Yet, I am somewhat taken aback by my own discomfort with the exchange. I hear myself dropping the names of brands and other cues that signal my class and marital status, even though I generally eschew such performances of respectability. But it’s a tempting and intoxicating moment for me, as it is one of the rare times when I am assumed to be the mother, and not the nanny, of my children.
Let me back up and contextualize a bit. During the first seven months of my twin boys’ lives, I stayed at home as their primary caregiver. I was fortunate to be able to do this. As a tenure-track assistant professor, I was able to piece together parental leave, FMLA, sick days, administrative work, and summer break to bridge the gap between their birth and the start of the fall semester, when I would return to teaching full time. As the hours and days crept by at a snail’s pace and the logistics of navigating multiple flights of stairs with two infants in my Brooklyn walkup proved daunting, I often found myself quarantined inside of the apartment with my two babies.
Physically exhausted and mentally fatigued from a lack of adult interaction, I would find solace in reality television: old favorites like VH1’s Love & Hip Hop, new parent-oriented discoveries such as TLC’s Rattled, and shows designed to bridge the worlds of “trashy” reality television and more mature fare: Snooki & Jwoww (and its online offshoot: Snooki & Jwoww: Moms with Attitude). As a media studies scholar whose research focuses on popular culture (with a heavy emphasis on reality television), these shows served two purposes for me. On the one hand, they provided a much needed respite from the daily, all-encompassing grind of diapers, nursing, pumping, and tummy time. On the other, these various representations of women and motherhood helped me to make sense of my own newfound identity as a mother by placing my experiences into preexisting narrative contexts. As silly as it may sound, watching Snooki and JWoww transition from their former Jersey Shore party-girl selves into capable — yet still cool — mothers, gave me hope that I might likewise be able to merge my previous childfree academic identity with my new child-oriented subjectivity.
Yet, when I emerged from the cocoon of my apartment and began to brave the new world of parks, music classes, and library story times, I came face to face with the ways in which other, non-professional, aspects of my identity — namely, race and class — complicated how I functioned in these child-centric spaces. If “moms” and “mommies” were always envisioned as middle-class white women, while working-class women of color were automatically categorized as nannies and babysitters, then where did that leave me as a black, middle-class professor?
While I have read several articles in which women of color with white partners chronicle similar experiences of being mistaken for their own, fair-skinned children’s nannies, these accounts overlook a key issue. These narratives presume that the mistaken identity occurs because the mothers’ skin tones don’t “match” those of their children, but I would counter that it is not really about that at all. Rather, it’s about what kinds of bodies we assume to “belong” in certain spaces and how we expect those bodies to function there. In other words, it is my skin, not that of my children, which designates me as their nanny. How could I possibly be here, the logic seems to go, if not in a working capacity?
This type of thinking comes out in the form of various queries that I receive whenever I am in “mommy” spaces during “working” hours: parks on weekday afternoons, Monday morning sing-a-long classes at my local library, the Friday music class held in the upscale children’s clothing boutique a block away from my home. These queries come from both white women and women of color, from both caregivers and parents. “Is this your first [time doing a] [nanny] share?” “Is one of them yours?” Or, I see the glances travel from my face down to my children and then back up again as the looker searches for the resemblance that indicates that I am, indeed, my children’s mother. Sometimes I notice it in more subtle ways, such as when a woman who has been engaging in easy banter with me subtly — but perceptibly — stiffens with formality when she realizes that I am not a fellow nanny but a “mom.” The reason for this apprehension becomes clear when I read posts on my various parents’ listservs in which mothers report on the misconduct of presumed nannies that they see out and about in the neighborhood.
