This paper addresses two separate notions of embodiment – western maternal embodiment and art making as a form of embodied critical resistance. It takes as its subject breeder; my unpublished five minute video installation from 2012, which synthesises these two separate conceptual framings of embodiment as a means to visually and conceptually rupture dominant ideologies surrounding Australian motherhood. Emerging from a paradoxical landscape of fear, loathing and desire, breeder is my dark satirical take on ambivalent myths surrounding suburban Australian motherhood. Portraying my white, heavily pregnant body breeding, cooking and consuming pink, sugar-coated butterflies, breeder renders literal the Australian mother as both idealised nation-builder and vilified, self-indulgent abuser. A feminine reification of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children, breeder attempts to make visible my own grapplings with maternal ambivalence, to complicate even further, the already strained position of motherhood within the Australian cultural imaginary. Employing the mediums of video and performance to visually manifest an ambivalent protagonist who displays both nurturing maternal ideals and murderous inclinations, breeder pushes contradictory maternal expectations to their breaking point and challengingly offers the following proposition: “This is what you want; but what you’ll get is so much more than you bargained for” (Grosz 136).
Drawing upon critical, feminist theorising that challenges idealised views of motherhood; accounts of motherhood by mothers themselves; as well as my own personal grapplings with maternal expectations, this paper weaves reflexive writing with textual analysis to explore how an art-based methodology of embodied critical resistance can problematise representations of motherhood within Australia. By visualising the disjuncture between dominant representations of motherhood that have saturated Australian mainstream media since the late 1990s and the complex ambivalent reality of some women’s actual experiences of mothering, this paper discusses how breeder’s intimate portrayal of maternal domesticity at the limits of tolerability, critically resists socially acceptable mothering practices by satirising the cultural construct of motherhood as a means “to use it, deform it, and make it groan and protest” (Nietzsche qtd. in Gutting).
Contradictory Maternal Knowledge
Images of motherhood are all around us; communicating ideals and stereotypes that tell us how mothers should feel, think and act. But these images and the concepts of motherhood that underpin them are full of contradictions. Cultural representations of the idealised and sometimes “yummy mummy” - middle class, attractive, healthy, sexy and heterosexual – (see Fraser; Johnson), contrast with depictions of “bad” mothers, leading to motherhood being simultaneously idealised and demonised within the popular press (Bullen et al.; McRobbie, Top Girls; McRobbie, In the Aftermath; McRobbie, Reflections on Feminism; Walkerdine et al.). Mothers own accounts of motherhood reflect these unsettling contradictions (Miller; Thomson et al.; Wilkinson). Claiming the maternal experience is both “heaven and hell” due to the daily experience of irreconcilable and contradictory feelings (Coward), mothers (myself included), silently struggle between feelings of extreme love and opposing feelings of failure, despair and hate as we get caught up in trying to achieve a set of ideals that promulgate standards of perfection that are beyond our reach. Surrounded by images of motherhood that do not resonate with the contradictory nature of the lived maternal experience, mothers are “torn in two” as we desperately try to reconcile or find absolution for maternal emotions that dominant cultural representations of motherhood render unacceptable.
According to Roszika Parker, this complicated and contradictory experience where a mother has both loving and hating feelings for her child is that of maternal ambivalence; a form of exquisite suffering that oscillates between the overwhelming affect of blissful gratification and the raw edges of bitter resentment (Parker 1). As Parker states, maternal ambivalence refers to:
Those fleeting (or not so fleeting) feelings of hatred for a child that can grip a mother, the moment of recoil from a much loved body, the desire to abandon, to smash the untouched plate of food in a toddler’s face, to yank a child’s arm while crossing the road, scrub too hard with a face cloth, change the lock on an adolescent or the fantasy of hurling a howling baby out of the window (5).
