Oh bother! The Today Show Takes on Gender-Neutral Parenting

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For maybe the first time ever STA, RJP, FWA and I happened to be watching the Today Show yesterday morning and saw their segment on the parents who are raising their third child as genderless. I’m not sure what the segment was called, but the article on Today’s website was entitled, “He, She or It? Family Keeps Gender a Secret”. I must admit that while I have seen various links to the story circulating on the interwebz (several of which were posted by students from this semester), I haven’t really followed it. Therefore this “oh bother” speaks specifically to the coverage of this story on the Today Show this morning. There are so many ways that Today’s framing of this issue with this title (and the article/segment) bothers me. Here are just three:

ONE: Does violence through pronoun usage
He, She or It? Really? Using “it” to refer to someone who does not identify/is not identified as either male or female is not okay. This baby is not an it, they are a person. And contrary to what one “expert” on the segment suggests (1 min 50 secs in),  one’s humanity should not be predicated on a clear and rigid gender presentation (see J Butler’s Undoing Gender for more on gender and the “human”). By the way, this “family researcher” just happens to be the director of Focus on the Family, a “global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive” and encouraging “parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.” Why isn’t this important fact, a fact that certainly influences his interpretation of the “scientific Truths” he purports, mentioned in the segment? And, wouldn’t it make more sense to have a trained scientist discussing the science behind sex and gender differences? Just sayin’.

TWO: Implies that regardless of how the parents choose to raise this child (or even how the child chooses to identify/present themselves) the “truth” of sex/gender* still exists–it’s just hidden.
To suggest that the family is keeping a secret about the child’s sex/gender is to indicate that some essential truth about that sex exists but isn’t being told. And, what is that truth of sex/gender, exactly? Is it boy = penis and girl = vagina (or, no penis)? And what are the implications of this equation for gender, if sex = biology and gender = social rules/roles? Could it be this?

We discussed these issues of sex/gender a lot in my politics of sex class this past spring. See my notes for more on this discussion.

*note: I’m writing sex/gender because they are used interchangeably in the article/segment. In the interest of making this entry accessible to a wide range of readers, I decided not to discuss the problematic ways in which the Today Show conflates and confuses sex and gender and how different feminist and queer theorists theorize the relationship between sex and gender. For one discussion of the differences between sex and gender, see my notes on sex/gender/desire for my politics of sex class.

THREE: Encourages us to morally judge (and condemn) parents by describing their actions as “keeping a secret”
The focus of the TV segment is on the question of whether or not these parents are doing the right thing and not about what gender-neutral parenting (or even negotiating gender in child-rearing practices) means for the child. As viewers we are being invited to morally judge them (literally: there was a poll with 11% saying what these parents did was “great” and 89% saying that it was terrible). I think that there are many other, potentially more productive ways, in which to approach this issue and to think through the problems and possibilities of negotiating gender rules/norms with our kids. In my queer/ing ethics class this past spring, we spent a lot of time thinking through what it might mean to engage in ethical practices that don’t involve judgment. What questions aren’t asked when we devote so much of our energy asking, Are these parents morally right or wrong?, and then answering by condemning them as terrible parents? Why aren’t we asking: What societal forces/structures have made gender such a problem that these parents don’t want to impose gender on their child? How does gender work? Could it work differently? Are our only options rigid gender roles or no gender? Why does assigning gender matter so much to us and why do we become so enraged/uncomfortable/anxious when someone’s gender isn’t obvious?

The Today Show article/segment speaks to a lot of different topics I discussed in my three classes this semester. In addition to the class notes links I offer above, check out my entry on gender-netural parenting for my feminist debates class.

Now, since this is an “Oh Bother!” post, I want to hear from you. What do you think about this segment? About gender-neutral parenting? About the parent’s promotion of a “free to be..you and me” mentality? About the primary expert not being a scientist but a “family values” researcher?