I am not alone in this experience, either. One morning, I venture out with a friend, a fellow mother of twins, also a black woman with recognizably black children. As we push our double strollers down the sidewalk in her Park Slope neighborhood — an upper-middle-class Brooklyn enclave — we joke about the number of times that we are mistaken for the nannies of our children. When we pull up to a stoplight, we find ourselves standing across the street from two white mothers, out for a midday stroll with their babies in tow. I wonder if these women have ever been mistaken for nannies. I am willing to guess that they have not. Waiting at the stoplight, I take a quick inventory of what they are wearing: these women are dressed similarly to me — comfortable stretchy pants, sneakers, hoodies — pushing strollers in the same price class as mine. I regard my friend standing next to me through this same lens: unlike me, she is wearing a stylish tunic, leggings, and the most amazing pair of animal print loafers. It strikes me in this moment: regardless of how her clothing may reflect her class status, it is her blackness that trumps all. In her case, as a stay-at-home mother, the racial and class connotations become even more apparent than my own. To recognize her as such would require a number of presumptions by passersby: 1) that she has a partner who is in her life and in her children’s lives, 2) that her partner is financially capable of taking care of their entire household, and 3) that she has the disposable income to afford her pricey double stroller. Yet, these things are never assumed of her as they are of white stay-at-home mothers: it is simply easier for people to comprehend her existence in these spaces as a worker pushing her employer’s stroller. Her identity as a mother is, quite simply, incomprehensible.
What I have learned is that when black and brown women frequent these spaces, they are always assumed to be at work, an assumption rooted in racial iconography and ideology. Categories like “mom” and “mommy” take white heterosexual femininity as the default norm, while black and brown women’s bodies are always seen (or unseen) as being at labor. I reflect on this one morning as I sit at home, drafting this article, while the 2016 film Bad Moms plays in the background. The film follows three self-proclaimed “bad moms” — all white — who feel overburdened by the social pressure of perfect motherhood and decide to reject those burdens. One scene that shows the moms being “bad” — ditching their usual parenting duties for a daytime movie/lunch outing — presents the excursion as the women’s right after countless, endless hours/days/months/years of mothering full time (not to mention the additional pressures of work and family). When Kristen Bell’s character — a stay-at-home mother — runs into her husband, he queries her about who is looking after the children. Bell responds “Rosie,” who the audience is supposed to assume is the family’s caregiver. These women can only be at leisure because there is a “Rosie” — whom the viewer never sees — who is at work with their children.
To the extent that Rosie might be assumed to be a woman of color, this scene underscores the dichotomy of white women as moms and black women as laborers. And while it is undoubtedly true that women of color may work as caregivers to white children, and white women may be employed outside of the home, it is interesting to see how these identities become fixed in the spaces that I frequent with my children. A black nanny who cares for a white child likely has children of her own, yet her identity in these spaces is reduced to her job, obfuscating her experience as a working mother. Ironically enough, it is the black (or brown, or Asian) nanny’s occupation as someone paid to care for children that seems to disqualify her from the title of “mother.” Thus, let me be clear about my own feelings around being mistaken for my children’s nanny. It is not that I am bothered that someone might think that I am a nanny rather than a college professor. Rather, I am disturbed by the daily reminders that society incessantly shoehorns women’s multifaceted identities and experiences into categories that only serve to uphold patriarchal and racist narratives.
These assumptions are about legibility. Socially, we rely on certain aesthetic clues to discern things about peoples’ identities. We look at style of dress, age, race, et cetera, in order to ascertain whom we are regarding and, therefore, what their function is in a given space. In that regard, black skin itself carries meaning, developed over centuries of racist and sexist messaging. Interestingly, when my black partner is out with our children, many assume that he must be married to a white woman. Like me, he receives comments that reveal this assumption, such as when he overhears two women gushingly “complimenting” our boys by exclaiming that mixed children are always the most beautiful (a statement inherently problematic in its fetishization of blackness and simultaneous anti-blackness). Like me, this perception is not about how our children look but about how he looks: a suit-wearing black man pushing a baby stroller in gentrifying Brooklyn, the logic says, must surely be one of the recently arrived gentrifiers, whose socio-economic class status is reflected in his choice of a white wife and resulting mixed race children. If you have any doubt about the visual legibility of this logic, one need only look at stroller ads like that of the Quinny Zapp Flex Plus stroller — with its “urban, stylish” (to quote the company’s ad copy) parents, visually represented as a black man and white woman, and their fair-skinned mixed-race child — to see how companies understand, and illustrate, their vision of upscale urban “diversity.” It is not surprising to me, therefore, that people on the street read my partner this way.
