How Should a Person Who is Also a Mother Be?
In the face of monstrosity, what does it mean to be "good"?
I started watching Dead Ringers this week— a show about maternity, fertility, sexuality, doubling, codependency, and greed. I was struck in the first episode by how violently the show portrays birth, but I set aside my knee-jerk reactions and gave it a chance. Now I’m hooked.
Rachel Weisz plays twin sisters, one who doesn’t give any fucks about anything, and another who desperately wants to be good. In the first episode, Elliot, the bad sister, says snidely something like, “Oh, is capitalism very very bad?” The effect of the line is twofold: to teach the audience to watch the show as a critique of capitalism, and to illustrate that such a critique fails ahead of itself, by virtue of the interpretation’s simplicity.
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I have been thinking about this line, but also the polarity of good and evil, how it persists, despite its own simplicity, because I’ve been reading two new books that explore the question of what it means to be “good.”
Sara Petersen’s Momfluenced explores the notion of the “good” mother today—and specifically those mothers who shape their identity online around earthen-colored clothing, linen pants, and sun-drenched domestic scenes. Petersen’s book is sharp and timely, but also filled with many thoughtful personal reflections on her own relationship to momfluencers.
In one chapter titled “Good (White) Moms,” Petersen points out links between momfluencers and QAnon, exploring how white supremacist ideology sneakily shows up in feeds under the guise of “nice white moms” and “wellness mamas” recommending mattress toppers and “womb healing” webinars, with a little conservative political ideology on the side. Petersen, who runs the snarky and smart Substack, also demonstrates how the disempowering circumstances of American motherhood make the pull toward community and connection online even stronger.
Petersen writes honestly about her own weakness for consumer culture— her love of a good sweater, Blundstone boots, good lipstick, facial oil. In the book, she archives how she fell in love with momfluencers, and how they broke her heart, by promising a serene experience of motherhood that never came. To explain her own cultural attachments to momfluencer culture, as well as the draw for other mothers, Petersen looks to the work of late theorist and critic Lauren Berlant. In their multi-book project on American sentimentality and affect, Berlant argued that we often form cultural attachments that don’t serve us or that don’t align with our broader belief systems—we get sucked into consuming stuff that winds up, in Berlant’s words, as “an obstacle to your flourishing.”
For Berlant, as for Petersen, it’s nevertheless worth asking what we get out of these “bad” cultural attachments, and why we return to them, even when they appear foolish or unworthy of the volume of attention we give them. Women’s culture, for example, even the kind found on Instagram, often estimates a sense of belonging to that shifty category called “women.” This belonging—a sense of being seen—can provide a temporary alleviation of the pain that’s felt living in a cruel world. There’s an aspirational quality to participation in what Berlant called “intimate publics,” but also a sense of relief, even if it’s accompanied by other feelings, such as inadequacy, or even total cognitive dissonance—such as when the momfluencer one reveres starts dissing science and vaccines.
Which is to say, we are not immune to our feelings, our longing, our desires—however “incorrect” or, in academic parlance, “problematic,” they may be.
Put differently: The heart wants what it wants. At least that’s the Emily Dickinson quote heard round the world as it was sullied by Woody Allen, who evoked it in response to questions about why he wed his ex-wife’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.
Claire Dederer refers to this quote in several places in her book Monsters, also out this week. Like Petersen’s Momfluenced, Monsters emerges from a tradition of books by feminist critics that complicate both choice feminism—built on the belief that anything a woman does is inherently feminist—and the idea that feminism equals moral purity. Texts like Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror have done much to complicate these simplified versions of liberal feminism, and like them, both Dederer and Petersen are interested in a more nuanced look at our cultural attachments.
While Peterson articulates the complexities of the “good” mother’s image today— an unattainable fantasy, an impossibility, and a disciplinary set of ideals to which many women find themselves nevertheless attached—Dederer drills into the question of aesthetic attachments themselves. In Monsters, Dederer explores the notion of the “good” audience member, critic, and consumer of art, asking how one can attain such an ideal, especially when they are also a woman, or a mother, or just a person with a conscience.
