"Mother," and all that this simple word stands for, is one of the most important subjects for feminist analysis. Motherhood has not only animated feminist theory for decades but is a domain that holds meaning in the lives of many ordinary women. Latching On and My Toxic Baby raise compelling and timely issues about and around this topic. In particular, these films would be ideal for facilitating discussions about work-life balance, anxiety around motherhood, and classic feminist debates about nature and culture.
In My Toxic Baby (2009), director Min Sook Lee takes the viewer on an autobiographical journey as new mother Lee attempts to shield her baby daughter from harmful toxins lurking in her child's food, toys, and even the paint on the kitchen cabinets. Lee goes so far as to have her own blood tested for traces of dangerous toxins.
Throughout her journey, Lee talks to a variety of mothers who are also trying to create toxic-free environments for their children. We meet LuLu, a caterer who specializes in homemade organic food for kids, and Arlene and Pete, a couple who have chosen to raise their infant daughter in a yurt without electricity or running water. The most memorable and interesting of these subplots revolves around a group of mothers who practice EC, short for "elimination communication," with their babies. Instead of using diapers, these parents read cues from their babies so that they can bring them to the toilet whenever they have to eliminate waste.
Lee acknowledges that her compulsion to construct a safe environment for her daughter has perhaps sent her "diving into a rabbit hole." Yet the film ends with Lee declaring her continued belief that only she can best determine what is safe for her growing child.
In Latching On (2010), filmmaker Katja Esson explores the politics of breastfeeding in America from an outsider's perspective (in this case, Esson's perspective is that of a German observing life and culture in New York City). Esson begins the film with a familial anecdote. As a new mother in Germany, Esson's sister felt completely comfortable not only breastfeeding, but doing so in public at any time of day. In New York, Esson's field of study, such behavior would not be considered socially acceptable. As Esson puts it in the voiceover that opens the film "I came back to NYC and realized that here, I don't see women breastfeed, ever."
As Latching On demonstrates, through interviews with regular New Yorkers as well as lactation consultants, breastmilk is not only more affordable than formula, but is better for the health of both mother and baby. Why then, the film asks, is the practice so uncommon in the United States?1 The complicated answer, at least for Esson, concerns class and government policy. Esson persuasively demonstrates that the United States lags behind all other industrialized nations when it comes to breastfeeding. The vast majority of North American hospitals do not have lactation consultants on staff to help new mothers nurse. Instead, in most hospitals newborn babies are (unbeknownst to their mothers) immediately fed formula that has been donated to hospitals by the corporations that produce it.
Latching On, while eagerly advocating breastfeeding, is heavily invested in exposing the political and cultural factors that conspire to keep women from nursing. The film is particularly compelling when it explores the ways that race and class influence the decision whether or not to breastfeed. As Valerie, one of Esson's subjects, puts it, "When you're from the 'hood you don't breastfeed." My Toxic Baby is unfortunately devoid of this sort of socioeconomic critique. We are left wondering how one could possibly practice elimination control if she didn't, god forbid, spend twenty-four hours a day with her new baby.
The subtle takeaway from both films is that mothers hold the burden of parenting. Though husbands are occasionally visible in each of these films, they rarely speak. If they do, it is merely to reiterate what their wives are saying. Unfortunately, in this regard, both films contribute to a growing body of cultural products that, intentionally or not, depict motherhood as a hotbed of anxiety and stress. Ironically or not, this is also the thing that makes the films seem so ideal for use in the classroom. Coupled with a few key readings--in particular recent pieces in popular press magazines by Hanna Rosin2 and Jill Lepore3 as well as Emily Martin's classic anthropological study of American women in medicine4 --these films would spark interesting debates among a generation of students that tends to have strong opinions to offer about issues of work-life balance, environmental responsibility, parenting, and motherhood.
Erin Marie Arizzi
) is a doctoral student working on media and cultural studies in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research and teaching focuses on feminist theory, technology, and labor relations.