Narrative Bias and Why Context Matters

Context

It’s hard not to be caught up in the excitement of the Olympics. Beyond the awe-inspiring athleticism, stories abound. They resonate in large part because we understand the context. The narratives fulfill a hunger of sorts — whether for inspiration, a sense of accomplishment or a common bond that goes beyond country or sport. Not all succeed though.

Some narratives simply annoy. Salon‘s Mary Elizabeth Williams piece, “So she’s a mom. So what?,” underscores the weird and prevalent mom worship in today’s society noting:

“Moms have been a running theme for these games ever since Procter & Gamble rolled out its surprisingly off-putting “Thank you, Mom” campaign earlier this year — the one that, while ostensibly paying tribute to the devotion of Olympians’ parents, managed to rebrand motherhood as not just a job, but the very hardest and very best one in the world.”

She goes on with, “As P&G says, ‘behind every Olympic athlete is a mother.’ Suck it, dads!”

What Williams doesn’t say — but I will — is this campaign and fixation with moms also says suck it, aunts, uncles, coaches, mentors, and all others who contributed to an athlete’s success.

Williams is not alone in her exasperation with the mom obsession. The Daily Beast called out the “mommy cam” fixation:

“The stars of this year’s summer Olympics? Moms. Weeping, screaming, covering their eyes, performing gymnastics floor routines in their seats, wearing American flags in their Aquanetted ponytails. The middle-aged American parent who has given her life savings and every waking moment over to her child’s athletic ambition is this year’s undisputed Olympic champion.”

Is this an American phenomenon, readers? If you’re from another country let us know if the coverage provides more complex context.

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Meanwhile, other Olympic narratives jar the senses and reveal a different bias. Take Oscar Pistorius who (Update: prior to the brutal murder of his girlfriend) redefined what it meant to be an Olympic sprinter. When he appeared on the scene the camera operators seemed transfixed by his form, unwilling to pull away to show the other runners on the track. The commentators struggled to describe his accomplishments in a way that didn’t sound patronizing. The constant references to Pistorius’ disability spoke volumes about the commentators own discomfort with what they were seeing.

I didn’t fully appreciate the able-bodied bias until I came across this recent analysis from Disability Studies Quarterly. In it, Silent Sorority and Good Eggs — and the infertility narratives of the respective authors (in the former case that would be me) — are contextualized within the field of disability studies. The piece raises provocative questions and provides a new lens with which to view and understand infertility, with the author Crystal Benedicks noting, “Perhaps infertility memoirs are of particular interest to disability studies because they grapple with the problem of disabilities that are not immediately obvious.”

In looking at the genre, Benedicks notes:

“…these infertility narratives, which begin in secret shame and rage and end with a deconstruction of the very idea of normative biological experience, provide a blueprint for what happens when those who once perceived themselves as able-bodied people begin to question the assumptions on which the idea of biological normalcy rests.”

Among other observations, she suggests that:

“…infertile women must do the hard work of imagining counter-narratives to the omnipresent maternity path. Disability studies might be a fruitful place for Tsigdinos and other women to turn in this quest, as one of the core struggles identified by this field is to imagine and articulate ways of being that are not structured by and for the able-bodied.”

Hard work is right. It’s one thing to push forward and come to terms with a narrative that is unlike the one we once envisioned for ourselves, it’s another to “grapple” when those around us are ignorant of the complex nature of the “disability” we’ve had to confront.

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Without high profile role models addressing the limits of fertility medicine we are often left struggling to explain our context to the “able-bodied” among us — as amplified by blog reader Jen, who declared this in a recent comment:

“I need, NEED, people like me, who’ve walked this very ugly road like me, to be my closest friends. I couldn’t articulate why, but you’ve given so many good reasons. I need to feel like my perspective is real, legitimate, that this experience is significant and I have permission to have it be as important to my life as it has been. I need someone to whom I don’t HAVE to explain. Whom I don’t have to teach or correct or silently forgive for being horrendously but unintentionally insensitive.”

