Reality TV moms perpetuate myths, says York researcher

oreillyTelevision shows that feature mothers trading places may seem like ground-breaking essays in the portrayal of motherhood but that’s an illusion, says Andrea O’Reilly, director of York’s Centre for Research on Mothering. As the popularity of reality TV’s “mommy wars” continues to grow, O’Reilly wants to know what’s with the mom in pop culture, and more importantly, where’s dad in all of this?

Right: Andrea O’Reilly

“When you look at this ‘spouse swap’ phenomenon, you have to question why, in this day and age, we’re swapping moms and not dads,” says O’Reilly, who is a professor of women’s studies at York and president of the International Association for Research on Mothering.

“The answer, unfortunately, is that a ‘husband swap’ would be a pretty dull show,” O’Reilly says, “because the vast majority of unpaid labour is still done by women, many of whom are working double time with careers and domestic responsibilities.”

As their titles suggest, shows like British import “Wife Swap” and its American version “Trading Spouses” allow families to temporarily exchange mothers who are usually polar opposites. One recent episode of “Wife Swap” pitted a well-coiffed soccer mom against an overweight mother who refused to be pigeonholed as a chauffeur for children’s extracurricular activities. O’Reilly cautions that reality television shows, with their veneer of credibility, are potentially damaging in that they appear to unmask motherhood by uncovering its unglamorous aspects.

wife swapLeft: Scene from British TV’s “Wife Swap”

“Bizarrely, some people think that these shows are making strides for women’s rights,” O’Reilly says. “However, shows like ‘Wife Swap’ tend to be constructed in a manner that pits ‘good’ mothers against ‘bad’ mothers. In doing so, they perpetuate the myth of intensive mothering – that if you can’t or don’t want to cook, clean and chauffeur non-stop, you’re a bad mom. It’s a very negative way to look at motherhood.”

The focus on intensive mothering in popular culture is pervasive, also showing up in an increasing number of television dramas, O’Reilly says. “‘Desperate Housewives’ is probably the [worst] example of a show that pushes the image of the ‘supermom’ while seemingly unmasking the concept. You see these women getting into all sorts of jams as they struggle to keep pace with the other moms but, despite their pitfalls, they’re all very glamorous. They’re all slender and gorgeous and have beautiful homes. The message is that perfection doesn’t come easy but it’s still the expectation.”

O’Reilly is author of seven books and recently edited the anthology Mother Outlaws: Theories and Practices of Empowered Mothering (see story in May 4, 2004, issue of YFile). Her current research examines the rise of the intensive mothering phenomenon as a backlash to feminism, the subject of a forthcoming book.