Monday, 21 January 2013

Transgressive breastfeeding and the rules of the public sphere

In case you missed it, there has been some controversy in Australia over the last few days over the issue of public breastfeeding.

A mum in Queensland was breastfeeding her baby at a public pool while supervising her two elder children. A staff member approached her to say that another family had complained, because they were offended by her breastfeeding. She then asked her to move to a private area of the pool or cover up. The mother, rightly, refused and said that this demand was illegal discrimination. Nonetheless, the pool attendant insisted and so the mother ended up taking her three children and leaving the pool in tears.

On Friday, a morning television show, Sunrise, decided that it would be a great idea to debate the issue of whether breastfeeding in public is offensive and whether the pool did the right thing. [As an aside: do we often debate whether someone breaking the law and discriminating against another person did the right thing? Why is this OK when it comes to breastfeeding women?] One of the hosts of the show, David Koch (or Kochie, as he is apparently called), expressed the opinion that the pool had done the right thing and that if women are going to breastfeed in public then they ought to “be classy about it.” Later on Twitter, he explained that it was “just common courtesy” to “be disceet” when breastfeeding.

I have to admit that I have been enraged and baffled by these comments and by the comments of the many, many Australians (both male and female) who have come to his defence. However, an article in The Punch today has made a couple of things clearer to me.

As far as I can tell, the argument being made for why women ought to “be discreet” while breastfeeding in front of other people is that breastfeeding is a “private moment between Mum and baby” unlike when those same breasts are being publicly displayed for the male gaze. As Anthony Sharwood argued in his disturbing defence of David Koch’s “keep it classy” comments, this “private moment” shouldn’t be thrust into the public sphere because then it becomes a “spectacle” - a “public exhibition of motherhood.” He goes on to argue:
“Public breastfeeding has become, for some Mums, the last frontier of showy parenthood. What started as a private, intimate thing has become its exact opposite. … Women can breastfeed in public in western societies. Hooray for them. Now maybe we can just wind this thing back a notch and think of the rest of us.”
Despite his absurd and highly offensive accusations that women deliberately make a public spectacle of themselves by “flopping their boob” out in public, Sharwood, like Koch, never actually dares to articulate why us breastfeeding mothers need to “think of the rest of [them].” 

What is it about witnessing a breastfeeding pair that is so offensive to these people that it needs to be keep out of their sight?

What I think it is interesting is that Sharwood is very clear that this is not about the so-called “male gaze.” He is not offended because he views these breastfeeding breasts as sexual objects. In fact, as he proudly states several times in the opening paragraphs to his ‘article,’ he loves ogling at sexualised breasts. They are great. (Phwoar yeah, bring it on baby.) No, it would appear that the issue is precisely the opposite; these breastfeeding breasts that are apparently being thrust in his face (or, as he charmingly describes, flopped on to the dinner table) are not available to the male gaze. They are private breasts and shouldn’t be out in public.

It was here for me that this whole debate took on a disturbing level of clarity. You see, according to Sharwood (and his ilk), mothering is an ‘intimate’ and ‘private’ activity that should not be taking place in the public sphere. If somehow it does stray into that public sphere then it really ought to be careful not to become “a public spectacle.” This means that if for some reason a mother of young children does have to leave the house (which, by implication, is a transgresssive act in itself), then she should take every measure to ensure that her ‘private, intimate’ work of mothering young children does not take up public space, because it does not belong.

The public sphere is the world of men and people who can act like men; wage-earning, independent, unencumbered adults who pay their own way, speak the language of adults, move in adult ways and (crucially) obey the unwritten rules of the public sphere. This public sphere, and its unwritten rules, was created for men when women did stay at home and did do their “private, intimate” work of mothering in the private sphere.

We like to think that feminism has created a more equal society – one in which men and women are both welcome in the public sphere; in which both men and women’s issues are relevant to the public sphere. However, if you scratch a little deeper, it becomes clear that liberal feminism has only taken us so far. Women now have the right to join the public sphere, but the rules have not been significantly changed. The rules that were designed for men may have been slightly loosened so that women can obey them, but only if they unencumber themselves of their overt femininity.

