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It's 5:22 p.m. You're in the grocery check-out line. Your three-year-old is writhing on the floor, screaming, because you have refused to buy her a Teletubby pinwheel. Your six-year-old is whining, repeatedly, in a voice that could saw through cement, "But mommy, puleeze, puleeze," because you have not bought him the latest Lunchables, which features as the four food groups: chips, a candy bar, fake cheese, and artificial coloring.

To distract yourself, and to avoid the glares of other shoppers who have already deemed you the worst mother in America, you leaf through People magazine. Inside, Uma Thurman gushes, "Motherhood is sexy." Moving on to Good Housekeeping, Vanna White says of her child, "When I hear his cry at 6:30 in the morning, I have a smile on my face, and I'm not an early riser." Brought back to reality by stereophonic wailing, you feel about as sexy and euphoric as Rush Limbaugh in a thong.

Meanwhile, Newsweek, also at the check-out line, offers a different view of motherhood. In one of the many stories about welfare mothers that proliferated until "welfare reform" was passed in 1996, you meet Valerie, 27, and "the three children she has by different absentee fathers." She used to live with her mother, "who, at 42, has six grandchildren." But now Valerie resides with other families, all of whom "live side-by-side in open trash-filled apartments." Hey, maybe you're not such a failure after all.

Motherhood has been one of the biggest media fixations of the past two decades. And this is what so many of us have been pulled between when we see accounts of motherhood in the media: celebrity moms who are perfect, most of them white, always rich, happy, and in control, the role models we should emulate, versus welfare mothers who are irresponsible, unmarried, usually black or Latina--as if there were no white single mothers on the dole--poor, miserable, and out of control, the bad examples we should scorn.

Beginning in the late 1970s, with the founding of People and Us, and exploding with a vengeance in the '90s with InStyle, the celebrity-mom profile has spread like head lice through popular magazines, especially women's. "For me, happiness is having a baby," gushed Marie Osmond on a 1983 cover of Good Housekeeping, and Linda Evans added in Ladies' Home Journal, "All I want is a husband and baby." These celeb biographies, increasingly presented as instruction manuals for how the rest of us should live our lives, began to proliferate just as there was a dramatic rise in the number of women who worked outside the home while raising small children. Pulled between established wisdom--if you worked outside the home before your child entered kindergarten you were bound to raise an ax murderer--and the economic and psychic need to work, many of these mothers were searching for guidance. And celebrity mom magazine articles seemed to provide it.

Celebrity moms were perfect for the times. They epitomized two ideals that sat in uneasy but fruitful alliance. On the one hand, they exemplified the unbridled materialism and elitism the Reagan era had spawned. On the other, they represented the feminist dream of women being able to have a family and a job outside the home without being branded traitors to true womanhood. Magazine editors apparently figured they could use stars to sell magazines and to serve as role models.

But now, in the year 2000, things have gotten out of control. Celebrity moms are everywhere, beaming from the comfy serenity and perfection of their lives as they give multiple interviews about their "miracle babies," what an unadulterated joy motherhood is, and all the things they do with their kids to ensure they will be perfectly normal Nobel laureates by the age of 12. These stories are hardly reassuring. They make the rest of us feel that our own lives are, as the great seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish, and short. So why should we care about something so banal as the celebrity mom juggernaut? One answer is that it bulldozed through so much of American popular culture just when working mothers, single mothers, and welfare mothers were identified, especially by conservative male pundits, as the cause of everything bad, from the epidemic of drug use to the national debt to rising crime rates. Remember all the hand-wringing by George Will, William Bennett, and Allan Bloom about America's "moral decay"? The biggest culprit, of course, was the single welfare mother. These guys attacked celebrity single mothers now and then, but the mud never stuck--not even, heaven help us, on that fictional celebrity single mother Murphy Brown.

As the push "to end welfare as we know it" gained momentum and reached its climax in the welfare reform of 1996, the canonized celebrity mom and the demonized welfare mother became ever more potent symbols, working in powerful opposition to each other. We rarely saw these very different mothers in the same publication, or even considered them in the same breath. Celebrity moms graced the covers of magazines designed for self-realization and escape; welfare mothers were the object of endless stories in newspapers and newsmagazines and on the nightly news that focused on public policy and its relation to the tenuous state of morality in America.

