Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 2

“Watching with my hands over my eyes”: Shame and irritation in ambivalent encounters with ‘Bad Mothers’

Tracey Jensen*


At a conference I attended earlier this year, on a panel discussing the specificities of parenting in an age which has been described as 'paranoid' (Furedi, 2001), 'anxious' (Warner, 2005), 'intensive' (Hays, 1998), 'impossible' (DiQuinzio, 1999) and 'finger-pointing' (Douglas and Michaels, 2004), one panel member, who writes regularly about mothering in a national newspaper, made her confession.  She admitted that, although she ‘knows’, and indeed makes her living writing about the ways in which gossip, marketing and pseudo-science coalesce to make her feel anxious as a mother, she still feels it; and, perhaps even willingly enters into it.  She offered the example of her son and his bicycle.  She had recently bought him his first bike, and had shortly afterwards heard that many parents were choosing bikes without pedals, since they may help children learn to balance faster than the pedalled versions.  Oh no, she immediately thought. I’ve made a bad choice!  I’m holding my son back!  Will he ever learn to ride his bike?

This story, frivolous as it might first appear – and indeed frivolity and humour were the register in which this woman ‘confessed’ – is interesting to me through its very unremarkability.  Modern motherhood does indeed appear to continue to be marked by intensive worry, anxiety and the constant self-monitoring by mothers of the decisions they are making towards their children and their childrearing (Miller, 2005; Thompson, 2008; Hays, 1998; Furedi, 2001) and moreover by the ways in which these worries are absolutely normalised.  Even drawing a wry observation about ‘knowing’ of the machinations that create feelings of maternal anxiety did not prevent this mother from feeling it anyway or, even willingly entering into it.

This paper is concerned with exploring some of the complex affective relationships that emerge in encounters between maternal subjects and childrearing advice and expertise.  Much feminist scholarship has demonstrated the impossibility of fulfilling fantasies of motherhood, and yet cultural and symbolic fields, texts and representations continue to be saturated with these fantasies, and how to attain them.  Of particular interest is ‘makeover television’, a cultural field which has in the past decade made its own successful foray into the intimate sphere of childrearing and family relations, and which promises to demonstrate how maternal subjects can re-make themselves in reference to fantasies of motherhood.  The article draws on empirical data produced through watching this parenting television with fifteen mothers in order to explore the psychosocial investments that these mothers have in such fantasies.  These investments are situated within a postfeminist landscape (Gill, 2007) that requires psychological self-scrutiny and individualise the struggles and challenges of childrearing.  I argue that by situating these affective encounters with the programme within this wider cultural, postfeminist moment – in which the turn is towards psychological self-improvement rather than collective action (Walkerdine, 2003) – we can better understand why these mothers did not ground their dissatisfactions with advice within a wider critique of instructional parenting television.

Parenting advice – from feminism to postfeminism

The imperative to be a good parent is not ‘new’, nor is the anxiety that this imperative engenders.  Parenting advice has flourished in a professional form for at least a century, with its discursive roots stretching back even further than that to, at least, the seventeenth century (Grant, 1998).  The history of parenting advice reveals a complicated lineage of parenting experts whose endlessly transforming dictates have consistently mirrored prevailing anxieties.  What is new is the recent, enormous proliferation and saturation of cultural space with parenting advice, and the corresponding mainstreaming of parental anxiety as an entirely unremarkable, even essential part of becoming a parent.  In 1997, five times as many parenting books were published than were in 1975 (Hulbert, 2003).  Writing about parenting books in the United States, media analysts Douglas and Michaels (2004) estimate that in the 1970s,  four or five new books about motherhood were published each year, but by 1995 this had increased to more than sixty new books each year.  In global terms, the book which has sold most copies worldwide in the history of publishing, second only to the Bible, is parenting author Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care (first published 1946, now in its eighth edition and has never been out of print).  The prevalence of public discussions about parenting is not confined to the publishing world; in very recent years, several UK newspapers have begun to include weekly supplements and inserts aimed specifically at parents and families .  In spite of the reducing magazine market in the UK, more parenting titles have been launched, found a niche and appear to be sustaining their hold, including Parenting and Mother & Baby.  One of the biggest online successes of recent years has been Mumsnet.org, an online discussion portal which receives up to 20,000 ‘hits’ a day.  This constant stream of advice, dialogue, conversation and concern has been institutionalized, to some degree, in the UK with the launch of the National Academy of Parenting Practitioners in 2007; a national body devoted to training parenting practitioners how to teach parenting to parents.

