A Body Not Her Own: The Role of Policy in Limiting Women’s Reproductive Rights

On the morning after Thanksgiving in 2015, a gunman attacked a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, eventually killing a police officer and two civilians while injuring nine more before surrendering. In the following court hearings, the attacker, Robert Lewis Dear, Jr., expressed his anti-abortionist and anti-Planned Parenthood opinions, identifying himself as a “warrior for the babies” (Turkewitz and Healy, 1). This attack followed similar violent assaults on clinics or doctors’ offices where abortions are performed, adding to the aggressive climate brought by protestors who harass women and professionals outside of these facilities daily. The topic of abortions and, more generally, women’s reproductive rights has divided Americans, prompting some to execute what they believe is vigilante justice to protect the unborn, while allowing women to suffer physically and emotionally. Women’s reproductive rights, however, go beyond pro-life and pro-choice arguments. When lawmakers begin to judge who should be allowed to get pregnant and see pregnant women as merely a vessel that carries the valuable life of a fetus, as opposed to cherishing the already-existing life of the woman, women effectively lose any bodily integrity. These policies degrade all women, but also disproportionally affect minority, poor, and young women.

As a sociologist, author Jeanne Flavin takes an interesting choice by analyzing policies and other qualitative data, as opposed to gathering her own data. This choice, however, allows for a synthesis of many pieces of information, not yet put together in one place. Flavin, who worked in a prison as a young woman, admits her bias toward protecting women in the criminal justice system. She also hints that she does not intend to have children of her own. This creates a new perspective on the topic: from a woman who has personal experience with mothers in the criminal justice system and, while not planning to become a mother herself, wants to share the importance of supporting these women.

The monograph follows the same timeline of reproduction, focusing on the government’s involvement in women’s lives and bodies before, during, and after pregnancy. The first section “Begetting,” discusses sterilization laws, like those upheld under Skinner v. Oklahoma, that some states use to control “who” has the right to reproduce. Again, these unjust and invasive laws disproportionally affect women of color or of a lower socioeconomic class. The lawmakers justify this by saying these women are not in a position to raise a child to be a productive member of society. Instead of fixing the injustices in government and social institutions that unfairly keep people of color and lower income levels in these positions, the government at every level consistently chooses to punish these women and control their bodies.

This section also discusses the most prevalent reproductive rights issue: abortion. Often the argument of abortion focuses on a choice: whether to end an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy or carry to term and raise the child or give it up for adoption. The famous Roe v. Wade case established a woman’s right to choose, but since this decision, states have tightened their laws as far as they can to render this landmark case relatively ineffective. While this affects all women, Flavin notes that for most minority women, there still is no “choice.” Because of a lack of information, money, transportation, and, on a larger scale, education, women with an unwanted pregnancy cannot often obtain an abortion. This incredibly hypocritical statement by the government – that minority women should not be able to raise children, but if they do get pregnant, they shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion – puts these women, and their future children, in a dangerous situation. In this section, Flavin flawlessly brings the discussion of abortion out of a pro-life/pro-choice argument, so readers realize the more damning effects these policies have on women without a choice, women who have been betrayed by their own government in many ways and now must give over control of their own bodies.

In the second section, “Bearing,” Flavin examines the discriminatory policies that turn pregnant women into second-class citizens. As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, her fetus becomes the one who must be protected, and she is simply a body, which the government can control in order to protect her future child. Again using policy to enhance her argument, Flavin notes how “fetus-centered laws” such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which claims a fetus as a second victim in domestic violence cases, leaves the pregnant women out of the realm of security. These kinds of laws do little to protect the woman, a victim in this violence, from the perpetrator, and instead only emphasize the harm done to the unborn child. Here, Flavin brings in an argument about drug uses, explaining how they have not made a choice to do drugs and instead institutional racism has driven them to this decision. Therefore, these women should not be further punished and deemed unfit to be a mother. While I follow this argument, as I note later, this segue may take away from Flavin’s strong argument.