But what if we put these portrayals side by side and compare what these different mothers were made to stand for? Could it be that the tsunami of celebrity-mom profiles helped, however inadvertently, to justify punitive policies toward welfare mothers and their children? While the "you can have it all" ethos of these pieces made the rest of us feel like failures as mothers, and upped the ante in the eyes of employers and coworkers about how much working mothers can handle, a little side-by-side reading also exposes some rather daunting hypocrisy. Often, one group is glamorized and the other castigated for precisely the same behavior.

Let's take a look at a celebrity mom first. Kirstie Alley, for example. It's 1994. The star of Cheers and the Look Who's Talking movies graces the cover of InStyle, a magazine that pays fawning tribute to the charming idiosyncrasies and lifestyle choices of our nation's most glamorous. Among Kirstie's recent choices is the purchase of her third house. InStyle advises us respectfully that "as with all of her houses, Kirstie paid cash." On a tour of her new Bangor, Maine, retreat (the renovation of which was paid for by a quick voice-over job she did for Subaru), we discover that both Kirstie and her house are "at once down-to-earth and whimsical."

Kirstie must be down-to-earth, of course, because now, at long last, she is a mother. Her "playful sense of style" is made evident by the decoupage grapes that grace her son True's high chair. "It was painted and cracked to make it look old," InStyle informs us. (Why not simply rely on natural toddler effluvia to give the chair that petroglyph look?) True has just turned one; his whimsical high chair faces an equally whimsical ceramic pig holding a blackboard on which a new word appears each day to encourage his reading.

In our tour through Kirstie's hideaway, we encounter an entourage--decorators, a nanny, a cook, and various personal assistants. Kirstie spends True's two-hour nap time working out with her personal trainer and then being served a healthful, fat-free lunch by the cook. Lounging in her living room (painted to "echo" the surrounding firs and elms), reflecting on the challenges of motherhood, Kirstie gushes, "Being a mother has given me a whole new purpose. Every day when I wake up it's like Christmas morning to me, and seeing life through True's eyes gives me a whole new way of looking at the world." Perfect house. Perfect husband. Perfect child. Perfect career. Perfect life. Kirstie is a perfect mother. InStyle invites you to curl up on the sofa with Kirstie, but then implies that you'd probably just spill your tea on it.

Forward to 1997. There's Kirstie again, now the star of the television series Veronica's Closet, beaming at us once more from InStyle. "A new man, a new show, a brand-new life," proclaims the cover. Since 1994, her island mansion has "become a place to play." Each of the 15 bedrooms is decorated with Kirstie's "eclectic and playful eye." According to InStyle, most people would have found decorating this 16,000-square-foot house daunting, but not Kirstie. "I'm very fast," she explains. "I don't shop. I just point: boom, boom, boom." Having outgrown his high chair, True now has his own miniature lobster boat. In addition, he and his new sister, Lillie, can frolic in their personal nursery-rhyme garden, complete with Mother Goose figures especially commissioned by "fun-loving" Kirstie because, as she puts it, "I hope I give my children a spirit of play."

Kirstie swears by the facial treatment she receives every morning on her terrace as the fog burns off Penobscot Bay. It involves "blasting her face with oxygen and enzymes . . . through a plastic hose hooked up to two pressurized tanks." Though her life was perfect in 1994, she has since set aside her husband, Parker Stevenson, in favor of her "soul mate," James Wilder, who "is a cross between Houdini, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando." Apparently Kirstie uses the same technique for choosing her lovers as she does for choosing sofa fabrics. With James, "it was like comet to comet. Boom . . ."

Not that we ought to single out Kirstie (although such self-serving bilge makes it irresistible). Celebrity-mom profiles are almost all alike and haven't changed much over the years, except that the houses and toys are more lavish. Celebrity moms are shown embracing motherhood after years of sweating under klieg lights, which apparently brings them in touch with their true, essential, feminine natures. Most important, motherhood is a powerfully transforming experience, akin to seeing God. It always changes these women, and always for the better. "I feel more enriched and compassionate toward others since having my son," says Elle McPherson.

Ladies' Home Journal tells us that Christie Brinkley's third child, daughter Sailor (her father, Brinkley's fourth husband, is a descendant of Captain Cook), "barely tipping the scale at eight pounds . . . has become Brinkley's anchor, a midlife miracle well worth waiting for." Of her second child, Jack (from her third marriage, which lasted only a few months), Christie was equally lyrical: "It's like I went to hell and came back with this angel." We assume that most (but not all) of these celebrity moms are not trying to gloat, or to rub our noses in our own poor lifestyle choices (which invariably include the failure to choose being thin, white, gorgeous, and rich). And we've all said mushy things about how much our kids mean to us, especially in the immediate aftermath of birth, before the months of sleep deprivation and projectile vomiting produce a slightly more jaundiced view of the joys of motherhood.