How might critical theorists evaluate the intensity and saturation with which parenting advice has colonised public space?  Does the ubiquity of this advice suggest that mothers are now liberated from assumptions that they always-already ‘know’ about parenting?  These lineages of parenting advice that have led to this historical moment certainly resonate in some places with feminist work, research and activism; work that has sought to highlight maternal dissatisfaction as well as the invisible labour and frustrations of childrearing.  Many feminist writers have powerfully articulated the anxieties, doubts and frustrations they have experienced in their own mothering (Rich, 1977; Dally, 1982) whilst yet others have robustly deconstructed the notion of a timeless ‘mother-love’ or ‘maternal instinct’, pointing to the historical contingency of competing versions of motherhood (Badinter, 1982; Thurer, 1994).  The fantasy of the perfect mother who populates the pages of mother-craft manuals – demure, forgiving, sensitively attuned to the needs of her children, endlessly patient and self-sacrificing – became, rightly, a source of feminist anger.  How were women to live up to these expectations set out in the literature and repeated across advertisements, national discourses and maternalist propaganda?   This specific version of mothering was interpreted by some as an integral obstacle to autonomous selfhood.  Friedan (1963) made such a claim in The Feminine Mystique in which she examined the accounts of a wordless unhappiness – 'the problem with no name' - told by many American suburban housewives.  Feminists continue to point out that this problem with no name has not disappeared; indeed, the myths of motherhood and the anxieties of how to be the perfect mother have continued to proliferate across cultural fields, across representation, and throughout policy (Douglas and Michaels, 2004). 

Although the feminism of the 1970s and 1980s has often been accused of ‘forgetting’ motherhood, or of being ‘anti-family’(see McRobbie, 2008 for a summary of these claims and counter-claims), mothers were very much at the centre of the feminist project.  Cultural or maternalist feminism, which sought to amplify and celebrate gendered difference rather than erase or deny it (O’Rielly, 2004; Blum, 2000) endeavoured to reclaim the creative and productive possibilities of mothering (Segal, 2007).  In her now-classic exploration of motherhood in Of Woman Born, Rich (1977) firmly locates the difficulties and anxieties experienced by mothers within the matrices of power that are produced by patriarchy.  The problem for women is not motherhood per se, but the modern doctrine of the denial of particular emotions that threatened the institution, namely a doctrine of continuous and unconditional mother-love and a denial of anger.  Her plotting of the historical contingency of supposedly ‘natural’ aspects of motherhood de-naturalises maternal identity as neither automatic, natural nor given, but rather, as a difficult process that is always already marked by the potential for failure.  Motherhood is not a private enterprise, but is always, endlessly and exhaustively public, involving the medical establishment, legal institutions and the state.  And for women who fail to live up to this romanticised vision of the self-sacrificing, boundlessly loving mother, the diagnosis is relentlessly individualised:

Reading of the ‘bad’ mother’s desperate response to an invisible assault on her being, ‘good’ mothers resolve to become better, more patient and long-suffering, to cling more tightly to what passes for sanity.  The scapegoat is different from the martyr; she cannot teach resistance of or revolt.  She represents a terrible temptation: to suffer uniquely, to assume that I, the individual woman, am the ‘problem’ (Rich, 1977, p277).

Rich’s (1977) insights around the ‘terrible temptation’ continue to resonate within today’s parenting advice in ways that I excavate more fully later in this paper.  In many ways, Rich’s (1977) work is blind to the racial and classed axis of difference between mothers (Collins, 1994; Reynolds, 2006), yet the above quote is testament to her sensitivity towards the part that discourses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothering play in opening up divisions between women.  This sensitivity around differences and divisions between women is more absent than present in cultural feminism that is keen to celebrate ‘womanhood’ even at the risk of essentialising women.  

We can see this too in early scholarship surrounding the rise of the parenting advice and expert industries, in which feminist scholars produced passionate and often damning criticism of what was considered a male-dominated field of medical and clinical authority.  For example, Ehrenreich and English (1978) argued that the advice industry, including figures such as ministers, experts, doctors, psychiatrists and clinicians, was a force that removed power from women and pathologised the complexities of their everyday lives, particularly those of childrearing.  They argued that the rise of this industry amounted to a misogynist disenfranchising of women from their own reproduction and childrearing capacities. 

Cultural feminists such as Rich, Ehrenreich and English rendered intelligible the division between the institution of motherhood and its experience.  Perhaps we might interpret the proliferation of parenting advice as a legacy of these feminist calls to make the labour of mothering visible, and to acknowledge the complexities involved within such labour.  When a parenting book begins with the premise that it is normal to feel anxious, this speaks in some ways to feminist struggles to give voice to difficult maternal feelings.  More recent social historians of parenting advice (Hulbert, 2003; Apple, 2006) have sought to invert the ‘top-down’ orientation of earlier scholarship, and to look at the ways in which (some) mothers demanded expertise, and were not simply passive vessels upon which expertise was imposed by clinicians.  These more recent histories situate the growth of advice positively within a story of the progressive empowerment of mothers, the transfer of authority from clinician to parent, and the growing capacity for parents to autonomously ‘choose’ their expertise from a marketplace of advice.  It is almost de rigeur for any writer offering parenting advice today to begin with a disclaimer or acknowledgement that too much parenting advice has made parents confused, or has undermined parental confidence, or is bossy and patronising (Murkoff, 2002; Doherty and Coleridge, 2008; Skenazy, 2009).  It is also de rigeur for these same advisors to promise that their particular offering of advice will – of course – be different by virtue of that recognition.    

Both the inversion of parenting advice history and the continuous acknowledgement within parenting advice now that ‘real’ mothering is hard and that ‘real’ children do not come with instructions are indications of how firmly the contemporary mothering landscape has become a firm pillar of postfeminism.  The term ‘postfeminism’ is used in many ways: in some contexts it has been used to indicate a backlash against the principles of feminism, in which feminism itself is blamed for the problems now facing women (Faludi, 1993); a practice of reclaiming misogynist words (Wurtzel, 1999); or a strategy to progress feminism beyond gynocentricism, whiteness or middle-classness (Modleski, 1991; Hoff-Sommers, 1994).  In popular discourse, postfeminism assumes that the goals of feminism have been reached, that feminists are out of date and that feminism has nothing useful to say.  This is reflected in theory that presumes women have been nothing but unproblematically empowered by reflexive modernisation (Giddens, 1991) as we can see in the accounts of parenting advice that see choice itself as a guarantee of freedom.

Others have been more cautious in the unravelling of postfeminist notions of ‘choice’.  Gill (2007) suggests that postfeminism is best theorised as a distinct cultural sensibility, which invites a particular relationship to oneself: one of self-surveillance, monitoring and regulating oneself and one’s life practices; of a constant willingness to enter into the makeover paradigm of transformation and improvement and to seek out and evaluate advice pertaining to this improvement; of individualism, of old structures and constraints fading away (or at least imagined to fade away) to be replaced with the mantra and the requirement to ‘invent yourself’.  Angela McRobbie has posited that postfeminist language invites women to subject themselves to ever more insidious forms of normalizing power; to ‘choose to be subjected’.  In this climate, visions of meritocratic success require what McRobbie (2004, p257) calls ‘a forceful non-identity’ or dis-identification with feminism in which feminist politics is erased and replaced with female individualization, or more specifically “an anti-feminist endorsement of female individualization,” in which ambition replaces collective politics, or the grammar of psychological improvement has replaced the language of injustice and oppression (Walkerdine, 2003).  McRobbie (2004) points to cultural forms such as the television makeover programme which generates and legitimates new forms of antagonism and judgement and in which the most critical judges of women are no longer men, but other women.  Referring to these antagonisms as "postfeminist symbolic violence", McRobbie (2004, p256-258) offers a powerful critique of the discourse of empowerment through choice. 

One public ‘debate’ which illustrates this is the media-hyped ‘mummy wars’ which pits working mothers against stay-at-home mothers and generates antagonisms which fail to offer any feminist critique beyond these imaginary binaries, but continue the demonisation of women on both sides of the fence (Peskowitz, 2005; Parkins, 2009).  Mothers, far from being empowered by ever-conflicting bodies of childrearing advice, from their entry in record numbers into the labour market, or by the postfeminist invitations to ‘invent themselves’, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  As Imogen Tyler notes":

young working-class mothers are still routinely demonised in political discourse and are stable television comic fodder, working mothers are routinely castigated for failing their children, mothers who don’t work outside the home are rebuked for failing themselves, their families and the economy” (Tyler, 2009, p1).

For Tyler (2009), the maternal has never been so hyper-visible, and yet so incoherent.  She points to recent research, conducted by the UK Equalities Review, demonstrating that it is now motherhood – not gender – that leads to women’s continuing discrimination in the workforce.  And yet it is not feminist anger about these injustices that take the centre stage of culture, but rather notions of good and bad mothering, and conversations about how to situate oneself within the former and avoid the latter, that continue to dominate popular cultural and representational fields. 

Parenting television

One important new site where the visualising of good and bad mothers happens is on television.  The genre of reality and makeover television has become a space for the coalescing of several discursive shifts, towards for example ordinariness, transformation and instruction concerning the world of the everyday.  The issue of parenting, and especially mothering, constitutes a significant strand of the reality format, and includes programmes such as Wife Swap (RDF Media; Channel 4, 2003-present), Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum (BBC Three, 2009) The World’s Strictest Parents (BBC Three, 2008-2009) which fall broadly under new configurations of ‘documentary’. Parenting in documentaries which broadcast extreme examples of parenting styles and the ‘swap’ format which exchanges members of very different families, emerges as a problematic matter which is inescapably about conflict and strife, and in which the viewer is invoked to take a hard moral stance. More specifically, in terms of the instructional ‘how-to-live’ programmes which offer expertise to subjects seeking to transform facets of their lives which are causing them unhappiness, the issue of bad parenting has become a staple of the genre here too: programmes such as Nanny 911 (FOX, United States, 2004-present; ITV2, UK, 2009) Little Angels (BBC, 2004-2007, UK); Who Rules the Roost? (BBC3, 2004, UK) ; House of Tiny Tearaways (BBC3, UK) and the ubiquitous Supernanny (Channel 4, UK, 2003-present; ABC, United States, 2005-present).  Supernanny is a television programme in which troubled parents are subjected to a familial makeover, and ‘bad parents’ are transformed under the guidance of a parenting guru, Jo Frost (the Supernanny), into ‘good parents’.  It is this programme that I focus on in my work, for the reasons of its popularity and of its numerous franchise imitations globally.

The programme offers us a seductive peek into the intimate lives of families and the private problems of parenting.  The intended purpose of this peeking seems wilfully obtuse: at times the accompanying promotion to the programme seems to promise guidance and advice for all families; a kind of everyman Dr Spock for today’s complex world of parenting.  The promotional material for the programme asks: “wouldn’t it be nice if someone were on hand to tell us how to do it?” and promises that it will “save the world, one family at a time”.  At others, the programme is publicised as a shocking exposé of the nation’s naughtiest children and an invitation to enjoy the pleasures of passing judgement; in an online interview prior to the broadcast of the third series, Frost promises that “we’ve got some real tyrants in the next series”.  This oscillation between appearing to offer sound advice that every parent needs, and appearing to offer extreme cases of bad behaviour as ‘must-see TV’, means that Supernanny straddles a complex territory in terms of interpellation; who is being beckoned and in what ways.  Does the programme promise to offer a moral judgement of bad examples of parenting?  Does it promise to help every parent, since we are all, after all, bad parents sometimes?  These questions are left unresolved, vague and ever-shifting.  I suggest that it is this very oscillation which engenders ambivalence in the viewing encounter and which prevents viewers from sustaining a grounded critique of the programme.  

Exploring encounters with the text-in-action method

In other places I have interrogated the assumptions, and inadequacies, of the narrative of transformation that is offered up by Supernanny; a narrative which appears to ‘work’ only through a hysterical and panoptic scrutiny upon the minutiae of family life, and through the psychologising and pathologising of particular ways of being in the world that we might theorise as a classed habitus (Bourdieu, 1977; see Jensen, 2010).  Supernanny appears at times to speak in a feminist register.  Its underlying premise, like all parenting television and indeed advice, is that being a parent is hard work and requires much invisible and continuous labour, that fathers can and should take up some of this labour and that parents can make positive changes to their lives.  However, the transformational narrative that Supernanny offers centres on very narrow solutions to the complex and often fraught difficulties that programme participants are facing.  Neither intensive parenting cultures nor unrealistic parental expectations are scrutinised; there is no examination of how emotional labour is divided in the home or how work-life balance may be adjusted, or how challenges might be levelled at the institution of mothering, experiences of sexism, poverty, racism or heteronormativity, conflicts with paid employment or with additional caring responsibilities.  The transformation can only offer an individualist, and often unsatisfactory, call to police and transform ‘mothering’.  Moreover, only knowledge from a legible authority counts, and is required to assist parents in successfully operating in their everyday lives.

However, important as critiques of the content of these kind of makeover programme undoubtedly are (Ouellette and Hay, 2009; Walkerdine and Ringrose, 2008; Biressi and Nunn, 2005), in this paper I want to attend, instead, to the ways in which the programme is animated in reception; what happens in the encounter between the programme and those who watch it?  I became interested during research of the programme’s narrative and discursive underpinnings in unpicking the encounters between the mothers on the screen and the mothers watching, and by the psychosocial role played by what we might call the ‘bad enough’ mother (to play on the term of the ‘good enough’ mother, see Winnicott, 1965); the Other mothers against which we constitute ourselves.  Makeover, or transformation, television (of which Supernanny is a part) presents us with an opportunity to reflect upon the processes of subject-making in a psycho-social register, since the narratives within it are explicitly concerned with change.  The drama of the narrative speaks both to anxieties about the kind of mother-subject we might already be and the desires for a promised future mother-subject we might yet become. 

I interviewed fifteen parents from South East London, UK, either alone or in groups, about their background, their parenting philosophies and their relationship to advice.  These interviews were followed by a viewing session in which we watched an episode of Supernanny.  Using the text-in-action method, developed by Helen Wood in her examination of the relationship between textuality and subjectivity for women watching daytime talkshows  (Wood, 2005; Wood, 2007; Skeggs, Wood and Thumim, 2008), I recorded these viewing events with a digital sound recorder.  After viewing, we reflected upon the episode in a post-viewing interview.  The text-in-action method is an innovative way of creating data by recording the viewing encounter itself, challenging the hyper-rationalist subject that can sometimes be presumed and created within other research methodologies.  It also opens up the affective aspects of the viewing encounter: the gasps, tuts and sighs, the non-verbal and (perhaps) unintentional parts of cultural conversation with media texts. 