She also explores the question of whether we are all a little monstrous ourselves. One epigraph of the book comes from modernist writer Clarice Lispector: “Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”
Monsters evolved out of Dederer’s viral Paris Review essay, which I return to often. She opens the book with a discussion of her experiences watching and rewatching films by Roman Polanski and Woody Allen while trying to outline some ethics around what to do with artworks created by sexual abusers. Dederer quickly realizes that the book she’s writing is “not about the artists, but about the audience.” Monsters thus becomes “an autobiography of the audience.”
I love a book that uncovers its own project in real-time like this—one that invites readers to walk with the writer as they probe and poke. Part of what makes Dederer’s writing so compelling is that she resists the notion that this intellectual, critical project is one that can be solved just by thinking—or even one that can be solved at all. Early on, sitting in her room watching these films, she realizes that she cannot think her way out of the question that launched the project: the question of what to do with the art of monstrous men.
Instead, she unpacks our shared cultural beliefs about authorities, experts, geniuses, artists, and the assumption that one can and should separate their own feelings from the experience of engaging with art. Dederer thoughtfully explicates the biographical fallacy, New Criticism, the death of the author, and ultimately rejects the premise that criticism—professional or recreational—can ever be objective. Later she writes that her book is about heartbreak—about loving a thing, only to find its been made by monsters. Not having this feeling isn’t something we can just do, she writes. “Indelibility is not voluntary.”
In her analysis of the white male critic, the only one served by the false premise of the objective audience member (the work is about him, so he can slide right in, everything’s fine), Dederer also writes candidly about men policing her critical impulses—such as her introduction of the “I” into her critical work.
I couldn’t help but feel this, as I have certainly had my own share of men lecture me about drawing on my subjectivity in my criticism and my aesthetics. I have been laughed at for getting angry about art or theory, or just for saying “history.” I have been told, when talking about male philosophers’ inherent bias and the damage they have done to all of us, to find something more original to cover. I have hung out with male writers who flirt with me and openly analyze my body aloud in crowds (so original right?), then criticize women for talking about their children in their work. I have been asked to rationalize the relationship between my “identity politics” and my writing. And I have been told by men to calm down and care less and not get emotional more times than I can count. I’m not even talking about what men do on the internet.
In response, I have said things like, I don’t think of my work like that, backing off too fast, knowing I am being accused.
For men, Dederer writes, their own subjectivity is “invisible; a ghost in the critical machine.” And so they have made the expression of subjectivity— that is, the expression of any subjectivity other than their own— an intellectual crime.
But Dederer’s project is further complicated by the fact that she actually likes art by monstrous men. Like Petersen, she feels a sense of guilt—a contradiction between her own moral values and feelings about her cultural attachments, and other feelings, such her appreciation of them as Art or, sometimes, as nostalgia.
I can’t totally relate to the pull of momfluencers, most of whom bother me too much to remain enjoyable, or to the aesthetic pleasure Dederer gets from the male artists she returns to most frequently in her book. These are not critiques of the books I’m writing about here, by the way, just statements of my own subjectivity.
As a girl growing up in the shadow of Hollywood, I never took to art-house films or canonical male directors— to auteur theory, which Dederer skewers. I never liked Woody Allen, never watched Polanksi. I rolled my eyes at Lars von Trier. That kind of Art, I always felt, was reserved for boys, young men who grew up in LA who wanted to be famous, who wanted to direct. My first boyfriends revered Wes Anderson and Charlie Kaufman—who have not been implicated in any scandals that I am aware of—but I always had the sense this was art not made for me. I shirked them as a defense.
