"Just the random musings of a former Playboy bunny": Negotiating "Mommy Instinct" and Scientific Expertise in the Vaccine/Autism Debate

Curator's Note

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.


I think what McCarthy benefits from is the sense many parents have that medical professionals do not take their concerns seriously. McCarthy takes it to an extreme and asserts that her knowledge is superior to that of scientists. However, what may be the case is that family physicians and pediatricians have just been slower to be educated to identify signs of autism.

I think Wendy makes an excellent point. Many pediatricians find themselves under-prepared when it comes to diagnosing autism, especially in borderline/high-functioning cases. Instead of fighting the medical establishment, McCarthy could use her prominence to work for better autism training for pediatricians.

While I understand (and even to an extent appreciate) McCarthy's pro-mothering stance, I wonder if she is truly aware of how her economic privilege allows her greater freedom to listen to her "mommy voice" in making her parenting choices. She can refuse to give her children vaccines because she can afford to hire lawyers, bring in private tutors, and provide alternative therapies for her children. Most parents with children on the spectrum cannot afford to do all of this.

So in publicizing her side of the story and advocating for her style of parenting, McCarthy is also reinforcing ideals of wealth.

Thanks, Wendy & Nedda for your thoughtful responses. Wendy, you make a good point about physician education and its consequences for doctor/patient relations. McCarthy is absolutely operating in a culture in which many parents feel as though their physicians are not listening to them or taking them seriously.

Nedda, McCarthy's hyperparenting comes from a fully privileged pace, and she not only avoids acknowledging her advantages in this realm, but also constructs herself as a single parent who has to "work it" (as she told Oprah later in the interview) as a model/public figure in order to support her son. And, this type of parenting requires more than money - the sheer amount of time that goes into the research, acquisition, and administration of these various therapies is staggering. In many regards, the demands of her treatment plan on parents (mainly mothers), is what we find to be the most troubling aspect of her campaign - it deems to empower women in the face of the medical establishment but does so by placing enormous pressure on them to "succeed" at "curing" their kids.  

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