Taking a psycho-social approach to the text-in-action data was a way of bridging distinctions between interior and exterior worlds.  It also attended to the ways in which the viewing encounters with bad mothers on the screen reproduced discursive landscapes of good and bad parenting, through the messy and partial processes of psychic disowning and projection.  I draw on these concepts as set out by the school of psychoanalytic object relations, which takes a departure from Freud’s drive theory, via the work of Melanie Klein (Mitchell, 1986).  Whilst Klein’s work, importantly, is conceptually distinct from object relations, her work on the dynamism and fluidity of splitting and projection has had profound influence on the subsequent object relations school.  Kleinian projection entails the expulsion of unwanted material onto others; the disowning and externalising of our own faults, the faults that are too costly for us to bear.  Klein’s conceptual dyad of projective and introjective processes point us towards the ways in which the boundaries between selves and others are permeable and flexible, generative and transformative (Bondi, 2003).  In object relations, our interior space is held to be populated with objects, psychic representations of ourselves and others in the world, and parts of those selves and others.  Our interactions in the world bear the impression of these psychic objects and our need to relate to others mobilises these unknowable interior dramas.  In other words, our interiorised unconscious relationships both mediate and animate our experiences of the world and our relationships with others.

Whilst there are obvious problems with moving freely between the conscious and unconscious, affect and emotion, I want to use Klein’s notion of projection as a way of thinking about what the screen mothers of the programme do for the mothers watching, and what they hold for them; principally, that the bad mothers on the Supernanny screen serve as generative figures for the mothers watching.  By ‘generative’ I refer to the production of affective matter that was mobilized through these textual encounters.  I want to focus on a few examples that illuminate the messy and partial nature of this projection – how the on-screen mothers are never quite bad-enough – and tease out the complex emotional textures that circulated though these partial projections.  In particular, I want to explore what I saw as pragmatic shifts in the affective registers that participants spoke in; from feelings of vicarious shame and exposure, as if what was happening on the screen was somehow felt to reveal one’s own fraught parental life, to sudden expressions of irritation and annoyance.  I want to explore what the shift to irritation does, or rather permits one to not do; that is, to feel anger and rage.

Managing the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’

The pleasures of watching ‘them on the screen’ against whom a distance with oneself could be drawn was for some participants fraught with emotional complexity.  It is important to note that nearly all the parents who participated in this research stated during the interview that although they had watched Supernanny before, they would not consider themselves ‘fans’ or regular viewers; even though many of them demonstrated a good deal of familiarity with the programme, referred to other episodes they had watched and so on.  Most were also hesitant, in the interview, with claiming any viewing pleasures; although again this was complicated by the affective pleasures they demonstrated during viewing.  Some participants spoke of their relief that they could watch another parent failing, and of their relief that it was not them on the screen.  But this relief was precarious and shadowed by the possibility that they might ‘see themselves up there’.  Some participants spoke of their anxieties that watching might curse or jinx them, that laughing at or enjoying another parent’s failings on the screen might have ‘karmic’ costs and they might come to recognise themselves in the future. 

Any pleasures were precarious and unfinished.  The distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between failing on-screen family and failing viewer were felt to be porous.  Good and bad mothers may mutate into one another; both in terms of a psychologised television makeover (where bad mothers become good mothers with the help of the Supernanny), but also in terms of the partiality with which any projection might be made. 

One participant, Helen, made several statements of judgment about the on-screen family during the first few minutes of our viewing session (Series 3, Episode 3), remarking on the "lethal stairwell", the excessive cleanliness of the house which she found “unnerving”, and gasping with outrage when the father admitted that he had never read to his two sons.  In response to a montage of the two boys walking to school, she exclaimed:

    Helen: You do think, how can people live like that?  It’s just crazy.

Through this and several other expressions of her disgust and outrage, Helen is able to do a degree of distancing work in a short space of time, creating (what seems to be) a firm sense of herself as different from the on-screen family.  Yet within a few minutes, Helen quietly said to her husband, who was also taking part in the session, “that’s me, isn’t it?”  Something about the narrative had unsettled Helen, and the disquiet of recognition prevented her from continuing with her distancing remarks.  Instead, many of her subsequent comments were concerned with whether or not her parenting style was in fact similar to the father she had initially been outraged by, and she was concerned to find ways to draw finely coded distinctions between this man on the screen who she continued to want to hold at a distance, yet felt increasingly unable to, and her own ‘good’ mothering.  The slippery projections, illustrated in Helen’s shifting register from distance to disquiet, happened at other points across the other viewing sessions.  Like Helen, these attempts to make distinctions between on-screen parents, and the parents watching, were not always entirely successful.  Security in one’s own parental competence, for many of the viewers, waxed and waned throughout the viewing of the episode. 

My viewing session with Louisa demonstrated the deep complexity and ambivalence with which notions of good and bad mothering can be claimed and held on to.  Louisa demonstrated clearly the many different layers of meaning that the programme had for her and the reasons, often uncomfortable, that she watched and felt invested in the format:

Louisa:     And partly its like, thank god my kid isn’t like that.  But partly, you are trying to pick up some tips, how not to be like that….and then on the other hand, its pure entertainment.  And there’s a little bit of schadenfreude, isn’t there, watching someone else slip in the poo.  Thank god that’s not me, you know? And then you think, some people actually have to learn this.  I mean, who are these weirdos?
Emma:     That’s not very nice.
Louisa:      No?  Well, but come on.