However, it is not only feelings of hatred that stir up ambivalence in the mother, so too can the overwhelming intensity of love itself render the rush of ambivalence so surprising and so painful. Commenting on the extreme contradictory emotions that fill a mother and how not only excessive hatred, but excessive love can turn dangerously fatal, Parker turns to Simone De Beauvoir’s idea of “carnal plenitude”; that is, where the child elicits from the mother, the emotion of domination; where the child becomes the “other” who is both prey and double (30). For Parker, De Beauvoir’s “carnal plenitude” is imaged by mothers in a myriad of ways, from a desire to gobble up the child, to feelings of wanting to gather the child into a fatal smothering hug. Commenting on her own unsettling love/hate relationship with her child, Adrienne Rich describes her experiences of maternal ambivalences as “the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves and blissful gratification and tenderness” (363). Unable to come to terms with this paradox at the core of the unfolding process of motherhood, our culture defends itself against this illogical ambivalence in the mother by separating the good nurturing mother from the bad neglectful mother in an attempt to deny the fact that they are one and the same. Resulting in a culture that either denigrates or idealises mothers, we are constantly presented with images of the good perfect nurturing mother and her murderous alter ego; the bad fatal mother who neglects and smothers. This means that how a mother feels about mothering or the meaning it has for her, is heavily determined by cultural representations of motherhood.
Arguing for a creative transformation of the maternal that breaches the mutual exclusivities that separate motherhood, I am called to action by Susan Rubin Suleiman, who writes (quoting psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch): “Mothers don’t write, they are written” (Suleiman 5). As a visual attempt to negotiate, translate and thus “write” my lived experience of Australian motherhood, breeder gives voice to the raw material of contradictory (and often taboo experiences) surrounding maternal embodiment and subjectivity. Hijacking and redeploying contradictory understandings and representations of Australian motherhood to push maternal ideals to their breaking point, breeder seeks to create a kind of “mother trouble” that challenges the disjuncture between dominant social constructions of motherhood designed to keep us assigned to our proper place. Viscerally embracing the reality that much of life with small children revolves around loss of control and disintegration of physical boundaries, breeder visually explores the complex and contradictory performances surrounding lived experiences of mothering within Australia to complicate even further the already strained position of western maternal embodiment.
Situated Maternal Knowledge
Over the last decade and a half, women’s bodies and their capacity to reproduce have become centre stage in the unfolding drama of Australian economic policy. In 1999 fears surrounding dwindling birth-rates and less future tax revenue, led then Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett to address a number of exclusive private girls’ schools. Making Australia-wide headlines, Kennett urged these affluent young women to abandon their desire for a university degree and instead invited them to consider motherhood as the ultimate career choice (Dever). In 2004, John Howard’s Liberal government made headlines as they announced the new maternity allowance; a $3000 lump-sum financial incentive for women to leave work and have babies. Ending this announcement by urging the assembled gathering of mostly male reporters to go home and have “one for the Dad, one for the Mum and one for the Country” (Baird and Cutcher 103), Federal Treasurer Peter Costello made a last ditch effort to save Baby Boomers from their imminent pensionless doom. Failing to come to terms with the impending saturation of the retirement market without the appropriate tax payer support, the Liberal Government turned baby-making into the ultimate Patriotic act as they saw in women bodies, the key to prevent Australia’s looming economic crisis.
However, not all women’s bodies were considered up to the job of producing the longed for “Good tax-paying Citizen” (Tyler). Kennett only visited exclusive private girls’ schools (Ferrier), headhunting only the highest calibre of affluent breeders. Blue-collar inter-mingling was to be adamantly discouraged. Costello’s 2004 “baby bonus” catch-cry not only caused international ire, but also implicitly relegated the duty of child-bearing patriotism to a normalised heterosexual, nuclear family milieu. Unwed or lesbian mothers need not apply. Finally, as government spokespeople repeatedly proclaimed that the new maternity allowance was not income tested, this suggested that the target nation-builder breeder demographic was the higher than average income earner. Let’s get it straight people – only highly skilled, high IQ’s, heterosexual, wedded, young, white women were required in this exclusive breeding program (see Allen and Osgood; Skeggs; Tyler). And if the point hadn’t already been made perfectly clear, newspaper tabloids, talkback radio and current affairs programs all over the country were recruited to make sure the public knew exactly what type of mother Australia was looking for.
