Pump & Dump the Patriarchy: How Media Influences Motherhood

Curator's Note

In December of 2018, during a photo shoot for the magazine Girls, actress Rachel McAdams was photographed by Claire Rothstein in haute couture seated on a couch.  What was atypical about this photo of McAdams was that she was breast pumping, unashamedly staring into the camera. While such a photo would seem out of place for a high fashion shoot, that was the point McAdams was making when she suggested it, as she had stopped several times throughout the day to breast pump off-camera.  

Investigating this phenomenon of nursing in public and the social backlash of such an act can perhaps elucidate why this photo proved to be an unexpected sensation.  While the McAdams photo does not portray the typical breast pumping experience, it does help to normalize the phenomenon.  McAdams is a celebrity, she follows typical Eurocentric beauty standards, and the photo was part of a well-known, high fashion publication. Women are often shamed in public for nursing and have in the past called for nurse-in protests of establishments that have sought to dissuade women from the practice.  In July 2018, there was a Minnesota nurse-in protest held at a public pool after police were called on two nursing mothers.  Huffpost even has an entire “Life” section about nurse-in protests happening all over the country.  While average women fight for the right to feed their children in public, a celebrity is applauded.  The Affordable Care Act decrees that women be given time to pump, these accommodations are not known for their glamour, typically a supply closet or bathroom stall. 

In response to McAdams, Hilary Duff recreated McAdams’ photo but with a slightly more relatable spin.  Duff is pictured with a shower cap and heating pad, also pumping. In a photo from March 27th, what appears to be a Medela Symphony breast pump machine is in the background of Duff’s photo.  These machines are hospital grade and cost around two thousand dollars.  Is Duff more relatable to mothers because she looks tired and is wearing an “unglamorous” shower cap over her professionally colored and styled hair?  

  I would suggest that there is something different about breast-feeding in public and celebrities being photographed while pumping, and that these examples reveal the raced and classed standards that inform our understanding of modern motherhood. 


Thanks for these reflections on the McAdams photoshoot, Corrie.  I agree that the buzz surrounding a white celebrity pumping while dressed in Versace requires an intersectional analysis. While celebrities may use their platform to advocate for breastfeeding, there is a big difference between glamorizing breastfeeding and normalizing it. The former reveals itself in magazine spreads (and in glamour shots of mothers and infants by professional photographers for those who can afford it).  The latter reveals itself in lactation rooms in everyday workplaces, women breastfeeding their infants on public transportation and so on. 

Class differences also reveal themselves, as you suggest here, in the distinction between breast pumping and breastfeeding.  The latter is free; the former is not.  I think technologically mediated forms of mothering are symbolically, as well as materially, linked with class and race.  Breast pumping is the "modern" (read: "civilized") way of feeding one's children.  It deploys technology to deliver nutrients and antibodies to one's child (as western medicine dictates) while allowing mother-child separation (as late capitalism demands) and avoiding the messy exchange of bodily fluids in public (as white, western etiquette demands).  

In thinking about the racial politics of breastfeeding, I am also reminded of the controversy surrounding Beyonce being "caught" breastfeeding in public in 2012.  Although no breast was publicly exposed, as a black celebrity, her motherhood was immediately sexualized and her motives deemed suspect (as if Beyonce needed to breastfeed in public in order to garner attention . . .).   


Thanks for starting this discussion around the McAdams photo, Corrie - it's such an interesting and (I think) complex text. I absolutely agree with the comments made re its role in presenting a homogenzied and glamorized version of motherhood as white, middle or upper class etc (against which other forms of motherhood are so often repudiated or constructed as 'bad' and 'failing), as well as the observations made about how it reconciles the neoliberal impetus to work and thus be regarded as a contributing, functioning economic citizen, with demands made of mothers to be "all in". (In fact, I was reading just the other day that today's full-time working mother spends as much time with her children as her 1970s stay-at-home counterpart (Cain Miller, 'The Relentless of Modern Parenting'), which is just baffling.) I think the comments originally posted alongside the photo by Claire Rothstein reiterate some of these pressures: she describes McAdams as looking "incredible" only 6 months after giving birth (thus repeating expectations on mothers to regulate and control their postpartum bodies); reiterates the hugely demanding (and ultimately disappointing) myth that women can "have it all" in juggling career and motherhood; and, finally, represents breastfeeding, and by association motherhood, in essentialist language as "so natural, so normal".

I did wonder though (when trying to unpack why the photo appeals to me personally so much) whether it's also possible to read it in an alternative way. For intance, while I agree with Shelley about the construction of expressing as the "modern" way of feeding children that legitimizes separation, I like the fact that it's so on display here - and more specifically, the milk itself is on display, which, as a bodily fluid, so often courts associations with the abject and is therefore made invisible. I also liked the extent to which (counter to Rothstein's comments) breastfeeding is potentially denaturalized via the presence of technology - this image is a pretty far remove from more familiar and discrete representations of breastfeeding babies (and it can, of course, also being really hard, a possibility that such images usually occlude). Finally, I wonder if it's possible to read McAdams here as sexual rather than just sexy? The spread legs (in masculine inspired tuxedo pants) and direct stare suggests a sort of agency that, when combined with the on display maternity, could be seen to offer a  representation of maternal sexuality that is potentially far more subversive and radical than the publicizing of breastfeeding that the photo has hitherto been celebrated for. 

Just a quick note to say that I like your alternative reading of the photo, Rachel! It is a provocative analysis of a provocative photo.  I want to sit with the details a bit further. Right now, however, I'm thinking about how what you point to as a sort of genderqueering of motherhood (which appeals to me also) may also have a class and race dimension. 

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