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Time Magazine Asks, Are You Mom Enough? ‘Feminist’ Bodies Men Can Fantasize About

May 22, 2012

Twenty-six year-old Jamie Lynn Grumet is shown on the cover of TIME Magazine’s most recent issue, casually pressing Aram, her nearly four year-old son, to her exposed breast alongside the caption, “Are You Mom Enough?” The picture prompts concerns over Grumet’s position (in relationship to her son) and its bold, unapologetic exhibition of nursing an older child. What exactly is the picture’s composition insinuating about the woman’s body and who, besides Aram of course, is savoring it?

While there are some titillating questions about the pornographic nature of the snapshot and while many comments simply express disgust for having to witness an American motherhood taboo, I want to reflect on what the display means for women—not Moms and not their children. There’s something very “Amazon warrior” about the picture of Grumet. She is quite literally half protective and half nurturing: her right hand rests atop the curve of her hip, her lean left arm wrapped around her son, and a calm, controlled expression stares directly at the camera. It is as if she can, in complete confidence, singularly defend and nourish her village.

But I hesitate to exalt Grumet as a figure for feminists. The Amazons sliced off their right breast in order to become stronger hunters and fighters and they donned full battle gear. In contrast, no matter how “defiant” her posture, Grumet is still a young, slender, blonde model wearing a thin cami and skinny jeans. If, on the other hand, she had been portrayed seated in a rocking chair with her breast peeking out of a slightly undone button-down, I doubt that there would have been so much alarm over possible pedophilia. The photograph brings to mind 1) the attractive 20-something who somehow magically falls into seductive poses and 2) the hardcore committed mother. One parenting blog responded with the following: “Is it extreme to breast-feed a 3 year old? That depends on how you feel about extended breastfeeding, of course. But one thing is for sure: it’s totally, totally hot. Or gross and weird. Or both.”

While I’m sure plenty of heterosexual men will find this an appealing combination, it’s a difficult impression for the progressive contemporary woman to accept, and it certainly wouldn’t compel her to embrace attachment parenting. While women may want to look “hot” and while some women want to be moms, neither of these position them to be measured according to a new light; they only reiterate the male fantasy of the babe taking care of her children, undistracted by other matters.

This doesn’t mean to entirely diminish any good that might come from the attention. Mayim Bialik delivered a feminist defense of attachment parenting this month in The New York Times, which conceived a woman’s biological, motherly functions as unique and powerful. Both she and Grumet are arguably contributing to the demystification of the female and her body. It combats the so-called secrecy imposed on women that, Simone de Beauvoir claimed, others them and that ultimately provides the men in power excuses for not caring about their issues or equality. Therefore, the recent TIME cover merits some credit in terms of improvement, especially given some past publications. However, a problem that feminists must confront, and a job feminist-rhetoricians must undertake, is figuring precisely how women’s bodies should be emerging in the public. Who are women’s bodies appearing for—her man and their kids? After all the current work done and still being done by Eve Ensler, and after TIME put out headlines like this, must we begin with views of the X-Treme Mom? On top of that, the Model-Sexy X-Treme Mom?

Since the cover’s release, many women have experienced discontent with the representation. Lisa Belkin of The Huffington Post joined several other columnists in taking issue with the caption’s term “Enough.” Once more, we are pressured into an ideal: not only should female bodies flaunt a .7 waist-to-hip ratio and plump breasts that defy gravity and time, but those breasts should be able to endure extensive breastfeeding. I broaden Belkin’s point by emphasizing that the “mom” in the caption insinuates that those breasts should be breastfeeding, period. The woman’s body makes its first candid appearance on TIME Magazine’s cover and the composition has brought attention to an aspect of womanhood that feels pre-Freidan, and that has made the virtue and strength of maternity a mockery.

The image has cost attachment parenting potential advocates and has (further) alienated the young breastfeeding mom with a less chic physique, or the mom that cannot breastfeed, the woman who wants women seen but doesn’t want kids, or the woman who wants women seen and motherhood revered but doesn’t want to breastfeed. When we represent womanhood and motherhood in photographs, we ought to consider carefully not only what the image looks like, but also what kind of an audience those images imagine. The TIME cover seems designed, in part, for a distinctly male, patriarchal gaze. And that gaze, as we know, has a very limited understanding of what women and mothers do.

If you want to know more:

  • The images inside TIME’s issue are of a somewhat different aura than the one on the cover. The women pictured describe nursing as something not immodest and no more offensive than Victoria Secret ads. It’s only fair to mention that most women don’t strive to be the cover model for VS only for themselves. (follow the “cover” link at the top)
  • I am fairly disappointed that TIME Magazine and advocates for attachment parenting have also not exactly depicted a man’s complexities. They are out of the picture, or are given no choice but to identify with the only male in the picture (the young boy, Aram). Thus the cover image and caption alienates another marginalized voice: the single father.
  • Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” thoughtfully theorizes on how the camera portrays women, how that portrayal is received, and whom (or what ideology) that portrayal satisfies.
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