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“Mummies at war”: stop pitting mothers against each other in order to sell formula milk

The representation of mothers as shrill Mumzillas is hardly something new. Sadly, neither is exploiting these stereotypes to sell things.

It has been reported that formula milk manufacturer Similac has scored “a big hit with one of the most honest ads ever about parenting”. Honest, that is, if you see parenting as “an activity primarily performed by scowling women who all hate each other”. Called the Mother ‘Hood (in what seems to be a rip-off of a slightly more amusing advert for the Fiat 500L), it is, according to the company, all about “encouragement, not judgement”.  Personally, I would adore an advert that took on the petty, sexist stigma surrounding formula feeding. I just don’t want one that resorts to Daily Mail-esque caricatures of warring mummies, each one more repulsive than the one that came before.

The representation of mothers as gruesome, shrill Mumzillas is hardly something new. Even so, every time we encounter it we are expected to coo over how refreshing, ground-breaking and honest the whole thing all is. Oh look! Someone making an advert has helpfully pointed out that we’re all too busy judging one another to remember “the sisterhood of motherhood”! Here that, girls? Deep down, we’re all the same! Thank god for that. I for one am so relieved that “Abbott brand Similac has enlisted Publicis Kaplan Thaler and its Publicis Groupe PR sibling MSLGroup to create a digital video campaign that's trying to bring peace to the playground.” Phew! Without these companies on hand to serve up 2 minutes 39 seconds worth of “calm down, dears!” we mummies would surely end up eating one another alive.  

The Similac advert certainly doesn’t skimp on the sexist stereotypes: 1980s-style career mummies on their mobile phones; middle-class mummies with their pool births and posh buggies; yoga mummies with their ridiculous Krypton Factor-style slings; stay-at-home mummies making digs about “part-time mummies”; boastful breast feeders and passive-aggressive attachment mummies (and yes, there are token dads too, but the main point seems to be that they’re all a bit emasculated by the whole thing). What unifies all the mothers in the advert is not “the sisterhood of motherhood”; it’s the fact that they all look unbearably smug and say stupid, spiteful things to one another. It seems to have been written by someone who got all their information on “how mothers behave” from Misogynists R Us. And yes, we might get the schmaltzy “no matter what our beliefs, we are parents first” message at the end – right after everyone rushes to stop a runaway buggy – but by that point, any parent with a degree of self-respect will have lost the will to live.

To be clear, I am in no way denying that mothers are placed in competition with one another over every single thing we do. We are and it is awful. But where does this come from? From ourselves alone or from the media constantly telling us that this is what we are and how we must feel? For instance, I once breast fed sitting next to a bottle-feeding mother who then apologised to me for “not having tried harder” to avoid formula. Of course, I then apologised in return for having made her feel uncomfortable before proceeding to babble on about having “just been lucky” (I may even have thought of, but thankfully discarded, the term “tit privilege”). Deep down, I’m sure neither of us really gave a toss about how the other chose to feed her infant. The trouble was, we’d already been given roles to play, I the Arrogant Earth Mother and she the Defensive SMA Purchaser. Without making a clumsy show of rejecting such roles, we’d have had to let this manufactured resentment simmer forever.

As Susan Faludi pointed out in Backlash – written a whole quarter century ago – the so-called “Mommy Wars” are primarily a media construct. They perform a particular function. Mothers have to appear to hate each other – and to genuinely believe that such hatred exists – because it makes us vulnerable and easy to manipulate. A 2007 Washington Post article, The Mommy War Machine, noted that “the Mommy Wars sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows and radio broadcasts”, and now there’s formula milk to add to the list. Unfortunately, the one thing these wars never sell is genuine support for all mothers, whatever their situation (and as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels point out in Ms., one key impact of positioning motherhood as a war based on “individual will, choice and responsibility” is that the needs of poor mothers – those who cannot simply select their faction at will – need never be considered at all). 

The “mummies at war” trope is clever insofar as it simultaneously exploits and ridicules women’s insecurities about parenting. It is not dissimilar to the way in which the Dove’s “Real Woman” campaign exploits and ridicules women’s “irrational” relationship with the diet and beauty industries (use our products in order to look like this! But don’t dare care about looking like this! That would just be vain and silly!). Women’s insecurity isn’t just taken for granted; it’s waved in their faces as a source of shame. It’s your fault you’re so hung up on being the beautiful, perfect mother, you utter narcissist! Forget the fact that mothers are told what to do every minute of every single day – and that since the instructions are so contradictory, you end up having to decide which way to jump and then justify it to all the voices telling your decision is WRONG – we are meant to think this battle is taking place within some privileged mummy bubble, away from all the enormous cultural, social and economic pressures that surround us every day.

Clearly, not all mothers get along. Giving birth does not reduce us to one indistinguishable mass of mum-ness (indeed, it’s almost as though we remain individuals, with likes, dislikes and everything!). It seems to me that messages such as “mummies are at war” – along with “teenage girls are mean,” “female celebrities are vain” and “brides-to-be are too demanding” – function as a form of social control. It’s a way of keeping the femininity in traditionally female roles. Since we have an idea of what a mother should be – modest, self-effacing, compliant – we persuade her that she, more so than other women, has a ferocious inner bitch that must be kept in check. We no longer need puffed-up Victorian men churning out tracts on the correct behaviour of ladies; we just need to show women a few screechy working mummies slugging it out with a bunch of smug, condescending stay-at-home mums. See? Is THAT what you want to end up like? The message to women – “don’t be so judgmental of one another!” – is entirely inappropriate. We are not the judges; we are the ones on trial. When we are told not to judge – and when our decision making is portrayed in the form of misogynistic caricature – what we’re really being told is “don’t be political / don’t have an opinion / never express dislike for anyone / don’t be anything other than sweetness and light.” Sod that. Sometimes our decisions and judgements are arbitrary – as are everyone’s – but believe it or not, we know this. Beyond this, our most strongly held opinions are not slights against other women; they are expressions of our selves.

One final point: the end of the Similac advert. Is it just me or is anyone else thinking “why do all the parents have to run after that one pram? And more to the point, what have the other ones with prams done with their own babies while they’re doing this? What if their babies have set off on another path to danger, albeit in the opposite direction?” Frankly I disapprove of parents who leave their own babies alone in the middle of parks just so that they can join in with some peace-making pram pursuit, all the whole knowing that they’re probably not going to be the ones to save the day. I consider such glory hunting irresponsible. Indeed, you could say I look down on such people. But I’d hardly call it a declaration of war.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser