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CIOS - Mothering in the Sudan and at Starbucks: A Cultural Studies Response to The Opt-Out Revolution
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006

MOTHERING IN THE SUDAN AND AT STARBUCKS:
A CULTURAL STUDIES RESPONSE TO THE OPT-OUT REVOLUTION

Phyllis M. Japp
University of Nebraska at Lincoln

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of cultural studies for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, I (a) consider five components of ideological construction and maintenance present in the article (master narratives, definitions, agencies, connections/disconnections, and silences) and then (b) analyze the online postings for indications of counterstories.

On October 10, 2004, CBS’s 60 Minutes was, as usual, composed of several short documentary reports (WebNewsRoom, 2004). Segment One was a report on the war and famine in Sudan. Filmed at a refugee camp filled with women and children (the men were either dead or fighting), the cameras panned a hot, sandy, treeless, and grassless landscape and closed in on emaciated women holding malnourished children and dying babies. One woman interviewed, who looked barely able to stand, had carried her hungry child 20 miles through the desert in search of food.

After ads for designer drugs and luxury automobiles, Segment Two aired. Filmed in New York, it presented the dilemma of well-educated, articulate, attractive young mothers who had abandoned prestigious, high-paying jobs to become full time mothers. The settings here, in contrast, were tastefully decorated living rooms and grassy, well-appointed playgrounds, with healthy, designer-clad children at play. The women spoke compellingly of the conflict between the demands of work life and the needs of family life and their decision to “opt-out” of the corporate world.

Such was our world on a Sunday in October 2004, as 60 Minutes juxtaposed two startlingly different vignettes of motherhood, women’s lives, and painful decisions. As media tends to do, the program implicitly leveled the two dilemmas, as the segments were edited, visualized, narrated, and cut to fit similar time slots in the flow of programming and advertising that comprise the program. These two segments graphically juxtaposed the vast differences in women’s experiences of the world and provide a context for my Cultural Studies analysis of Belkin’s (2003) article and the online forum postings in response to it.

Cultural Studies Perspective

At the heart of a Cultural Studies (CS) perspective is attention to ideological constructions and juxtapositions in cultural discourse. However differently practiced from place to place and discipline to discipline, a central core of the CS perspective is a concern with how social distinctions and power differences in a culture are constructed by, instantiated in, and reproduced through discourses, from the discourses of elite institutions, to popular media, to everyday conversations and rituals. CS assumes the ideological nature of taken-for-granted assumptions and values are often normalized, understood as “the way things are, have been and/or should be,” and thus masked from critical attention.

In addition to theories of culture and cultural epistemology, CS scholars are informed by various other theories, such as feminism, Marxism, and post structuralism (Storey, 2001). Communication scholars who work within CS tend toward analysis of cultural texts of all sorts— everyday conversation, information, and entertainment, as well as discourse(s) of social institutions such as religion, media, law, education, organizations, and politics. They look for discursive formulations that reveal the myths, metaphors, narratives, silences, assumptions, expectations, and values that constitute the ideological terrain upon which people construct their individual and group identities and locate themselves in institutional hierarchies. My work lies at the intersection of CS, rhetorical theory and narrative theory, as I attempt to illuminate the conflicts, choices, directives, and alternatives that collide and collude to construct dilemmas of agency and action (see Burke, 1945; Nelson, 2001; Rosteck, 1999). Thus I look both inside a given discourse, asking why and how this set of beliefs, values, and behaviors is constructed, and simultaneously look outside of that same discourse, to the broader discursive and material worlds to determine issues that are silenced in the discourse in question.

Cultural Studies and the Opt-Out Discourse

Ideology, broadly defined, resides in the taken-for-granted assumptions and expectations that operate within a discursive world. As with all examples of discourse, that of women opting out of the workforce constructs parameters within which certain concerns, values, and assumptions are normalized and validated. What are the cultural ideologies that make Belkin’s article seem to be (at first read) a straightforward report of a new and somewhat disturbing trend—that of educated, trained, experienced, and competent women choosing to abandon their careers? To analyze Belkin’s article, I briefly consider five components of ideological construction and maintenance: (a) master narratives, (b) definitions, (c) agencies, (d) connections/disconnections, and (e) silences. These components are not mutually exclusive, rather they work together to construct the ideological world of a text, in this case Belkin’s presentation of the opt-out phenomenon. Later, I turn to the postings in response to her essay to locate acceptances, rejections, or modifications of her ideological constructions.

