The masculinity-in-crisis narrative is now familiar terrain for sociologists and cultural commentators. It is also a mobilising point for a type of nationalist politics associated with the alt-Right. The narrative is not new. It seems to resurface in periods of war or economic crisis where there is income insecurity, labour-market instability and a cultural fear of symbols of the ‘foreign’, variously located in immigration, race or gender. In uncertain and precarious times, it should not be surprising that fears of loss are magnified, gendered and signified as a form of emasculation. The masculinity-in-crisis narrative runs that feminism and women in power (playing the women card or the gender card) have undermined and enfeebled men, corrupted traditional ideals of maleness, and marginalised and feminised men. The more extreme versions of this narrative were once confined to narrow internet subcultures. Now we find them circulating in more mainstream forms of social media, the conventional press and conservative political rhetoric.
While there is an emerging critical debate on the anti-feminism at the heart of this narrative, little or no attention is given to another of its core features—namely, a deep-seated anti-maternalism: a resentment-fuelled, hate-filled discourse about mothers. Mothers in general, but feminist mothers in particular, liberal mothers, ‘helicopter mums’, teenage mothers, professional educated mothers and so-called ‘welfare moms’ (if we are to turn to the US context) are all included. These various mums are seen to be responsible for having enfeebled boys and thus somehow to have made the nation vulnerable to external threats and internal decay.
Before attempting to understand the distinctive and somewhat contradictory way mothers are seen by the alt-Right, let us first meet ‘Pajama Boy’. With the caption ‘Wear Pajamas, Drink Hot Chocolate and Talk about Healthcare’, an image christened ‘Pajama Boy’ burst onto the internet. The photo of a young man in glasses and dressed in a tartan onesie was circulated by a group called ‘Organizing for Action in support of the Affordable Care Act’ in the United States in 2013. After Barack Obama retweeted the image, it provoked a host of savage online memes. These ridiculed Pajama Boy, and what was perceived to be the feminised and infantilised form of masculinity he represented. It was a premise later exploited by Trump supporters in 2016 and echoed at the time when a female FOX reporter said that if Pajama Boy was what manhood had become then ‘America was doomed’.
One of the memes sums up this fear about masculinity in crisis by placing the photo of ‘Pajama Boy’ beside a 1944 cover photograph from Life Magazine of a US marine standing in army camouflage, wearing a helmet and holding a machine gun. The caption was ‘American Manhood: From GI Joe to Pajama Boy in just a few generations’. One iteration of that meme had a picture of Orson Welles with the text, ‘Directing Citizen Kane at age 26’, juxtaposed with Pajama Boy with the words, ‘Footie Pajama Boy at age 26’ spruiking ‘Obamacare to mom & dad’. Unlike the previous memes, this targeted liberals, with the heading: ‘Progressives, Then and Now’.
Other memes represented Pajama Boy as being ‘douchey effeminate’, an ‘insufferable man-child’ and someone who must ‘drive a Prius’. Notably, conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh urged every Republican to circulate the image of Pajama Boy, believing that it would strengthen Republican support.
So where does anti-maternalism fit into this? Well, Pajama Boy is frequently represented as being captive to his mother’s views on Trump, not being able to think or act without her permission or sitting around waiting for Mom to change his diaper. One meme has him saying ‘Real Men Don’t Accept Trump as Our President: Isn’t that right, Mommy?’ Another depicts Pajama Boy beside a GI in Iraq in full battle gear with the headline: ‘One mom tells him he’s a special snowflake who can live at home forever’; the other mom ‘prays for [her soldier son] every nite’. In what follows I will argue that these memes are indicative of a wider cultural contest about the meaning of masculinity and the maternal in the present context.
Mother-blame is perhaps not such a surprise in discourses about a purported crisis in masculinity. What is notable is the lack of critical discussion about this. Take, for instance, the ‘manosphere’, the name given to the informal network of blogs, forums and websites devoted to the ‘masculinity in crisis’ narrative. Fantasies of white re-masculinisation circulate among many groups such as the Proud Boys Movement, the Return of Kings, Men Going their Own Way, the Happy Misogynist, Counter Feminist and Slut Hate. The names of these online sites leave us in little danger of becoming lost in nuances. Aside from the now depressingly familiar expressions of loathing of the so called ‘gender-feminist’, the ever-expanding vocabularies of vilification about mothers are perhaps less easy to detect and address though a solely feminist framework. In another politicised insult from one of the Pajama Boy memes, mothers are charged with being responsible for turning young boys into a maladapted generation of ‘snowflakes’. Mothering has made them hyper-sensitive, too fragile, without backbone and dissolving when challenged. (As we know, anti-Brexiters in the United Kingdom and opponents of Trump in the United States have all been described as ‘snowflakes’).
