Friday, January 21, 2011

Battle Hymn Of The Queer Tiger Aunt: Or, How Amy Chua Made Me Think About Feminism

The official logo of the Queer Tiger Aunt. Photo credit.
When I decided that instead of reading about Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother I would read the book instead, I did so for two reasons.  One was because I had become interested in the Orientalist tropes that she launched in her publicity piece, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" (Wall Street Journal, January 8 2011) and that white women then expanded upon here and other places.

The other reason was that I had some Audible credits to use, and was beginning my daily commute again.

Am I glad I did!  Here are some things I thought about by actually reading (listening to) the book, rather than basing my judgments of it on a few salacious quotes (or Janet Maslin's review, which has numerous factual errors in it):
  • What it means to be the bridge between the immigrant generation and a generation which grows up in privilege and security;
  • That someone in the world is thinking about what makes girls confident and strong, rather than viewing female success as a symptom of a society that hates boys;
  • That someone other than me thinks that giving young people hundreds of prizes for small accomplishments does little for them except cause them to expect prizes at every turn;
  • That one of feminism's central insight in the 1960s -- mothering is a job -- is also one of the great unresolved issues on the feminist agenda.  The institutional and social desire to pretend that motherhood isn't a job may be the single most critical issue to address if we are also to address women's equality as workers and citizens in this country.
 I can also now answer question The Los Angeles Times asked today: "What's Behind Our Obsessive Amy Chua Disorder?"  The answer, I think, is that mothering is more or less a cursed profession that is analogous to being a professional homosexual, which is what I do when I am not being a tenured college professor.  As with mothers, people always feel like they must have -- nay, have a right to have -- opinions about homosexuals, regardless of how silly or unwelcome those opinions are.  The less people know about real homosexuals, the more they feel like they have to have an opinion about us.  Of course homosexuals -- like Mommies -- also have opinions about themselves that have more holes in them than Swiss cheese.  Take the "It Gets Better Project," which is run by real homosexuals, and has a lot of terrific videos by homosexuals, transpeople, and some heterosexuals.  It's purpose is to cheer up young people who are at risk from harming themselves out of despair over their sexuality.  While the videos themselves are quite nuanced and interesting, the message the media is running with is that if you are a gay kid, things will get better when you grow up and are free from your parents and high school bullies.  This is a lie.  Actually, the outcomes of growing up are quite variable.  Sometimes things get better, but sometimes they don't.  Sometimes things get worse.  Being gay might become only one of your problems, since people suffer from things like poverty, illness and disability that have nothing to do with being gay.  Or sometimes they continue to suffer because they are gay!  

Similarly, from reading Chua and reading about her, I have discovered that there is really a struggle over what constitutes good motherhood which is not likely to make any difference to anyone.  I'm not involved in the Mommy Wars:  in fact, as I am not a Mommy, I have only heard rumors of them, not experienced them first hand.  As I understand it, they revolve around:
  • Men who insist on mansplainin' about what constitutes good mothering;
  • Women lecturing other women about what constitutes good mothering;
  • Women's ambivalence about the act of mothering, expressed as hostility towards other mothers;
  • Why and when we decided that men ought to be heaped with praise for any or all acts that are similar to mothering.
I speak to all of this as an outsider, not being a mother but rather someone who has put a tremendous amount of effort into being an eccentric but caring Queer Tiger Aunt.  I sometimes succeed at aunt-hood and sometimes fail, but one of the good things about being an aunt is that there are no rules on how to do it.  No one criticizes you for being a bad aunt.  The job isn't in demand.  Have you ever heard someone say:  "The clock is ticking:  I won't feel like a real woman if I don't become -- an aunt?"

