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Motherhood: The Most Dangerous Trend

January 24, 2011

First, some links:

The Most E-mailed New York Times Article Ever.  David Parker’s brilliant parody of NYT Trend pieces has been linked all over the internet, and may have even found its way to your computer screen!  Is 2011 the year that hating the New York Times goes viral?  If so, remember that I was here first!  I’ve been doing this since early January!

Accordingly, I have started a page for this blog on Facebook, the popular social networking website.  Please join!

News on the Glamorous High Life:  The business section reports that the bottom has quite simply fallen out of the superyacht market.  The article keeps nattering on about how yachts are “the ultimate status symbol,” but is that really the main reason people buy them?  In my town right now now, it’s 10 degrees, windy, and there’s dirty slush all over the place. I would greatly enjoy being out in the Pacific, in a hot tub on the deck of a yacht, even if it was not considered a high-status thing to do.  Even if yachts were known as “the trailer parks of the sea,” I would still go.  Say what you will about this country’s vastly wealthy ruling class, but they know how to have a good time.  I don’t know why the New York Times keeps running them down so.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the unmerited economic struggles and unpredictable woes of the privileged elite.  But socioeconomic trends do not restrict themselves to the buyers of yachts, designer long johns and $1500 coffee tables.  Trends reach out to touch the heart of every man and woman on this earth.  No one can escape them.  It matters not whether you’re a beleaguered superyacht seller or a bedraggled pregnant teen, someday you will come to recognize that your life is not truly your own — it is part of the vast communal striving after cultural relevance we all share.  Our births, our joys and sorrows, our deaths — all of them bob like organic corks on the great ocean of trends we can Life.  The Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths that “life is trends; the origin of suffering is trends; understanding trends is attainable; there is a Path to the understanding of trends.”  With this knowledge can come great suffering, or great peace.

Or, for readers of Alessandra Stanley’s “And Baby Makes Reality TV,” great confusion.  Alessandra Stanley is a TV writer who has often been criticized for breaking the NY Times record for errors, although I don’t see why anyone should hold that against her; somebody’s got to be the worst.  The article is an omnibus review of reality TV shows about pregnancy (16 and Pregnant, and so on).  While it would have been challenging enough just to evaluate each of the shows and explain why they’re good or bad, Stanley doesn’t stop there (or even start there, really); she presents us with a review, a trend piece and a think piece all in one.  It purports to explain what’s going on in the world of regular women having babies.  Below, I explain the explanation.

“Motherhood, at least the way it is depicted on cable networks like MTV, TLC and even FitTV, is a menacing, grotesque fate that is mostly ill-timed…. Horror makes for easy entertainment, of course, so it’s hardly surprising that the maternity ward would be milked for bloodcurdling thrills in the way of weddings…weather…or travel.”  Yeah but like, I bet you these shows reflect anxiety about pregnancy because women really are anxious about pregnancy.  I’m no expert, but from what I understand about pregnancy, your feet swell up, you barf, your clothes don’t fit, a mean doctor tells you you can’t have any wine, and eventually a tiny little person starts hanging out in your apartment all the time, drinking from your nipples and yelling all the time.  That sort of thing is pretty menacing all by itself, without the networks needing to gin up concern about it.

“But the growing number and lasting appeal of reality shows about fertility and babies reflect a particularly contemporary obsession. Focusing on the darker side of giving birth might seem at odds with the giddy cult of motherhood in popular culture.”  Yes.  Women have never been celebrated for motherhood or fertility before this precise historical moment.  That is why you’ll notice that in the Bible, all the women are sexy secret agents or high-powered attorneys.  Pregnancy and childbirth are kind of like fiber optics, or Yelp.

I do have a theory, though, about the mysterious paradox Stanley is adumbrating.  Perhaps the fact that women are expected to feel relentlessly “giddy” and enthusiastic about motherhood… is the very reason they want to see media depictions of darker outcomes and more ambivalent attitudes.  That is my sociological explanation of this phenomenon.  I have solved the mystery!  But we still have way more of this article to get through.

“Red-carpet reporters and tabloids stalk celebrity breeding as much as divorce or career misconduct; a ‘bump’ in Us Weekly or on TMZ refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a professional roadblock.”  Why would anyone expect it to refer to a “professional roadblock”?  Surely Stanley originally wrote “…refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a line of cocaine,” and her editor made her change it.  So, I’ll give her credit for that one.  That’s funny!

She starts explaining that in vitro fertilization is popular now, and the frightening baby shows somehow reflect that.  “But beneath all those balloons, baby showers and HappyBaby organic food pouches lies a lurking dread, the anxiety that comes with cheating biological destiny.”  Comes with cheating what?  Because they’re trying to treat infertility?*  That’s kind of strange, but I’ll try to make sense of it….  It’s like how people feel nervous before they go to the dentist, because they fear a hideous recompense from the gods for depriving them of their allotted toll of tooth decay and gingivitis.  You’ll never escape destiny!  Stop trying to vie with the immortals, you stupid yuppies!