After observing these dynamics firsthand, I return to my reality TV consumption with fresh eyes (aided by babies who start sleeping through the night) and new questions. How exactly, I wonder, did Snooki and JWoww become the cool, crafty moms that they are today on social media, ones who can open a time capsule from their Jersey Shore days and joke about its content, with the self-assuredness of women so confident in their current identities as wives and mothers — and certain of society’s recognition of those statuses — that they can safely embrace and make fun of their past, drunken, sexually adventurous selves?
Watching Snooki’s and JWoww’s post–Jersey Shore narrative is like reading a how-to guide for how a patriarchal culture molds women into socially acceptable models of white womanhood, and it is whiteness (or in Snooki’s case, a certain degree of racial ambiguity) that enables this seamless transition. While some may argue that Snooki and JWoww have always functioned as white (here I’m thinking of whiteness along the lines of race as social construction and subjectivity, rather than genotype), Jersey Shore and its attendant publicity, marketing, and criticism, clearly marked the women as ethnic, or “off white,” in their time on Jersey Shore.
On Snooki & Jwoww, the pair embark on a series of comedic adventures where they take etiquette lessons and deepen their romantic relationships, eventually culminating with their pregnancies and forays into parenthood. By gradually, but definitively, shifting the emphasis from their non-mother identities and activities to an exclusive focus on their identities as mothers, Snooki & Jwoww reduces the complexity of their identities to a straightforward narrative of “former bad girl” turned good.
On one hand, Snooki’s and JWoww’s abilities to transition from Jersey Shore to Snooki & Jwoww to Jenni and Roger: Domesticated and Moms with Attitude hinges on a loyal following (like myself — I cried when JWoww delivered Meilani on air) that has likewise transitioned with them from their 20s into their 30s and from a life of bars and clubs to playdates and playgrounds. Yet for Snooki and JWoww to transition from one narrative to the other, their bodies and their identities must be legible in ways that work in conjunction with society’s preexisting narratives about women and motherhood. These narratives are encapsulated in specific terms that serve as descriptive shorthand. In The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels assert “mom” means you’re good and nurturing while “mother” means you’re not (note the media uses of “celebrity mom” versus “welfare mother” and “stay-at-home mom” versus “working mother”). These narratives, they argue, are grounded in assumptions about race, gender, and class: “moms” in popular media are always white, whereas “mothers” — specifically in the context of “bad mothers” — are typically women of color, such as the “crack mothers” demonized during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, JWoww and Snooki not only shifted from single party girls to wives and mothers, but also from ethnic to white, and ultimately, to “moms.”
Though unnamed, race is particularly evident in the representations of white “bad moms” (not to be confused with the bad black mothers that Douglas and Michaels discuss) that circulate throughout recent popular culture. Bravo has just aired its third season of the scripted comedy Odd Mom Out, about a woman trying to adjust to the social mores of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The commercially successful 2016 film Bad Moms has a sequel set to be released in winter 2017. Moms with Attitudes, Odd Mom Out, Bad Moms, and the myriad shows and films like them, center on the conceit of white women “playing” at being “bad” or non-normative, always with the safety of their white virtue as a buffer. Odd Mom Out’s Jill can get blackout drunk and spend an entire day trying to piece together the pieces of the day before (“Knock of Shame”). In Bad Moms, Mila Kunis’s Amy can stagger hungover into the kitchen in front of her waiting children or have sex on her kitchen island while still married to her husband without the film needing to reassure us about her fitness as a mother. Snooki and JWoww can joke about their Jersey Shore exploits because we, the audience, just intrinsically know that their antics were a youthful phase.
