This is part of our December slowdown Blast From The Past reposting program. This post was originally published May 2nd, 2007.
I’ve been contemplating this post: The Male Gaze… falls upon a Nursing Mother…. by Morgan Gallagher. I think there’s an important truth in there, something feminists find themselves saying over and over and over again: “It’s not about you.”
Breastfeeding fear seems to be partly about keeping mothers in the home where they “belong”, partly about fear of our mammalian-ness (mammalhood?), and partly about the opportunistic pathologisation of womanhood and motherhood. But it’s also about defiance of the male gaze. Women’s bodies are battlegrounds, and when breastfeeding, a women is committing the cardinal sin of rejecting the male gaze. Not even defending herself from it, but rejecting it entirely. If there’s one thing sexist pigs can’t stand, it’s women not paying attention to them.
Moral panics about women mothering in public happen with dispiriting regularity. Here in a Florida Sentinel comments section, for example, one commenter compares their discomfort on seeing breastfeeding to their discomfort on seeing fat or disabled people going out in public. Another compares it to public urination, defecation, and sexual intercourse. A nursing mother is accused of being a child molester, another diagnoses mothers as mentally ill. Another calls feeding a child “disgusting”, “wrong”, and “filthy”.
Then – there are these comments:
If your husband was there, he’d want to see my **** since yours are saggy from being sucked on by a bratty kid!
Hey , there are 2 of them thar things, so why not share the other “Happy Meal” with me?
And there’s the heart of the issue. In the first case, a woman freaks out because she sees the nursing mother as sexual competition, and feels the need to defend herself by labelling the mother unfuckable. A survival strategy for women spinning on the hamster wheel of Patriarchy-pleasing.
In the second, a man scrambles desperately to re-assert his entitlement to the male gaze, and throws in a little sexual harassment just to put the little woman back in her rightful place: defensive, in fear, and above all paying attention to men at all times.
As Morgan says:
We live in a society that is obessed with ‘the male gaze’
Nursing an infant is extremely problematic in this paradigm. For a nursing mother makes two statements that I feel are very difficult for our culture to accept. One, she is not interested in the male looking at her. She has clearly signalled she’s not interested in being looked at as a sexual object of desire, and is not at all interested in being ‘captured’ by him.
Secondly, she is not only not interested in the people looking at her – male or female – she is soley interested in her child. All her attention is centred on her infant.
A nursing mother takes control of her own body, and uses it as she sees fit. She rejects the idea that society at large, or the people in the space around her, can control both what she does with her body, and who she gives it to. In a world where women gain their status and power by how many men look at her – a nursing mother is a problem. Either she is competing for male gaze, or she is rejecting it utterly.
What do you think?