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Palko POV: (re)presentation

The past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of representation. Spring is in full bloom, so I find myself wanting to quote baseball movies. “If you build it, they will come…” in my mind immediately segues into “There’s no crying in baseball!” Nostalgia aside, the juxtaposition of Field of Dreams and A League of their Own reminds us of the power of seeing people like yourself moving through spaces designed with you in mind – and the discouragement that can follow when you realize a space maybe wasn’t created for you.

Throughout April, I was able to step out of the routine that governed my calendar over the winter to attend some thought-provoking presentations and talks. These recent events raised this question of representation in powerfully complementary ways.

I spent a weekend in Toronto presenting my work on the potential of literary representations to challenge cultural assumptions about mothering practices at the 22nd annual Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement conference. Watching friends navigate the conference with infants in their arms reminded me of how powerfully I appreciated learning about this organization when I was a young scholar and mother. On a deeper, systemic level, it also prompted thoughts of the meaning that mothers make as they move through the world not always designed for them. On my flight home, I read Rebecca Traister’s latest piece on mothers running for political office. Traister notes the ways that mother has almost become a commonplace descriptor of politicians: “We are, for the first time in American history, talking about a slew of political leaders who are mothers of young children, mothers of grown children, stepmothers, grandmothers, and not mothers at all.” 

Only almost, though, I would suggest. 

How we as a culture represent motherhood, the expectations we enforce through these representations, the ways that mothers carve out their own identy through the same tools of representation are a complicated interaction of actions and responses, demands and reactions. Mothers have demanded career opportunities and seized upon social media platforms to publicly respond to harmful expectations, but this movement is as-yet incomplete. The global care chain belies easy advice to “lean in” and carefully curated (through “un”curation) accounts of mothering too easily elide the realities of how this care chain operates.

Not surprisingly, the gender socialization that shapes mothers’ experiences doesn’t start with motherhood, as we were reminded here at the Women’s Center when our Body Positive interns led the rest of this year’s intern cohort in the Body Project during class last week. In the discussion, one group raised a crucial question: how do we ensure a diverse array of healthy models of the appearance ideal for young girls?  I immediately thought of Toni Morrison’s poignant classic, The Bluest Eye, which explores the power for a young girl of having a doll that looks like her. An appearance ideal that only valorizes one specific set of physical features gives all children the message that only a small group of children achieve an ideal that is unattainable to the rest. A lack of representation says to too many children in the loudest of silent ways: you do not belong here. Systems built to favor one and only one style of success send a similar message. 

A # Say The Word Campaign Tweet

Similarly, physical and social environments built with an assumed “typical user” send an unwelcoming message to those who do not share that typical user’s characteristics. Bias shapes the development of technologies and the built landscape (like photography and medicine) in painful ways. I recently attended the 2019 Ridley Lecture for which Anjali Forber-Pratt gave a poignant talk entitled “Dream. Drive. Do.” In her talk about disability identity, perceptions of disability, and empowerment, Forber-Pratt talked about the power of language to shape perceptions. She discussed the #SaytheWord campaign, activism that engages with debates about the relative merits of person-first and identity-first language. She advocates for the sociocultural use of the term “disabled” as a powerful way of ensuring the representation of disabled people in mainstream society. The #SaytheWord movement, she explains, is a social media call to embrace disability identity, with the goal of furthering a disability justice framework. 

This disability justice framework both depends upon and influences perceptions of those living with disabilities. New York State, for example, adopted a newly redesigned handicap symbol a couple of years ago, challenging older perceptions of disability that equated it with passivity and lack of agency. The #SayTheWord campaign channels the power in articulating the meaning of this difference, as Lawrence Carter-Long, performing artist, activist and media spokesman, explains: “Disabled people, Carter-Long emphasizes, are masters of adapting to a world not built with them in mind — and their adaptations end up improving life for everyone.”

Pair of Tweets from the # Say the Word Campaign

Broadening our perceptions of who “belongs” improves opportunities for all of us. Clinging tightly to narrower perceptions of what a “mother” does, what “beautiful” looks like, how bodies “should” move through space enforces a limiting hegemony on everyone living in that society. In that more limited world, social systems fail to support as effectively as they ideally would. 

To close with girls’ education, as Lisa Damour argues in a recent NY Times article, “We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?” When girls are trained in behaviors that are rewarded in school but not rewarded in the work place and boys have a radically different experience, it’s not surprising that little to no progress has been made in addressing the wage gap. Untangling these disparities is complex, as a recent time use study demonstrates. The researchers found that “Our analysis suggests that the difference in promotion rates between men and women in this company was due not to their behavior but to how they were treated. […] Our data implies that gender differences may lie not in how women act but in how people perceive their actions.” A closely-related cause is the recent significant increase in the “returns to working long, inflexible hours.” 

When perception shapes (re)presentation shapes reality, I choose to focus on (re)presentation because, positioned as it is in the middle of this equation, its influence backwards and forwards ultimately holds the most concentrated power to drive the real social change that serves us all.


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