To say I am a queer aunt is obvious on several levels.  As an aunt, one occupies a role from which critiques of what stands for normal parenting can be acted upon in a complementary and/or subversive way.  Hence, to be a truly productive and energetic aunt is to be queer in relation to some child or children regardless of whether you are a homosexual or not.  It beats being a mother with a stick, if you ask me.  It's not a job, as mothering is:  it's a vocation.  Assuming the mantle of Queer Tiger Aunt has an additional advantage.  Unlike a mother, an aunt can disappear for moderate periods of time to write an article, take a dramatic trip, go on a bender, or whatever, and the kids say:  "Wow, I want to be like her!"  Because you don't own them, you don't have to worry about abandoning the children because: the Goddess gave them parents.

A final note:  it seems obvious to me from observing the Chua controversy that there is no such thing as a good mother, just a lot of women claiming to be better mothers than each other based on some floating standard. That is something feminism also needs to deal with.


thefrogprincess said...

Your point about considering how to make girls confident and strong is important.

I was raised by an Amy Chua-type mother. I'm not Asian (other than a random Chinese great grandparent) but my mother was an immigrant. I've got some pretty strong feelings about Chua's parenting style. I think that level of inflexibility can do huge damage to children when it isn't sensibly moderated. (On the other hand, I'm not sure if, when I'm a parent, I could be of the lax school either. Life isn't about prizes, as my mother would say.)

However, one of the things that has become clear as I've matured into adulthood is that my mother, who was a conservative woman against feminism, managed to instill a level of confidence in me about my capabilities. The corollary to being raised by someone so demanding is that that person expects you to reach the highest possible standards regardless of your gender. The idea that I couldn't do whatever I set my mind to never crossed my mind, because my parents were operating under the assumption that I could. They were going to push me to that level.

And while there are some significant downsides to a parent shutting down all possibility of romantic relationships during teenage years, the one benefit was that I never fell into the trap of dumbing myself down or downplaying my capabilities to attract men. More importantly, my mother encouraged me to be friends with guys, so I've always viewed men as colleagues on the same level as myself. College wasn't about men, it was about getting an education.

My mother made me read Dickens and banned fairy tales, which means that I never fantasized about princes swooping in to save the day, after which we'd ride off into the sunset to live happily ever after. And given that part of my mother's conservatism was her evangelical background, it's pretty shocking that she explicitly told me that I shouldn't get married until I was 30, at least.

So I do think that there's something to think about: how do we raise strong women who are unencumbered with the toxic messages our society throws at them?

liza said...

Being a mother is the hardest job I've ever ever ever done. There is no way to do it right. There may be ways to do it wrong, but they are pretty extreme. Somehow, we survive. But it ain't easy.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Count me as another loving auntie, not just to my blood relations, but to the children of friends (who, to my delight, and without my prompting, refer to me in front of their children as "Auntie Notorious). Honestly, I think that two parents aren't enough. And it's good for the kids to have someone model a non-heteronormative or non-couple-centric life, so they can see lots of acceptable and wonderful ways to build a life.

And yes -- it lets me experience (on a part-time basis) many of the joys of "raising" children without all the obligations, so it's great for me, too. Kids win, parents win, I win. What could be better.

Hooray for eccentric aunties!

Anonymous said...

" such thing as a good mother, just a lot of women claiming to be better mothers than each other based on some floating standard. That is something feminism also needs to deal with."

Or: no such thing as a good mother, just a lot of women panicking that they aren't doing it right.

Yes: feminism needs to deal with this! Great post, TR.

Adjunct Papa said...

Long-time reader and first-time commenter. This is tangential to your post, and in general the valuation of parenting as a "job" is surely, both historically and currently, an issue that overwhelmingly impacts women. I further understand that you are only indirectly relating the stakes of the "Mommy Wars," but how does "fathering" fit into this? Given our culture's pervasive sexism, I can handle some sarcastic comments taken at my gender's expense, but your phrasing seems to suggest that men can only perform "acts that are similar to mothering," for which we then expect excessive praise. Is there not an unwitting essentialism being reproduced in this term, "mothering"? If I do everything in my daughter's upbringing except breastfeed, am I only playing at the real job of mothering? As a former stay-at-home father, this frankly reminded me of several instances when, for example, a grocery store checker asked my daughter and I if we were "helping mommy out today," as of course dads don't normally shop, change diapers, or do other tasks of which I'm presumed to be incapable.