In this section, Flavin also begins to note how the criminal justice system, not just government policy, devalues pregnant women. These women do not receive proper medical attention for diseases like HPV or even access to an abortion if impregnated by a guard. Flavin again notes the hypocrisy in the viewpoints of lawmakers who fear for the future lives of fetuses, but do not give the proper health care for imprisoned women, which will inevitably have public health consequences.

Lastly, Flavin delineates how, even after a child is born, policies subjugate the mother to high levels of scrutiny, continuing to impede on her rights to her body and her children. First, for women in the criminal justice system, the government strips them of any rights to motherhood. While Child Protective Services policies tend to deter child visitation to their incarcerated mothers, Flavin notes how important the relationship between a child and mother is to their future growth, and by taking that visitation away, children may be sucked back into a dangerous world. Going beyond just the benefits to the child, a mother who has the chance to build ties to her child will be more motivated in her own rehabilitation, better prepared to re-enter society. While not incarcerated, battered women also must battle for custody of their children if they speak of their abuse, as again, ineffective policies, like the flawed Violence Against Women Act, tend to protect the children over the mothers. While the children should certainly be safe, this fear of losing their children, silences many women who stay in abusive situations which continue to harm them and their children. Laws must defend the mother and the child and ensure they will not be separated.

          Our Bodies, Our Crimes fits most easily into feminist studies, as it highlights the impediment of women’s citizenship and their place in society. This monograph also fits into legal studies as Flavin uses myriad court cases and policies as examples in her argument. Notably, this book does not incorporate queer studies. While some queer populations cannot become pregnant, they can still be subjected to the same discriminatory treatment in sexual assault or parenting cases that infringe on their own rights to their bodies and their privacy.

The strength of this monograph lies in its organization. It clearly separates the information into pre-birth, during birth, and post-birth consequences of governmental interference into women’s bodies and lives. As the book proceeds, the reader realizes how extensively policies have been enacted to keep women under governmental control and to place the life of a fetus above that of a woman. The breath of research, legal and academic, Flavin performs roots her argument in evidence, giving more credibility to her case, that at times, can be controversial. She also redirects the conversation at certain points to make readers re-consider their perspectives on the age-old issue of reproductive rights. She does not focus on the pro-life/pro-choice debate as she points out that many women do not really have a choice even if the laws say they do. She also notes the implications of a discriminatory criminal justice system that gives up on its inmates, automatically assuming they cannot and should not be pregnant or mothers. These topics are largely overshadowed in the discussion of reproductive rights, which often focuses on the plight of upper-class white women, which while still relevant, as most social movements, leaves out many other affected women.

While Flavin fills Our Bodies, Our Crimes with an abundant amount of relevant citations from other legal and academic work, in order to make her argument more coherent, I would have left out her interlude into drug users. While after careful thought, I understand her point about the institutional racism that inevitably can cause women to take drugs but should not determine her ability to have a child and mother, this argument may not be easily accepted by other readers. For a more conservative reader, it is difficult to believe that drug users, whose habits may harm the child – a detail she dedicates only a few sentences to – should be able to raise their children away from government agency surveillance. While Flavin may not be targeting this more conservative group of readers, in order to spread her well-thought-out and developed argument to more people, she should tailor her argument a little more. This added point complicates the details of her argument even more, so leaving it out could make for an even more definitive conclusion.

In all, Our Bodies, Our Crimes, opens up the discussion about reproductive rights – moving away from just a debate between pro-life and pro-choice – and toward an inclusion of all intersectional backgrounds. While I would implore everyone to read this book, I believe at least white, liberal-minded people must pick it up. Flavin’s research shows that this group, while often well-intentioned, tends to mistake their rhetoric as improvement for all. Many liberals center themselves in the pro-choice debate, not recognizing how many other people lack the fundamental right of a choice. Institutional racism and classism often place women at a position where they do not have the means of information to make the same decisions upper-class, white women can, and their doubled struggles should be brought to the forefront. This book outlines the effects of infringing reproductive laws at every stage of a pregnancy – from conception to motherhood – with an eye, not just on the effects on upper-middle-class white women, but on those from a lower-socioeconomic or minority background. While these laws burden less-privileged women even more, laws that limit any woman will have a lasting negative impact on the lives and opportunities of all women.