Ah, but you could be worse. What about media motherhood on the other side of the tracks? Celebrity mom profiles place us on the outside looking in; stories about welfare mothers invite us to look down from on high. Welfare mothers have not been the subject of honey-hued profiles in glossy magazines. They are not the subjects of their own lives, but objects of journalistic scrutiny. We don't hear about these women's maternal practices--what they do with their kids to nurture them, educate them, soothe them, or keep them happy. It is simply assumed that these women don't have inner lives. Emotions are not ascribed to them; we don't hear them laugh or see their eyes well up with tears. One of the most frequent verbs used to describe them is "complain," as when they complain about losing health care for their kids when they go off welfare. When they are quoted, it is not their feelings about the transformative powers of motherhood to which we are made privy. Rather, we hear their relentless complaints about "the system." In many articles about welfare, we don't hear from the mothers at all, but instead from academic experts who study them, or from politicians whose careers are devoted to bashing them. The iconography of the welfare mother is completely different, too--she's not photographed holding her child up in the air, whizzing her about. In fact, she's rarely, if ever, shown smiling at all. It's as if the photographer yelled "scowl" just before clicking the shutter.

These mothers are shown as sphinx-like, monolithic, part of a pathetic historical pattern known, familiarly, as "the cycle of dependency." In a major article in Newsweek in August 1993 titled "The Endangered Family," we learned that "For many African Americans, marriage and childbearing do not go together." Not to mention the 25 percent of white women for whom they don't go together either, or the celebrity single mothers like Jodie Foster, Madonna, and Farah Fawcett.

It isn't just that the conservative right has succeeded in stereotyping welfare mothers as lazy, promiscuous parasites; the media in which these mothers appear provide no point of identification with them. At best, these mothers are pitiable. At worst, they are reprehensible opposites of the other mothers we see so much of, the new standard-bearers of ideal motherhood--the doting, conscientious celebrities for whom motherhood is a gateway to heaven. During the height of welfare bashing in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, the stereotype of the "welfare queen" gained mythological status. But there were other, less obvious, journalistic devices that served equally well to dehumanize poor mothers and their children. Unsavory designations proliferated with a vengeance: "chronic dependents," "the chronically jobless," "welfare mothers in training," "hardcore welfare recipients," "never-married mothers," "welfare careerists," and "welfare recidivists" became characters in a distinctly American political melodrama. Poor women weren't individuals; instead their life stories became case-studies of moral decay, giving substance to the inevitable barrage of statistics peppering the media's presentation of "Life on the Dole." In publications everywhere, we met the poster mother for welfare reform. She only had a first name, she lived in the urban decay of New York, Chicago, or Detroit, she was not married, she had a pile of kids each with a different absent father, and she spent her day painting her nails, smoking cigarettes, and feeding Pepsi to her baby.

As sociologists have pointed out, even though there consistently have been more white people than black on welfare, the news media began, in the mid-1960s, to rely almost exclusively on pictures of African Americans to illustrate stories about welfare, reinforcing the stereotype that most welfare recipients are black. Occasionally readers are introduced to the runner-up in the poster competition: the white welfare mother, whose story varies only in that she lives in a trailer in some godforsaken place we have never heard of and is really, really fat.

For example, in a 1995 edition of CBS's 48 Hours, titled "The Rage Over Welfare," we met two overweight white women who live on welfare in New Hampshire. The very first shots--just to let us know the kind of lazy, selfish mothers we are in for--are close-ups of hands shuffling a deck of playing cards and, next, a mom lighting a cigarette. The white male journalist badgers one of the women, who says she can't work because she has epilepsy and arthritis in both knees. "People with epilepsy work. People with bad knees work. People do," he scolds. As she answers, "I don't know what kind of a job I could find," the camera again cuts to her hands shuffling the cards, suggesting, perhaps, a bright future in the casino industry if she'd only apply herself.

Or there's Denise B., one of the "True Faces of Welfare," age 29, with five daughters, from ages one to 13. "All, after the first, were conceived on welfare--conceived perhaps deliberately," Reader's Digest sniffs, conjuring up the image of Denise doing some quick math calculations, saying to herself, Oh boy, an extra 60 bucks a month, and then running out to find someone to get her pregnant. The other thing we learn about Denise is that she's a leech. Why not get a job, even though she has toddlers? Because she's lazy. "To get a good job, she would first have to go to school, then earn her way up to a high salary," Reader's Digest reminds us, and then lets the ingrate, Denise, speak. "'That's going to take time,' she says, 'It's a lot of work and I ain't guaranteed to get nothing.'" What we learn of Denise's inner life is that she's a calculating cynic. Her kids don't make her feel like every day is Christmas; no, we're supposed to think she uses her kids to get something for nothing.

