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May 11, 2012

Why That TIME Cover Really Does Suck

Remember when grocery stores used to display Cosmopolitan magazines behind privacy shields so that unwitting passers-by weren’t confronted with cleavage? Soon, managers may be hastily hiding the news weeklies behind the comparatively tamer Cosmos—between Newsweek’s S&M-inspired cover of a naked woman and this week’s cover of Time, on which part-time blogger and over-time mom Jamie Lynne Grumet suckles her pre-school age son, Aram.

As bizarre as this image is, the amalgamation of visual and verbal messages on the cover employs a set of familiar strategies. Like its cousin, the fashion mag cover, this cover preys on women’s insecurity. The confrontational “Are You Mom Enough?” headline is coupled with the shot of the perfect hot mom in skinny jeans. Grumet is not only “mom enough” to dedicate four years of her life to nursing, but also “mom enough” to lose the baby weight, maintain perky breasts, and look her critics squarely in the eye.

Although the exposed breast (with child attached) is what makes the cover buzzworthy, the direct gaze of mother and child—aimed outward at the viewer rather than inward toward each other—is the most unsettling visual component of the cover. It turns what could be a loving act of familial intimacy (well, if the exchange involved mother and baby, that is) into a defiant performance. Young Aram looks awkwardly posed—with his arms dangling down and his eyes cast askance.  Time photographer Martin Schoeller said that the photo was “inspired by the iconic religious image of the Madonna and Child,” however it seems more likely that the technique was motivated by news weeklies’ declining sales. Editors are trying everything they can think of to get people to purchase news in print form.  And no matter how sincere her commitment to attachment parenting is, Grumet was no doubt interested in the free publicity the shot will bring to her blog as she was in spreading the word on prolonged breastfeeding.

By playing on women’s insecurities and commodifying maternal dedication, the Time cover’s caricature of attachment parenting (which managing editor Rick Stengel insists is something about which “lots and lots of women” are debating) belittles all moms—both those who are driven to ostensible “extremes” by parenting gurus and those who are not “mom enough” to go there. It makes me wonder if young Aram and I are thinking the same thing . . . “uh, are we done yet?”

–  Karrin Anderson

(photo: Martin Schoeller for TIME)

  • bks

    Suddenly I want to take up smoking again.


    • Michael Shaw

      That’s hysterical.

  • Thomas

    Putting the kid in camo pants is a real drama-seeking flourish. Poor little guy is like a Westboro Baptist Church kid, a little soldier for crazy mom’s cause. I died laughing when I first saw this. It’s all kinds of obnoxious.
    The claim that it is inspired by religious imagery is of course totally fatuous, but called to mind some of John Berger’s insights about the specific ways capitalism repurposes the language of oil painting, recasting visual traditions of depicting spirituality into an aggressively materialistic, consumer narrative. As you say, all of the elements of the commercial gospel—envy, inadequacy, competitiveness, etc.—are here, as well as confirming her status as a guru. They are belittling moms for sure, but are using a vocabulary and belief system that is enough to belittle everybody.

    • Asta

      I missed the camo pants, I was totally distracted by the breast feeding.  Duh!

  • Christine Lorenz

    This photo has about as much in common with a nursing Madonna as Tebowing has with Rodin’s Thinker.

  • acm

    It turns what could be a loving act of familial intimacy (well, if the exchange involved mother and baby, that is)…

    Agree on the whole, but wanted to call you out on this little bit of drive-by.  Breastfeeding is generally about familial intimacy at whatever age, and for however long that family sees fit to do it.  In our (US/Western) culture, we like it to end when babies start looking like children, but breastfeeding to 4 or 5 is pretty common in the, um, browner and robe-wearing portions of the world, and I don’t think they’d share your disapproval here.  No need to throw more fuel on the Right Form of Motherhood bonfire!

    • KVA

      fair enough. point well taken.

    • tinwoman

       where food security is not an issue, breastfeeding past the age of two is NOT normal, speaking as someone who has lived at length in the “browner and robe wearing” portions of the world…..sheesh. 

