Yesterday, I read an article in The Guardian, titled From smug to slummy: the myths of modern parenthood. It was drawn to my attention by one of the bloggers who was mentioned in this piece, a ‘brummy mummy of two’, just like me. She wasn’t too pleased about it. She wasn’t happy about being labelled a ‘slummy mummy’ for a start, a term she has never used about herself in her own blog. She also wasn’t happy about the way mothers were being pitted against each other, creating a fictitious war of the ‘smugs’ vs the ‘slummies’, as it were. And I don’t blame her. Because I am sick of it too.
Let me try to put this in context; to explain why this article has angered me so much. Because it’s not just the one example we’re talking about here. Back when I was doing an A-Level in English Language, I learned about the semantic derogation of words associated with women. My eyes were opened to the many examples of adjacent pairs where the ‘feminine’ equivalent had become an insult – take, for example, the following pairs, and consider the different connotations of each: stallion/mare; master/mistress; wizard/ witch; husband/ hussy (yes, hussy comes from ‘housewife’).
The term ‘mother’ has largely escaped such a fate, though this word and its derivatives are not without negative connotations. I wouldn’t take it as a compliment to be called ‘mumsy’, for example. And it seems that in popular news media, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to describe someone as a ‘mum’ without prefixing it with a cutting and sometimes quite vicious adjective. This is something that struck me when I was looking for newspaper articles about Mumsnet, as part of my PhD research on constructions of motherhood within this site. I started out looking for facts and figures about Mumsnet, like who founded it and how many users it had. But what I found was that a disproportionate amount of media coverage about the site was given over to labelling and insulting the women who use it. I found that Mumsnet users were variously described, for example, as ‘yummy mummies’; a ‘coven of poisonous women’; as ‘cliquey’, ‘grumpy’ and ‘scratchy’ (scratchy?!)
What message is this sending to mothers? We are damned if we are proud, damned if we are flippant. Damned if we step out in high heels and make-up, damned if we wear trainers and PJs. Women who dare to speak out about their lives in a public forum, it seems, just can’t get it right. Fortunately, that isn’t stopping the countless women who continue to do just that, and they are often using their public voices to challenge persistent stereotypes and negative representations of women. But there is plenty of work still to be done.