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Douglas Subverts Sexism by Making It Funny

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Susan Douglas has made a career out of monitoring the media's portrayal of women. In her latest book, "The Mommy Myth," Douglas takes on what she calls the "new momism," or the perfectionist rendering of motherhood.

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Susan Douglas has made a career out of monitoring the media's portrayal of women. In her latest book, "The Mommy Myth," Douglas takes on what she calls the "new momism," or the perfectionist rendering of motherhood.
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The Mommy Myth

(WOMENSENEWS)--Media critic Susan Douglas was standing in a supermarket checkout line with her then five-month-old daughter Ella screaming in the grocery cart when the idea for her new book, "The Mommy Myth," first struck her.

Sleep deprived, hair uncombed, wearing a sweatshirt covered in spit-up, Douglas came across a magazine cover with a perfectly coifed celebrity mom declaring that motherhood was sexy. Douglas was dumbfounded.

"There you are, the real mother of America, no swat team of nannies, no French chateau and the joyful outlook that goes with it," she says. "Look at this gap between image and reality." It's a disjunction, she says, that undermines women by making them feel inadequate and guilty because they cannot live up to the image.

Douglas has been looking at that gap between image and reality--and its impact on women and men-- in magazines, newspapers and television for the past 25 years. As a communication studies professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she teaches students about gender in the media and the history of mass media, focusing on such things as how perceptions of masculinity and femininity have been constructed by the media since the 1980s. As a columnist for The Progressive and In These Times, she has written about everything from the news and the Bush Administration to the recent Janet Jackson breast-baring episode.

Both platforms--the classroom and the column--are equally important to Douglas.

"Susan is committed to breaking down the walls of the academy and relating to ordinary readers of the press," says Joan Braderman, a feminist video-maker and media studies professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

In her latest book, "The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Undermines Women," published in January by Free Press, Douglas, along with co-author Meredith Michaels, who teaches about reproductive rights at Smith College, again combines the intellectual with popular culture.


The New Momism

In "The Mommy Myth," Douglas takes on the romanticized, idealized image of the perfect mother or what she calls the "new momism," or the message that women are not real women unless they have children, to whom they devote every ounce of their physical, intellectual and emotional energy.

"It's just this complete veneer of schmaltz we need to rip away," Douglas says. The veneer, she says, is false and makes mothers feel solely responsible for their children's well-being instead of looking at the role society should play.

The way she tells it, new momism began to arise during the 1980s as the cultural byproduct of media panics about missing children and satanic day care centers, celebrity mom profiles and ads, the rise of right-wing politicians who trashed welfare mothers and single moms while promoting "family values" and stay-at-home moms and an explosion of products for children.

At the same time, Douglas says, the government has yet to recognize that most mothers are employed and continues to stonewall on paid parental leave, decent day care, good public schools and access to health care.

"Mothers look around and see institutions failing their kids," Douglas says, "so we pick up the slack."

But mothers, she says, have told her how they are increasingly fed up with "doing so much and feeling so bad or like it's never enough," and that they are looking for something to give voice to their exasperation. Douglas suggests they talk back to the celebrity mom profiles in the checkout line, e-mail congressional representatives to take action to put mothers' issues such as child care and part-time employment protections on their agenda and to join with other moms in Internet chat rooms to unify their voices.

Already, Douglas believes, there is a mother's movement brewing with the potential to improve the lives for all women.

"Motherhood really is the unfinished business of the women's movement," Douglas says.


Writing in a 'Mouthier' Voice

Douglas was born in 1950 in Fort Dix, N.J., and considers herself a product of the women's movement. In graduate school, she started paying attention to the images of women on television, noticing that they were portrayed primarily as "blond, pore-less, stupid and hysterical."

After her first book, "Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922," an academic history of radio published in 1987, Douglas decided she wanted to write in a "mouthier" voice and reach a broader audience.

In 1988, she wrote a critical piece for In These Times about an issue of Vanity Fair in which Diane Sawyer was held up as the angel of television and Donna Rice, the woman who had an affair with politician Gary Hart, was dismissed as "white trash." In such ways, she said, media played into and perpetuated good girl-bad girl stereotypes. Douglas became a regular contributor to the magazine and today writes the magazine's "Back Talk" column.

"She's able to cut to the quick and expose what's going on for what it is," says editor Joel Bleifuss. "At the same time, she never loses her sense of humor or her delight in the absurdity of what's transpiring."

"One of the most empowering things women can do is make fun of stuff," Douglas says. She has made a career out of it.

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer.