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Battle Hymn Of The Queer Tiger Aunt: Or, How Amy Chua Made Me Think About Feminism

January 22, 2011, 12:20 am

The official logo of the Queer Tiger Aunt. Photo credit.

When I decided that instead of reading about Amy Chua‘s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother I would read the book instead, I did so for two reasons.  One was because I had become interested in the Orientalist tropes that she launched in her publicity piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” (Wall Street Journal, January 8 2011) and that white women then expanded upon here and other places.

The other reason was that I had some Audible credits to use, and was beginning my daily commute again.

Am I glad I did!  Here are some things I thought about by actually reading (listening to) the book, rather than basing my judgments of it on a few salacious quotes (or Janet Maslin’s review, which has numerous factual errors in it):

  • What it means to be the bridge between the immigrant generation and a generation which grows up in privilege and security;
  • That someone in the world is thinking about what makes girls confident and strong, rather than viewing female success as a symptom of a society that hates boys;
  • That someone other than me thinks that giving young people hundreds of prizes for small accomplishments does little for them except cause them to expect prizes at every turn;
  • That one of feminism’s central insight in the 1960s — mothering is a job — is also one of the great unresolved issues on the feminist agenda.  The institutional and social desire to pretend that motherhood isn’t a job may be the single most critical issue to address if we are also to address women’s equality as workers and citizens in this country.

 I can also now answer question The Los Angeles Times asked today: “What’s Behind Our Obsessive Amy Chua Disorder?”  The answer, I think, is that mothering is more or less a cursed profession that is analogous to being a professional homosexual, which is what I do when I am not being a tenured college professor.  As with mothers, people always feel like they must have — nay, have a right to have — opinions about homosexuals, regardless of how silly or unwelcome those opinions are.  The less people know about real homosexuals, the more they feel like they have to have an opinion about us.  Of course homosexuals — like Mommies — also have opinions about themselves that have more holes in them than Swiss cheese.  Take the “It Gets Better Project,” which is run by real homosexuals, and has a lot of terrific videos by homosexuals, transpeople, and some heterosexuals.  It’s purpose is to cheer up young people who are at risk from harming themselves out of despair over their sexuality.  While the videos themselves are quite nuanced and interesting, the message the media is running with is that if you are a gay kid, things will get better when you grow up and are free from your parents and high school bullies.  This is a lie.  Actually, the outcomes of growing up are quite variable.  Sometimes things get better, but sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes things get worse.  Being gay might become only one of your problems, since people suffer from things like poverty, illness and disability that have nothing to do with being gay.  Or sometimes they continue to suffer because they are gay!  

Similarly, from reading Chua and reading about her, I have discovered that there is really a struggle over what constitutes good motherhood which is not likely to make any difference to anyone.  I’m not involved in the Mommy Wars:  in fact, as I am not a Mommy, I have only heard rumors of them, not experienced them first hand.  As I understand it, they revolve around:

  • Men who insist on mansplainin’ about what constitutes good mothering;
  • Women lecturing other women about what constitutes good mothering;
  • Women’s ambivalence about the act of mothering, expressed as hostility towards other mothers;
  • Why and when we decided that men ought to be heaped with praise for any or all acts that are similar to mothering.

I speak to all of this as an outsider, not being a mother but rather someone who has put a tremendous amount of effort into being an eccentric but caring Queer Tiger Aunt.  I sometimes succeed at aunt-hood and sometimes fail, but one of the good things about being an aunt is that there are no rules on how to do it.  No one criticizes you for being a bad aunt.  The job isn’t in demand.  Have you ever heard someone say:  “The clock is ticking:  I won’t feel like a real woman if I don’t become — an aunt?”

To say I am a queer aunt is obvious on several levels.  As an aunt, one occupies a role from which critiques of what stands for normal parenting can be acted upon in a complementary and/or subversive way.  Hence, to be a truly productive and energetic aunt is to be queer in relation to some child or children regardless of whether you are a homosexual or not.  It beats being a mother with a stick, if you ask me.  It’s not a job, as mothering is:  it’s a vocation.  Assuming the mantle of Queer Tiger Aunt has an additional advantage.  Unlike a mother, an aunt can disappear for moderate periods of time to write an article, take a dramatic trip, go on a bender, or whatever, and the kids say:  “Wow, I want to be like her!”  Because you don’t own them, you don’t have to worry about abandoning the children because: the Goddess gave them parents.

A final note:  it seems obvious to me from observing the Chua controversy that there is no such thing as a good mother, just a lot of women claiming to be better mothers than each other based on some floating standard. That is something feminism also needs to deal with.

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