Down the Rabbit Hole: Feminism, Mothers, and Mass Media

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
-Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Do you ever feel that watching the news is like living in the Matrix?  As a feminist, I experience much of the mainstream news as a form of social amnesia, a way to forget what kind of society we live in.  I think this numbing sensation stems from fundamental naiveté about how to conceive of and grapple with core issues of inequality.  The result is that deeply ingrained disparities rooted in race, gender, class, ethnicity, ability, religion, nationality, etc., are often boiled down and oversimplified into dichotomies: man/woman, gay/straight, black/white, cis/trans.  Trending now is the father/mother dichotomy, particularly in light of the important steps women in business have taken to push this issue into the spotlight. 

As it turns out, fathers are at the top of the workplace economic hierarchy. In 2012, they earned more than men and women without children and mothers, with mothers earning the least of the four groups (U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics, 2013). So not only are women earning less than men, on average, but mothers working full-time are penalized while fathers are rewarded.  Over the past 10 years, psychological research that looks at gender and the workplace has continually demonstrated that mothers face a disadvantage compared to fathers and non-parents based on the way that they are perceived (Cuddy, Fisk, & Glick, 2004; Fuegen, Biernat, Haines, & Deaux, 2004). It appears that when women become mothers they are devalued in terms of workplace standards and seen as less competent and qualified while fathers experience bolstered status (Cuddy et al., 2004).  This disparity was highlighted in a recent NBC News Business article with the tag, “call it the mommy penalty versus the daddy bonus.” 

The truth is, the problem is not just about women choosing more flexible lower-status career paths in order to manage their families or foregoing children to pursue satisfying careers.  It’s also not just about the role stereotypes attributed to “mother” and “father.”  The problem is about the way that we understand families, our ability to ignore power and privilege, the way we think about sex and gender roles, and the lagging pace of attitude change.  Depicting the issue as “mommy versus daddy” is perilously deceptive because it obscures critical pieces of the puzzle of income disparity.  It also prevents us from conceiving of real solutions.       

For example, the intersections of race and ethnicity, class, and education significantly influence income disparities. Asian men and women earned more than White, Black, and Hispanic men and women in 2012; however, the disparities for Black and Hispanic workers were much larger (they earned between 70-50% of Asian worker’s median income) than those of White workers (earning between 80-90% of Asian worker’s median income).  It’s important to note that Black and Hispanic women had the lowest median incomes when taking race/ethnicity and gender into account.  Additionally, men and women with bachelor’s degrees earned almost twice as much as men and women with a high school diploma.  When we bring these different identity components into our discussion of working mothers’ experiences, we come closer to beginning to understand “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” To put it more optimistically, describing our society in light of the complex interactions of interlocking forms of oppression allows us to avoid the mistake of placing a Band-Aid over a massive crater in the earth. bell hooks aptly uses the phrase, “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe the system that enforces such inequalities.

I believe that it’s our task as feminists to “take the red pill,” to recognize the dangers of oversimplification, and trust that it’s worth it to continually question what we see, hear, read and absorb.

Written by Rachel L. Brosamle, M.A.

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