Friday, June 15, 2007

Mars Needs Moms Redux

In an earlier post, I criticized the Berkeley Breathed children's story, Mars Needs Moms, for celebrating women's dedication to domestic drudgery. As I explained in the post, I based my remarks on an NPR interview in which Breathed spoke about the story of a boy whose mother is kidnapped by Martians. I had not read the book myself, and Breathed subsequently sent an email asking me to read it and to blog again after doing so. He generously sent me a copy of the book, which I have now read.

The story is not exactly what I gathered from the NPR interview. At the end, (spoiler alert), the boy -- who had been wondering why everyone worships mothers and who had concluded that the Martians had wisely kidnapped his mother to perform domestic tasks -- faces a life-threatening situation, and his mother sacrifices her own life (at least seemingly) to save his. The lesson, then, is not -- as I previously thought -- that children should appreciate moms for the mind-numbing tasks that they perform. It is, instead, that children should appreciate the bottomless love that mothers have for their children, the real reason that moms are worshiped throughout the world.

My reaction to the real story is this: It is charming, funny, and wonderfully illustrated. But while it does not worship women for their tireless willingness to perform drudgery, it still misses an important opportunity. For many children, it is an unfortunate reality that they see their mothers doing the lion's share of the housework and childcare. This may be, in fact, why children tend to direct anger at their mothers rather than at their fathers: someone who actually takes care of you most of the time is in the best position to antagonize you (by making you eat broccoli or throw out your garbage).

Children's stories, however, provide a forum for experimenting with alternative realities that do not precisely track our world. Breathed recognizes this, as his incorporation of the red planet and its inhabitants demonstrates. But in Mars Needs Moms, fathers are all but invisible. They do not tell children to eat their broccoli or clean up, they do not absorb their children's wrath, and they apparently do not carpool or perform the other tasks that would make them appealing to the Martians.

It is true that fathers in this story also do not sacrifice their lives for their children, so they are not the heroes. But it is hardly revolutionary to suggest that mothers love their children enough to die for them. The selfless mother is another variant on the same stereotype that has, historically, functioned effectively to keep women out of public life. It is precisely this view, for example, that "the paramount destiny and mission of woman is to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother" that led the Supreme Court to permit women's exclusion from the legal profession in Bradwell v. Illinois.

Berkeley Breathed is not, of course, proposing anything so destructive as female exclusion from salaried labor. Nonetheless, a story -- particularly one about the meaning of motherhood -- has great potential to spark the imagination. And in this story, little girls are not given much to dream about. Projecting into the future, they can imagine children who do not appreciate them until something happens that shows that women will not only give up their ambitions and intellectual pursuits for their families, but they will give up their lives as well.

For a contrasting approach to family life, one that acknowledges reality but challenges it at the same time, read Knuffle Bunny, by Mo Willems. It is the story of a toddler who misplaces her stuffed animal while she is at the laundromat with her dad. It is clear from the story that dad is not as familiar as mom with the child's needs, but he is trying his best to learn, and that is something readers can aspire to.

11 comments:

ceborgmann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caitlin Borgmann said...

I am likewise troubled and frustrated by the persistent portrayal of women's ultimate calling as mothers. Scarily, we don't even have to go back to Bradwell to see the Supreme Court endorsing this view: "Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child," wrote Justice Kennedy in Gonzales v. Carhart in April, in a passage that suggests women do not know what they are doing when they choose abortion.

md said...

Gee, Gnuffle Bunny was one of the worst stories I chanced to read to my three year old. The point, I guess, is that dad is a bumbling boob who doesn't know what's going on with his child (i.e., how important it is to keep track of the bunny and not lose it in the washing machine) and has to be rescued by mom's family savoir faire. Gimme a break. In fact, one might give it a double-inverted interpretation that feminists, it seems to me, should greatly resent. Dad doesn't know about Knuffle-Bunny because he's out bringing home the bacon. All things Knuffle-Bunny (and therefore unimportant) are within mom's sphere of silly activity.

In any case, if you come down hard on the Mars story for its stereotyped and distorted picture of motherhood, you ought to be fair about taking the opposite, and equally annoying phenomenon to task as well.

PG said...

It is precisely this view, for example, that "the paramount destiny and mission of woman is to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother" that led the Supreme Court to permit women's exclusion from the legal profession in Bradwell v. Illinois.

This is a losing crusade on my part, but the majority opinion in Bradwell was based on Slaughterhouse and had nothing to do with the plaintiff's being female. If the state could arbitrarily exclude people from being butchers, it could arbitrarily exclude people from being lawyers. Bradley's concurrence is groan-inducing in its pernicious sexism, but it is not the holding.

PG said...

md,

"Dad doesn't know about Knuffle-Bunny because he's out bringing home the bacon. All things Knuffle-Bunny (and therefore unimportant) are within mom's sphere of silly activity."

Why do you think Knuffle-Bunny -- and anything not immediately obvious to an adult but essential to a child's sense of well-being -- is unimportant? I hope you did not read the story to your three year old to point out how dreadfully annoying children are when they ask for things that an adult wouldn't.

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