If you aren’t a regular reader of this blog, here’s my explanation of the “oh bother!” category:

OH BOTHER!: I am starting a new category this morning called “oh bother.” This category will include anything that I find particularly reprehensible, repulsive, or just plain annoying. The term, bother, has been one that I have adopted as of late in order to stop saying f**k (which is a favorite word of mine) in front of my highly impressionable kids (who are 3 and 6). Any resemblance to Winnie the Pooh’s catch-phrase is purely coincidental. (Don’t get me wrong, I really like classic Winnie the Pooh. But, somehow, I don’t think Pooh meant “oh bother” in the same spirit that I do.) Like I said, I started uttering “oh bother” about a year ago when my kids got old enough to understand and repeat inappropriate words. It seems rather fitting to use this phrase in relation to making/staying in trouble. After all, to be bothered by something is another way of being troubled by it, right? To bother someone is to trouble them, right? To be in a state of botherment (is this a word?) is to be in a state of trouble. This category is different from my other categories. The “oh bother” examples are meant to be analyzed by you, dear reader, and not me. I want to know what you think about these examples. Perhaps the “oh bother” is a request or a command–as in, (won’t you please) bother these examples for me because I can’t or don’t want to.

Queer hope: Is it possible when we have no future?

no-future-7977791I have started the laborious (yet fun–I am a nerd, remember?) process of figuring out what readings I want to include in my syllabi for the fall. Today I am thinking about my Queering Theory course. Ever since I found out about in the spring of 2008, I have wanted to give some attention to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. In this polemic, Edelman argues for a queer ethics that is counter to “reproductive futurism” with its emphasis on building better futures for our children. He writes:

Indeed, at the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.

So, what does this mean and what are the implications for our ethical and political projects? Some unpacking of terms is needed here. Simply put, reproductive futurism is the belief that our participation in politics–indeed, the political itself–is motivated by a belief in and a desire for creating better futures for our children. We are, in Edelman’s words, always “fighting for our children.” Reproductive futurism suggests two things: a. there is a future that we can make better–that has “unquestioned value and purpose” (4) and b. that future is emblemized by the Child. For Edelman, this reproductive futurism is linked to heteronormativity (heterosexual as the only normal, natural, right way to be) and renders any alternatives (queerings) of communal relations/kinship/visions of resistance as unthinkable–how could you possibly be against fighting for the children?–and outside of politics. Wow, I hope that makes sense. Now, why does Edelman make this radical claim? Because queerness/queering is not possible in a politics of reproductive futurism, he wants to encourage the stepping outside its logic and into the space of refusal and negativity–the space of the death drive (warning: psychoanalysis alert!)–where there is no future.

I have only just (barely) skimmed the introduction and table of contents of this book, so I am having a difficult time explaining all of this in coherent, compelling and intelligible (non-jargony) ways. Clearly, I need to engage in a much closer reading of this text. The more I think about his ideas, the more I think I want to use this in my class. It raises some great questions for my own work and for one way I am thinking of organizing the course: What would it mean to think about political and ethical projects outside of this logic of better futures on behalf of our children (especially for those of us who are parents and/or are heavily invested in children/youth)? What could a radically negative politics looks like? Are negativity and a refusal to engage in political projects aimed at transformation or ethical projects aimed at striving for the good what queer is essentially about? Is the only way in which to imagine a queer ethics negatively and in opposition to any claims, normative or otherwise?

halberstamIn what I have skimmed so far, Edelman seems to be theorizing queer theory in relation to time (queer time = no future, no linear progression) and space (queer space = outside of politics/social) which makes me think of Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place. In this collection of essays, Halberstam explores queer time and queer space in order to shift the perspective on queerness from an identity or set of activities to “a way of life” (1). I am fairly sure that I want to use several chapters out of this book as well. Now I just need to think about how to put them in conversation with Judith Butler, who remains a big focus of the class.