Louisa performs a kind of relief (‘thank god that’s not me’), and during the episode viewing itself, she also performs her agony over whether she is able to watch, why she is watching, and what it might mean that she continues to watch.  It is Louisa who claimed to be “watching with my hands over my eyes”.  But her performance of relief is haunted by her contempt for ‘these weirdos’.  Who are these people, she asks again and again, even after her partner Emma reprimands her for not being very nice.  When I first examined the material generated from my interview and text-in-action session with Louisa, I read her comments as expressions of contempt, even arrogance.  At first, I felt that she was holding ‘these weirdos’ at a distance only because she was able to think of the on-screen mothers as value-less and incompetent, and because she was able to feel secure in her own competence.  When I looked again, more carefully and across our entire conversation, I found that there were alternative ways to interpret Louisa’s encounter with Supernanny.

Far from feeling secure in her own parental competence, Louisa’s interview was saturated with her uncertainty.  As a lesbian mother, she initially positioned herself outside of parenting advice, declaring that it had little relevance for her and her partner by dint of its heteronormative presumptions.  Louisa remarked that as soon as she read the word ‘dad’ in parenting advice, she “just dismissed it, really”.  She anticipates that the problems her family will face are likely to be “so different” from anything a (heterosexual) parenting expert might know about, that she doubts she will find anything useful there.  In this way, Louisa is able to mobilise her queerness, her lesbian identity, to exonerate and distance herself from parenting advice and the anxiety she feels it engenders.  In her agentic account of herself, her sexuality acts as another resource, alongside her other cultural capital and resources, through which she can reject the anxiety generating parenting industry. 

But Louisa’s rejection of parenting expertise and her secure account of herself as a competent parent is not entirely robust.  Later in the interview she tells a story of her ordeal with a friend’s parents who were due to meet her, her partner and their baby son.  Prior to the arranged meeting, her friend confessed that her parents had already voiced their homophobic doubts around lesbian parenting.  When telling this story, Louisa repeated the question that her friend had repeated to her; “what are they doing to that child?”  For obvious reasons, Louisa found the meeting a trial of both managing her emotions and worrying how she was being interpreted by her friend’s parents; of hyper-vigilance and self-consciousness.  It acted as a reminder that her “own world of normality” is not always granted a normative status, or in her words:

Occasionally you see yourself through other people’s eyes and then you think, oh god, they think we’re freaks.  They think we’re weirdos.

What I find instructive here is the repetition of the word ‘weirdos’.  Louisa used this very word when discussing the people who needed to be told how to do what she considered basic parenting tasks, people who were unable to follow what she considered the most rudimentary of parenting instincts.  Louisa’s decree that these people are ‘weirdos’ acquires, I think, a new level of projective complexity in light of her own experiences of feeling like a ‘weirdo’, or rather, feeling the projections of ‘weirdo’ upon her, by homophobic others.  Her own negative feelings of being judged as (possibly) inadequate, or at least problematic, of feeling self-conscious and hyper-vigilant as a parent are not transformed into a reticence about judging other parents on Supernanny; rather the feelings they invoke in her, of feeling like a ‘weirdo’, serve her with the very terms she projects onto others.

Louisa partially revised her initial decree about ‘these weirdos’ after viewing a mother who was not quite ‘bad-enough’ to be cast out.  I would suggest that this revision is partly, at least, about social class and agency.  Louisa and I watched one of the few Supernanny families that are not easily readable in terms of social class; Caroline and Sonny of Series 2.  Over the course of viewing, Louisa’s pleasure shifted from schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of others) to recognition that perhaps these misfortunes were also her own or may come to be her own; this prompted a great deal of anxious talk.  Louisa ruminated over this at length afterwards:   

Louisa:    You’re not judging them, are you…well, I suppose you are…but you’re sort of willing it to turn out…especially when they seem really nice and well-meaning […] and they did seem very sweet and well-meaning and they desperately wanted to do the right thing […] I think it depends on who the parents are and whether you like them or not […] There is this sort of anxiety about it.  You really want it to turn out alright.  I was really empathising with the mother in that one […] Sometimes in those episodes, they’re very obviously doing the wrong thing, and you can be a bit more judgmental about it?  I mean.  One doesn’t want to be judgmental, but obviously we all are.  But in that particular episode, I sort of felt their pain a bit […] you’re on their side.  But with some of them [parents], you almost sort of enjoy it when she tells them off a bit.

Louisa draws very careful and hesitant distinctions between the parents whose pain she can feel and those whose pain she can enjoy.  There is an unspoken classed dimension to the distinctions she draws between who she will judge and who she can empathise with; her terms are nice, sweet and well-meaning, but I would argue that what she means is middle-class and agentic.  Although Louisa does not explicitly reference social class, I would follow other theorists (Reay, 2004; Skeggs, Woods and Thumim, 2008) and suggest nonetheless that social class is the animating vector of difference.  These are the terms in which she tries to narrate her own mothering decisions.  But I also think her ruminations must be analysed in light of the postfeminist climate of advice in which she lives and operates, in which self-surveillance and self-transformation are the central tropes of being in the world, and in which evaluative capitals are prized and assumed of people, and parents, weighing up and choosing the philosophies and lifestyles they want to live by.

