Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mother, may you?

Last week in class during our unit on gender, I talked about the Mirabal sisters in an attempt to teach my students about alternative constructions of motherhood. A trio of underground political activists from the Dominican Republic who were apprehended, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually killed for their attempts to bring down tyrannical dictator Rafael Trujillo, the Mirabal women carried out secret resistance work while taking care of their husbands and children. They were in part motivated to do political work by their need to protect their kids, and they encouraged other women in their communities and churches to help the resistance for the same reason. They appealed to other Dominican women as mothers, and their sense of maternal responsibility, rather than as citizens or political subjects.

Talking about this construct of motherhood, and thinking about how awesomely and unintentionally the Mirabals rejected the June Cleaver, Virgin Mary conception of momness, got me thinking about a program I saw on VH1 not too long ago. I am a total sucker for those several hour top 100 shows they do, and a few weeks back I saw VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the '90s. There was a lot of "where are they now" on the show, and of course, quite a few of the female performers featured have become parents since their hits charted a decade ago.

The two performers who really caught my attention were Sarah McLachlan and Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries. Both more or less told VH1 that since they had become mothers, their music careers seemed less important.

Well, you can imagine that this disappointed me in a major way. I know that both Sarah and Dolores were only speaking for themselves, but I hate this idea that women, in any industry, are required to find motherhood more fulfilling than any other occupation. And I really hate the idea that life as a musician, particularly a rock or punk musician, is somehow automatically incompatible with being a mom.

To be clear, I don't think that Sarah and Dolores are tools of the patriarchy just because they expressed a greater interest in parenting rather than playing. It is possible for a woman to find parenting more fulfilling than a career or paid job, and I don't think that that's wrong or bad. It's not as if I think it's wrong for a woman to want kids, or to put her kids before her career, so long as it is her choice. But what about choice, and what about this constant conundrum of "Work or family?" that women are always faced with? Would a man ever have this dilemma? Were Dave Grohl or Mark McGrath or the dudes from The Spin Doctors telling VH1 about how fatherhood had made them change their priorities and put their music careers aside? Of course not.

That we never seem to see examples of women in rock who have successfully combined a personal life with a partner and/or children with a musical career that is fufilling and edgy and making a real contribution to music is really troubling to me. And even more troubling is that motherhood doesn't seem to have a place in any genre of music, perhaps most of all in punk and hardcore. It seems to me that in every genre, there are certain things women simply cannot be. I think in any genre, a female musician cannot be too 'masculine'; that's off-putting. Women artists can't be too critical or say anything too substantive, they can't seem too independent, and none of them can be 'too fat' or not fit a certain physical type. In punk and hardcore, which is youth oriented because of its derivation from the original youth culture genre, rock, there isn't much room for real adults of either sex. The conception of the mother, as the sweet, mainstream, suburban angel definitely does not fit in with the punk ideology, or what's left of rock's ideology.

It's a relief to me that it doesn't have to be that way. My beloved Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney, has written some of the punkest songs of all time since becoming a mom in 2003, and a bunch of them are about actually being a parent and caring for her son. And she certainly isn't the only woman who's doing this, Kristin Hersh, Liz Phair (regardless of what I think of her later work), and Kori Gardner of Mates of State are all carrying on with their careers while raising children.

See, I don't need people like Sarah McLachlan and Dolores O'Riordan to lie about their priorities, and I don't need them to abandon their kids and go back to music. (Especially not you, Sarah....sorry.) What I do need, and want for all women and girls, is representation for EVERY kind of woman, whether they want to be moms or not, and whatever kind of mom or even just what kind of person they would like to be, in rock'n'roll, and pretty much everywhere else.

p.s. I just found out that on her new show, Megan Mullally (Karen from Will and Grace!!!) plays an aging frontwoman and mom who was in Pony, a "seminal punk band from March of 1984 to late July of 1984). She is probably the only person who could take the issue of motherhood and rock/punk stardom and make it hilarious, without even trying to make any sort of 'statement'. (There's a couple seconds of her being obnoxious onstage at 0:05!)

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