Final thought: It seems appropriate to follow my last post on Michael Jackson and hope (both the loss of it and how we might rethink it) with this one on no future and the death drive. There are some significant connections between my comments about Jackson (and my reference to k-punks posting on him) and any thinking through of Edelman’s idea of no future (which k-punk also writes about here four years earlier!). One connection between No Future/critique of reproductive futurism and Michael Jackson is found in k-punk’s post. K-punk writes:

Certainly, Edelman explicitly identifies the logic of reproductive futurism as ‘poptimism’, whose ‘locus classicus is Whitney Houston’s rendition of the secular hymn, “I believe that children are our future”, a hymn we might as well make our national anthem and be done with it.’ (143) In fact, though, ‘We are the World’ might be the better choice for reproductive futurist anthem: we are the world, we are the children (therefore it is OK for us to bomb other people’s children – because they aren’t the Future.)

Wasn’t “We are the World” a central part of the recent tribute to MJ? Interesting… In case you don’t yet have the song in your head, here it is:

There is another connection with which I want to end this post. The idea of no future, at least at first glance, indicates that we need to function without hope. If there is no future (no better world on the horizon), there is no hope that things will be different. Because isn’t hope a futural term? Edelman seems to be rejecting the possibility for queer hope. But is hope fundamentally counter to queer? Can we imagine these things together? In my last post, I pointed to Cornel West and his tragic hope as one that is counter to the vision of hope as innocent (the Child?) and naive. But is his notion of tragic hope entrenched in a heteronormative (non-queer/anti-queer) vision? After all, he is very invested in defending and revaluing parents. Hmmm…Queer hope. A future article, perhaps?

Mike and Carol Brady are the worst parents in the history of the world, part II.

Brady-Bunch-from-Stuck-in-the-70s-702715Upon further consideration, I have decided that perhaps Mike and Carol Brady are not the worst parents in the history of the world. But, they are bad. The “family values” that they try to instill in the Brady 6 (does anyone else use this term to describe the Brady mafia…I mean gang…I mean darling children?) are downright disturbing if you stop and actually think critically about them. Let’s trouble the Brady family values together, shall we?

It seems to be a given that The Brady Bunch is a show that reflects and encourages traditional family values. Really? I have heard this so often that I found myself wondering, Who actually claims this? A quick google search yielded this result. The Museum of Broadcast Communication (MBC) writes:

In an era in which situation comedies emphasized how social climes were changing, The Brady Bunch was one of the few series that hearkened back to the traditional family values seen in such sitcoms as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.

So, if this is the case and The Brady Bunch really does reflect traditional family values, what does that mean? According to the MBC, traditional family values include ignorance as innocence, a refusal to address changing social climes, and hypocrisy.

Unlike All in the Family or even Julia, The Brady Bunch tried to steer clear of the political and social issues of the day. Rarely were non-white characters introduced into the series. Women’s liberation and gender equality were boiled down to brother-sister in-fighting. The counterculture of the 1960s was represented in random minor characters portrayed as buffoons–or in Greg trying to impress a girl with hippie jargon.The representation of childhood in the series as a time of blissful innocence was in marked contrast to what was happening off camera. Many of the boys and girls playing the Brady children dated each other secretly, making out in their trailers or in the doghouse of the Brady’s pet, Tiger. Oldest boy Barry Williams attempted to date Florence Henderson and filmed at least one episode while high on marijuana. All these incidents (as well as Robert Reed’s homosexuality) occurred behind closed doors, coming to light only a decade after the series originally aired.

Mimi Marinucci, who has written an excellent article, “Television, Generation X, and Third-wave Feminism: A Contextual Analysis of the Brady Bunch,” offers one more family value to the list: sexism repackaged as equality. She writes: “Because the sexist messages of The Brady Bunch were often hidden beneath an egalitarian facade, however, our dismissive attitude left us vulnerable to the show’s subtly sexist subtext” (512). Marinucci’s analysis of the show (and Gen X’s/3rd wave feminists’ irony and sarcasm) is helpful in providing a deeper look at The Brady Bunch that includes more than the simplistic notion that the Bradys ignored social issues and presented family life as wholesome, white, and insular (which is the charge that the MBC is leveling against it).