To try to understand this pernicious anti-maternalism, it is important to remember the distinctions between alt-Right subcultures and the traditional, conservative Right as we know it. One key difference is in their different approaches to the family. The alt-Right politics of the manosphere is not representative of a turn back to the traditional family, marriage or conventional gender relations. It is far more likely to advocate the opting-out of a system that is deemed to victimise men. As others have pointed out, its self-image is that of being something new, culturally libertarian, transgressive and irreverent.
Alt-right supporters and commentators express highly contradictory combinations of ideologies: anarchist but hierarchical, homophobic yet promoting leaders identifying as gay and libertarian while authoritarian. Tradition, the long-held preserve of the conventional, conservative Right, imposes restraints and duties that are shunned by those in the alt-Right, who boast of partaking of all the benefits of the sexual revolution but despise or take offence at the insecurities they feel because women have choices and freedoms. Mainstream conservatives, of whom the online men’s rights movement is contemptuous, have not yet woken up to the way men are imprisoned by these traditional duties and restraints.
The return of momism
In the alt-Right imaginary, mothers are endowed, on the one hand, with super-powers— domineering and damaging due to their over-investment in their children—and denigrated as weak, unreliable, narcissistic and neglectful on the other. This is not simply an instance of a cultural disavowal of the maternal that elsewhere I have attempted to theorise (see Post-Maternal Thinking: Feminism, Memory, and Care) but something much more active, combative and pernicious. It raises questions that this article will acknowledge but not fully answer, not least the question of what kind of feminism could counter this anti-maternal cultural imaginary. Is this a new configuration or the revival of an old form of anti-maternalism? What are the continuities and discontinuities here with earlier social expressions of anti-maternal hate speech? How did the mother as a symbol of the virtuous nation before 1945 come to be replaced with ideas of maternal love as socially pathologising?
Rebecca Plant’s wonderful history of anti-maternalism, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America (2010), traces how the ideology of moral motherhood came in the mid-twentieth century to be largely discredited, in favour of a much narrower, psychological definition of motherhood as a primarily private experience. She details the negation of maternalist ideals, where middle-class motherhood was once viewed as the foundation of female citizenship and a respected moral vocation that had status in the political and social sphere. Notably, middle-class mothers were given a special moral responsibility for raising their sons. Plant shows how for most of the first half of the twentieth century, ‘the ideology was imbued with the conviction that mothers should bind their children to the home with “silver cords” of love (especially their boys) in order to ensure their proper moral development’.
While these historical directives to mothers represent a conservative morality and a time when sons were seen to deserve special attention from their mothers, the contrast between this version of early maternalism and current representations of mothers in the manosphere could not be starker. Witness an image from the self-declared Men’s Rights Movement posted to the popular UK parenting forum Mumsnet. The post, subsequently taken down and blocked, targeted Mumsnet (hardly a bastion of feminist radicalism) for promoting what in the alt-right imagination was perceived to be ‘gender-hatred against men and boys’. It featured an image of an infant boy, his body and face covered in writing. The words ‘rapist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘wife-beater’, ‘pathetic’, ‘useless’, ‘runaway’ and ‘pig’ were imprinted on his skin in black ink. The image is difficult to forget. The implication was that these words (and characteristics) were somehow branded onto the boy’s psyche by his mother or perhaps by all mothers, and Mumsnet, by implication, was guilty of misandry. Unsettlingly, this image was posted in the lead-up to Mother’s Day.
Once the masculinity-in-crisis narrative is mobilised, it is as though emasculation fantasies of an earlier time come into play. A key moment in the history of anti-maternalism was the publication in 1942 of Philip Wylie’s book Generation of Vipers, a notably anti-feminist, misogynist text. Wylie coined the term ‘momism’ to describe the rise of an excessive attachment to and domination by mothers and the so-called neurotic child-manipulative patterns of middle-class, educated mothers who were raising unmanly sons unfit to defend the nation in a war. Wylie’s text gained much popular appeal and the term was still being used in its original sense in 1976 by sociologist Hans Sebald, who described momism as America’s silent disease. However, Plant makes an important observation about the way maternal behaviour (the usual focus for critiques of momism) was not Wylie’s only concern. He also railed against women’s purported habits of consumption and the social and political activities that they pursued, often in the name of motherhood. ‘He hoped to curb not only mothers’ influence over their sons but also their power as consumers, their demands to be indulged by husbands and to be honoured by the state’, Plant writes. The rise of anti-maternalism proceeded apace from this point, as did any sense that mothers had an important political or social role as mothers—not as women, or as gender-neutral citizens, but as mothers. And of course, this history of anti-maternalism was a factor in motherhood’s becoming conceived as privatised and individualised and de-socialised.
