Laurie Toby Edison

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Older Mothers: When the Camera Doesn’t Lie, the Captions Do

Debbie says:

Philip N. Cohen blogs at Family Inequality, where he has written recently here and here about how the older-mother phenomenon is misrepresented in articles and data.

In this Sociological Images post, he takes on the visual imagery that goes with the misrepresentations. This picture is sold by a stock photo agency as a picture of a grandmother with her new grandchild.

When it ran in Slate with Katie Roiphe’s lamentation in Slate about how older mothers are women “trying to have it all,” it was captioned as if it was a picture of a mom and baby. Cohen is kind enough to say that this isn’t really untrue, because the article is a feature and not news.

Here’s Roiphe on older moms:

… one of the problems of our bourgeois, post-feminist world is the lingering sense that you can, according to the absurd cliché, “have it all”—that you should be able to have children, even if you push off that time until your late 30s or early 40s, and that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s. We tend to view basic biology as a practicality to be surmounted, something trivial and irritating that shouldn’t get in the way of the promise of a full life.

Of course, what this really is is anti-feminist journalist code for “I don’t want to go into the social pressures on women, or the social/financial/cultural reasons why women delay motherhood; I just want to call them out for being selfish, and especially I want to say that they are acting stupidly and they don’t have their children’s best interests at heart.”

A very similar article, also from Slate, was reprinted by Canada’s National Post with this image:

This one is a picture from China, and is sold (weirdly) as a picture illustrating the problems of the one-child policy in terms of available children to care for aging grandparents and parents. (This makes no sense, since the woman is with two children, but it’s also not expressly, and perhaps not at all, a picture of an older mother.)

I don’t feel as kind as Cohen about this. I think this is misrepresentation. Slate and other venues could find accurate pictures to make their point if they wanted to. These pictures are in short supply at the stock photo agencies, but they’re easy to find on Google Images (and rights to Google Image photos can usually be cleared with a little patience). They’re probably also easy to find on Flickr. Perhaps even more to the point, if Roiphe and Benedikt and their companions in this crusade against women who “want to have it all” are interviewing real people for their stories, why aren’t they bringing a camera to the interviews?

Perhaps for the same reason that they can’t be bothered to get their facts about older motherhood correct?

ETA: The original version put more burden on Roiphe and Benedikt for the truth of the photographs than is probably fair given how journalism works. This version attempts to correct that.

4 Responses to “Older Mothers: When the Camera Doesn’t Lie, the Captions Do”

  1. Stef Says:

    These misrepresentations (grandmothers pictured in an article about mothers) remind me of the headless fatty photos that accompany many articles about “the obesity epidemic.” The headless fatties are almost always much fatter than most people who have a BMI in the “obese” range. (Compare the images in Charlotte Cooper’s article with the ones in Kate Harding’s BMI project.)

    I think in both cases the object is to try to create visceral, judgemental outrage about something that really isn’t any big deal.

  2. Janet Lafler Says:

    Hey, he followed up on my comment about births to older women (I am relfal). Cool!

  3. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    I have hated pretty much everything I’ve read by Katie Roiphe, and from what you say about this article, it would be no exception. I’m wondering, though, whether she is to blame for the photo. Do authors generally choose the illustrations for web and other articles, or does a photo editor do it? That person might be to blame for the photo, with Roiphe of course to blame for the text.

  4. Debbie Says:

    Lisa, I think that’s right. I’ve edited the post to fix that assumption (but I do think the authors could have taken photographs if they did live interviews, so I left that in).

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