Mediated Moms

Contemporary Challenges to the Motherhood Myth

by Heather L. Hundley (Volume editor) Sara E. Hayden (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 288 Pages


Images of «good mothers» saturate the media, yet so too do images of mothers who do not fit this mold. Numerous scholars have addressed «bad mothers» in the media, arguing that these images are a necessary counterpoint that serves to buttress the «good mother» myth. While mediated images of women who fail to enact good motherhood may promote good mothering as an ideal, the essays in Mediated Moms: Contemporary Challenges to the Motherhood Myth, suggest that this is not all that is occurring in contemporary portrayals of maternity. The authors in this volume explore how images of mothers have expanded beyond the good/bad dichotomy, simultaneously and sometimes paradoxically serving to reinforce, fracture, and/or transcend the ideology of good motherhood.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: Challenging the Motherhood Myth
  • 2. Counter-Intensive Mothering: Exploring Transgressive Portrayals and Transcendence on Mad Men
  • 3. Motherhood and Mental Health: Carrie Mathison’s Homeland Pregnancy
  • 4. Addicted to Danger: The Fierce, Flawed Mothers of Nurse Jackie and Weeds
  • 5. Maternal Transgressions, Racial Regressions: How Whiteness Mediates the (Worst) White Moms
  • 6. 16 and Pregnant and Black: Challenging and Debunking Stereotypes
  • 7. “It Is What It Is”: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo’s “Mama” June Shannon as Unruly Mother
  • 8. “Save Your Tears for Your Pillow”: Tough Love and the Mothering Double Bind in Dance Moms
  • 9. “I Forgot How It Was to Be Normal”: Decompensating the Binary of Good/Bad Motherhood
  • 10. A Tale of Morality, Class, and Transnational Mothering: Broadening and Constraining Motherhood in Mammoth
  • 11. Mommy Blogs and the Disruptive Possibilities of Transgressive Drinking
  • 12. “Devil Mamas” of Social Media: Resistant Maternal Discourses in Sanctimommy
  • 13. When Tiger Mothers Transgress: Amy Chua, Dara-Lynn Weiss and the Cultural Imperative of Intensive Mothering
  • Contributor Biographies
  • Index

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This book was conceived in honor, admiration, and respect for all the “mothers” in our lives. We see many of our friends, family, and colleagues rejoice and struggle with the daily machinations of parenting, generally, but mothering, more specifically. At a time when women have more reproductive choices, we have also witnessed women grapple with their decisions to remain childless and to mother in nontraditional ways. In a culture where approximately 75% of the parenting and household duties remain the woman’s responsibilities (regardless of whether she has a career outside of the home), we hope this anthology engages readers to question such naturalized assumptions.

Heather would like to thank her mother, Sharon Hart, for her love, care, and encouragement throughout her life. Her guidance has always been appreciated; her strength admired; and her devotion to her children venerated. Heather also expresses appreciation to others who may not be biological mothers, or are not her mother, but mother nonetheless. They include her “academic mothers” Leah Vande Berg, A. Susan Owen, and Jan Andersen; and her “family mothers” grandmother Bessie Hundley, stepmother Yvonne Hundley, and mother-in-law Luann Abbott; and sisters-in-law Lisa Hundley, Amy Smith, Hayley Taylor, and Anne Cordaro.

This is Sara’s second edited anthology on issues related to motherhood; as before, she thanks her parents and siblings for their presence in her life. She also acknowledges the support and friendship of D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, whose scholarship on motherhood inspires her own. Sara thanks her partner, Scott Manning, for his constant love and support.

We extend our appreciation to the contributing authors: Beth L. Boser, Carolyn Bronstein, Patrice M. Buzzanell, Rachel D. Davidson, Suzy D’Enbeau, Tasha N. Dubriwny, Lisa A. Flores, Stephanie Gomez, Elizabeth Fish Hatfield, Natasha R. Howard, Katherine J. Lehman, Susana Martínez ← vii | viii → Guillem, Sharon R. Mazzarella, Valerie Palmer-Mehta, Sherianne Shuler, Lara C. Stache, and Linda Steiner. Their enthusiasm, hard work, and intelligence have led to what we believe is a truly excellent collection; we hope our readers agree. We also express our appreciation to the people at Peter Lang who helped usher this project forward including Senior Acquisitions Editor Mary Savigar and Design & Production Supervisor Sophie Appel. We thank “Thea Santimo” for permitting us to use images from the Sanctimommy Facebook page. Publication of this book was supported in part by a grant from the Baldridge Book Subvention Fund in the College of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Montana and funding from Dr. Terry Ballman, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at California State University, San Bernardino. We thank both institutions for their support.

