by Emily Chivers Yochim and Vesta Silva
In 2007, Jenny McCarthy re-invented her public identity to become an advocate for children with autism. Speaking from her personal experience, McCarthy argues with emotional force that vaccines caused her son Evan's autism, that mainstream doctors were uncaring and clueless in his diagnosis and treatment, and that by tirelessly pursuing the directives of what she termed her "mommy instinct," she successfully brought Evan out from behind autism's façade. McCarthy relies on traditional notions of femininity and mothers' specialized knowledge of their children to gain a powerful voice in a scientific conversation normally reserved for highly trained specialists.
While privileging mothers' knowledge, McCarthy’s campaign also demonizes traditional medicine, science, and government efforts at regulation. Her narrative suggests that scientists and doctors are engaged in a conspiracy with pharmaceutical companies, who are interested only in making massive profits, and it resonates in the context of what Michael Specter has deemed "denialism," a cultural distrust of science and big business. Still, McCarthy's disproven claims about the danger of vaccines and her suggestion that mothers essentially just need to work hard to "cure" their children of autism has invited criticism. But “anti-Jenny” campaigns also fall into problematic territory, frequently mocking McCarthy's background and insinuating that a blonde bombshell certainly should not be taken seriously in the public sphere.
Our second clip highlights this problem, laying into McCarthy with serious snark. The clip rightly suggests that McCarthy’s sole reliance on belief and personal experience (she claims elsewhere, "Evan is my science") is suspect and dangerous. But rather than engaging in a thoughtful discussion, the video instead engages in an intensely misogynistic attack on Jenny’s femininity and her past work with MTV and Playboy. Such attacks bolster McCarthy’s argument that male-dominated culture does not take women seriously and that motherly, homebound knowledge must be constantly defended. Taking these two narratives together, we wonder how public discourse might begin to take traditional modes of knowledge seriously, maintain a studied suspicion of all claims to expertise while fully grasping the triumphs of science, and successfully navigate the muddy waters of the diagnosis, treatment, and experience of autism.