From shame to irritation

The viewing encounters were saturated with the ambivalent experience of shame.  Returning to the content of the programme, the shame on the Supernanny screen is multi-layered; during an episode we watch children behave in ways that their parents experience as shaming: the shame of failing to take control of escalating situations; the shaming of these parents by the Supernanny, Jo Frost, who tells them that she is ashamed by what she has seen. During the course of the episode parents are confronted over and over again by shaming video footage of the moments where they failed to implement behavioural strategies in the Supernanny’s absence.  Ahmed (2004) suggests that shame is an ambivalent emotion which has a double meaning; to be both exposed and concealed.  The shamed subject, burning with the sensation of shame, drops her gaze or turns away, and yet she remains exposed.  It is the exposure which is shaming; to be witnessed as having done something terrible.  Being alone does not erase the experience of shame, since the ‘witness’ continues to be imagined.  The many layers of looking in Supernanny incite the unending nature of shame; even when Jo Frost has left the building, the camera remains, sometimes even wall-mounted and equipped with night-vision, and so we continue to witness.  The transformation from bad parent to good is driven forward narratively when Frost returns with yet more footage filmed during her absence and the on-screen parents are freshly shamed. 

For Munt (2007, p8), shame is about “self-attention, induced by another”.  Once this attention has been induced, shame, of all the emotions is the stickiest; she says: “it travels quickly, it has an infective, contagious property that means it can circulate and be exchanged with intensity” (Munt, 2007, p3).  In Spanish there is a term for this kind of vicarious shame – vergüenza ajena – the shame that one feels upon witnessing the shame of another, but there is no corresponding word in English .  The circulation and exchange of shame lent a difficult emotional texture to the session, which I was only really able to make partial sense of during transcription.  Specific visual sequences in the programme were most obviously about the circulation of shame – long camera close-ups on parents’ faces as Jo Frost delivers her initial diagnosis of the family’s problems or when confronted by shaming video footage in particular – and these sequences have been defined usefully as ‘judgment shots’ (Skeggs, Woods and Thumim, 2008).  During these judgment shots, the text-in-action sound recordings were agonisingly quiet, compared to the almost continuous audio soundtrack cues, the sounds of children screaming and shouting, as well as the affective and outraged chatter from participants as they watched.  Mothers participating in the text-in-action sessions sometimes covered their eyes or their mouths with their hands; Louisa, as I have noted already, remarked during one of these shaming judgment shots that she was “watching with her hands over her eyes”.

Where did this shaming take subjects?  What are the possibilities once vicarious shame has been exchanged?  Like the shifts between projection and recognition that happened in the encounter, the affective shaming experiences that were invoked through watching the programme also shifted.  In many instances, there was a distinct shift from shame to irritation, as the following exchange with another group of viewing mothers illustrates: 

Jane:     The worse they are at the beginning, the better […] don’t you find that you watch them, and you’re relieved […] and when it cuts back to the parents, and you’re like right, what’s wrong with them!  And they’re really nice and encouraging, and you’re like oh god!
Kelly:     The thing about Supernanny is just the stupid parents on them really.
Fiona:     The closer they get to Trisha the more I have a problem with them.
Jane:     But I think you watch them because you genuinely want them to become beautiful children, don’t you, and the reunion and they realise what a shit they’ve been, and you want it to come around full circle, don’t you?

Jane’s performance of relief – that it is the parents on the screen who are failing, not her – is just as complex and fragile as Louisa’s.  She acknowledges here her own complicity with wider expectations that there is no such thing as bad children, only bad parents, and her panic when that expectation falls flat (‘oh god!’).  When good parents (that are nice and encouraging) and bad parents (who have out-of-control children) are one and the same, it not only confounds wider moral explanations of parental causality, it also disrupts Jane’s own personal guarantees.  The parents on the screen serve as a reminder to her that even if she does all the things she is ‘supposed’ to do, her children may yet embarrass her, behave badly or otherwise shame her.  She solicits agreement from the rest of the group, punctuating her statements with ‘don’t you’ but she does not receive it.  Instead, both Kelly and Fiona express their irritation with the parents on parenting television; Kelly’s annoyance is with their stupidity, while Fiona speaks exasperatingly of her ‘problem’ with the ones that remind her of the subjects on a popular daytime talk-show, Trisha (Channel 5, 2004-2009) hosted by Trisha Goddard.