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1. Introduction: Challenging the Motherhood Myth


You’ll see them every May. Whether you’re surfing the net, reading your local newspaper, or flipping through a magazine, as Mother’s Day approaches you’ll find this year’s lists of the best and worst moms in the media. Yearly updates aside, the characteristics pundits laud or lament are remarkably consistent, and so too are some of the characters who are celebrated or deplored. “Best” mediated moms are fun (Lucy Ricardo, I Love Lucy, 1951–1960), cheerful (Carol Brady, The Brady Bunch, 1969–1974; June Cleaver, Leave it to Beaver, 1957–1963), and protective (Sarah Conner, the Terminator franchise, 1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015; Ellen Ripley, Aliens, 1986). They are selfless and loving (M’Lynn Eatonton, Steel Magnolias, 1989; Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show, 1984–1992). They remain upbeat and supportive in the face of moody teenagers and grumpy or bumbling spouses (Jean Weir, Freaks and Geeks, 1999–2000; Kitty Foreman, That 70’s Show, 1998–2006; Jill Taylor, Home Improvement, 1991–1999). They offer their maternal insights and love to children who are not their own (Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights, 2006–2011; Leigh Anne Tuohy, The Blind Side, 2009), and some are even cool enough to be their kids’ best friends (Lorelai Gilmore, The Gilmore Girls, 2000–2007).

Worst moms, in contrast, are described as cold, cruel, and controlling (Beth Jarrett, Ordinary People, 1980; Margaret White, Carrie, 1976). They are self-serving and sexual (Peg Bundy, Married with Children, 1987–1997; Stifler’s Mom, American Pie, 1999). They may engage in both physical and/or emotional abuse toward their children and/or spouses (Joan Crawford, Mommy Dearest, 1981; Livia Soprano, The Sopranos, 1999–2007; Mary Jones, Precious, 2009), and their actions, some of which are unlawful, may ← 1 | 2 → put their children in harm’s way (Irina Derevko, Alias, 2001–2006; Gemma Teller Morrow, Sons of Anarchy, 2008–2014).1

These Mother’s Day stories suggest that in the contemporary United States, we share a definitive understanding of what it means to be a good or bad mom. And indeed, the maternal characteristics described through the “best” lists and accompanying articles echo scholarly discussions of the ideology of “good” motherhood, variously termed “intensive mothering” (Hays, 1996), “patriarchal mothering” (O’Reilly, 2006), or the “new momism” (Douglas & Michaels, 2004). Andrea O’Reilly identifies six tenets that underlie this ideology:

1) children can only be properly cared for by the biological mother; 2) this mothering must be provided 24/7; 3) the mother must always put children’s needs before her own; 4) mothers must turn to the experts for instruction; 5) the mother is fully satisfied, fulfilled, completed, and composed in motherhood; and finally, 6) mothers must lavish excessive amounts of time, energy, and money in the rearing of their children. (p. 43)

Bad mothers, of course, are defined dialectically; they are a counterpoint to intensive mothering that serves to buttress the “good mother” myth (Addison, Goodwin-Kelly, & Roth, 2009; Douglas & Michaels, 2004; Goc, 2007; Ladd-Taylor & Umansky, 1998). Moreover, as Heather Addison, Mary Kate Goodwin-Kelly, and Elaine Roth remind us, assumptions about good and bad mothering are “the yardstick by which women are judged” (p. 6); to deviate from the norms of intensive mothering “is justification for disparagement—or at least suspicion” (p. 6). Thus scholars and pundits seem to agree: In the contemporary United States, we assess maternal practices as starkly good or bad and the “best” and “worst” lists offer lessons for real-life moms about how they are expected to behave.

In spite of the clarity with which judgments of best and worst are pronounced, the contributors to this edited collection suggest that something new is taking place on the contemporary media landscape. That is, on television, movie screens, and the Internet, maternal images are deviating from the good/bad binary, providing more nuanced portraits of mothers and mothering. This suggestion is supported by Suzanna Danuta Walters and Laura Harrison (2014), who argue that “in the last few years a type of mother has emerged that seems strikingly innovative. … Neither monster nor angel, this aberrant mom is not quite a twenty-first century feminist heroine but she does upend more traditional depictions of maternal identity” (p. 40). Focusing specifically on maternal images that populate premium cable, the authors describe mothers who are “unabashedly sexual, idiosyncratic to a fault, and seriously ← 2 | 3 → deleterious in [their] caretaking skills” (p. 40) all the while retaining their charm and remaining basically unpunished.