Out of control young, jobless single mothers hit the headlines as fears abounded that they were breeding into oblivion. An inherently selfish and narcissistic lot, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia was running rampant with so-called bogan single mothers, who left their babies trapped in hot airless cars in casino carparks all over the country as they spent their multiple “baby bonus’” on booze, ciggies, LCD’s and gambling (see Milne; O’Connor; Simpson and Dowling). Sucking the economy dry as they leeched good tax-payer dollars from Centrelink, these undesirables were the mothers Australia neither needed nor wanted. Producing offspring relegated to the category of bludgerhood before they could even crawl, these mothers became the punching bag for the Australian cultural imaginary as newspaper headlines screamed “Thou Shalt Not Breed” (Gordon).
Seen as the embodiment of horror regarding the ever out-of-control nature of women’s bodies, these undesirable mothers materialised out of a socio-political landscape that although idealised women’s bodies as Australia’s economic saviour, also feared their inability to be managed and contained. Hoarding their capacity to reproduce for their own selfish narcissistic desires, these white trash mothers became the horror par excellence within the Australian cultural imaginary as they were publically regarded as the vilified evil alter-ego of the good, respectable white affluent young mother Australian policy makers were after. Forums all over the country were inundated. “Yes,” the dominant voices seemed to proclaim: “We want to build our population. We need more tax-paying citizens. But we only want white, self-less, nurturing, affluent mothers. We want women who can breed us moral upstanding subjects. We do not want lazy good for nothing moochers.”
Emerging from this paradoxical maternal landscape of fear, loathing and desire, breeder is a visual and performative manifestation of my own inability to come to terms with the idealisation and denigration of motherhood within Australia. Involving a profound recognition that the personal is still the political, I not only attempt to visually trace the relationship between popular Australian cultural formations and individual experiences, but also to visually “write” my own embodied grapplings with maternal ambivalence. Following the premise that “critique without resistance is empty and resistance without critique is blind” (Hoy 6), I find art practice to be a critically situated and embodied act that can openly resist the power of dominant ideologies by highlighting maternal corporeal transgressions. A creative destablising action, I utilise the mediums of video and performance within breeder to explore personal, historical and culturally situated expectations of motherhood within Australia as a means to subvert dominant ideologies of motherhood within the Australian cultural imaginary.
Performing Maternal Knowledge
Reworking Goya’s Romantic Gothic vision of fatherhood in Saturn Devouring His Children, breeder is a five minute two-screen video performance that puts an ironic twist to the “good” and “bad” myths of Australian motherhood. Depicting myself as the young white heavily pregnant protagonist breeding monarch butterflies in my suburban backyard, sugar-coating, cooking and then eating them, breeder uses an exaggerated kitsch aesthetic to render literal the Australian mother as both idealistic nation-builder and self-indulgent abuser. Selfishly hoarding my breeding potential for myself, luxuriating and devouring my “offspring” for my own pleasure and delight rather than for the common good, breeder simultaneously defies and is complicit with motherhood expectations within the suburban Australian imaginary. Filmed in my backyard in the southern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, breeder manifests my own maternal ambivalence and deliberately complicates the dichotomous and strained position motherhood holds in western society.
Breeder is presented as a two screen video installation. The left screen is a fast-paced, brightly coloured, jump-cut narrative with a pregnant protagonist (myself). It has three main scenes or settings: garden, kitchen and terrace. The right screen is a slow-moving flow of images that shows the entire monarch butterfly breeding cycle in detail; close ups of eggs slowly turning into caterpillars, caterpillars creating cocoons and the gradual opening of wings as butterflies emerge from cocoons. All the while, the metamorphic cycle is aided by the pregnant protagonist, who cares for them until she sets them free of their breeding cage. In the left screen, apricot roses, orange trees, yellow hibiscus bushes, lush green lawns, a swimming pool and an Aussie backyard garden shed are glimpsed as the pregnant protagonist runs, jumps and sneaks up on butterflies while brandishing a red-handled butterfly net; dressed in red high heels and a white lace frock. Bunnies with pink bows jump, dogs in pink collars bark and a very young boy dressed in a navy-blue sailor suit all make cameo appearances as large monarch butterflies are collected and placed inside a child’s cherry red insect container.