No woman is exempt from the pitfalls of social judgment, and not every woman can recover once she has been judged to have failed in what society deems her most important role in life. And, as a genre, reality television typically avoids any consideration of broader social matters (like the gendered labor of parenting) and displaces such issues onto narratives of individual choice and conduct. Yet this is exactly why we need to acknowledge that our society’s entire image of motherhood is predicated on middle-class heterosexual whiteness as a default. It should come as no surprise, then, that white women like Snooki and Jwoww and the moms found in Bad Moms and Odd Mom Out get to be “bad” with no consequences by adopting the same markers of rebellion that would characterize black mothers as unfit. Cursing, excessive drinking, sexual promiscuity, inattentiveness — these are the same behaviors that would get a woman of color’s children taken away from her, or at least result in one of the “Is this your nanny?” posts that crop up on my local parents listserv from time to time.
The inescapable reality is that popular culture representations of “moms” and “mothers” are rooted in ideological models that take for granted white goodness and presume black pathology. Yet, I don’t want to make the argument that black women necessarily need to be incorporated into “mom” culture (as I have just described it). Specific mothers of color — fictional characters like Clair Huxtable or celebrities like Beyoncé, to name the first two that come to mind — may be celebrated (or at least acknowledged), but they still operate within the same framework that has historically operated to erase them. Without taking anything away from these women individually, it is important to recognize that their legibility within preexisting models of motherhood does not actually challenge those models, and thus, less privileged (because of their race, marital status, economic situation, et cetera) mothers of color are still subject to its rigid, disciplining strictures. If, then, “mommy culture” simply reinforces patriarchal gender roles in many ways, might the true, radical challenge to patriarchy come in the form of the black and brown “bad” mothers that reality television does not, or cannot, reclaim and reform?
Love & Hip Hop (and its spinoffs Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood) chronicles the lives of women who are connected to the hip-hop industry in a number of ways. Unlike Snooki and JWoww’s transition to domesticity, which has largely been a smooth and complete one (at least in how it gets represented on television), the women of color on Love & Hip Hop do not leave behind their bad girl selves when they make the jump to motherhood. Part of this can be explained by the fact that the show does not focus on mothers per se, but simply on women who are a part of the hip-hop industry. In that regard, the women’s identities as mothers are but one aspect of their lives. Yet this is exactly what draws me in, particularly as I return to teaching and struggle to find balance between the different parts of my daily life: the complexity of lives that are shaped by, but not governed by, motherhood.
On shows like Love & Hip Hop, this often takes the form of the women doing things that seem incongruous with social ideals of motherhood: they fight, they drink, they enter into sexual relationships with same- and opposite-sex partners. When the show focuses on their experiences as mothers, even these are decidedly more complicated than what we would ever see in a film like Bad Moms. The women navigate the worlds of co-parenting; they figure out how to establish relationships with their children’s half-siblings and those children’s mothers. The women talk about losing children, about struggling to mother even as they still suffer from hurtful relationships with their own mothers. For the ladies of Love & Hip Hop, motherhood is messy: a world away, in some regards, from the straightforward heterosexual, two-parent households that their white reality television counterparts have established.
For women like Joseline Hernandez, Mimi Faust, Yandy Smith-Harris, Rasheeda Buckner-Frost, and others, raising children is but one of the countless realities that shape their larger identities and impact how they function in the world and on television. On the one hand, this opens up the women to a particular type of criticism. It isn’t appropriate, critics charge, for mothers to engage in, say, physical altercations or to have multiple sexual partners. Yet the criticisms of these women spring from the same limiting frameworks that attempt to categorize and thus control all women, black and non-black, by shaming them into “appropriate” behaviors. These women’s refusal to adhere, is therefore — whether intentional or not — a blow against the larger operations of patriarchy that all mothers feel to different extents. These mothers of color are the real “bad moms,” but their race precludes their actions/behavior from being characterized as a passing phase.