  • Scarabus

    Precocious “cougar”? I’ve seen many, many images of the Madonna and child, but none like this. Reminds me more of the end of Grapes of Wrath when the girl who’s lost her baby uses her breasts to feed a starving man.

  • Catherine McCallum

    So, Ms. Anderson doesn’t approve of extended nursing. Okay, then. As to losing the baby weight – nursing helps with that. Just sayin’.

    • KVA

      Actually–extended nursing is fine with me. I breastfed both of my sons until they gave it up on their own (around the age of 1). I also have advocated for expanded rights for breastfeeding moms at my workplace. If this cover took seriously the pros and cons of prolonged breastfeeding in a way that was respectful to women who make diverse choices, I wouldn’t have written about it. But this dog and pony show 1) exploits the female body for commercial purposes, and 2) is yet another attempt to reignite the mommy wars.

      Breastfeeding is great for burning calories–so is working out for 3 1/2 years after your baby is born (which is what this mom has clearly done–good for her). I’d be interested to know how much photoshop was involved . . .

    • Glenn

      It sounds to me like she doesn’t approve of staging provocative photos of nursing to put on the cover of newsweekly magazines. And I agree with her.

      I have no problem with anyone’s approach to nursing.

  • Steve Laudig

    Where have all the adults in magazine management gone? Time extends soft-pornification continuing the titterification of US public culture. Child as prop. Haven’t, and won’t, be reading the article but wonder “Where’s dad?”. Haven’t read Time in years. Is the next story potty training? 

  • Momly

    The obvious shot across the bow that this picture is makes me glad I’m way too old for those Mommy Wars anymore….

  • threesmommy

    The cover is horribly, revoltingly exploitative of the kid.

    • Catherine McCallum

      My daughter-in-law agrees with you.

  • Shirley

    Ironically, while Mom looks hot and super-fit, the child looks a little on the tubby side: is the breast-feeding going overboard or is it completely unnecessary because the boy is already getting plenty of nutrition from solid food? (In which case, the continued insistence on breast-feeding says a lot more about Mom’s issues than about Junior’s.)

    I understand all the cultural arguments, and would agree with them fully if that were our culture here and now today. However, is this “in-your-face” militant breast-feeding really about what’s natural and best for the child? I’m thinking not. In fact, guaranteed, this cover is going to haunt this poor boy for the rest of his life (and I’m the mom of a young boy — yes, breastfed, until he decided he was done at about 6 months).

    And in reference to the fact about other parts of the world where this is common: yes … but they don’t pose in hot-mom pix for the global population to see as they do so.

  • SLPhipps

    first reaction to this story- besides the obvious “hot mom” aspect was
    why for a story about motherhood and being “Mom” enough did the editors
    (how many of them female i wonder also) choose only male photographers
    to take the photographs for all three stories related to the cover? Is
    anyone else bothered by that controversial aspect? Why not hire
    Catherine Opie, Elinor Carrucci, or one of the amazingly talented women
    photographers who could actually relate to the subject matter? Probably
    because not one of them would have taken this photograph or anything
    like it.

  • Bugboy

    The mom who insists she is “not a babysitter” says she was “self-weaned” at the age of six.  Wrap your brain around that for a moment.  The apple don’t fall far from the tree.

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  • Catherine McCallum

    I misread you and I apologize. I also nursed my babies until they were ready to give it up – at an average age of 16 months.

    And I don’t object to the picture as much as I object to the objections to the picture. Yes, yes, I see that breast there, and a (gasp) TODDLER attached to it. But couldn’t we just get over it? Breastfeeding is a natural act for which breasts were intended. And young mothers are often trim and pretty. Must we hide both under a barrel (or more likely, a nice cozy nursing blanket) so no one will think we’re being exploitive?

  • bowlweevils

     When people are genuinely interested in improving the state of knowledge about the world they don’t make active efforts to appear aggravated.

    Sorry if we all haven’t had your experiences. Sorry that you can’t share your experiences without being annoyed. Or annoying.

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