Walters and Harrison’s focus on cable television echoes Brett Martin’s (2013) attention to the antiheroes who are central to programs such as HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, Showtime’s Dexter, and AMC’s Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Indeed, Martin argues that The Sopranos marks the beginning of the Third Golden Age of Television, an era in which “difficult men” are presented as protagonists, providing viewers with the uneasy opportunity to like and root for men whose actions are often morally corrupt, criminal, and even murderous. Martin argues that the very best programs to emerge during the Third Golden Age have been “largely about manhood—in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat” (p. 13). The authors who contribute to Mediated Moms suggest that alongside the emergence of the new, more complicated set of male characters of television’s Third Golden Age is a similarly nuanced and conflicted group of women, many of whom are mothers. Additionally, their work illustrates that more complicated images of mothers extend beyond high-end fictional television to basic cable, movies, reality TV, news reporting, and the Internet. The twelve chapters that follow explore these varied representations, expanding our understanding of the ever-evolving institution of motherhood that all mothers must navigate.

Scholarly Precursors

By unpacking the complicated and nuanced images of mothers in the current media milieu, the contributors to this volume participate in ongoing scholarly conversations exploring mediated representations of women generally and mothers specifically. Not surprisingly, scholarly assessments of the functions of these depictions diverge. Some authors focus on the ways mediated representations reinforce oppressive norms. The essays in Addison, Goodwin-Kelly, and Roth’s (2009) Motherhood Misconceived: Representing the Maternal in U.S. Films, for example, highlight the many ways mothers are “repeatedly demonized or deified,” (p. 4) thus reinforcing the misogynistic assumptions that underlie intensive mothering. Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michael’s (2004) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women similarly explores how various forms of media, including celebrity journalism, network newscasts, daytime television, and evening situation comedies and dramas, promote and extend the “new momism.” In Bad Girls: Cultural Politics and Media Representations of Transgressive Women, A. Susan Owen, Sarah R. Stein, and Leah R. Vande Berg (2007) argue that ← 3 | 4 → although contemporary images of women in film, television, and journalism often seem empowering and innovative, in fact, they frequently reinforce old, oppressive norms.

Other scholars, however, find an emancipatory potential in mediated representations of women. In Prime Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement since 1970, Bonnie J. Dow (1996) investigates the ways second wave feminism was incorporated into the television series The Mary Tyler Moore Show, One Day at a Time, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Dow is careful to qualify her assessment—she recognizes the limitations of pop-culture feminism, especially the tendency to substitute feminist identity with feminist politics. Nonetheless, she also maintains that in spite of such limitations, these series helped to spread feminism’s reach. Whereas Dow argues that the series she examined failed to address systemic issues, in Defining Women Julie D’Acci (1994) sees broader possibilities in the popular drama Cagney and Lacey, arguing that “a mainstream, commercial, realist text that has been subjected to all the demands and distortions of prime-time American television may nonetheless be part of a feminist project and a rallying point for pleasure and politics” (p. 9, emphasis ours).

Kathleen Rowe (1995) is particularly optimistic about comedy as a site where representations of women can disrupt hegemonic, misogynistic norms in The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. “The figure of the unruly woman,” she writes, “contains much potential for feminist appropriation. … The parodic excesses of the unruly woman and the comedic conventions surrounding her provide a space to ‘act out’ the dilemmas of femininity … to make not only ‘fantastic’ and ‘incredible’ but also laughable those tropes of femininity valorized by melodrama” (p. 11). Several years later, Rowe Karlyn (2011) offers a somewhat more sober but still optimistic assessment of media’s ability to challenge oppressive norms. In Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen she again explores comedy’s potential to promote new, emancipatory identities; however, she similarly acknowledges that the “unruly woman’s power is fragile,” and that in melodrama, her “outrageousness” often shifts “from comedy to pathos” (p. 12).

Perhaps, as Amanda D. Lotz (2006) suggests in Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era, these varied assessments reflect the flourishing of media texts that include women as central characters. Lotz looks specifically at television, arguing that female-centered dramas began to proliferate after the 1997 success of FOX’s Ally McBeal. She offers a number of reasons for this proliferation, including the increased economic and cultural power ← 4 | 5 → (some) women achieved as a result of second-wave feminism, the shift in the television industry from the network era to a multichannel environment, which in turn led to the rise of narrowcasting aimed at niche audiences, and chance. As a result, Lotz argues that

In particular, Lotz rejects the “role model” approach to criticism, arguing that each text must be understood in terms of the broader media context in which it circulates.