Acts of overt femininity, particularly those involving small children, are still in clear breach of the rules. Breastfeeding is offensive because it thrusts the act of mothering into the public sphere. This is problematic, because not only can men not breastfeed, but they are also not parties to the act. Display your breasts for the “male gaze” and you are participating appropriately in the public sphere, because men are part of the transaction. They are, however, explicitly absent from the transaction of breastfeeding and that is precisely the problem. Ergo it is a private, intimate act between two creatures of the private sphere and if you dare to bring it into the male, public sphere then you had bloody well better be discreet about it.

I have been wondering for days now what “discreet” even means in the context of public breastfeeding. I now realise that what it means is that the woman in question must show through her body language that she knows that she is in breach of the rules of the public sphere. The specific position of her body, or her cover, is not really the issue. The issue is the body language of apology (I think the code word being used is modesty). She needs to show that she is sorry for taking up public space with her private activity. Then it would be OK. Then she could be excused.

Being proud or even nonplussed about breastfeeding our babies is an issue, not because we are being public exhibitionists, but because we are (even if we didn’t realise it) openly challenging the rules of the public sphere. We are being unapologetically, overtly female it what is still, essentially, a male space. That is what is so offensive – the brazen transgression of these long-standing, unwritten rules.

[As a final aside, it has also dawned on me that this is probably also at the heart of the ‘debate’ over whether small children should be allowed to be children in cafés, restaurants, etc… and why so-called “mommy blogging” is the object of such derision.]


Janet said...

Just great, I love it!

Kayla said...

I was getting this reaction to breastfeeding my children when we lived in Aus... my eldest is 22 now. Being told by waitresses in restaurants that I had to feed my baby in the toilets. Resulting in me asking when she would be telling other patrons that they had to take their dinner in the loo to eat it.

And someone would have had to look really hard to tell that I was breastfeeding anyway - voluminous blouses hide everything. But they still bitched & I still told them, politely, that they were being idiots. I spent a fair bit of time demanding to see the manager and asking did they really want the type of PR they'd get if I went to the papers and said that they would prefer my baby scream the place down in hunger rather than be fed.

Oddly, the almost all complaints came from other women. Men would never approach me to tell me I was "not allowed to do that here!" I assume that if any males objected then they must have always sent a woman.

Nice to know that attitudes in Australia haven't changed in almost a quarter century despite the various campaigns.

Sandra Lynn said...

There have been so many views on this in Australia, it is good to see the sisterhood is an international one on this subject! I also enjoyed the story of another US blogger and her experience in Vegas. At the core of this, as you say, women are legally within their rights to breastfeed where and when they need to. I blogged on it too with an expansion on the theme (@s_lynn4), but all in all, the problem lies with "the spectator". Great post, great logic and great passion :-)))

meli said...

fantastic post, cristy.

Sarah said...

Great analysis Cristy. You have hit the nail on the head. I think the 'otherness' of this activity, as something that men can neither participate in nor experience any gratification from, makes it threatening to many. It is surplus to their requirements and therefore unnecessary, and therefore not to be tolerated in the male space - that is, the public sphere.
It's also interesting that one of the counter-arguments is that "many women agree with this view and feel that other women should cover up or be more discreet" as though that means it is a more valid argument. Women have been socialised to see ourselves and our activities as not belonging to the public sphere for so long, is it any wonder that many have taken on this feeling of shame in relation to such activities, and feel the need to police it as well to maintain the status quo?
As for apparently intelligent feminists (and others) arguing that we should get over it, trying to assign our views an irrelevance, I'm wondering what bother it is to them that they feel the need to shoosh us? What harm is it doing, why are they feeling uncomfortable about our level of outrage?

Ariane said...

