries and roles associated with being “male” and being “female.” Scientific discoveries and discourses, as objective as they claim to be, are always framed and shaped by the general populations current ideals and morals. Innovations into reproductive science are no exception, as detailed by anthropologist Emily Martin. Sperm are gendered as normatively male; energized, mobile, and often referred to colloquially as “soldiers.” The ovum, or egg, on the other hand is associated with “feminine” traits; its nurturing, passive, and awaiting the (male) sperm to rush in and penetrate the cell wall.

The socially maintained accordance between science and culture, then, is one important factor in the way we view gender and in turn, how gender is portrayed in the media. Women are passive, nurturing, and meant to be mothers while men have energies they must expend doing multiple things in the public sphere. When women and men are subject to such restrictive gender roles, their freedoms and rights to self are compromised.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Compulsory Motherhood?

Assuming any woman is meant to be, or wants to be a mother is problematic and should be reworked as a more inclusive, optional aspect of womanhood. By expanding the meaning of woman to mean more than simply mother and include the multifaceted identities that most women encompass, perhaps societal norms will, in turn, start to change. Women are artists, doctors, lawyers, musicians, CEOs, politicians, and mothers (if they choose to be).

Just as well, when the definition of “family” starts to change in our society to become more inclusive, both men and women will be less pigeon holed into normative parenting roles. If we as a society allow the definition of motherhood to be less restrictive, less about the who (women) and more about the what (parenting), perhaps women would be less likely to be stigmatized when they choose to not be a mom.

After all, who’s to say all women want to be mothers?

And, conversely, who’s to deny men who only want to be dads?

Sally Stempler is an undergraduate at Indiana University majoring in Gender Studies and minoring in Folklore. Her academic interests include feminist theory, queer theory, reproduction, and issues pertaining to LGBTQ rights and histories.