 

Works Cited

Flavin, Jeanne. Our Bodies, Our Crimes. NYU Press : 2009.

Turkewitz, J. and Healy, J. “3 Are Dead in Colorado Springs Shootout at Planned Parenthood Center.” The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2015.

 

 

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look”… An Analysis of “The Babadook”

“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of”… societal norms. The Babadook, especially in this trailer, both reinforces and questions many of the underlying assumptions our society has around gender and sex, class and sexuality. Amelia, the mother at the heart of this film, is simultaneously defined by her distance and increasing slippage away from norms, but also the societal pressures that she feels trapped and tormented by. The trailer looks at both Amelia’s perspective as a mother in society, but also society at large’s view of what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a mother.

The expectations for Amelia seem to overwhelm her throughout the film. The most prominent of these expectations that Amelia struggles with are her responsibilities as a mother. As a mother, she is expected to be always emotionally and physically available to help her son, and able to quickly and effectively correct anything disruptive or societally detrimental that her child does. The first shot of Amelia in the trailer is her reading to her son, Samuel, in bed, a quintessentially maternal action as defined by our society. However, as the trailer continues, the world that Amelia lives in seems to be crumbling around her. Her son misbehaves and acts out in violent ways, like building a slingshot to fight the monster. Samuel is loud, disruptive and potentially violent, in ways that Amelia soon realizes she cannot always control. Samuel’s outbursts are Amelia’s “fault” as a mother, and through the institutions that surround her, she is blamed and shamed for her inability to control Samuel’s every move.

Amelia’s problems, especially with regards to Samuel, are often treated in an institutionalized way through a male perspective, as seen throughout the trailer, in ways that contradict and cause conflict within Amelia as a character. For example, the male administrator of Samuel’s school tells Amelia, in response to Samuel’s bringing a weapon to school, “the boy has significant behavioral problems” (while the female administrator remains silent), and the medical professional that Amelia sees tells her “all children see monsters”. Even the governmental agents of order, as seen through the police at 1:22 into the clip, are distorted and unhelpful in Amelia’s plight. The police officer is a reflection of the torment Amelia faces, with his gray skin and sunken appearance, much like the Babadook that plagues her and her family. The film simultaneously questions and reinforces the idea that the home and the family are the “woman’s sphere”; Amelia is situated in a context where her inability to mother Samuel “properly” is a reflection of both Samuel and her own failures in a medical sense. Samuel “promises to protect” his mother if she can protect him in the trailer; however, neither characters seems to be able to offer the other protection.

The character of Amelia also reflects and questions the stereotype of the “hysterical woman” and the dichotomy that society often situates between the sane, put-together mother, and the “crazy”, overworked mother who can’t handle her children. Much of the film appears to be presented as though it is from Amelia’s perspective. The quick glimpses of the monster that the trailer shows the audience, such as the knock on the door at the 1:00 mark of the trailer, the shadowy figure in the neighbor’s house at 1:19 and the graying skin of the police officer at 1:23, combined with the increasing desperation in Amelia’s voice and more unkempt appearance seem to suggest that perhaps “the Babadook” is only a figment of her imagination and a hallucination created by stress. Amelia herself seems to buy into the idea that what she’s seeing is not real; as she tells her coworker, “I’m fine…just a bit stressed at the moment.” The Babadook addresses a real consequence of society’s belittling of women and children; Amelia and Samuel face real dangers when what they see with their own eyes is dismissed as the ravings of an overworked, hysterical woman and the overactive imagination of a child. The belittling that Amelia faces as a woman is compounded by issues of class, and represents an example of how intersectionality can affect a person’s place in society.

