Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Mars needs moms (and not scientists)

I’ve never, ever seen anything quite like the film 'Mars Needs Moms'. Maybe I should have known in advance that  a Disney animation was unlikely to do a good job of portraying mothers in a realistic manner (their mother-prototype tends to be of the dead variety). But I was surprised by just how anti-feminist this film aimed at kids proved to be. Like, crazy anti-feminist! And also not particularly supportive of non-traditional family units.

The film’s version of Mars is run by a bunch of unfeeling female Martians, overseen by a shrewish, man-hating supervisor. The women are brilliant soldiers and engineers and have become so preoccupied with their careers that they have lost the ability to mother. With no space in their icy Martian hearts for maternal instinct, the aliens are forced to steal Earth moms to discipline their offspring. For me, this felt far too close to comfort to the real-life dilemna faced by many working mums—does leaving your kids at home while you nurture your career make you a terrible person? Is it really possible to be a good parent and hold down a successfull job?

As the evil Martian leader says, "We do not have time to raise hatchlings. And the males - haaaa haaa - they never helped. Always dancing and playing. That is why we must throw them away." And that's exactly what the women do—they throw all male babies in the trash, where they are raised on underground rubbish heaps by long-haired savages who could have been plucked straight out of Dances with Wolves. ‘Hairy Tribe guys’ as one character calls them.

The intended audience for this film is unlikely to read anything into the plot—I doubt they're going to rush out of the cinema believing that striving for gender equality will lead us down a slippery slope which is going to result in women losing their mumminess and men being chucked onto the trash heap. I don't know if this subtext was even deliberate on the part of the film makers. I'd like to think it was accidental. But children are already surrounded by enough harmful messages about the place of women in the world for Disney to add another to the mix.

And the resolution at the end of the film was positively icky. Turns out, the only good way to raise a kid needs a mommy and a daddy. Gay couples or single-parents, anyone? The film may have been attempting to show that kids do best when raised by a loving family in which the men and women can play an equal part, but it failed to follow this through. The main character’s human father was absent on a business trip for the whole film and it seemed that the whole caring, pastoral parental role was solely fulfilled by the mom. This wasn't dealt with in any way, or even mentioned in a negative manner. My problem with this is that today, even in a supposedly equal society, women are often still shouldered with the majority of childcare responsibilities. While I’ll admit it isn’t totally acceptable for a man to work all hours and miss out on raising his kids, it is a damn sight better-tolerated than when a woman does the same! We don't need a film to reinforce this old-fashioned attitude by portraying working mothers in a solely negative light while depicting stay-at-home mums as selfless, loving characters.

As a woman who values her career, I find it hard to reconcile my own ambitions with my potential future foray into parenthood. I rarely see women reach the top positions in science—a quick look around my department and nearly all of the principle investigators are men. The few female professors I have encountered have been widely referred to as ‘ball-busters’ and various other derogatory terms for an ambitious woman. Is it really the case that successful women have to be willing to walk over their peers to succeed? Or maybe there’s a bit of jealousy and unease triggered by a woman doing something that the majority of their sex fails to achieve.

So is the lack of women in the highest positions in science because it proves too difficult for them to balance family-life with having kids? It doesn’t appear to hinder men. So what’s the difference? I’ve been personally told enough times that mums should be at home with the baby, as if planning to have a career as well as a family makes me selfish. Staying at home with your kids is great if that’s what you want to do but it’s not for everyone. I personally believe a working mum can make up for less time at home by providing their children with a positive, female role-model. And I believe there are so few women in top positions that we should be celebrating any move towards equality instead of demonising the women who strive to reach the pinnacles of their chosen careers.

The media’s portrayal of women does nothing to help. Women are often reduced to sexualised pieces of meat or man-nagging bats, or elevated to the unattainable position of saintly mummy. What ever happened to judging a person based on their worth as an individual? Expecting women to conform to an unrealistic ideal of motherhood and demonising her when she fails does children no favours. It doesn’t promote family values and provide children with a nourishing loving environment, it teaches them that a mom is not an individual but a thing. It says that attempting to live your life the best way you know how is only acceptable if that path conforms to an old-fashioned version of a family in which a woman loses all identity upon having children.

Which is why films like Mars Needs Moms are bad. Anything with a message that makes assumptions about an entire gender surely can’t be teaching kids a good lesson?

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