Fantastic post - great way to view this, and it generalises so well. Women are allowed into the public sphere, but still primarily as decoration. This is why so many news reports of Gillard include a description and assessment of the clothes she was wearing. She may be the PM, but she must still fullfil her role as decoration adequately, or she will be condemned. In the workplace, women who don't play by the men's rules are also condemned. It's our own fault if we aren't rewarded for merit if we don't demand and agitate the way men expect. Fat women are more likely to be found guilty by male jurors - after all, they're already guilty of being insufficiently decorative. As you say, the rules of the public sphere have barely changed at all, women are just allowed to pretend to be men, as long as they look pretty doing so, and at no point make it clear in any other way that they are actually women.

Manisha said...

Found this blog via Twitter and all the related Koch stuff. Thought it was a great read. In fact, I then went back to read your other blog posts and I love your style and insights into your life in Hanoi.
A lovely Tuesday morning discovery.

Rhys said...

This is the same Channel 7 that thinks breasts aren't offensive when they're anchored to Brynne Edelsten, right?

Sadly, I think this is as much a symptom of the decline in commercial discourse as it is a boneheaded blunder by old Coconut Head. Old media is only about wedge issues right now. It's like a tantrumming child desperately waving its arms and screaming for attention.

No wonder people with half a brain are abandoning old media in droves for places where issues can be considered with a little depth. Like this post. Well done.

Carli said...

I really enjoyed reading this perspective Cristy. I think you've articulated some of my own feelings about what was meant by 'modesty'.

I also echo Sarah's sentiments about this argument causing others to judge the level of outrage. I haven't quite reconciled what that's about yet.

Mindy said...

Fantastic post Cristy, I think you have hit the nail on the head. What Sarah said about it being a private moment not involving a man (usually) also.

cristy said...

Thank you. It is really lovely to get comments on this post.

Kayla: it is pretty depressing that we haven't really progressed on this issue (or so many others), isn't it?

Sandra: Yes, I loved Amber's story about the breastfeeding mother in Vegas.

Sarah (and Carli): I am also frustrated by the dismissive stuff going on. There's a lot of privilege being exercised by some people who are more easily about to 'unencumber' themselves and reap some of the rewards (tidbits) offered to people who play by the rules of the public sphere.

Ariane: I was thinking about linking this issue into Fat Stigma stuff, but it is an issue that I am still trying to educate myself on, so I thought that I should avoid speaking too much before I do that.

Thank you Manisha, sorry I have been such a slack blogger lately. My PhD is a bit time consuming right now.

Rhys: I agree about the increasing irrelevance of much of the MSM, yes.

Hello Mindy and Meli!

cristy said...

(I didn't mean to ignore you Janet. Sorry. Hello and thank you)

Joanna said...

Great post, thanks!

So women are *only* sexual objects. If we aren't prepared to be only that, we shoudl go home and hide our offensive selves.

Bloody disgusting.

Aerotropolitan Comitissa said...

I'm not sure how "in Western societies" slipped its way into the debate there, unless it was to highlight that we have a bigger problem with it than most of the rest of the world.

An Indian friend of mine, recently migrated and expecting, told me she was nervous about breastfeeding in public once her baby was born. "At home in India everyone just gets on with it and nobody bats an eyelid," she said. "I've heard people want you to cover up here..." she was genuinely worried about it.

I told her to go ahead and pretend she was in India. (Later, over coffee, she was relieved to witness me breastfeeding at the cafe without incident.) I think the big thing to remember when these debates come up is that any randomly-picked individual mother will almost certainly never have a problem with anyone over breastfeeding in public. These days, it's really the odd few who make these sorts of complaints - a few more will have a fleeting thought to themselves and move on with their lives and you will never even know they were offended.

It takes a while for attitudes to die out and sometimes the best way to put across your stance in day to day life is to pretend like it already has.

Luckily, for other times, we now have legislation. Although it's still kind of daunting to think you might have to use it.

It's a real shame the type of song and dance the media can put on. I wonder how many more mothers/mothers-to-be are worried about breastfeeding this week? Purposely inciting negative reactions gives a false impression of the overall view of society, polarising people who might otherwise have no strong opinion, validating the out-of-date views of the minority by giving voice to this view, and generally creating this adversarial air which wouldn't otherwise exist, except in isolated circumstances at certain local pools. Shame on our media.

Amy said...

Brilliant. This is one of the best posts I’ve read about this topic. Thank you.