Where Benedicks is troubled by the seeming lack of closure in Silent Sorority and Good Eggs, I would argue that the stories remain unfinished. We’re in early days when it comes to this topic. Fortunately, the context gets richer and better understood with each story we tell.

 

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22 thoughts on “Narrative Bias and Why Context Matters

  1. This is fascinating stuff. I had never given much thought to the equation between infertility & disability (aside from the parallels we sometimes draw between infertility & illness or disease — the idea that non-IFers will react more sympathetically to a diagnosis of cancer or diabetes than infertility), but I think she’s onto something here.

    I blogged about a year & a half ago about a presentation I attended on diversity that touched on the idea of privilege, and how that resonated with me: http://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.ca/2011/01/diversity-inclusion-infertility-loss.html

  2. I was an Olympics cynic from the time we Londoners were being told to “back the bid”, but even though I have been won over and am very proud of my city, I still hate the Proud Sponsors of Mums campaign. The British media has also been salivating over athletes’ mothers, and it is very disheartening.

  3. P.S. Re: media coverage — there’s also a lot of coverage here in Canada of the athletes’ families (& the P&G Moms ad campaign has a Canadian counterpart) — although I don’t think it’s reached quite the nauseating levels of NBC. Sometimes I get the feeling, watching NBC, that the actual competition is secondary to the feel-good personal features. Our Canadian coverage has the added advantage of being live, or pretty close to it, with packaged highlights, interviews & analysis available in prime time (after the events have wrapped up for the day in England). There are two huge screens set up in my office tower concourse, with some tables & chairs, & there is always a mob of people down there, eating their lunch or having coffee and watching. Lots of fun!

  4. dear Pamela,
    I like (as usually) your post.

    And I love love Jen’s words! I feel exactly the same! I could have written her words!

    kind regards to both of you.

  5. dear Pamela,
    I like (as usually) your post.

    And I love love Jen’s words! I feel exactly the same! I could have written her words!

    kind regards to both of you.

  6. Brilliant analysis. I’ve been mostly avoiding the Olympics, but even so, I have noticed the omnipresence of mothers this year. And while some people DO owe a debt of gratitude to their mothers, there are so many other stories to tell. Why is this particular narrative so appealing?

    I love the idea of infertility finding theory in disability studies … part of what I found at BlogHer this week, too, was an instant connection with those people who understood, to whom I didn’t need to explain.

  7. I’m enjoying the Olympics. We have the Proud Sponsors of Moms ad too, but I have to say I’ve only seen it twice. And there’s been no excessive coverage of mothers here. I even saw an interview with an athlete who was holding her (I presume) toddler in her arms, and the interview focused entirely on her performance, not the toddler. (I wanted to hug the interviewer).

    I’m off to read that article. I’m bristling at the thought … but find it an interesting premise … more thoughts to come perhaps.

  8. OK, I’ve now read the article, and thought it was very interesting. I’m still not sure about the whole infertility=disabled idea, though I realise she’s talking more about looking at infertility in the context of academic disability studies. But her last paragraph really raised a lot of disturbing questions (well, disturbing to me) that seemed to want to categorise people. And then, what about the voluntarily childfree? They definitely don’t fit into the disability context, and yet I think we share so much more in common with them. This is clearly going to keep me thinking for a while.

  9. PS. I also thought her concern about the “endings” was a bit odd, and – if you ask me – a bit irrelevant.

  10. Wonderful, thought provoking post, as usual, Pamela.

    I, too, was stunned at the fixation on Pistorius. I wonder what he would say about all this attention to his “disability”. Seems to me that his desire to participate in the Olympics was a statement that he did not feel disabled, and that he did not want to be seen that way. Yet, that’s all that was seen.