Here is my take on all of this: The family values that Mike and Carol live by are not merely bad because they are hopelessly naive, outdated or disingenuous. They are bad because they help foster a world view that is unjust. They encourage kids to gang up on each other or at least look the other way when the kids are “othering” each other. They equate truth telling and honesty with tattling and squealing. They discourage personal achievement and individuality by teaching kids that being good at something leads to selfishness, becoming too-full-of-yourself, and disloyalty. And, most troubling for me, they have created a family that demands conformity, uniformity, and togetherness and that shames and ostracizes any family member that dares to think different/ly (an Apple family this is not).  It is because of their promotion of these family values that Mike and Carol are bad (as in not good, not just, not morally/ethically responsible) parents.

Now, don’t worry, I have much more to say about these values and the Bradys. Look for future entries on the joys of conformity and group think (Jan, the only child), how getting along is more important than ensuring that everyone is treated justly (Kitty Carry-All is missing), why being the star only leads to a big head and sisters and brothers who don’t like you (Juliet is the Sun), and how privacy and the desire for a “room of one’s own” smacks of disloyalty (Jan, the only child). Okay, this is too much fun. I love critically dissecting the Bradys (almost as much as I love watching the show).

The trouble with Alice

brady1A couple of years ago, STA and I had a great conversation on a long car trip about Carol and Alice. Why were both of these women necessary? What was their relationship like? What exactly did Carol Brady do during the day when Alice was cooking and cleaning and going to the butcher? Was Alice considered a member of the family? When did she ever get a break? Did they really need her with Carol around? Was she ever going to marry Sam?

I remember watching the two different episodes in which Alice feels like she isn’t needed or wanted anymore and decides that she has to leave. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore from the first season, Alice feels that she has been replaced by new Mom, Carol. And in Goodbye, Alice, Hello from the fourth season, Alice thinks that the kids don’t like her and don’t want her around anymore. Instead of telling the family that she feels unwanted, she makes up some lame excuse about an Aunt in Sacramento/Seattle who is sick (in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and an Uncle who has a great business opportunity for her (in Goodbye, Alice, Hello). I remember thinking, wow, aren’t you just a little too sensitive. Nobody said you weren’t needed. And who cares if the kids like you or not?

Now watching them again with a deeper critical awareness of feminism, the difficulties of caregiving and domestic work, and the politics of family and kinship configurations, I see these episodes very differently. Alice is not being too sensitive. She is not overreacting. She does not need to get over herself (I am sure at some point my younger self must have thought that she should do just that). No, Alice’s reaction and response to thinking and feeling that she was no longer needed was justified. It doesn’t demonstrate that she is overly sensitive and too invested in a family that isn’t hers. Instead, it reflects the tenuous and very difficult position she occupies as the paid caregiver who functions unofficially and invisibly as the Bradys’ other mother.

In almost every episode Alice is represented as the loving (often laughable, arguably queer) housekeeper who is more than a maid; she is an honorary family member. She goes on all of their trips–even their honeymoon! Never mind that she goes along to work (watch the kids, fetch the water for the campsite, walk Tiger the dog). But, even as the Brady family seems to think of her as part of the family, this is not really the case. She is just the hired help.

While Carol might consider her a friend and a confidante, she is not above pulling rank with Alice and demanding that she do something (like in Goodbye, Alice, Hello, when she forces Alice to tell her who broke the lamp. The implied message is that Alice better tell Carol or she will be fired). And while Mike may act as if he respects and values her loyal service, he jokingly links her position as servant/maid with slavery and then laments the fact that he can no longer force her to do his bidding because of Abraham Lincoln. What about the kids? Sure they love her and think of her as a friend (and as comic relief), but they also make sure she knows who has the power in the family (like when Cindy’s secret admirer comes over for their “date.” As she walks by Alice in the kitchen, Cindy commands her to bring them some refreshments).