SarahMac said...

This is so brilliant. I love your post it is fantastic, articulate and so so RIGHT!

Fiona said...

Fantastic post. I wish I had had it years ago to give to a couple of friends who gave up breastfeeding because they were so uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. Public personalities rarely stop to think of the damage their uninformed opinions do to people, in this case mothers and babies.

Slightly off-topic, but "classy" seems to be the latest "in" word to describe something being stylishly acceptable/sensible/reasonable here in Australia. It's quite bizarre for a country that prides itself on being free of the class system of the former British Empire!

Men in tribal cultures don't see breasts as sexual objects, and think it's pretty funny that western men do, and want to "be like babies and suckle". Apparently western women are socially conditioned to see women's bodies (and breasts) in sexual terms (and become more aroused than looking at men), which explains why some women also judge breastfeeding women in the same way as men.

Thankfully I've never had anything but friendly smiles when breastfeeding my children. On the other hand, I probably would have enjoyed using some of the witty responses had had prepared!

Justin said...

Great article. I find it mind boggling that people are offended by our own functions of life. Its like they're embarrassed to be human, or animals if you will. Its absolutely disgraceful for these men to be asserting their own sanitized (and sexualised) view of how women should act and feed a child. I'm embarrassed that its even a 'debate'.

Anonymous said...

I think men should be able to urinate whenever they need to relieve themselves as it is a natural function. Why is it any different and is classed as a criminal offence and offends many people? Let's change the laws to suit the purpose and too bad if anyone feels offended just doing what comes naturally.

Let's get real women, nobody is saying you can't breastfeed wherever or whenever you feel like it as it is law in Australia but it is not a spectator sport purely a natural function between mother and child.

cristy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cristy said...

Hi Anon. Interesting that you didn't sign your name to such an intelligent and insightful comment.

But actually, I've been meaning to write about this pernicious connection between breastfeeding and urinating in public that seems to appeal to a certain class of moron, so thanks. I'll get to that soonish...

Forty Shades Of Grey said...

Presumably, Anonymous, because in general adults can control where they urinate and are well provided for in the public sphere (certainly in the UK all business premises over a certain size are required to provide bathroom facilities) but infants can't control when they're hungry.

That you would equate your powers of self-control and restraint with a child of under one is very telling though.

anothermother (Nicole) said...

Hi Cristy - it's been ages since I read your (or any other) blog and was very pleased to stumble in here. I was feeling very irate about the whole incident and this post helped me clarify many things in my mind. I personally had no problems breastfeeding in public and was only ever met with goodwill from others. I will say, though, that I was certainly modest in doing so but only because of my own modesty. This kind of media attention only makes it harder for women to feel confident about feeding in public which is such a backwards step. Thanks once again, and I look forward to catching up on some other posts soon.

tuan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tor said...

I liked this article. Not in a Facebook like kind of way but I enjoyed it.
As a dad who has had to point out anti-discrimination laws to ignorant waiters & cafe managers in the past I've spent a lot of time thinking about why people get in such a tizz about a baby eating in public.
I miss taking the "offended" ones on a journey through their discomfort. Is the baby eating making you uncomfortable? Do you think babies should only eat in private? What exactly about a baby eating is so uncomfortable to you? Are you aware of anti-discrimination laws that allow a mother to breast feed a baby anywhere and anytime?

I noticed that most of "the offended" were older women. Occasionally men. From what I could gather the women were perpetuating the standards they had to adhere to in their day. The men were just uncomfortable that they might be caught looking and catch a sight of some nipple. Lord knows it was hard to miss with my eldest having a good gawk around at everything once she'd got some good flow going. Milk everywhere! I digress.
My point is that there are many people out there unaware of what motivates their feelings and with a little guiding they can be made aware. But it shouldn't be up to a sleep deprived mum trying to feed their baby.

Kel said...

Such clarity and insight into this issue - terrific post!

Jamie Irwin said...

I really enjoyed your post! So insightful and encouraging and truthful! I recently wrote a post about breastfeeding in public, maybe you would enjoy checking it out?!


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