As several commenters mentioned on the previous post, fathers seem to be entirely absent from the larger Chua controversy; this pro-daughter (pro-feminist, pro-queer...) dad would love to hear the Radical's thoughts.

Tenured Radical said...

Adjunct Papa:

I used that phrase because I honestly don't believe our society has a grasp of what parenting would look like if it were free of the gender paradigm (the example you used is a pointed piece of evidence.) Because of the state of play of feminism nowadays, I confess that *I* don't have much of a grasp of how sentient hetero couples are working to free their relationships from sexism either. Much of that work is very private, when it occurs, and there is no public conversation about it that is structured (however insidiously) like the Mommy wars.

Paradigms of heteronormativity are extraordinarily powerful too, as your anecdote suggests. Indeed, when I am in public with my nephews, people not only identify them as my "sons" but are effusive about how striking our physical resemblance is. (NB: biologically, we are entirely unrelated.)

In my experience, when women speak of mothering they mean something very specific that *is* very gendered and essentialist. That said, the push of the normal is a weight on all of us. I doubt that men who genuinely give themselves up to childcare expect excessive praise, if their commitment to building a non-sexist family is genuine. But oh boy, do they get it! Hence the fact that newspaper stories about and memoirs by stay at home dads are considered newsworthy and marketable.

Katrina said...

Fathers are definitely judged on a different plane. We have the "bad" fathers who are (stereotypically) either absent or criminally abusive. The father who is both present and benign is considered "good" in a model that critiques parenting based on the mother's performance.

Re. Adjunct Papa's comments, I have also heard men referring to looking after their OWN CHILDREN as "babysitting" as though it's not really their job to do so.

The flip side is the assumption that a father's role is primarily financial (look at the image of "dead-beat dads": he knocked a gal up and wouldn't GIVE HER MONEY, nothing about them having any personal emotional obligation to the children.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Very interesting post. Here are a few thoughts:

(1) Chua's publicity operation is fucken brilliant, and they deserve some kinde of marketing nobel prize, if there is such a thinge.

(2) I've obviously never been a mother, but I have been a child and brother of a sister. Based on those experiences, I have arrived at the following two-part theory of parenting: (a) So long as you provide a materially and educationally secure environment, the best thinge you can do is be loving and encouraging and stay the fucke out of the way of your kiddes. (b) Complicated systems of intrusive parenting have a lot more down-side potential than up-side.

(3) I thinke you meant "mantle", not "mantel".

RobKleine said...

Interesting post. You appear to have rediscovered the socio-emotional consequences, elaborated decades ago by sociologists Sarbin and Allen, of ascribed vs. achieved identities.

Anonymous said...

Interesting response. Those interested in the history and sociology of parenting culture might want to look into the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury--they have an interesting blog and interesting conferences, although very European focused. Their emphasis is on understanding the culture that produces ideas about parenting, such as our own "intensive parenting" culture.

Historiann said...

Tenured Radical, how dare you write the best post on modern motherhood I've read in the past year, when you don't have children, so you can't possibly know what it's like!!!

Seriously, effing brilliant. And I agree with CPP on Chua's publicist (although I don't think there's any particular genius in revving people up to attack a woman's mothering strategies, for all of the reasons you suggest in your post.) I'm sure the vitriol of the personal attacks has taken Chua aback, but she's moving lots of product this month and can take that to the bank.

LouMac said...

Interesting timing - i've just read Eve Sedgwick's fabulous essay on the queerness of aunts and uncles, "Tales of the Avunculate". I can't not cite it:

"'s often common for [aunts and uncles] to have the office of representing nonconforming or nonreproductive sexualities to children. ... [having aunts and uncles also means] perceiving your parents as someone's sibs - not, that is, as alternately abject and omnipotent links in a chain of compulsion and replication that leads inevitably to *you*; but rather as elements in a varied, contingent, recalcitrant but re-forming seriality, as people who demonstrably could have turned out very differently (indeed, have already done so.)"