Political Economy and the Politics of Representation

Indeed, because of advancements in technology, specifically, compression, miniaturization, and digitalization, audiences have more programming choices than ever. Moreover, this technology provides opportunities in the Internet era allowing media audiences to become media producers. As such, a myriad of television networks and countless websites and blogs have infiltrated our media environment suggesting a great potential for content variety and a cacophony of voices and images. Thus, media has the potential to embody contradictions—not to present an either/or dichotomy but a both/and perspective (also see Mellencamp, 1992). Resultantly, “media content and representation scholars no longer limit their research questions to binary oppositions of positive/negative or biased/unbiased, but rather have achieved a high level of complexity and nuance in their studies” (Mazzarella, 2013, p. 27).

We approach this book with cautionary technological optimism. That is, despite digital progress, media producers’ goal is to make a profit; therefore, they create what they think will capture viewers and users to sell to advertisers. Moreover, irrespective of the potential for increased diversity in programming, the media industry has not garnered an increase in diverse staffing, particularly writers, directors, and cinematographers (“TV industry,” 2010). More specifically, in 2012 women writers working in television were underrepresented by a factor of two to one (27%) compared to men, and more significantly in film (15%) by a factor of three to one (Hunt, 2014). Female writers fare much better in cable networks representing between 43% and 50% of all writers on some networks; however, of the 292 television ← 5 | 6 → shows examined during the 2013–2014 season, 32 (11%) did not employ women writers at all (Hunt, 2015).

Such paltry inclusion of women extends beyond media industry writers. Interviews of 179 television workers (89% of them women) revealed that not only do men get paid more in the industry, and not only is it more difficult for women to get promoted compared to men, but “it is difficult to get back into television after a career break to have children” (“TV industry,” 2010, para. 2). Considering women’s employment at higher decision-making levels, they only comprised 15.1% of executive producer jobs during the 2013–2014 television season (Hunt, 2015).

While television and film paints a bleak existence for women’s employment, the Internet remains an optimistic space. Initially, the Internet was dominated by White male users and creators. Yet, debatably, by 2006 women and men equally participate in creating Internet content (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). While “disagreement persists over gender equity in blog tool use” (Papacharissi & Meraz, 2013, p. 376), women increasingly engage in a variety of social and political blogs for networking and empowerment.

We are not arguing that all women (who work in the media) can speak for or better represent motherhood, but, like Hunt (2014), we find that “opportunities to tell the types of stories that are more likely to resonate with increasingly diverse audiences have been far from realized” (p. 13). We focus our attention on the institution of motherhood, because like other constructions of identity, it is a social and cultural construction rather than biologically determined (Fox-Genovese, 1991; O’Reilly, 2004b). As such, it is temporal, historical, contextual, and can be revised (Mellencamp, 1992; O’Reilly, 2004b). Accordingly, it remains important to continually explore constructed representations of identity, including motherhood.

Acknowledging the cultural constructions of motherhood illuminates the false public/private dichotomy. Indeed, motherhood not only resides within the confines of the (private) home, but it is also out in the (public) streets. As evidenced earlier in the introduction and throughout this book, numerous media outlets report on, portray, validate, judge, and punish mothers in seemingly limitless ways. In 2006, for instance, news media reported Britney Spears’ “bad mothering” by driving with her infant son on her lap and then three months later inappropriately fastening him in a car seat (“Britney Spears’ latest,” 2006). More recently, Carrie Underwood tweeted that her dogs locked themselves and her newborn child in her car (“Carrie Underwood’s baby,” 2015); however, as a current fan favorite Underwood was valorized for rescuing her baby.

As the public/private dichotomy of motherhood collapses with the knowledge of its cultural construction, it becomes a political topic (Bassin, Honey, ← 6 | 7 → & Mahrer Kaplan, 1994; Hamamoto, 1991; Holcomb, 1998). Because of its political nature, this volume specifically contains qualitative, critical, cultural, and rhetorical examinations of the representation of mediated mothers. Understanding how contemporary motherhood is ideologically constructed provides insight into cultural power.

