MamaBlogger365 – Legislating Maternal Emotion by *Dr Mama* Amber Kinser

If only Casey Anthony had had Billy Flynn as her attorney. You remember Billy Flynn; he’s the attorney who represented the women on “murderer’s row” in the musical and film Chicago. “Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle,” he’d croon in his song to the accused, Roxie Hart, about how the people of the courtroom and the general public were so easy to play if you simply “give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it.” If only Billy had prompted Casey to consider, “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

What we saw playing out in the mediated courtrooms over the last couple of months was a demand by the general public that mothers act in hyper-prescribed ways or suffer the consequences of not meeting the public ideal of maternal feelings. My point here is not to make a case one way or the other about Casey Anthony’s ultimate guilt or innocence, but to talk about how the trial — and more importantly the media coverage of it — represented yet another stage on which the policing of maternal identity and emotion got played out.

Like the trial for Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger, what rubbed people the wrong way was not the read of the actual evidence, but rather the communicative displays of the accused at the trial and the extent to which those displays matched observer’s expectations about appropriate response within the mother-child relationship. And in Casey Anthony’s case, the supremely constricted emotional parameters that mothers are permitted to explore with regard to their children has prompted even tighter constrictions in the minds of the public. If only Anthony’s attorney had persuaded her to have meltdowns everyday at the trial, to play into the hands of how the public insists that mothers feel, if only she had given ‘em an act with lots of flash in it, the whole thing would have played out quite differently. And we wouldn’t be pursuing propositions like “Caylee’s Law” so zealously.

The minute we don’t like the way someone behaves we demand a law that will ensure that no one will ever behave in that way again. Except of course that it won’t ensure such a thing and, perhaps more importantly, will in fact have repercussions that go far beyond those we seek. I’m with Judith Warner; the U.S. turns motherhood into a stinking religion, for heaven’s sake.

As I mentioned to my partner the other day when I first read about Caylee’s Law, I am thinking about a family with a sixteen-year-old who is troubled, or difficult, or marches to her own drum, or however you want to put it, who will on occasion, “run off.” And I’m thinking about this family’s struggle to try to handle its own issues, and not get the child into further trouble or otherwise further complicate family matters by bringing in police right away until they are sure there is in fact a problem that warrants police intervention. It is absurd to me that this family is positioned to have to call the police, is deprived of the opportunity to try to sort it out on their own (even while they are surrounded by cultural messages that in fact demand that they handle their own business), or risk being thrown in jail.

I mean there are circumstances, probably lots of them, where it would not be prudent for “parents” to report one of their “children” missing within 24 hours and I worry about coming up with more laws, laws, laws every time we confront social consequences we don’t want to confront. I don’t know that more intrusion by the “state” is the answer in these circumstances generally or in the Casey Anthony case specifically. I don’t know that legislation like Megan’s Law accomplishes what we hope it will; I don’t know that classifying all manner of offense under the single reportable, lifelong category of “sex offender” is just. And I certainly don’t expect to surface from this post unscathed. Maybe we should make a law about writing posts that critique laws ostensibly designed to protect children.

BIO: Dr. Mama (Amber Kinser) is a writer, feminist mother, professor, and speaker who lives in Tennessee. Check her out on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @DrMamaWit, and see her webpage. Kinser writes for the MamaBlogger365 series each Thursday at the Museum Of Motherhood, Mamapalooza and Mamazina Magazine.

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Photo credit: southernfried


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