In a jump-cut transition, the female protagonist appears in a stark white kitchen; now dressed in a bright pink and apricot floral apron and baby-pink hair ribbon tied in a bow in her blonde ponytail. Standing behind the kitchen bench, she carefully measures sugar into a bowl. She then adds pink food colouring into the crystal white sugar, turning it into a bright pink concoction. Cracking eggs and separating them, she whisks the egg whites to form soft marshmallow peaks. Dipping a paint brush into the egg whites, she paints the fluffy mixture onto the butterflies (now dead), which are laid out on a well-used metal biscuit tray. Using her fingers to sprinkle the bright pink sugar concoction onto the butterflies, she then places them into the oven to bake and stands back with a smile.
In the third and final scene, the female protagonist sits down at a table in a garden terrace in front of French-styled doors. Set for high tea with an antique floral tea pot and cup, lace table cloth and petit fours, she pours herself a cup of tea. Adding a teaspoon of sugar, she stirs and then selects a strawberry tart from a three-tiered high-tea stand that holds brightly iced cupcakes, cherry friands, tiny lemon meringue pies, sweet little strawberry tarts and pink sugar coated butterflies. Munching her way through tarts, pies, friands and cupcakes, she finally licks her lips and fuchsia tipped fingers and then carefully chooses a pink sugar coated butterfly. Close ups of her crimson coated mouth show her licking the pink sugar-crumbs from lips and fingers as she silently devours the butterfly. Leaning back in chair, she smiles, then picks up a pink leather bound book and relaxes as she begins to read herself into the afternoon. Screen fades to black.
As a mother I am all fragmented, contradictory; full of ambivalence, love, guilt and shame. After seventeen years and five children, you would think that I would be used to this space. Instead, it is a space that I battle to come to terms with each and every day. So how to strategically negotiate engrained codes of maternity and embrace the complexities of embodied maternal knowledge? Indeed, how to speak of the difficulties and incomparable beauties of the maternal without having those variously inflected and complex experiences turn into clichés of what enduring motherhood is supposed to be?
Visually and performatively grappling with my own fallout from mothering ideals and expectations where sometimes all I feel I am left with is “a monster of selfishness and intolerance” (Rich 363), breeder materialises my own experiences with maternal ambivalence and my inability to reconcile or negotiate multiple contradictory identities into a single maternal position. Ashamed of my self, my body, my obsessions, my anger, my hatred, my rage, my laughter, my sorrow and most of all my oscillation between a complete and utter desire to kill each and every one of my children and an overwhelming desire to gobble them all up, I make art work that is embedded in the grime and grittiness of my everyday life as a young mother living in the southern suburbs of Western Australia. A life that is most often mundane, sometimes sad, embarrassing, rude and occasionally heartbreaking. A life filled with such simple joy and such complicated sorrow. A life that in reality, is anything but manageable and contained. Although this is my experience, I know that I am not the only one.
As an artist I engage in the embodied and critically resistant practice of sampling from my “mother” identities in order to bring out multiple, conflictive responses that provocatively encourage new ways of thinking and acknowledging embodied maternal knowledge. Although claims abound that this results in a practice that is “too personal” or “too specific” (Liss xv), I do not believe that this in fact risks reifying essentialism. Despite much feminist debate over the years regarding essentialist/social constructivist positions, I would still rather use my body as a site of embodied knowledge then rhetorically give it up. Acting as a disruption and challenge to the concepts of idealised or denigrated maternal embodiment, the images and performances of motherhood in breeder then, are more than simple acknowledgements of the reality of the good and bad mother, or acts reclaiming an identity that they taught me to despise (Cliff) or rebelling against having to be a "woman" at all. Instead, breeder is a lucid and explicit declaration of intent that politely refuses to keep every maternal body in its place.
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