Though the trailer doesn’t often address these issues as fully as the movie does, the trailer does help reveal how Amelia, by virtue of her class, is often judged and belittled by those of higher class and power. For example, though not addressed in the trailer, Amelia struggles in the upper-class world of her sister, and the assumptions and judgments that higher class women place on Amelia for not being able to “do it all” as both a working woman and a mother. Much of the judgment Amelia receives as a “bad mother” and “hysterical” seems to be compounded by her social class; Amelia has to work and cannot afford childcare for Samuel, and society around her seems to judge her for her inability, by virtue of her social class, to constantly keep watch on and act as an authority figure for Samuel. Directly addressed in the trailer, however, is how wealthier men of higher social status treat Amelia. The administrator and doctor, in addition to being men, are indicated to be of higher class than working-class Amelia in the trailer, and their opinions that they understand her situation better than her because they are men are compounded by the privileges they enjoy over her due to class. They are implied to be “experts” in their fields, which means that, in the context of dealing with Amelia, they assume they understand her life and situation better than she herself does, which, as the film progresses, soon becomes evidently fallacious.

The Babadook, as an entity, is also very interesting from a gendered perspective. While the Babadook is clearly not human, it is still slotted into the gender binary in this movie. It is gendered as male, referred to as “mister”, and wears clothes that Samuel and Amelia take to mean it is male. The gendering of the Babadook helps feed into the storyline of the loss and grief Amelia feels, and her isolation from the world around her. The male Babadook represents the two male people in her life that precipitate her decline. He represents both her deceased husband, who, like the Babadook, acts as an unseen effect on her life that keeps her from being able to live as society expects her to. He also represents her son, Samuel, who, like the Babadook, represents her fear of being unable to handle being a mother, her fear that she has created or “let in” a violent monster into her life and her fear that Samuel is unable to distinguish reality from fiction, into which Amelia herself fears that she is digressing.

The Babadook, while on the surface simply a traditional monster movie, is also a critique and presentation of societal norms and requirements expected of women and people of lower class. Amelia feels simultaneously far from, and dragged towards, societal expectations of her as a woman, a mother and a member of the working class. Just like “Mister Babadook” who Amelia tries to rid herself of, the expectations of society just won’t let her alone, whether or not she “lets it in” or not.

Defining Mom

Proctor and Gamble’s (P & G) “Thank you Mom” commercial appeared in 2012 as part of the campaign that ran during and put narrative focus on the 2012 London Olympic Games. The commercial depicts the progress of athletes as they move from young children to Olympic competitors, supported along the way by their mothers. Five or six different mothers are depicted waking their young athletes early, making them different (assumedly culturally appropriate) breakfasts, and then delivering the children to various athletic practices. The mothers do it all again the next day, and the next, and the next. The athletes are shown in different stages of life and after trial and tribulation each arrives at his or her specific Olympic event. The mothers look on with tears of pride.

Proctor and Gamble is the parent company of over 60 brands that comprise mostly of household cleaning and beauty products. Dawn dish soap, Brawny paper towels, and Tide detergent are just a few of the company’s most-recognizable assets. Because of the company’s brands, we can assume the advertisement’s target audience is people who work in the home performing domestic tasks: whoever uses dish soap, paper towels, and laundry detergent most often will likely be the buyer of such products. The first (and most important) assumption the ad makes is that the Mother is the keeper of the home. The campaign called “Thank You Mom,” and the text at the end of the ad specifically addresses mothers. By targeting mothers with their ad, P & G assumes they are the primary users of P & G products.

The argument P & G addresses to its viewers runs along these lines: Domestic work leads to greatness; washing uniforms, and cooking meals allow children to become Olympic athletes. P & G ties greatness to working in the home. At this point in the commercial, it appears that P & G has made the assumption that all primary caregivers are women: no male caretakers appear in these video sequences, unless you could the fuzzy half-outline of a dad at a gymnastics meet.