I saw myself more in the young pop music stars of the 90s, which meant when they became monsters just as I entered young adulthood, I did too. I’ve been thinking lately about those women— the Britneys, the Pamelas, the Janets. When their public images were disrupted by the misogyny of the era, I shirked them, those women (all women?), as a defense. I became a writer, and my first loves were male fiction writers- Bukowski, Hemingway. Those monsters, who Dederer also explores.
I consumed TV and film and music for entertainment, not as Art, and certainly not as a moral guide, even if the fantasies I consumed, over time, shaped my desires and my life beyond the screen, in ways I wouldn’t become of aware of until much later. It was as if by virtue of growing up in Los Angeles, listening to my mother talk and talk about Hollywood (really, about the abusive men in Hollywood), had not just jaded me, but made me immune to the idea that anything made for film and TV could be called Art at all.
This also led me to consume forms of art— okay, let’s call it pop culture— that could be called monstrous in other ways— representations of women that, while not penned or staged by sexual abusers, are monstrous in their depictions of women as troubled, train-wrecks, sexual objects, hysterical. A few weeks ago, under the pressure to provide some other service here at the newsletter, I hosted an online chat during the live The Bachelor finale, as an experiment. I was surprised that a few folks contested the very premise of watching stuff like that. I thought we had sort of settled this conversation? Not so.
I suppose I had settled the conversation in my head—reconciled with the fact that we watch stuff that isn’t good for us and that what’s of value is unpacking the aesthetic experience we have with those things, rather than slapping ourselves on the wrist. One man, however, whose avatar I’ve never seen before in this space, felt the need to chime in, offering a snide apology that such a show continues to exist, asking, “Does it make anyone feel good at the end of an episode? Does it help you make better choices yourself? Is this the way we, as a species, should figure out how to mate for life?”
I got hot and bothered but nevertheless took a breath and put on my teacher hat, then assured him these were valid questions. But are they?
When did “we” (Dederer also skewers the “we,” insisting that “we” embrace the accountability of the “I” in our judgements) decide that the goal of consuming art is to make “us” better people? Is this why “we” watch Succession, or why so many men lectured Dederer, and no doubt countless other women, about focusing on the aesthetic merits of Manhattan, rather than getting all worked up by their silly, complicated feelings? Is this why “we” watch emotionally abusive cry-shows like Dear Edward or violent films about wars that take place in outer space? Is this why we watch countless bad men on TV? To feel good? To make better choices in life? To figure out how to mate for life? Has anyone ever turned on the TV for life advice?
Both of these books also wade into the question of what it means to be a good mother. I write about my own failed attempt to reach such an ideal in TOUCHED OUT, so I’ll only say for now that I’ve given up hope that I’ll ever reach such an ideal— and yet I remain woefully tangled in its web. That’s involuntary indelibility, too—the stain the cruel world makes on our desires.
Every day I am wracked with an image of me, in my grown kids’ minds, as bad mom who made all the mistakes. As Dederer points out, this is what makes women monsters— being unmaternal.
In an excerpt from her book published recently, Petersen writes that the performance of motherhood is not for kids, but for the male gaze, something I also explore at length in TOUCHED OUT. The male gaze doesn’t just *poof* disappear after women become mothers, after their bodies age out of objectification, or after they fulfill their kid quota.
When you become a mother, the male gaze follows you around, slapping you on the wrist whenever you express dissatisfaction with your new role, say the wrong thing, or god forbid flip out for a moment. It feels like men are watching always, policing and directing. Maybe because they always have been—telling “us” how to speak, how to feel, how to act, how to engage with the world.
Maybe it doesn’t even feel like men, but rather an amorphous blob, the blob of patriarchy, following you around, getting all up in your shit, taking up space, elbowing you out of the way. Have you ever been told that kids are parasites that suck the life out of you? Wrong. That’s the patriarchy blob, which makes its home inside women, inside all of us, until we retch it out.
When I first started writing this newsletter, I was debilitated by chest-crushing anxiety every time I published an essay. I had spent many years not writing after becoming a mother, and the internet had changed significantly during that time. I was often overcome with the feeling that I had accidentally written something very wrong or very bad— that actually, I was a monster, and had accidentally exposed myself in public, in my effort at retching out the blob.
