Cover-girls and Mommy Wars

This week, I was going to write about my current lectionary kick, but I got derailed by the cover-girls. I certainly didn’t mean to. When I first saw this week’s cover of Time Magazine, my impulse was to ignore the whole thing. I felt that Time was trying far too hard to shock (and thereby sell more magazines) but had nothing terribly new or helpful to say about parenting. Just a fight in a box – or in this case, in a flimsy glossy magazine.

In case you missed it, Time ran an article by Kate Pickert, looking at the career and influence of Dr. Bill Sears, the attachment parenting (AP) guru. Pickert traces the origins of the influential parenting style and runs through the fans and critics of AP methods, but tends to place the blame (and I do mean blame) for “extreme” ideas about parenting on the side of overly anxious parents. There are sidebars about The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations about breastfeeding (pro-extended breastfeeding) and Sears vs. Science (comical at best – Sears is a person and can be quoted, but “science”? Really, Time. Step up to the plate, please.)

The cover image was of a mother breastfeeding a toddler.

The reaction has been ludicrously loud – and it mainly addresses the photo, not the article. There is a lot of rage – on both sides, of course. Christian Science Monitor described it as provocative, featuring “elderly toddler suckling his model-mother’s breast.” Which, I must say is an odd-way of describing a three-year-old and seems judgemental of skinny mums everywhere. But regardless of your views on attachment parenting, I think it is fair to say that the image is defiant. It isn’t about comfort, nourishment, or intimacy. The eyes-front poses are deliberately eye-catching.

On to cover-girl #2.

The May/June issue of Foreign Policy Magazine features a story by Mona Eltahawy called Why Do They Hate Us? She argues that Arab men’s hatred of women is, in itself, a war, and must be courageously described and decried locally and internationally. She writes:

“An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”

The article is a call to awareness of the realities of women’s lives in Arab countries – and as such is a call to active feminism.  Her conviction that women need to stand up to injustice and oppression in all places and her call to resist cultural relativism are urgent and awakening.

And the cover image? A naked woman with a painted-on burka. She’s looking right at the camera – with weird, accusatory seduction. Something like a come-hither look on a oil-slick seabird. Again, defiant and eye-catching.

Both of these cover photographs are designed to make you look.  Of course they are. And they work. But they also distract from the key issues at hand. The Globe and Mail’s Tralee Pearce points out that the Time image reminds us of the mother’s sexuality in a way that more typical “fringe-granola stereotypes” of extended breastfeeding don’t. In turn, Naheed Mustafa, Toronto-based freelance writer and broadcaster, responded to the FP image like this:

“The illustration is insulting to women in general. It takes the profound problem of gender-based violence and reduces it to sexual imagery: “Hey, we might be talking about the endemic hatred of one gender for the other but here’s a naked painted lady to keep you company!”

In both publications, the photos are distracting – and aggressive, daring us to look and to consider the women’s sexuality rather than their opinions. (I’m not saying that breastfeeding or burkas do this – but the magazine cover photos deliberately do.) Bodies shouldn’t be used like this.  Both images scream See me – when the real point should be hear me.

Both images also succeed in changing the debates. One way or another, we all seem to be a little on edge when women’s breasts are part of the picture. We get distracted from the issue at hand. No longer are we debating parenting or justice – now it’s sexuality and religion. Which are harder to debate – and easier to yell about.

It’s the yelling that has me bothered. These stories are about crucial issues. How we (both women and men) treat women, and how we (both men and women) raise our children – you can hardly get more significant than that. These are the questions about how we are human. But how we discuss our views on these questions is often disgusting. So much space seems to be occupied by accusations of ignorance on all sides. Maybe it’s just that the internet creates a space where that kind of dialogue is possible. Maybe it’s the anonymity – or its sister, false intimacy. Which isn’t to reject the internet (that would hardly be a credible stance for me to assume here) but to recognize that it is a conversation space that makes us vulnerable to a baser form of corresponding.

How then do we listen and how we respond in peace?  How do we offer our own opinions and corrections when we perceive error without placing ourselves on the other side? How do we disagree and stay at the table?

How do we keep a rational head in debates about our humanity?

I can only call for focus and gentleness. We should never assume that we are the only ones who care about the good of others. We should never assume that we are above correction ourselves.

And maybe we should stop claiming the language of war to describe our opinions and those of others with whom we disagree.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Romans 12:18


For some gentle additions to these discussions, see Leila Ahmed’s response here. Honestly, I’m still looking for a good one on the Time issue. Please send recommendations.


About Katie Munnik

Katie Munnik posts a new Messy Table every Monday.