I have been an unapologetic fan of Love & Hip Hop, but especially Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta’s Joseline Hernandez since her first appearance on the show, where, in just the second episode, she took a pregnancy test on camera. As I have written about elsewhere, Hernandez’s reputation for being the antithesis of respectable makes her the ostensible star of the show. She fights, she curses, she is bisexual, she is rumored to engage in heavy drug use off-camera, and the pregnancy that she discovered in the above-mentioned scene resulted in an abortion (the aftermath captured on a later episode). It is Hernandez’s raw emotional honesty (she talks candidly about exchanging sex for financial security, for instance) that makes her a compelling figure. Her palpable fragility is just barely concealed behind a performative facade of hubris. Thus, when VH1 aired a special episode focusing exclusively on the birth of Hernandez’s daughter, I eagerly tuned in.
Joseline’s Special Delivery jumps back and forth between Hernandez’s delivery and the events of the five weeks leading up to it. On a formal level, this design functions to reconcile Hernandez’s Love & Hip Hop identity as a physically aggressive bad girl with her soon-to-be identity as a mother. Aesthetically, the special vacillates between a glossy, cinematic presentation and the more “fly-on-the-wall,” cinema-vérité style of a previous era of reality television. For instance, Hernandez’s interview segments, in which she narrates the events that we see unfolding, show her in a floor-length gown in a lavishly decorated nursery. Yet, as the special builds to its narrative climax and Hernandez enters the last stages of labor, it switches over entirely to the use of a handheld camera, giving the special an air of a home movie. Just before she delivers her daughter, we catch a glimpse of her face in agony and abject fear. It is raw and real — Hernandez’s humanity on full display for the shaky handheld camera that attempts to capture the event. Then, the first glimpse of Hernandez as a mother, just moments after she delivers her daughter, is shot from over the shoulder of one of the attendants. Hernandez, the cinematography seems to say, is both glossy media construction as well as a real person. And while this matter of aesthetics may seem minor, it reinforces the special’s underlying message about the multiple versions of self that constitute a women’s identity.
The special focuses heavily on the unconventional aspects of Hernandez’s identity, with particular emphasis on her sexuality. Yet, unlike narratives that would show this as part of an evolutionary narrative march toward heteronormative family structure, this is not the narrative arc of Special Delivery. Instead, the events and scenarios depicted in the lead up to Hernandez’s delivery are presented as integrated parts of a whole, multilayered person, and it is this that productively troubles an overly simplistic categorization of motherhood. Her baby shower — an event that one would expect to include finger sandwiches and baby-themed party games — is instead an extravagant and raucous affair featuring live rap performances, strippers (who give Hernandez a lap dance), and a cake in the form of a naked Hernandez giving birth to her daughter in a birthing pool. The special shakes up our understanding of women’s identities in other, smaller ways, too, such as the cake’s middle-aged white baker who not only handles Hernandez’s request for the “Kutty Kat Cake” with surprising nonchalance, but also drops a rap verse. Women, the special seems to say, cannot be assessed with a quick glance.
In another scene, Hernandez works out with her personal trainer. The scene opens with a shot of Hernandez, beautiful and strong, lifting weights in a sports bra and tight-fitting pants, her eight-month pregnant stomach gloriously displayed and captured by the cameras. She talks to her male trainer about her anxiety about having sex with her friend and lover, Nikki, in graphic and honest detail. Later, when Nikki arrives, we see the two women clad in lingerie — Nikki massages Hernandez’s pregnant belly and Hernandez tells Nikki that she is the best lover that she’s ever had. But the scene, and the actions that it captures, are not solely sexual. Nikki rubbing Hernandez’s stomach is both an act of sexual foreplay as well as one of emotional caregiving: she reassures Hernandez that she will be a good mother (a source of anxiety for Hernandez that is a thread that runs throughout the special), and in an interview, Hernandez narrates that Nikki is both a lover as well as a true friend.