In part this feeling comes from a degree of paranoia that is an element of my personality, childhood trauma, blame the mother, etc. But this paranoia was also stoked by working in academia for half a decade, where men dismissed my ideas, my writing, my clothes, my hair, my taste in music, in art, in language. Whatever they could see on me that wasn’t part of what Dederer rightly calls the supposedly objective male critic’s “extremely limited subjectivity,” they denounced. I learned to remain vigilant.
The paranoia is also continually fed, even today, by both men and women who feel the need to discipline my thinking in public spaces, to presume an equation between my work and my personal life, and to reduce my intellectual thoughts (or feelings, recall we all have them) to my motherhood, my body, my currency.
Some of this paranoia also comes, I suppose, from what has been called “cancel culture,” a term that is mostly a construction of the conservative backlash against feminism and antiracism. But this imagined boogeyman of feminism is a distraction.
It’s true that I watch some truly awful shit on occasion, but in recent years I’ve taken to wholly rejecting much of the art of monstrous men. It’s one way in which I assert my own feminism as a viewer, but also my own virtuousness. I won’t even watch Ben Affleck films because for me he is—to use Dederer’s term—“stained” by Casey Affleck, who I don’t even know that much about, but I think was involved in a domestic violence situation. I regularly ride my husband, too, for his bad taste in all forms of art. He definitely consumes the wrong things.
I know this is silly. My cultural abstinence and holier-than-thou attitude doesn’t necessarily accomplish anything. It’s just a little exercise in agency, in control.
But my behavior around what I consume—and sometimes, around what I write—is also bound to a larger question that hums underneath the question of how or why we consume Art, and even supposedly lesser “lowbrow” pop culture icons and images. And that’s the question of what it means to be a good person.
How does one be a good person who is a feminist, a critic, a mother, a woman, a consumer, or simply a person who cares about the world—someone who is imperfect, with imperfect tastes, with cultural attachments that aren’t “good” for us but are impossible to shake—someone with desire, with confusion, with contradictions, with nostalgia, with humanity?
If you ask the exercise instructors who pull me out of my deep depressive funks on the mornings I manage to pull myself off the couch, being a good person means making yourself a “hell yes” person or “using your voice.” But when the rubber meets the road —what the fuck does that even mean?
There is no singular approach to good-person-ness. I mean, there is, in the broadest possible sense: be antiracist, donate to abortion funds, support gender equality and trans and queer rights, fight for body autonomy for all human, overthrow capitalism and the police state, get involved at the local level, etc. And yet, as writers like Courtney Martin have pointed out, maybe striving to be “one of the good ones” is not the point of this thing we’re doing here. Maybe what Art does and what we should do, as consumers/critics/caregivers/people, is ask better questions.
For Petersen, the possibility of arriving at such questions lies not in being a “good mom,” but in relinquishing the fantasy that one can ever be such. After all, the impulse to set ourselves apart— to not be monsters— as Dederer writes, is what keeps us from seeing our own monstrosities.
I write a lot about my own monstrosities and “good” motherhood in TOUCHED OUT and this week you can get 25% off preorders at Barnes & Noble. Use the code PREORDER25.
I’m running a one-day, two-hour workshop the weekend before Mother’s Day with Minna Dubin, author of Mom Rage. AND for paid subscribers of the newsletter, the class is just $99. To secure your spot in the class, just Venmo your class payment to @Minna-Dubin. Be sure to include your email address in the notes field. The week before the workshop, you will be emailed an invitation to the Zoom room where class will take place. Feel free to email me at email@example.com with questions.
One of my kids had last Friday off and another has tomorrow off, so I’m behind on my Friday recs posts. But I’ll be back next week with a big collection of “good” stuff. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who subscribed recently, and especially those who made the jump to paid— thereby making my work here paid work!