In February this year, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron’s four-year-old son Jackson decided to throw a tantrum in the middle of a parking lot, refusing to get into the car. The actress is seen struggling to hang on to the young child, who, to make matters worse, decides to sit on the floor, refusing to budge. While a million parents across the world both related to and sympathised with Theron’s situation as one of those difficult parenting days, another million rushed to troll her for being a ‘Bad Mom’ or, as OK! Magazine captioned the picture, ‘Monster Mom’. The subtext of all the criticism was simple: Theron was scolding, dragging, “abusing” (some comments even suggested that) an “innocent child” and that made her an incapable mother.
Would the reaction have been the same if Jackson’s father was snapped in a similar situation? Going by what has followed since, he may well have been praised for helping raise the child.
At a time when Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate is being hailed as a giant stride in the fight for gender equality, her own daughter found herself being judged last week against prescribed, ‘traditional roles’ for women: as a wife, mother and care-giver. The Internet army went in for a “side-eyed takedown” — as Slate’s Elissa Strauss put it — when Chelsea Clinton missed her daughter’s first day of pre-school. She had to be in North Carolina to step in for her mother Hillary, who is down with pneumonia.
The Daily Mail’s story, published under the headline “It takes a village! Chelsea Clinton’s husband Marc and their nanny take Charlotte to her first day of preschool — which she misses to campaign for her sick mom”, “is a remarkably unselfconscious example of mom-shaming”, wrote Strauss. The Daily Mail had an elaborate photo-story on the subject.
“This discussion would have never occurred in the first place if Chelsea were a guy. Male Chelsea’s absence at drop-off would simply not register as news, thanks to the fact that fathers have never been accountable for being there for their children at all times. Moms, on the other hand, are always accountable,” argued Strauss in the Slate.
Strauss also pointed out that while the a child’s first day of pre-school is important, it is not the “only milestone” in her life. “There are so many milestones in a child’s life, and it’s a parent’s prerogative to choose the ones they want to be there for. Chelsea might have committed the irredeemably grave sin of missing her not-yet-two-year-old daughter’s first day of school, but she’s working towards a much bigger milestone that is likely to have a far deeper impact on little Charlotte in the future: the election of her mother, and Charlotte’s grandmother, as the first female president of the United States.”
Kasey Edwards of The Sydney Morning Herald elaborated on the prejudices regarding gender roles further: “A woman must always be mother-first, yet, men are rarely expected to be father-first. They can prioritise being a politician, an entrepreneur, an employee, an artist, a mate, even a footy fan, before they are a father. And nobody even notices, let alone makes a judgment about their character,” she wrote.
While the Daily Mail did supplement its story with a few potshots at Chelsea’s husband — “Marc was seen on his phone while he and the nanny took Charlotte to school”; he “enjoyed lunch for an hour-and-a-half with a friend” — the writer seemed to have a hard time shaking off his shock over the mother’s inability to perform her traditional role.
This, and many other forms of sexism, have at other times been dished out to successful, celebrity moms. When singer and actress Beyonce became a mother, many found her “too sexy” onstage. Her so-called ‘fans’ also had a problem with the way she kept her daughter Blue Ivy’s hair. There was even a “Comb Her Hair” petition to discipline the “wayward mother”.
Another actress, Hilary Duff, was swarmed with hate messages for dropping off her child to school in a “fun” outfit. “Everything I say or do feels judged or picked apart,” a frustrated Duff had said in an interview.
What Chris Spargo, the Daily Mail writer who did the “scoop” on Chelsea, seems to have conveniently overlooked is that this is what households with working parents look like, underlined Theresa Edwards in a column on sheknows.com, a digital media company that features articles on women’s issues. “Make no mistake about it, about half of all families with children are working families. Things get shuffled and traded and shuffled again and then dropped, because wages are stagnant, and most of us have to work, whether we want to or not, and that’s life now,” she wrote.
Emphasising the double standards that women are held up to, an editorial in the Vogue said, “As women, we already face enough of a battle in the workplace with such pesky things as unequal pay and unpaid leave still an issue. Is it too much to ask we refrain from making something as simple as a school drop-off another politicised topic of discussion? Today, a majority of American households are made up of two working parents. Yet, the societal pressure still falls on mothers to be the primary caregivers in a family.”
And the Daily Mail didn’t spare the senior Clinton either. “Grandma Hillary also missed Charlotte’s first day of school as she was recovering from pneumonia at her home in nearby Chappaqua,” it said. Did Mr Spargo use his reporting skills to find out what the grandfather, Mr Bill Clinton, was doing on this propitious occasion? Evidently not.
Hillary Clinton herself is not new to such snide moral judgment. Each of her professional milestones is marked by a controversy about her private life, including the latest one about her health. Back in 1992, when she was questioned about whether her husband, Bill Clinton, who was running for president then, had funnelled government money to her law firm, she was castigated for her response: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
Right at the end, after all the Clinton mom-shaming, the Daily Mail snuck in a picture of Ivanka Trump, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s daughter, and her husband Jared escorting their daughter on her first day of kindergarten. Now that’s subtle.