It is sobering to delve into the anti-maternalism of alt-right commentators. The group called A Voice for Men is no exception. Interestingly, notable leaders of this group have been portrayed as being an example of the more moderate and reasoned voices in the men’s rights movement. In this respect, they represent the intersection of the alt-Right and what Angela Nagle in Kill All Normies (2017) calls the ‘alt-light’. Yet the YouTube video called ‘Time for Men to Abort Fatherhood at Will’ seems far from light or mainstream. Aside from being struck again by the extreme cruelty towards women at the heart of this rhetoric, when viewing this material I was also taken aback by the direct echoes of Wylie in the recorded words. Just as Plant observed about Wylie, A Voice for Men not only attacks mothers for smothering and infantilising their sons, and not only represents mother love as pathological (as there is no good or non-toxic maternal love in these configurations), but also abuses mothers for being, well, ‘mothers’.
Tricking men into paternity is one of the recurrent themes and, paradoxically, abortion is another. ‘It isn’t “my body my choice”’, the online video comments, in a reference to second-wave feminism, but now for women ‘it’s “my lifestyle my choice”’. A mixture of paraphrase and quotation from this video highlights just how different this ideology is from the more traditional, conservative Right’s elevation of the sanctity of the family and celebration of stay-at-home mothers. Men are advised to be always on their guard against being ‘sperm-jacked’ and told never to leave a used condom in a rubbish bin after sex. If a woman successfully tricks a man into getting her pregnant: ‘His genes then become her property, giving new meaning to the phrase “wearing the pants in the family”’. This means that men then pay because ‘she says it is his baby’, all the while only allowing him ‘a glorified visitor status’. This tirade then turns to outrage that ‘she can spend his money anywhere she likes, money confiscated from him for the benefit of the child. She takes his money and can go to a supermarket, go to buy food or go to a clothing store or to a crack-house if she likes!’. ‘More choices for women’, the commentator darkly remarks, and on and on it goes.
While there are similarities between this rhetoric and the fathers’ rights movement—going back to the 1970s, this movement condemned the courts for what it perceived as unfair custody arrangements after separation or divorce—the solutions offered by A Voice for Men do not, as far as I know, have a precedent. These new demands include a man having a legal and moral right to walk away from a woman he impregnates without penalty or guilt, because men purportedly have already been aborted from the decision-making process; rejecting marriage as being ‘unsafe ground for men’; and adopting celibacy. Another difference between this and anti-mother misogyny of the past is that the idealised version of mothers (or commentators’ own mothers) used to be held up as contrasts and as models of maternal sacrifice and care. The anti-maternalist fantasies of the alt-Right, conversely, appear to be far more all-encompassing. The binary of good and bad ‘moms’ is rejected—none is worthy, and none can be trusted in this new imaginary. An online image from A Voice for Men provides some illustration. It shows a furious mother about to slap the face of her very young son, with the caption: ‘Men are raised to hate women, you say? I wonder who the hell is raising all these filthy misogynists?’
This sketch of the rise of a contemporary, vengeful anti-mother hatred raises the question of what a feminism for mothers might encompass. As is evident from the alt-right version of momism, there is an urgent need to make mothering more central to feminism. On the one hand, some may argue that it would neither be possible nor strategic to confront or counter the manosphere head on. Hence, these malevolent groups are perhaps best ignored. On the other hand, counter-narratives about mothering are required to address not only the ways these fantasies may enter the cultural mainstream but also the policy implications that flow from the negation of mothers as subjects in need of support and care. In the United States we are seeing cuts to funding that supports mothers with post-partum depression; in Australia, submissions to the recent Senate inquiry into the ParentsNext ‘welfare’ roll-out documented severely detrimental and punitive effects of the program on single mothers and their children—and the list goes on.
Certainly, the notion of the ‘empowered mother’, problematic at the best of times, only feeds into this anti-maternal imaginary. The liberal focus on empowerment, choice, agency and autonomy offers a version of feminism that risks further individualising and atomising mothers. The limits of liberal feminism in this regard need much closer scrutiny. This feminism is not up to the task of countering the hostility towards mothers from the alt-Right because it peddles a neoliberal fantasy of its own: that mothers have endless choice and that mothering is an identity, an essentially private experience at the level of the self rather than a social and political activity.
A renewed maternal feminism based on an ethic of care rather than a goal of empowerment represents a different way of thinking about the maternal that could be non-individualised and non-neoliberal without advocating a standardised form of mothering. A broader concept of the maternal that focuses on care and vulnerability may possibly better work against ‘mother-blame’ and elevate caring values and practices as central and indispensable to all future social institutions and political movements. This would mean maternalising feminism without undermining the rights and needs of women or stigmatising non-mothers, as in previous regressive configurations of maternalism. By shifting the focus to care for children, the aged, refugees, neglected and disadvantaged segments of society, and the exploited in other countries—not to mention care for endangered ecosystems—one may work to challenge dominant, privatised versions of mothering. Counter-narratives about mothering as a relationship rather than an identity are also needed. Without concrete social policies where care priorities are central, little will change in terms of the anti-maternalist alt-right fantasies about mothers, who are once again blamed for all the ills of society, including the notion that masculinity is in crisis.