Why Time's cover shocks

Hint: it's not the breast-feeding -- it's the contempt

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 10, 2012 7:10PM (EDT)

The cover of Time magazine
The cover of Time magazine

It's going to be a long Mom War, people.

In case you thought, nay, hoped, that the barrel-bottom had been fully scraped last week when the New York Times asked, in a query straight out of the Onion, "Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism?," now Time magazine has upped the ante with a cover story brazenly challenging "Are You Mom Enough?"

It's accompanied, by the way, by a picture of a hot blonde and her 3-year-old son standing on a chair to suckle her breast.  Yo, take THAT, Room for Debate page! I guess Time felt it really had to bring it after uber-troll Katie Roiphe's piece last month on why feminists just want a good spanking.

In a feature on the not-at-all-incendiary subject of "why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes," writer Kate Pickert takes on motherhood and its "guru," attachment parenting author William Sears. Sears' work and the practice of attachment parenting have come under heavy scrutiny since Elisabeth Badinter's button-pushing "The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women" became an international hit, and you get a sense where Pickert's piece is going as soon as she fires the opening shot. "Joanne Beauregard is nothing so much as she is a mother." Then there's the story's cover girl, 26-year-old Jamie Lynn Grumet, who admits she was breast-fed herself until she was 6.

On Time's blog, photographer Martin Schoeller explains of the shot of Grumet, along with similar images of three other breast-feeding mothers, that "I liked the idea of having the kids standing up to underline the point that this was an uncommon situation." Fair enough. And though my personal feelings on Barry Sears are ambivalent at best, I am all for promoting breast-feeding. I will be first in line to applaud images of mothers feeding their children, both in real life and advertising, and to cry foul when those images are suppressed. But I call massive, massive BS here.

First of all, why, when a breast-feeding mother makes the cover of a national magazine, is it a thin, young one in a tank top? Grumet's image is so obviously sexualized it's not even trying to pretend otherwise. But the real problem with the cover story is its obvious, dripping disdain. This is not just an attention-getting MILF shot. It's a picture of a woman "driven" to an "extreme."

Sure, extended breast-feeding is unusual – and reliably controversial.  Two years ago, the Daily Mail pondered whether the practice was "horrifying." It doesn't, however, necessarily follow that a family that chooses long-term nursing is freakishly challenging anybody else to be "mom enough." That's what makes the whole thing gross. The entire Time cover story is framed in a way to make the viewer be simultaneously repulsed and aroused. Congratulations, editors. You've added to our already rampant cultural dismissal of motherhood as a kooky cult. And you've made a venerable news magazine one big hate bang.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Media Criticism Motherhood