Historically, scholars have argued that motherhood is a patriarchal institution (O’Reilly, 2004a; 2004b), reproduces gender hierarchy, serves the interest of men, and maintains capitalism (Hays, 1996). Clearly, not only has “American culture at large … failed working mothers” (Matchar, 2013, p. 163), it has failed all mothers. The US, for instance, is the only country in the developed world without guaranteed paid maternity leave (Matchar, 2013). Yet, with more women writing for cable television and making significant headway online, the authors contributing to this volume argue that, to some extent, mediated multidimensional mothers are emerging. Hence, in the chapters that follow, the representations of mothers are not merely endorsing the ideologies they produce, but are simultaneously revealing relations of power and cultural practices in the institutional “material structures of power they legitimate” (Giroux, 1991, p. 90).

Akin to Owen, Stein, and Vande Berg (2007), the findings in this volume can be cautiously celebrated. While the broader array of mother portrayals are a reason for optimism, we also must note what is not obvious. Nearly all media, whether it is news, film, television, documentaries, and even the Internet, create and profit off of fictional or nonfictional drama. As media consumers, we must ask: Who benefits from these representations? Are these representations reproducing or challenging power? What power structures are being legitimized?

The chapters in this edited volume reflect this broadened environment, considering representations of mothers in fictional and reality television, in movies and documentaries, in news coverage, and in blogs. Additionally, as above, the assessments of the media texts diverge, as authors celebrate the emancipatory potential of some images and lament the regressive and oppressive implications of others. Indeed, according to several authors in this volume, the texts under study are often simultaneously emancipatory and oppressive.

Lotz (2006) maintains that “rather than calling for ‘positive’ representations, cultural studies theorists advocate the creation of a multiplicity of images of whatever group has been stereotyped in order to make the stereotype ‘uninhabitable’” (p. 12). Not all of the authors whose work is included in this volume will agree that the stereotypes of the “good” and “bad” mothers can no longer be inhabited; however, the variety of depictions of mothers ← 7 | 8 → described in the chapters that follow suggest that at the least, these limited and limiting subject positions are beginning to fracture, allowing for greater variety in our understanding of motherhood.

Overview of Chapters

One theme addressed in all of the chapters is intensive mothering. As other scholars have done (see, e.g., Addison, Goodwin-Kelly, & Roth, 2009; Douglas & Michaels, 2004), several contributors recognize moments when mediated representations reinforce this oppressive maternal ideology. Tasha N. Dubriwny (chapter 11), for example, begins her essay with a discussion of an episode of Anderson Cooper’s daytime talk show Anderson Live (CNN) that focused on what is, to Cooper, the “shocking” reality that some mothers drink alcohol—an activity he intimates is as problematic as shoplifting. Similarly, in their analysis of responses to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Dara-Lynn Weiss’s The Heavy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet, Linda Steiner and Carolyn Bronstein (chapter 13) argue that although readers expressed divergent ideas about what constitutes good and bad mothering, the authors of both books were harshly condemned for taking intensive mothering “too far,” thus illustrating that mothers (but not fathers) continue to be subject to intensive mothering’s impossible demands.

While Dubriwny and Steiner and Bronstein offer evidence of the on-going pressure placed on mothers to perform the new momism, contributors to this volume also point to representations of mothers who defy or otherwise transcend intensive mothering’s limits. Indeed, although Dubriwny begins her essay by recounting Cooper’s condemnatory segment on mothers who drink, the bulk of her chapter explores mommy blogs and mommy bloggers’ books that celebrate, rather than demonize, mothers’ use of alcohol. Valerie Palmer-Mehta and Sherianne Shuler (chapter 12) similarly explore the Facebook page Sanctimommy. Administered by the pseudonymous Thea Sanctimo, the page includes reposts of self-righteous memes and individual statements about motherhood accompanied by witty commentary poking fun at the intensive-mothering norms the original posts uphold. Thus while intensive mothering may be alive and well, these authors illustrate that many mothers recognize and are speaking back to intensive mothering.


VIII, 288
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Mother Moms Mommy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 288 pp.

Biographical notes

Heather L. Hundley (Volume editor) Sara E. Hayden (Volume editor)

Heather L. Hundley (PhD, University of Utah) is Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. Her research has appeared in Communication Reports, Communication Quarterly, and New Media & Society, among other journals. Sara E. Hayden (PhD, University of Minnesota) is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Montana. Her research has appeared in The Quarterly Journal of Speech and Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, among other journals. She is co-editor of Contemplating Maternity in an Era of Choice: Explorations into Discourses of Reproduction (2010).


Title: Mediated Moms
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