Master Narratives

Master narratives are those archetypal narrative constructions, accumulated over time, that explicate and perpetuate cultural values and serve as “summaries of socially-shared understandings” (Nelson, 2001, p. 6). Belkin’s story of opting out clearly operates within master narratives of capitalism, gender, race, class, and other pervasive stories that construct dominant and interlocking beliefs and values in U.S. culture. Work life is firmly framed within capitalism, a pervasive narrative that shapes our understandings of most aspects of our lives: self, personal relationships, gender, government, religion, education, and health care. We are culturally programmed by the inherent and largely unquestioned values of this master narrative, including values of individuality, freedom of choice, maximization of assets, reward for labor, accrual of wealth, hierarchy of economic value, moral value of achievement, natural superiority of achievers, and the faith that what benefits elite classes will ultimately benefit all.

Belkin operates within these assumptions and expectations as she positions her group of privileged women (despite a few limp disclaimers) as representative of womankind and women’s attitudes toward work. Likewise, she positions the corporate world as representative of both the world of work and the pinnacle of personal achievement. Wealth, education, and power are moral as well as economic values. She reinforces the message of master narratives that accomplishment is fulfillment, success is making it to the top, and that we can do whatever we set out to do (p. 44). Yet surprisingly, women who have thoroughly imbibed the values of this world view are opting out, which Belkin observes is not “the way it was supposed to be” (p. 44). The mantra of individual choice drives the essay, limiting the focus to women who choose to opt out, to women who have the choices and freedoms promised by our master narratives. Controlled by these values, Belkin nevertheless poses timid challenges to the conditions that constitute the terrain of work and gender in our dominant culture. Her search for explanations remains firmly within the values encoded in the capitalist master narrative; her essay is littered with icons of economic elitism: Ivy League universities, elite law firms, Starbucks, book clubs, lycra gym wear, weekly play groups, baby music classes, and birthday parties, to mention just a few.

Definitions

Embedded within master narratives are those fundamental concepts that construct cultural identities and practices. Definitions not only essentialize (i.e., clarify what things really are), they simultaneously moralize. Belkin uses the term “revolution” to denote the essence of this discourse; to label these women’s actions as revolutionary is to assert that they constitute the vanguard of profoundly necessary social change, thus connecting their actions to those of major historical and political movements. A revolution requires something to resist as well as something to strive for, so we must pose the question: “What exactly are opt-out women resisting?” Obviously they are fighting against Belkin’s version of feminism, as she translates the belief in women’s right to equality into the expectation and obligation that they “take on the world,” (p. 42) and intend on “grabbing a share of power” (p. 44), setting up an opposition between opt-out women and feminists that will continue throughout her article. Secondarily, women are revolting against the world of work, reduced by Belkin into the dehumanizing demands of high profile corporate positions. Thus Belkin’s assertion of revolution is validated by her reductionistic definitions of feminism and the workplace. Who wouldn’t revolt against her so-called feminist demand that women, regardless of their personal situations, must continue to participate in an inhumane corporate system to further the cause of all women?

Having clarified what the opt-out revolution is against, what does it seek to change for the better? Here the qualifier, “opt-out,” becomes significant. This is not a revolution that mandates social action, rather one that justifies retreat from difficult conflicts of life. The opt-out revolution is not a call for social change or economic equality; rather it is about women’s rights to do what they please, when they please, with little responsibility for anyone else except their children and with an implicit demand that there be no social censure or financial repercussions. As one woman Belkin interviewed put it: “I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to conquer the world” (p. 44). Here again we see the power of definitions to moralize, implying the superiority of opting out over other choices. Opting-out to become a full time mother is constructed as an identity morally superior to that of mothers who continue to work.

Agency

The power to act rather than be acted upon is a vital ingredient in ideology, as master narratives reveal who is granted agency and who is disempowered. Belkin’s vision of empowerment is encoded as the right of choice and the presence of options. She reduces women to these women, work to their sort of work, economics considerations to their status, choice to their options, as she sets up a number of dialectical oppositions—women/mothers, men/women, choice/constraint, success/failure, biology/socialization, feminism/non-feminism—that energize the location and parameters of agency.