This scene highlights another key aspect to Special Delivery, which is the power of women-centric spaces and communities. In Hernandez’s delivery special, men are largely absent or at the periphery of the narrative and the space. The lab technician who performs Hernandez’s ultrasound, the two party planners who ensure that Hernandez’s shower has ballerinas and strippers, Nikki who promises Hernandez a labor-inducing orgasm, the doula who guides her through her pregnancy and rubs her back during delivery, the midwife who delivers Hernandez’s baby, the women in Hernandez’s family (including a pregnant niece and her brother’s pregnant girlfriend) — these are the people who fill up the spaces of the special. Even Hernandez’s unborn daughter, Bonnie Bella, is present in the form of the constant references to her and the visual emphasis of Hernandez’s exposed belly.
Fans of Hernandez begin the special with the knowledge that she is a single mother, the show having followed the ups and downs of her relationship with boyfriend/manager Steven Jordan over the course of multiple seasons. Though Jordan is mentioned often, he only appears in the last five minutes of the special: first via video call, and then in person when he arrives at the birth center to meet the daughter whose lineage he denied for most of Hernandez’s pregnancy. In the scene where Jordan meets Bonnie Bella for the first time, any sentimentality about the heterosexual family unit is tempered by Hernandez and Jordan’s conversation as he holds the baby, in which Hernandez talks matter-of-factly to Jordan about co-parenting their child. Shots of Jordan engaging in skin time with the tiny newborn are crosscut with Hernandez’s interview segments, again ensuring that it is her voice that frames how we interpret the narrative.
Women like Joseline Hernandez do not fit into redemption narratives like their white counterparts. And while some critics may see that as a failure on these women’s parts, their inability — or unwillingness — to capitulate to these social norms reveal the degree to which patriarchy constantly pressures women to fit their complex and layered identities into narrow categories that only serve to maintain sexist, racist, and classist power hierarchies. I don’t want to paint the picture as too rosy: in general, those who find themselves on the margins of socially defined norms, like Joseline Hernandez, also find themselves without access to social protections, resources, or sympathies. Women of color who do not follow the script of conventional motherhood still deal with all of the pressures and demands that white mothers face, but they must also shoulder the additional burdens that society places on them related to their race, class, and marital status.
I am all too aware of the weight of racism as I sit in the emergency room with one of my sons and find myself actively, deliberately performing my educational and class privilege, and yes — marital status — to counter any possibility that the attending physician may treat my son with less attention, less care, than they would a non-black child. The acute knowledge of how your racialized body, and how that of your child, reads to others, is a burden that I cannot willingly put down or opt out of if I want to protect my black sons in a world that already sees them as more mature, more aggressive, and less sympathetic, than their white peers. At the same time, however, I am painfully aware of the fact that every time that I activate these sites of privilege for myself, I am reinforcing their validity, to the ultimate detriment of myself and other mothers. What I find so liberating in Joseline’s Special Delivery, therefore, is the fantasy of a world in which such categorizations do not exist, where mothers’ identities are not reducible to how they look, how they speak, or any other markers of social and cultural legibility.
The celebration of Snooki and JWoww’s evolution and the criticism of Joseline Hernandez are two sides of the same patriarchal coin. In the end, I am not suggesting that we substitute one model of motherhood for another. To do so would be simply shifting around categories and reassigning value, rather than working toward dismantling the overarching framework that creates the categories and their attendant value in the first place. When “bad girls” “succeed” at becoming edgy — but still conventional — wives and mothers in the court of public opinion, they haven’t expanded the boundaries around socially accepted images of motherhood, but rather, have simply adhered to one of its preselected forms. And, for those women who operate outside of convention, the potential risks and consequences (such as social and criminal prosecution) are real and omnipresent.
For me, as I continue to navigate this world of “moms,” “mommies,” “mothers,” and — of course — the hipster-appropriated “mama,” it feels crucial to acknowledge and to push back not only against the system’s injustices, but also its privileges. Perhaps it can only exist in the constructed space of reality television, but Joseline Hernandez’s transition to motherhood is the one that I find to be the most hopeful for the world in which I want to live.
Racquel Gates is an assistant professor at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.