Monday, February 28, 2011

The Greatest Role of All: Motherhood, Feminism, and Natalie Portman

Last night at the Oscars, Natalie Portman was giving her acceptance speech for Best Actress when she thanked "my beautiful love, Benjamin Millepied who choreographed the film and has now given me the most important role of my life" - motherhood.  It was a beautiful moment, but this Salon writer, Mary Elizabeth Williams, found Portman's words "jarring."  She got the creepy-crawlies at the thought of motherhood.  She doesn't like it when people:

refer[] to motherhood as the most important thing a woman can possibly do ... is motherhood really a greater role than being secretary of state or a justice on the Supreme Court?  Is reproduction automatically the greatest thing Natalie Portman will do with her life? 

Well, I happen to agree that motherhood is Portman's most important role.  But we're not talking about a woman secretary of state or justice, we're talking about an actress.  And because she's an actress, the term "role" is quite literal.  Portman has played many parts in her young career, from Queen Amidala to Anne Boleyn to Nina Sayers in Black Swan for which she won her award for Best Actress in a Lead ROLE.  So, yes, I would say Mother is far more important a role to play than any of these characters.  And good for her for saying so!

But the Slate author just doesn't get it:

Why, at the pinnacle of one's professional career, would a person feel the need to undercut it by announcing that there's something else even more important? Even if you feel that way, why downplay your achievement
Wow, really?  She begrudges Portman for having the humility to acknowledge that there are things in this world bigger and more important than - GASP - acting?!

Interestingly enough, the writer quotes Annette Bening as an example of - well, actually, I'm not sure WHY she quotes Bening, something about working mothers but the point isn't clear - but Bening gets to the heart of what the writer doesn't understand.  She says of motherhood, in part:

"a lot of the time your life is not about you ... There's that selflessness you need to find ..."

Seems like Portman has already found that selflessness, while the writer wishes she would simply be selfish and bask in herself and her own glory.

The author goes on to gripe:

when was the last time a male star gave an acceptance speech calling fatherhood his biggest role?

I'm not sure if any man has or hasn't, but someone should have.  Fatherhood is a very important role, especially today when 22% of children live in single mother homes.  In fact, isn't it Hollywood and the Left that are always trying to tell us fathers aren't all that important?

In closing, the author writes:

Motherhood is important. So is work. And you don't have to backhandedly downplay one to be proud of the other.

How does saying her most important role is that of a mother "backhandedly downplay" her role in Black Swan?  She's not insulting her own work, but stating the simple fact that there are more important things in life.

The visceral reaction from people like the Slate writer, upon watching Natalie Portman talk about "the most important role of [her] life," makes complete sense when you consider that it goes against everything strident feminists believe.  Any good thoughts about motherhood or the mere presence of a visibly pregnant woman gives them the heebie jeebies because, to them, motherhood is a choice and their first instinct is that a baby is a parasite to be removed

We can't be too complementary of motherhood lest we offend the women who chose to kill their babies.  We can't call it the most important role because that is insensitive to women who don't have or want children.  We can't celebrate the unique role of the mother because that would mean acknowledging the differences between men and women and that these differences can be good.  We can't talk about motherhood and careers at the same time because that means that we value one over the other and both are equally good and valid - especially having a career.

Only a feminist would complain about an actress not being self-centered and narcissistic.  Only a feminist would be offended at the thought of raising the next generation being one's most important role.  Only a feminist would consider being thankful to have a child with the one you love a backhanded slap at your career. 

How sad that this writer chose to throw a feminissy fit over this beautiful moment for Natalie Portman and her family.  I wish Portman well in the greatest role she, or any woman, will ever play.

UPDATE 3/1: KJ Dell'Antonia from Slate gets in on the act, saying Portman was just "spouting the party line" and adds: 

every time a powerful woman downplays her other achievements as inferior to her maternal status, she feeds the doubt that still pursue working mothers at every end of the spectrum: Will she really take her work seriously or will she put her children first

Again, this isn't a zero sum game - calling motherhood your most important role does not downplay other achievements, and the choice isn't between either "take work seriously" or "put children first."  Feminists might not believe it, but women CAN do a job well, while prioritizing their children's lives - women are known for their great abilities to multi-task, after all.

But even if it WERE a zero sum game, so what?  The role of mother is more important than any regular "job" and it should be - whoops, can't say that! - might hurt some working mom's feelings or make her doubt herself!  We aren't allowed to say ANYTHING is more important than a career because apparently that is the end all and be all of being a woman, anything else is bending to the will of the powerful and oppressive patriarchy or some such b.s.


Blue Collar Muse said...

Alexa -

What a thoughtful and thought provoking post. Thank you for presenting an articulate and rational depiction of the reality that millions of women around our wonderful country and the world choose to embrace on a daily basis.

The Much Younger Trophy Wife would agree with Ms Portman. She has devoted the last 22 years of her life to raising our brood of 5. Sometimes she even has time for me. Usually she doesn't have time for herself. Yet I've never seen her down or heard her complain. Not because she's a trooper playing out the bad hand she's been dealt by fate with stoicism and fatalism. But because this is what she was born to do. She loves it and has always wanted to be a mom. As you might expect, she excels at it.

Thank you for giving voice to the hearts of so many. I'm proud to call you friend!

Rebecca said...

I want to congratulate you on this post. As a working mom of 3 who CHOOSES to work, I am giving hell all the time by people that say I am choosing my career over motherhood. Some who didn't understand why I had my third child. And more who say I should just be pro-choice because I obviously care more about my career than my babies. WHAT???

You nailed this. You nailed this for all types of parents... moms, dads, working moms. I congratulate you. And am proud to know you.

Loren Heal said...

I was in a job interview a while back and they asked me what was my greatest accomplishment. I hesitated, but then answered proudly that it was raising my kids.

Unknown said...

I am one of those "mothers" who say I love my career but I love my child more. This does not make me a bad mother.
If the world comes crashing down, I will try to save my child first than my career.
Love your article!

John S said...

Motherhood is important... and I can't think of any less important endeavor on Earth than acting.

Karen Janowski said...

As your mom, I am very proud of you for the articulate way your present your points in this blog post.

(And I am thankful you are my daughter since motherhood IS my most important role!)

Anonymous said...

One you've had a kid, raising it to be an independent, self-motivating adult is your most important task (this is true of BOTH parents). Anyone who thinks differently should not have kids (if only people remained infertile until they thought this way, we'd probably have a lot fewer "problem children"). Note that the process of raising children doesn't preclude having a career; indeed, unless you're independently wealthy and don't need to work, at least one parent will need to work to provide the means to house, clothe, feed, and educate the kid(s). It is important to teach your children that parents have to work to support themselves and their children, and providing the example via your own actions is a powerful teaching aid. Those who fail to teach this lesson to their children wind up with children who never become independent adults, but remain children all their lives who expect others to care for them rather than caring for themselves.

But before you've had kids, and after they've become adults, your most important task can be whatever you want.

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