Even the New York Times' Jason De Parle, one of the more sympathetic white male journalists to cover welfare, gets blinded by class privilege. Roslyn Hale, he wrote in 1994, who had been trying to get off welfare, had a succession of jobs that "alternatively invite and discourage public sympathy." She had worked as a maid and as a clerk in a convenience store during the overnight shift when drunks came in and threatened her with a knife. Hale "blames economics for her problems," De Parle reports, since these were crappy jobs that paid only minimum wage. "And sometimes she blames herself. 'I have an attitude,' she admitted." Hello? What middle-class woman would not have "an attitude" after having been threatened at knifepoint or being expected to be grateful for such jobs? In the Boston Globe's "Welfare Reform Through a Child's Eyes" we see little Alicia, who now has a room of her own, Barbies, four kittens, and a ferret because her mother got a job. But although this story appears to be through the child's eyes (never the mother's), it's actually through the judgmental eyes of the press. Sure, the mom has quit drinking, quit crack, and is now working at a nursing center. But the apartment is "suffused with the aroma of animal droppings and her mother's cigarette smoke." Presumably everyone but welfare mothers and former welfare mothers knows how to make their litter boxes smell like gardenias. One of the sentences most commonly used to characterize the welfare mother is "Tanya, who has ____ children by ____ different men . . ." (you fill in the blanks). Their lives are reduced to the number of successful impregnations by multiple partners--like zoo animals, but unlike Christie Brinkley, although she has exactly the same reproductive M.O. And while the celebrity magazines gush that Christie, Kirstie, and Cindy are sexier than ever, a welfare mother's sexuality is depicted as her downfall.

In the last three years, we've seen the dismantling of the nation's welfare system. Meanwhile, the resentment over the ridiculous standards we're supposed to meet is rising. Sure, many of us ridicule these preposterous portraits of celebrity mom-dom, and we gloated when the monumentally self-righteous "I read the Bible to Cody" Kathie Lee Gifford got her various comeuppances. But the problem is bigger than that: the standards set by celebrity motherhood as touted by the media, with their powerful emphasis on individual will, choice, and responsibility, severely undercut sympathy for poor mothers and their children. Both media characterizations have made it easier for middle-class and upper-middle-class women--especially working women facing speed-ups at work and a decline in leisure time--to resent welfare mothers instead of identifying with them and their struggles.

Why does the media offer us this vision? Not surprising, many reporters bought into the myths that began in the Reagan era, with its dogma of trickle-down economics, its attacks on the poor and people of color, and its antifeminist backlash, through which patriarchy got a new name--family values. Becoming rich and famous came to be the ultimate personal achievement. Reagan's message was simple--the outlandish accumulation of wealth by the few is the basis of a strong economy.

In that context, celebrity-mom profiles haven't been just harmless dreck that help sell magazines. They have encouraged self-loathing, rather than reassurance, in those of us financially comfortable enough not to have to worry about where our kids' next meals are coming from. And they play a subtle but important role in encouraging so many of us to think about motherhood as an individual achievement and a test of individual will and self-discipline. That mind-set--the one that promotes individual responsibility over community and societal obligations--justifies letting poor women and their children fend for themselves until mom makes the right lifestyle choices.

These stories suggest that we, too, can make it to the summit if we just get up earlier, laugh more, and buy the right products. These stories are about leaving others behind, down below. Phony images of joyful, ever-nurturing celebrity moms sitting side-by-side in the newsstands next to humorless, scowling welfare mothers naturalize a pecking order in which some kids deserve to eat well, have access to a doctor, or go to Disney World, and others do not. Under the glossy veneer of maternal joy, generosity, and love lurks the worst sort of narcissism that insists it's every woman for herself. Paying lip service to a collagen-injected feminism, celebrity momism trivializes the struggles and hopes of real women, and kisses off sisterhood as hopelessly out of style.

Susan Douglas teaches communication studies at the University of Michigan and is the author of "Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media" (Times Books). Meredith Michaels teaches philosophy at Smith College. Her most recent book (with Lynn Marie Morgan) is "Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Douglas and Michaels are working on a book about media representations of motherhood.


Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009