Yeah, Eve. You always nailed it.

Janice said...

A cursed profession. Indeed!

Something that'll be part of my paper for the Berks in June: consider the verbs "to mother" and "to father". Mothering is an ongoing action, often fraught with a sense of stifling or coddling. Fathering is almost purely generative in our language. These differences have been in our language since at least the fifteenth century: what does that say about the Anglophone world?

I probably will break down and read this at some point because, while it's far past my research period, the book sounds as if it would provide a valuable perspective for my current research subject. Dangit!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this and agree with you that feminists need to get working on this one! As I read your post, one thing that struck me was that perhaps we need to talk about "mothering" less and "parenting" more. Only women can "mother," but both men and women can "parent," "raise children", "be primary caregivers," whathaveyou. If we want to break down the parenting double standard, that is one place to start. Out with the "Mommy Wars" and in with the "Parent Wars!"

Adjunct Papa said...

Thanks for the clarification. I had suspected that this was a descriptive rather than a normative statement, and as such I fully agree: as per Katrina's comment about fathers "babysitting" their own children, our society is full of a**holes, who shouldn't be lavished with praise just for contributing to a partnership that ought to be equal. Indeed, nothing is more irritating than "news" stories about stay-at-home fathers as unusual and extraordinary.

Impressionable youngster said...

TR, would you consider posting some of your responses to G. Canada's presentation that you brought up on Saturday? I felt these were very strong, especially criticism of hyper-masculinized language, a spot-on critique I had not heard before.

Lindsay said...

"What it means to be the bridge between the immigrant generation and a generation which grows up in privilege and security"

Yes, this!

I think that sort of dynamic might also apply to class mobility; even when they've grown up in the same country, there's a big difference between growing up working-class and growing up stably middle-class.

I think in my own family, the "bridge" generation was actually two generations: my great-grandmother was the immigrant, my grandmother was the "bridge" between her immigrant mother and her wholly Americanized daughter, while my mother is the "bridge" between her more working-class childhood and my middle-class one.

I was trying to think of a way to allude to this in the last thread, with Comrade PhysioProf's comment about students thinking of education in purely instrumental terms. I wanted to say something about how, at the state-school and junior-college levels, that instrumentality is tied up with ambitions of class mobility, which often bubble up through the generations. Like, a student who is the first in their family to go to college might feel an obligation to their family to pursue a more lucrative, technical degree program than something they might be really interested in but might not translate as readily into a middle-class career path.

I know that in my family, there was a fairly strong assumption that we would all study science or engineering, and then go to work in those fields.

joey brite said...

Reading this post made my brain swim with ideas about how feminism crept into the mainstream to be inclusive of males and their contribution to the creation of offspring. Which lead me to probably one of the BIGGEST pet peeves I have (besides the existence of the MPAA): that males who impregnate females feel the privilege of claiming/boasting by using a phrase like, "we are pregnant", or "when we were pregnant...".
Let me set the record straight for the parties involved in the pregnancy: ONLY FEMALES ARE PREGNANT OR CAN GET PREGNANT. THIS IS A FACT. And, no amount of Feminist empathizing on the part of any male allows him to own one of the rare things that makes the genders unique. To do so is just simply obnoxious behavior- not enlightened male sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

This brings back many interesting memories from childhood. One thing that's always struck me is how resilient children are. I needed little encouragement when I was struggling to master violin and piano pieces (and musical composition), but my feelings really got hurt if I put on an excellent performance and got only a dismissive remark in response. That's the pain that sticks with me.

The problem here seems to be one of extremes. The parent who expects too much and the one who expects too little do damage in different ways. Hearing "I know you can do it" or even "I know you can do better" is something most kids can handle. Speaking from past experience, I think most kids have a burning desire to succeed, and need to recognize this and show it. The problems start when the parent becomes selfish and uses the child to meet his/her ego needs.

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