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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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.