To address only the first of these oppositions, compare her descriptions of women with her descriptions of mothers. Women, Belkin’s version of feminism assures us, are the“rightful owners of the universe”: “The women’s movement was largely about grabbing a fair share of power—making equal money, standing at the helm in the macho realms of business and government and law. It was about running the world” (p. 44). In constructing her definition of working women, Belkin employs metaphors of war and competition; women march, race, grab, and make their mark on the playing fields of corporate America (p. 44). These metaphors echo the master narratives of capitalism, as they support competition, power, dominance, ownership, and control.

Contrast these with the metaphors Belkin uses to construct motherhood. Motherhood is envisioned as an “escape hatch,” and “graceful and convenient exit” from the demands of a career (p. 44). When women become mothers, they apparently experience a total change of identity, become unwilling to work hard, to run anything except their children’s play sessions, prefer sitting in the coffee shop to standing at the helm of a corporation. What goes almost unnoticed is the fact that Belkin’s women substitute confinement in one master narrative for confinement in another. Rejecting the totalizing identity of the master narrative of corporate work life, opt-out women instead embrace the totalizing identity of motherhood, another master narrative of our culture. Unspoken also but clearly present is the power of the capitalistic values of success and competition to power their drive to become “super mommies.”

Connections/Disconnections

Identifications and divisions construct the ideological relationships within a discourse (Burke, 1945). In Belkin’s article, women and men are initially connected in their struggle for corporate success, having the same values until women morph into mothers and sever their connections with men. When a woman becomes a mother, she is apparently disconnected not only from work but from men as well (reinforcing the strong cultural equation of men and work). Belkin and her interviewees seldom mention men; they appear to operate in a world without men, connected only to children and other likeminded women. Opt-out women are the sole caretakers of their children; they supply the parenting and their husbands supply the money (see also McBride, 2006 [direct link to article]). Nowhere does Belkin give us a vision of parents united in caring for children or of women as equal economic partners despite not currently drawing a salary.

A second disconnection is that of opt-out women from other women. While Belkin attempts to position her women as representative of women’s dilemmas and women’s choices, her interviewees clearly echo their disconnection from women outside their circle of privilege. If they are no longer connected to working women, neither are they connected to women who might be labeled as “stay-at-home moms” or “housewives,” certainly not to women who might face problems other than the choice to opt-out. As one so clearly put it: “I don’t want to take on the mantle of all womanhood and fight a fight for some sister who isn’t really my sister because I don’t even know her” (p. 46).

Silences

Absences, what remains unspoken, are a significant component of ideological critique. Who or what is silenced in order to maintain the power of Belkin’s definitions and connections? What aspects of context are muted in order to normalize the values in her essay? Certainly we can immediately note the silenced voices of women not privileged with options, who rather than opting-out, are desperately trying to opt-in. This “other woman” is distanced, disenfranchised, and denied a voice in representations of womanhood or motherhood. By contrast to Belkin’s women, she is lacking legitimacy, not a part of “the group” of well-educated, upper class, married White women of privilege. Other forms of work are silenced as well. Alternatives to corporate America and its attendant lifestyle are disregarded. As noted above, these reductions allow Belkin to construct corporate executive-level work vs. full-time, upper middle-class motherhood as the dialectical tension that shapes women’s decision-making, creating the either/or dilemma that drives her article: either women work 60-80 hour weeks to secure and maintain their place at the top or they opt-out completely and leave it all behind for mornings at Starbucks with their kids and friends. What, she implicitly asks, would any reasonable woman choose?

Belkin’s silences force our attention to those women outside her ideological parameters, but still in the CS interpretive world: the Sudanese mother holding her dying child, illustrative of women’s lives as remote as possible from the privileged women of this essay; the tired working-class mothers of Barbara Ehrenreich’s (2001) Nickel and dimed, those who fall two steps backward financially for every step forward; middle-class working women who do not have the choice of opting out, those whose salaries are necessary to family financial survival; single women, women caring for aging parents, immigrant women, disabled women, women who endure hardships we can scarcely imagine. All these women are united by ideologies of gender, yet dwell in vastly different economic and political realities that shape and constrain their choices. Belkin’s women must be contextualized within a larger circle of women for whom the opt-out revolution is meaningless.