    Quite the opposite for us and our unseen “disability”. Like Mali, I bristled when I read that. My first thought was being labeled in this way further idealizes motherhood and diminishes other valuable accomplishments. I understand she is focusing on what the infertile have in common with the disabled– the need to imagine a different life than planned…but are there any other similarities? (I haven’t yet read the article.) What makes infertility incredibly difficult is the shame, silence, disenfranchised grief, and continuous and seemingly never-ending adulation of babies and moms. Not what first comes to mind when we think “disabled”.

    Perhaps labeling infertility this way will contribute to the general populations’ education and awareness of infertility. But being labeled “disabled” might be a too high price to pay.

    On another note, congrats, Pamela, on your book serving as another reference point in the academic world! Woohoo!

  11. I didn’t just like this post. I loved it! Truly thought provoking.

  12. i HAVE noticed the fascination with the mothers of the Olympians, and I find it really odd. I vaguely remember Michael Phelps attributing a lot of his success to his single mother four years ago, and maybe that triggered this?

    Thanks for spotlighting this issue. It’s a strange phenomenon…and part of the larger obsession with mothering our culture is currently experiencing, I believe.

  13. Jenny

    Great post. I normally love to watch the Olympics but this year not so much because of the slant that you have suggested. I saw the P&G ad, and it triggered some very difficult emotions. I have often felt that I could identify with those who are disabled. Not so much because I’ve had to redefine my life but because I feel I walk into a room and people don’t know how to respond or react to me ~ they don’t know what to say and I feel out of place. I’ve often wished that people could grasp that infertility deserves the same consideration as those who are ill or disabled. Would you invite someone in a wheel chair to be part of your running club? If you asked them to lunch would you spend the majority of your time talking about how much you love to walk/run? Then why invite me to your Mommy Book Club and expect me not to have a problem with it? Why talk on and on about your kids and pregnancies when you know it is killing me? There isn’t enough awareness but at this point my experience is too fresh and I feel too vulnerable to help make people aware.

  14. Jen

    Thanks Pamela and Klara –

    Thought I should just clarify that I had directly quoted the comment made by ‘the misfit’. I feel her words were exactly what was in my own heart, and my own words could not have summarised it better.

    And its an interesting and complex perspective here. I recall a lot of medical professionals using the words, “you feel your body has let you down” when trying to help me come to terms with infertility, and it immediately sent a chill of shame to my core. My body may be unable to do certain physical things, but do I want to be compared to a non-infertile person for the rest of my life – as though that is the only way to define me? It’s these constant comparisons with what society deems “normal women” that strikes at the heart of our identity issues – these comparisons can make anyone feel disabled, regardless of a medical issue being on the inside or the outside.

    I think we could be less harsh on ourselves by losing the need to label everything and everyone. Let go of what you deem ‘normal’ or ‘disabled’. I do not label my friend who has a spinal injury and difficulty walking: ‘disabled’. They do not label themselves that either. And they do not label me, who can’t sustain pregnancy: ‘disabled’. I do not label myself that either.

    How to escape this barrage of labelling and comparison? How to make ourselves the epitome of ‘normal’ – whatever we decide that state to be? How do we make others do the same? All good questions that may take time to work out the answers to.

    I would start with avoiding daytime television and the news, choose what media we want to focus on (sites like this one!), identify risks (i.e. stupid, baseless comparisons and labelling) at the headline level and make the choice not to listen/read any further than that. We don’t need to stay in a room of insensitive people (mothers or otherwise) and we don’t have to wear ourselves down continually trying to educate the ignorant among us, but we can choose to say ‘enough thanks – I have somewhere else I have to be’ and worry that having our own feelings hurt is worse than slightly offending someone else.

  15. viewing infertility through the disability lens is rather interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about it. on one hand, it raises awareness of a silent disease and what it takes from us, but on the other hand, I’m not sure about calling an infertile disabled.

    but kudos to you for making it into an academic paper! I love how your book just keeps gaining reach and impact.

