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  • Through Mother's Eyes:Ideology, the "Child" and Multiple Mothers in U.S. American Mothering Magazines
  • Daniel Thomas Cook (bio)

Historically speaking, the notion of the mother-consumer arose in tandem with the unfolding of modern consumer society and, in particular, with the emergence of childhood as a site for commercial exploitation during the early decades of the 20th century in the U.S. As a social construct, the mother-consumer fuses together long-standing and widely-held cultural beliefs regarding feminine foibles and emotionality with equally ideological constructions of maternal love, self-sacrifice, and self-effacement.1 When coupled with a newly-forming commercial infrastructure of stores, retail spaces, advertising and promotions, the consuming mother has emerged as a cultural figure that straddles two oft-thought disparate spheres, combining intimacy and care for others, on the one hand, with commerce and market activity on the other.2 It is this tension—between intimate life and markets, between commerce and care—that has formed and continues to inform understandings about contemporary motherhoods as well as the practices of contemporary mothers. Children and notions of childhood reside at the crux of this moral tension as they represent both that which is to be cared for and nurtured, as well as the focus and site for the contemplation of pecuniary value.3

Marketeers—that is, advertisers, retailers and marketers—understood the relationship between mothers, children, and consumption several generations before academic researchers began in earnest to attend to the dynamics and dimensions of consumer society. Women, they recognized, were positioned to serve as something of a gateway to household consumption and thus constituted a desirable market. Roland Marchand identified the "little woman G. P. A. (General Purchasing Agent)" in 1920s U.S. consumer advertising as a commercial caricature that framed women's/mothers' role as one which traverses domestic and business spheres.4 Cook describes how those in the newly arising children's clothing industry during this same period explicitly and purposively defined, targeted and engaged mothers as the central and "natural" vehicle for gaining a share of the family pocketbook.5 Mothers, merchants realized, were valuable customers not only because of the purchases made in the new juvenile clothing sections, but also for the added business that they would bring to the entire department store in which these sections were situated. Merchants and trade publications of the time construed their mother-consumer (white, decidedly middle-class and urban) as one who put the consideration of her child above all else and thus would spend well beyond necessity to obtain the best for her children.6

Contemporary constructions of motherhoods, particularly in the context of wealthy, media-saturated societies of the Global North, continue to reference the moral tensions implicit in the coupling of commerce and care, of children and markets. Advertisers and marketers understand well that mothers reside almost inescapably within an ideology of "intensive mothering,"7 whereby a woman who shows anything less than complete devotion to her children may be construed—by herself as well as by others—as something of a failure on her part. The near-ubiquitous fear of being an incomplete, inadequate, or "bad" mother undoubtedly presents marketers and advertisers with opportunities to offer not simply goods and services to assist women in being the kinds of mothers they envision, but also to make available the semantic-visual materials from which such visions are assembled. Thus, publicity images made for the maternal market offer some reassurance that the products promoted assist in accomplishing a "good" motherhood. It is not, however, so much images of mothers themselves that provide the best or most reliable clues of good parenting to an audience of mothers. Rather, the most compelling evidence of being a good mother to a mother, I argue, is that of a pleased, satisfied, cared for, or otherwise happy child.

In the following discussion, I make the case for the necessary inclusion of children and childhood in the study and analysis of commercial representations of mothers and motherhood. Drawing on advertisements taken from U.S. mothering magazines in recent years, I examine how multiple forms of visual address attempt to engage different versions of the consuming mother...