Why We Need Deviants – Octomom Edition

I have posted about before about the now-famous "Octomom " (which sounds a lot like the title for one of those cheesy Scifi Channel Saturday night movies, if you ask me) and how the scrutinizing of her pregnancy was part of a more general aspect of patriarchy (for a slightly different view, see Jay Livinston’s comment in the same post). A similar point was also made more recently by Katha Pollitt:

Since then, there have been further development and analysis on this story that generated some interesting commentaries. First, the main aspect that had attracted my attention was how quickly the story had morphed, in the media, from the "miracle births" to "the return of the welfare queen" (and I can’t even imagine what the level of venom would be if the mother was African-American). That bile has spilled over into society in the form of death threats:

Now, there is no denying that there is always a deranged fringe in the American society that is prompt to threaten death at the first sign of what they perceive to be a threat to civilization. This usually comes from the far-right, religious fundamentalist crowd.

But there us no doubt that the hostility that has emerged against the "Octomom" (quite a dehumanizing nickname) is in itself an interesting phenomenon for the sociologist in that it brings to light some underlying aspect of our culture and social norms when it comes to motherhood. So, what norms did the Octomom break? After all, we do not impose limits on how many children people have. But we do have a culturally constructed image of "what motherhood is" against which we evaluate real life mothers and pass judgment.

Indeed, the Welfare Queen was the successfully propagated stereotype of the promiscuous black woman who keeps popping kids and collecting welfare and driving Cadillac with all the money the state coughs up for hers and her kids upkeep. Never mind that the stereotype never matched the reality of welfare recipients (stereotypes hardly ever match reality).

In our collective imagery, "ideal" motherhood is white, heterosexual, and married and has the children in sequence (again, see that "other" oh-so white, straight AND thoroughly patriarchal family with 18 kids who gets a TV show instead of the venom directed at the Octomom) or the kid glove treatment for the FLDS even though there is no doubt that abuse takes place within that community.

According to sociologist Sally Radkoff, the anger dorected at the Octomom follows from her breaching specific norms:

Radkoff also emphasizes the social class dimension to childbearing: you can have as many children as you want… as long as you’re wealthy and it’s not going to cost society a dime.

There is one additional dimension to the outrage directed at this woman and especially the fact that she has not been embraced by the religious right and the anti-choice movement. For many in that crowd, despite idealized and heavily religious imageries of children as gifts from God and motherhood as the natural state of women, they tend to see pregnancies as slut-punishment. Birth control and abortion should not be legal because then, women would have sex autonomously without having to fear the potential punishment in the form of being stuck with a kid for the next 20 years or so.

Well, that does not work here. Suleman has had her children without sexual intercourse. So, technically, she does not fit the definition of promiscuous. But she’s not married either and she claims her autonomy to have as many children as she wants… hence the most successful (that is, the one that sticks) is that of "who’s gonna pay for your brood?".

Bottom line: this is one big reminder to all women who rank low on the social ladder: you’re only allowed children if you can afford them and only one at a time, with a husband… oh, you’d better be white too.

The big outrage is a great example of the Durkheimian functions of deviance. This woman violated our standards of ideal motherhood. There is a price to pay for that. When it comes to women’s bodies, society, in the form of various social groups and collectivities has a right to inspect, scrutinize, and judge… And to impose sanctions that can take a variety of forms (such as nasty comments on blog posts or death threats) but all involve some degree of reassertion of social control over the offending woman’s body ("Spay her!") and social stigma.

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