The ad furthers this assumption when the words “Thank you, Mom” appear on the screen. All caretakers are women, and all Mothers are caretakers. The ad also assumes that the same member of the family is responsible for both the housework and taking care of children, a situation that does not hold for every family structure. One interesting consequence of the lack of male caretakers in the ad is the resulting lack of comment on caretakers’ relationship status. Are the mothers of the commercial straight, lesbian, or trans? Are the mothers perhaps single mothers? No assumptions are made in regards to this element of family life.

The ad assumes all caretakers are women, all Mothers are caretakers, and the caretaker performs all the housework. The argument is simple: domestic work (the kind facilitated by P & G products) leads to greatness. Just as mothers work tirelessly to support their children, P & G supports Moms (and so moms should buy their products).

Proctor and Gamble’s ad is an attempted intervention into the myth of the happy fifties housewife: yes, taking care of a child and taking care of housework is hard, says the ad; The text at the end of the video reads “The hardest job in the world is the best job in the world.” By acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining a household and raising children, the ad disrupts the image of the smiling mother who has lots of time for book-club and social gatherings. (Maybe my own image of junior-leaguers and country club cocktails is shaping my view of this commercial a little too much here.)

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan enters into Proctor and Gamble’s chosen world of the happy housewifeFriedan argues (contrary to P&G’s ad) that mothers and wives must stop searching for happiness among their husbands and children: happiness lies in fulfilling the dreams that are frustrated when intelligent women give up education and careers to stay at home with children. Friedan contradicts P&G’s message of motherly fulfillment through self-sacrifice, yet both Friedan’s and P&G’s arguments have the same oversights: both ads entirely ignore differences of race and class. (Though, admittedly, P&G does attempt to address the race issue by showing athletes and mothers of all nationalities).

bell hooks’ criticisms of Friedan in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hold for the P&G commercial. hook argues that Friedan’s narrative of the troubled 50’s housewife is the narrative only of the white, upper-middle class housewife; Friedan’s dilemma in no way parallels the experiences of lower class white women, or of women of color (from any class). Friedan assumes that all women (her assumed audience) are mothers with husbands and no careers. Similarly, Proctor and Gamble assumes that all mothers are stay-at-home moms, who take care of cooking and cleaning. The ad leaves no space for mothers who have to work (usually a class issue), or for mothers who choose to work, or for fathers who are the primary caregivers for their families.

According to the Proctor and Gamble, children who achieve great things have mothers that sacrifice; sacrifice to wake up early, sacrifice to drive children to practice, and sacrifice to do all the housework that allows their children to be great. Don’t worry, says the narrative of the ad, being a mother is the “best job in the world.” Plus, you’ll get thanked and acknowledged for all your hard work… if you sacrifice. How do career moms feel when they view this advertisement? Do they feel that they are being thanked for all their hard work? P & G’s “Thank you mom” ad supports existing stereotypical norms of American family structure (white, mother and father, 2.5 kids).

BUT WAIT. What if these are real athletes and these are their real mothers? Are we to fault companies for reflecting real-life realities? Or perhaps the commercial is not based upon real Olympic athletes, and is rather a strategic attempt to sell product to P & G’s target demographic. Is it wrong to assume that the large majority of P & G’s buyers are mothers who are also primary caregivers and housewives? The ad is undeniably touching, and on some level appeals to nearly everyone. Everyone, at some point, had a mother. Most people have had a caretaker who cared for them with the maternal affection demonstrated by P&G’s mothers. The analysis of a commercial is tricky business: do we evaluate commercials based on their effectiveness as advertisements, or based on their representation of the society to whom they are selling? The morality of the advertising world is a topic that will have to wait for another post…

This post, by the way, is dedicated to my own mother. Mom: sorry I haven’t done anything as impressive as win a gold medal. Nonetheless, #thankyoumom.

Works Cited

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, 1963

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks, 1984