  16. IrisD

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I try to keep updated by reading newspapers and to stay informed of issues by reading actual books by scholars dedicated to their subject matter. I have not watched cable news in months, and have hardly watched it in years. I don’t watch much tv as it is, just select programs and some news. I hate all the labeling that goes on in society and is perpetuated by media. Recently, two of my close friends have been going through some very rough times and I’ve been spending time with them, actually making my home a refuge for them. One is single, the other married, both know that we are infertile, both decided to comment on their future ttc plans. I feel somewhat bad because I want to be an ear for them on this, as I have been for everything else they’ve been going through, but I don’t want to be part of conversations related to the joys of motherhood or the expectations and hopes of becoming a mother. So I don’t respond to their statements and change subjects. I wonder if there will ever come a day when I can engage in this type of conversation without feeling the resentment that I was denied this experience.

  17. IrisD

    Ditto, ditto, ditto!!!!

  18. Yup, that was me ;).

    I don’t bristle at the comparison to the disabled, probably because – is it worse to be missing a leg than working ovaries? I’m not sure we lose by the comparison. Obviously I can claim to no intelligent understanding of what it means to be missing a leg (OK, I’m pseudonymous, you’ll have to take my word that I have both of them), but I would guess that there are plenty of people with prosthetic limbs and children who would NOT trade. That doesn’t make our “plight” worse either…I think maybe just different. It’s hard to know. It does mean that we should try to get beyond labels and see each person with whatever limitations (and everybody has something) as a PERSON. But when trying to reach out to groups, of course, you have to put them in bins…I don’t think that’s a malign tendency, just a natural way for the human mind to process the others it confronts. We can’t actually process 7 billion distinct others. We can probably deal with a couple dozen, and after that it’s “the poor” and “the rich” and “the disabled.” I don’t know what variant of that sorting-bin process would be most helpful to infertile women. Maybe just recognizing that there needs to be a bin for us, and bigger than most suspect, would be a start. I’m probably going to be irritated with some part of anything anyone says on the infertility experience, but if they’re talking about it at all, a little part of me will be happy.

    Now, as for the Olympics – I have barely watched the coverage at all. I think I would be inspired by the handicapped sprinter if only because I cannot get my behind out to jog three times a week like I say I will and there is absolutely no comparison between our respective obstacles, and less between our outcomes. I am humbled. Everyone should be.

    But I have a major dispute with this: “The middle-aged American parent who has given her life savings and every waking moment over to her child’s athletic ambition…” Most Olympic athletes (the under-20 set, at least) have had seriously hardcore (and, yes, seriously expensive) training schedules from the age of 4 or 6. SO I think that should read, “given her life’s savings and every waking moment over to HER ambition for her child.” Athletes have to take ownership of their ambitions at some point (that point is older than the ages of many Olympians, however). But I think the Olympics are a great microcosm for one of the most disturbing dynamics in American mothering: the use of one’s offspring as a vehicle for lifelong self-promotion. From the infinite baby pictures to the pre-pre-pre-pre-prep school to the chauffering through countless activities because “Susie is SO TALENTED” to the over-medication to the behavior problems dubbed “creativity” to the fact that “these days, most children are above average” – LADIES, THAT’S ANOTHER WHOLE PERSON. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU.

    Sorry for the herculean comment :).

  19. Savannah1

    Thanks to u – finally, someone is brave enough to say what I’ve silently thought for years…there IS more to life than raising children. Live your life. – have fun! Enjoy! That’s what life is for – with or without parent duties!

  20. Bea

    Interesting to view it through a disability studies lens. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’ll be chewing on it for a bit.

    Just catching up on your op, too (read about it a few days ago… don’t think I’ve had a chance to comment yet! I presumed it was all fine because there was a second post here already). Hope you’re feeling better now.

  21. Pamela

    Thanks, Bea. Feeling much better after some discomfort — will spare you the details …

  22. […] in society’s rush to remind us daily about the mommy industry and the all important role of moms everywhere we […]

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