Friday, July 16, 2010

Mommy Dearest: Femininity and Masculinity and what it means to be a woman or a man

Mary F. Rogers describes non-normative occupations as those which are, “widely considered inappropriate for a given gender” (96).  In considering non-normative occupations, focus tends to be placed on women gaining power, and  people tend to forget about the ever increasing number of men in traditionally female occupations such as male nurses and stay at home dads.  In a recent episode of ABC’s “Wipeout”, one such stay at home dad, Tucker Carney, was ridiculed to the point that he was considered one of the ladies and was referred to as “Mommy Dearest” throughout the context of the show.  Although a man and a father, he was portrayed by commentators as the embodiment of femininity.  Mommy Dearest’s struggles help to demonstrate how socially constructed perceptions of femininity and masculinity are associated with occupations and are defining elements in what it means to be a man or a woman in today’s society.

It seems sewn into our culture’s beliefs that a woman’s-not a man’s-utmost priority should be to be a good mother and to take care of the home.  Under these pretexts, Mommy Dearest actually exhibits femininity quite well.  Because of cultural presumptions with regards to femininity and the supposedly inherent corresponding knack women have for nurturing, it is hard for stay at home dads like Mommy Dearest to be accepted in modern society.    Mommy Dearest is the subject of extreme ridicule and even earned the nickname Mommy Dearest in the first place because his occupation and that of his spouse deviate so far from the norm.

According to Johnson, “cultural ideas that identify women primarily as mothers and men primarily as breadwinners support patterns in which women do most domestic work at home” (96).  The “patterns” Johnson speaks of help to solidify the norm against which Mommy Dearest’s lifestyle exists.  Johnson goes on to state, “such ideas are powerful because we use them to construct a sense of who we and other people are” (97).  Such judgments by others and of himself would make it hard for Mommy Dearest to find acceptance among men.

A measurement of masculinity is often a measure of certain things men don’t do.  For instance, boys are taught that they aren’t supposed to cry, be overly sympathetic, play with Barbies, or be good at cooking or domestic work.  In short, not acting in ways our culture considers feminine is essentially a measurement of masculinity and what it means to be a man.  In this sense, Mommy Dearest is portrayed with absolutely no masculinity in “Wipeout”.

Newman makes a similar point with regards to gender when he states, “For boys and men, it usually means things like being assertive, not overtly displaying certain emotions, and not nurturing others, especially other adults” (54).  Mommy Dearest went to the opposite extreme and actually baked and distributed cookies to the producers on the set prior to filming the episode.  Newman’s argument also supports Mommy Dearest’s lack of masculinity.
("Anderson Can't Dance")
The extent to which his actions do not line up with what is expected of men accentuates Mommy Dearest’s level of femininity.  He arrives on set wearing an apron and is quoted saying, “I’ve embraced the motherhood side of family and learned to bake and cook and do those sorts of things.” (ABC).  Having heard this, the commentators automatically associate Mommy Dearest with women and poke fun at this notion for the duration of the episode.  Without a doubt, motherhood is portrayed by pop culture in light of femininity.  He actually portrays what it means to society to be a woman more so than what it means to be a man because of what our culture expects from certain genders.  These expectations are deep seated in current society and are a huge factor in why Mommy dearest is portrayed with so much femininity and little to no association with what it means to be a man.

Newman explains societal expectations of genders when he states, “Early on, children begin to learn about gender through socialization” (54).  He continues this argument to include how people learn appropriate perceptions of masculinity and femininity, and they learn to practice gender suitable conduct (Newman 54).  According to these standards, Mommy dearest behaves as is suitable for someone of the opposite gender, and one can easily see how he might be labeled as abnormal and as a man absorbed in femininity.

The femininity associated with his chosen occupation leaves our culture perceiving him as the epitome of a woman, and yet Mommy Dearest is undoubtedly a man.  In reality, there is nothing wrong with his lifestyle.  It simply seems out of place because he is a man with an occupation associated with tremendous femininity. Femininity is certainly a defining factor in what it means to be a woman in this world, however, Mommy Dearest serves as an important reminder that the premises of femininity are nothing but manmade principles.   

The idea of constructionism illustrates the creation of norms which leave Mommy Dearest labeled as abnormal.  Newman defines constructionism as a field of thought which argues, “that what we know to be real and essential is always a product of culture and the historical period in which we live” (36).  Newman applies the idea of constructionism to gender when he states, “What it means to be male or female, how you're supposed to look, and the things you're expected to do by virtue of being labeled male or female are entirely dependent on the societal, historical, and even the familial context in which you live.” (53)  Gender expectations and roles created by us determined the degree to which Mommy Dearest was conveyed as womanlike.  Despite being manmade, these presumptions are omnipotent in assigning perceptions of femininity and masculinity which in turn define what it means to be a woman or a man.  That much of the femininity associated with Mommy Dearest is assumed based on his occupation, suggests that one’s job is ultimately a defining character of what a woman is and what a man is in today’s world.

Perhaps simply a victim of the expectations of this time period, Mommy Dearest was the subject of ridicule throughout the entire “Wipeout” episode and was referred to as a “woman” or “mother” simply because of the femininity associated with his occupation.  Due to norms for male occupations and expectations for male behavior, Mommy Dearest is conveyed as a polar opposite of the stereotypical manly man overflowing with masculinity.  His femininity and womanlike attributes are largely assumed based on his occupation.  Simply because he has a traditionally feminine occupation, the commentators also assumed that the athleticism associated with masculinity would be absent in Mommy Dearest, and he would be incapable of completing the show's obstacle course.  While it is easy to laugh at a character like Mommy Dearest, his very lifestyle is incredibly important in demonstrating the power which femininity or masculinity associated with one’s occupation can have in conveying what it means to be a woman or a man.  Mommy Dearest is an extreme example but nevertheless exemplifies how one’s occupation holds significant influence on how the rest of society perceives him as a man or a woman.

Works Cited

"Anderson Can't Dance." Web. 16 Jul 2010. .

Johnson, Allan G.  “Patriarch, The System: An it, Not a He, a Them, or an Us.”  Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology.  Ed. Estelle Disch.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2008.  91-98.  Print.

Newman, David. Identities and Inequalities: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, & Sexuality: Exploring the Intersections of Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2008. 30-70. Print.

Rogers, Mary F. “Hetero Barbie?.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media.  Eds.  Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003.  94-97.  Print.

Wipeout.  American Broadcasting Company.  ABC, New York.  13 July 2010.  Television.