Counter-Stories

To hopefully discover voices that challenge the values and definitions in Belkin’s article, I turn to the forum postings. While many of the respondents support and affirm rather than challenge Belkin’s underlying ideologies, others attempt to push her parameters outward a bit to include other women’s experiences and choices relevant to the future of working women. Still others try to pull apart the tight either/or dialectic of motherhood vs. work, challenging her constraining definitions. Yet most remain locked into the values of major master narratives, unable to construct a credible counter-story that challenges the power of those narratives. For example, many, even those who disagree with her conclusions, engage in credentializing in citing their schools, degrees, careers, and positions in social and/or corporate hierarchies as giving them the right to speak. Many engage also in legitimizing their choices of work or motherhood, failing to challenge Belkin’s either/or dialectic. Most buy as uncritically into the ideology of motherhood as they did earlier into the ideology of work.

Only a few outspoken critics challenge the fundamental definitions, relationships and silences that empower the master narratives and attempt to construct an alternate narrative, one that seeks to broaden the parameters within which the opt-out phenomenon is understood. Nelson (2001) defines such an alternate narrative as a counter-story: a narrative construction that works to undercut the power of, and ultimately replace, a master narrative (pp. 169-172). For example, as rabiasb writes: “I was surprised at the conflation of feminist to choice. One of the guiding tenants to feminism is to understand and question the conditions that drive particular ‘choices’ and to figure out why particular ‘choices’ are driven by gender” (#27-10/24/03). Another responds: “We think we are making a choice, but we do not realize that we are being brainwashed and guilt-tripped….” (boffo3, #73-10/24/03). And amcc5233 remarks: “Let me start by saying that true freedom of choice is only capable in a society where all work is valued equally and where men and women truly are on an equal footing” (#102-10/25/03). These respondents react not only to some particular problem within Belkin’s parameters but move to challenge the reduction of feminism to individual choice and personal preferences of lifestyle.

Conclusion

In summary, CS analyzes how cultural discourses do their work, whom they empower, whom they silence, what agencies and/or actions are validated or sanctioned, with what implications for empowerment or lack thereof. In the opt-out discourse, a CS approach reveals how that discourse works to: (a) reduce the issue to the parameters of a particular worldview, (b) normalize the assumptions and expectations that operate within that worldview, and (c) reduce possibilities to dialectics of choice that energize and maintain the dominant master narratives.

As I leave the opt-out discourse, I wonder whether any credible counter stories will be constructed, sustained, and eventually come to replace our master narratives of women, work, and family life. Are women forever entrapped within dominant ideologies of gender, work, power, motherhood? Must their agency be reduced to choosing between constraining distortions of feminism, womanhood, motherhood, and career? Can any meaningful counter narratives be articulated that provide a vision and an agenda for social change? Belkin (2003) appears confident that if talented women continue to opt-out, the corporate world will realize the loss of talent and work to make accommodations for a balance of family and work not only for women but also for men (p. 86). Even if such is the case, and most are not optimistic, what will the privileges accorded to elite women mean for other women, the vast majority of women who work? What of the responsibility of those who have talent and resources to better the lives of those who do not? We love to believe, courtesy of the capitalist master narrative, that what benefits the elite classes will ultimately benefit all. Obviously Belkin and her interviewees are comfortable in this assumption. But rather than wait for their privileges to “trickle down,” Katha Pollitt (2003) suggests the opt-out women should use their talents and their free time to work for social change:

The best thing these women could do for themselves would be to organize a new, muscular, inclusive women’s movement that would fight for a fairer deal for working mothers in their jobs, at home, and in government policy. True that would be feminism, the dreaded and despised. But it just might work. (¶ 7)

One hopes some will take her advice.

References

Belkin, L. (2003, October 26). The opt-out revolution. The New York Times, pp. 42-47, 58, 85-86.

Burke, K. (1945). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McBride, M. C. (2005). A hierarchy of family: a family communication response to The Opt-Out Revolution. The Electronic Journal of Communication, 16(3&4).

Ehrenreich, B. E. (2001). Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Nelson, H. (2001). Damaged: Narrative repair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Pollitt, K. (2003, November 17). There they go again. Nation. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from http://www.thenation.com/doc/20031117/pollitt

Rosteck, T. (Ed.) (1999). At the intersection: Cultural studies and rhetorical studies. New York: Guilford Press.

Storey, J. (2001). Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction. New York: Prentice Hall.

The WebNewsRoom. (2004). "60Minutes" cameras record evidence of genocide. Retrieved April 28, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www.thewebnewsroom.com/?itemid=253&catid=1 (retrieved April, 28, 2007).


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