I would argue that it is the irritations expressed by Jane and her peers that limit the astute observations they made, at other points in the viewing session, about the injustices of the programme and of the unreasonable expectations they felt contemporary parenting culture made of them.  During viewing, this group responded to the episode (Series 2, Episode 11) at several points with expressions of empathy and understanding for the mother on screen, Heather.  Jane and Fiona in particular pointed out that the on-screen husband worked long hours and she was alone with her children, that she may be depressed, that she too worked full-time and was exhausted.  In short, they responded to the gaps in the narrative and the voiceover, challenging and talking over the explanations presented by the programme and filling it with their own, and making their expressions of sympathy, as the following exchange demonstrates: 

    Jane: She’s around them a lot.  She feels he’s way out of the picture.
    Fiona: She’s mad at the dad.
    Jane: Who is he to come back and start saying, start criticising?
    Fiona: And yet he’ll come back and see everything that’s wrong, and she’ll be resentful.

Jane and Fiona are drawing on their own experience, on pop-psychology and on cultural tropes of gender and family to flesh out an explanation which they are not satisfied with.  But ultimately, in the post-viewing discussion, the moments of irritation they had felt outweighed the moments of sympathy and their impassioned challenges to the terms in which the Bixley family problems were psychologised and ‘transformed’ are re-articulated, instead, as a declaration to “take on board” what they have seen on the screen.  The irritations they felt towards Heather, and indeed the irritations that are invited by the cultural form of instructional television, I would argue, prevented these women from grounding the dissatisfactions they felt with the episode within a wider refusal or critique of instructional parenting television.  Instead, the irritations serve as prompts that they must ‘take on board’, monitor and regulate their own parenting lives for the kinds of behaviours and problems that they found irritating.

Conclusion – Ugly feelings and the postfeminist maternal subject

In her exploration of the cultural forms which give rise to the ‘less noble’ emotions of envy, irritation, anxiety, Ngai (2005) points out that there has been a relative theoretical silence around these emotions, when compared to more powerful and politically mobilising emotions, such as anger.  Ngai (2005) suggests that these ‘dysphoric’ affects are considered to be negative.  She suggests that they are also associated with inaction, considered critically effete, ‘flat’ or affectively disorienting, amoral and petty.  Ngai (2005) terms these collective dysphoric affects “ugly feelings”, and focuses her analysis of each at cultural moments in which they seem to be particularly charged or at stake in symbolic struggles.  Her analysis of envy is connected to contemporary feminist debates about the problems of expressions of aggression between women.  I would suggest that the ‘ugly feeling’ of irritation has a theoretical significance in terms of the postfeminist climate of parenting advice, in which it is the maternal, so hyper-visible and so public, that is used as an invitation for women to judge other women so readily.

Ngai begins her discussion of irritability with a quote from the philosopher Aristotle: “those people we call irritable are those who are irritated by the wrong things, more severely and for longer than is right” (Ngai, 2005, p175).  The continuing dominance of bad mothers across representational and cultural fields, together with the postfeminist requirement to be endlessly surveilling oneself and one’s life, means that it is increasingly difficult for mothers to articulate their dissatisfactions with the everyday injustices of their lives as mothers.  The angry maternal writing of second-wave feminism, which gave voice to the invisible labours of mothering and offered a semblence of collective feminist action, has been swamped by the contemporary tidal wave of how-to-parent instructional books, television programmes and websites.  This tidal wave has clear links with the wider therapeutic discourses through which the contemporary subject is invited to re-make oneself rather than remake society and address social injustice.  My interest in this paper has been with tracking the investments that we have in these processes of self-making.  The bad mother – although apparently celebrated in confessional ‘mummylit’ with ironic abandon – remained in the encounters with these programmes a figure upon whom one’s own possible failings must be projected and against whom finely coded distinctions should be drawn. 

It is through, I have suggested, the ‘ugly feelings’ that makeover television, with its invitation to postfeminist symbolic violence and “new cruelty” (McRobbie, 2004) that the feminist possibilities of the programmes become stifled, and recast instead as requirements to transform oneself.  In this paper I have sought to demonstrate how critical theorists of postfeminist culture can intervene in these encounters, to excavate more fully the complexity of psychosocial projections and investments, and to attend to the damaging ways in which the psychologising turn within culture contributes to divisions between women.  In spite of the problematic aspects of her work, Adrienne Rich was attuned to the potential injury that the institution of motherhood could bring to bear upon mothers enmeshed within it; the ‘terrible temptation’ to endure the blame for the impossibility of fantasies of mothering.  As radical psychologists, we too should remain suspicious of psychologised culture which continues to divide women into good, bad and better parents without attending to the expert discourses that both decry and redeem parents enmeshed within it.  Until, perhaps, we are able to watch ‘bad’ mothers without our hands covering our eyes in shame, refusing to be merely irritated and instead remaining angry, ‘real’ mothering will continue to lurk on the margins of culture.


I would like to offer my gratitude and thanks for the helpful suggestions made by the two anonymous reviewers of this article.


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Biographical note

Tracey Jensen teaches at the Centre for Creative and Cultural Industries at King’s College London.  Her doctoral research examined the discourses of class and gender produced within instructional parenting television, maps the circuits of value and capital
that parents play in their encounters with these programmes and explores the relationship between televisual encounters and the promises of political parenting interventions.