And so it is with the barren women on TV.  They should take a tip from all those high-powered attorneys I read about in the Bible:  Veil yourself in shamefacedness, and betake yourself back unto your father’s abode so that your husband can find a more fecund helpmeet.  Your husband will probably hook up with the maid… he’ll build a giant superyacht and go on a booze cruise with all your fertile sisters and cousins for 40 days and 40 nights… the joke is on him, though, because he’ll never sell that yacht in this economy, even unto the seventh generation.  (Note to fact-checkersI haven’t actually read the Bible, please correct as necessary.)

*Extra bonus question:  Has Alessandra Stanley been hanging out with Ross Douthat?  Her exciting ideas about how women should stop cheating fate by avoiding “the biological realities of being female” suggests Yes!  Don’t date him girl, he’s a total player!

“Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel ‘Frankenstein’ is often seen as a metaphor for a woman’s fear of childbirth and motherhood. Cable television cuts through the metaphor and channels deeper fears about tampering with nature.”    Here we go again with the cultural references awkwardly shoehorned into an article.  Stanley is “pulling a Heffernan” by making a high-class literary reference instead of a pop culture one, but that doesn’t make it any less random and annoying.  These writers’ compulsion to make “intellectual” references reminds me of a story my parents once told me about some friends they had in the ’70s.  It seems this couple invited my parents over to play the board game Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition.  The couple, though, mistakenly believed the game they had bought was titled Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition, and that their ability to play it successfully was indicative of genius.  Gratuitous literary references work in a similar way.  When you indulge in them, you are playing Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition.  I am christening a new tag in its honor.

Anyway, Frankenstein was 1818.  In the nearly two centuries that have passed since then, there have been a number of fictional works depicting anxieties about  motherhood that Stanley could have referenced.  Here, I’ll do it for her.  “Classic films from Rosemary’s Baby to Alien have play on viewers’ fears about the more bizarre aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.  Now, cable television {something something something}”.   Not bad!  Still not brilliant, but good enough for a passable first draft.

“Multiple pregnancies, along with cosmetic surgery, are arguably among the most visible — and startling — displays of scientific daring, be it artificially enhanced mothers like the 70-year-old Indian woman who in 2008 had twins after in vitro fertilization, or the drastic surgical makeover that turned Heidi Montag of ‘The Hills’ into a horror movie of her own making — ‘The Hills Have Eyelifts.’”  Recent cultural reference alert!  This sentence is a bit difficult to parse.   It seems to suggest that Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeries are a form of “multiple pregnancy,” but that can’t be what was intended.  I think it’s at that “be it” in the middle of the sentence that things start to go wrong.  Maybe it’s a syllogism.  Heidi Montag is a woman who had freakish plastic surgery… in vitro fertilization is a procedure that is also had by women… therefore all men are Socrates in vitro fertilization is freakish.  Never mind, I get it now!

“Modern medicine has achieved more remarkable advances, but procedures like hip replacements or Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart pump aren’t as visible. There’s a pretty direct line in many people’s minds between double and triple strollers clogging the sidewalks of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the Octomom.”  Man, people are dicks!   Guys, here’s a little exercise in compassion:  The next time you see some adorable twins in a stroller, stop thinking about Dick Cheney, Heidi Montag and Frankenstein, and just smile at them.  It’s not their fault their mother cheated destiny.

“It’s hard not to believe in a correlation between the recent decline in teenage pregnancies…and the rise in ratings for reality shows about pregnant teenagers…. No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness.”  Of course, the decline could also be the result of decades of hard work by feminists to make birth control widely accessible and diminish the culture of fear and shame surrounding sexuality that prevents women from taking control of their own fertility.  But a TV critic thinks it’s because of TV, so that’s probably right.  At least it didn’t turn out to be because of Facebook or earbuds or something.

Stanley summarizes some of the problems faced by the characters on Teen Mom 2.  It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, and then the review ends with the following mystical zen koan: “It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. On cable television it takes a child to raise a child and women sometimes give birth to a village.”  What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m just trying to figure out what TV shows to watch, not attain enlightenment, you asshole!  This is ridiculous!  Sigh. There are some things this blog will never be able to explain.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. ttns permalink
    January 24, 2011 8:46 pm

    Good to have you back, Em. Keep fighting the good fight.

  2. JenniferP permalink
    February 23, 2011 6:43 am

    OMG, I came across this via the “Advice Columns” tag. Brilliant and hilarious. Keep fighting the good fight. We’re not having a national election right now, so I need to read back and see if you have any of those unintentionally hilarious pieces where New York Times reporters leave New York and go to other parts of the country and then write pieces explaining about “lunch counters” and “work.”

    Also, this made my day:

    ““But the growing number and lasting appeal of reality shows about fertility and babies reflect a particularly contemporary obsession. Focusing on the darker side of giving birth might seem at odds with the giddy cult of motherhood in popular culture.” Yes. Women have never been celebrated for motherhood or fertility before this precise historical moment. That is why you’ll notice that in the Bible, all the women are sexy secret agents or high-powered attorneys. Pregnancy and childbirth are kind of like fiber optics, or Yelp.”

  3. Tiercelet permalink
    July 14, 2011 5:50 pm

    I expect that the “women sometimes give birth to a village” thing is an Octomom dig.

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