Alice’s position as a part of the family is tenuous because she is being paid to be there. She is not an equal member. She is an employee with 8 bosses. If she makes a mistake or disobeys the rules, she won’t be reprimanded or given a time out, she will be fired. She will lose her livelihood and her benefits and her living quarters (which, true to form, are right off of the kitchen). Alice’s position is also tenuous because she has no real claim on any of the family members. Sure she has taken care of Bobby his whole life, but if she is fired she can’t demand to be allowed to have a relationship with him. She has been a mother to the kids (and a sexless wife/secretary to Mike) but she has no rights or legal claim to that position. Lucky for her that she is white and a legal citizen of the U.S. Otherwise her position as domestic worker would be even more tenuous. For more on this, see here and here.

Alice’s position is difficult because the kind of work she is doing–cooking, cleaning, drying off tears, counseling heartbroken Marcia, building up Jan’s self-esteem, contending with Greg’s often failed performances of (hyper) masculinity—is not really considered work. Taking care of others is invisible work that is done by individuals (mostly women) who are invisible as workers. Folding the sheets and watching the kids? That’s not work, that’s just what women do while men go to the office and design powder puff buildings for BeeBee Gallini.

Feminist theorists have written a lot (and I mean a lot!) about the undervaluing of “women’s” caregiving as work. But, this isn’t just a problem for housewives who aren’t appreciated for all that they do around the house. This is a problem for the invisible nannies, maids, domestic workers, and servants that actually get paid to do the housework (see this article for a discussion of the moral dilemma that nannies create for femnists). Could the fact that Alice not only recognized but felt (on a daily basis) her tenuous and undervalued position as (secondary in status but primary in actual care) caregiver to the Brady kids and Mike been the reason she reacted so strongly and dramatically in both episodes?

There is (yet) another approach to take on this issue of Alice and her trouble (that is, her tenuous position). While Alice is officially only the paid housekeeper, she is effectively (but without recognition) a second mother to the Brady kids. The trouble with being the second mother is that people just don’t have two mothers. That scenario is not part of the happy heterosexual and patriarchal nuclear family with its one father, one mother and multiple kids. So, her role as a primary caregiver who mothers the children must remain unrecognized (in J Butler speak it is unintelligible within dominant discourse).

But, wait, the trouble is even worse than not being recognized. The happy heterosexual family as the ideal (and natural) kinship configuration is predicated on the belief that 1 dad, 1 mom, many kids is the only healthy and proper way in which to raise kids. So, any indication that other configurations could work (or, horror of horrors, might actually be better for the kids) must, at all costs, be concealed. For this reason, Alice’s role as another mother (and a successful one at that) must not only go unrecognized (and unvalued), it must also be undercut. Alice might do the majority of caring for the children, but she cannot be understood (or represented within the show) as a mother. There is only room for one mother in the Brady household and that mother is happy heterosexual, Mrs. Carol Brady. Maybe that is why Alice is so sensitive. She’s not fooling herself, she knows that she isn’t really a mother to the Bradys and that the love she receives as a caregiver will only last as long as her paycheck does. Or, maybe that is why Alice is represented as having such a dramatic (and selfish) overreaction in the episodes. When she thinks that the kids don’t like her anymore, she doesn’t tough it out like a “real” mother would (I mean, how many times have your kids told you that they hate you. I stopped counting a long time ago). Instead, she runs away. See, the show seems to be reminding us, she isn’t a real mother. Real mothers tough it out. Real mothers don’t leave.

I would have liked to see them (the producers and writers of the show, the kids, Mike and Carol) recognize and represent Alice as another mother. What kind of radical kinship configuration could this have allowed for? The Brady Bunch was already breaking ground by focusing on a “blended” family and subtly injecting the storylines with second wave feminism. Why not queer it up a little too?