• Fri. Mar 5th, 2021

What Does It Mean to ‘Look Like a Mom’?


Jul 29, 2020

When Bev Barnum, a 35-year-old self-described “suburban wife and mother of two,” first sent out the Facebook call for a “wall of moms” to help protect protesters in Portland, Ore., against federal troops, she included one stipulation.

“I wanted us to look like moms,” she told The New York Times earlier this week. “Because who wants to shoot a mom?”

So she told them to wear yellow, so they would be visible, and dress “like they were going to Target.”

The idea has caught on and has since spread to multiple other cities, including Seattle, Oakland and Albuquerque. The Wall of Moms has spawned a Wall of Dads and a Wall of Vets.

But it also raises the question of what it actually means to “look like” a mom. Does that category of appearance actually exist?

After all, moms come in as many shapes and sizes and styles as there are women in the world. Moms look like Beyoncé and Grimes; like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jacinda Ardern and Ilhan Omar. Moms look like Alex Morgan, the soccer player, and Candace Parker, the basketball player. They look like Michelle Obama, who once referred to herself the mom in chief, and Melania Trump. They look like the masked person standing next to you on the street.

The fact is, absent a child as a clue, it’s impossible to tell a mom by looking.

Which is why, when Ms. Barnum uttered the words “look like a mom,” she most likely wasn’t speaking literally. She was talking about the mom that occupies a mythic space in the shared public imagination.

The mom of the mind.

The car pool mom. The peanut-butter-and-jelly mom. The backyard sprinkler mom. The field hockey mom (and the soccer mom). The fridge calendar mom. The coupon-clipping mom. The mom that shops back-to-school deals and kitchenware and uses the hashtag #TargetMoms. (It’s a thing.)

ImageBarbara Billingsley played June Cleaver, a housewife and mother in “Leave it to Beaver.”
Credit…CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The mom that is, in other words, really a stereotype, one often associated with the word “middle”: middle-class, middle-aged, soft in the middle. The mom who is not threatening, but rather nurturing; the protector. The mom who will not pick up arms to go on the offensive, but links arms in solidarity instead. The mom who emerged back in 2000 at the Million Mom March.

The mom that is usually (though not always) a white mom, in part because she comes from a mass market pop culture tradition that has been run largely by white people. The mom that stretches back to June Cleaver, in her apron and florals, and extends through “The Brady Bunch,” “Eight Is Enough,” “The Cosby Show” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Even the word “mom” — unlike, say, mother, which has more Madonna-like implications — conjures up the idea.

Indeed, this is in part why the Wall of Moms, which is largely white, though Ms. Barnum herself is Mexican-American, has also been called the Wall of Karens, and has been the subject of debate among protesters who see it as performative solidarity, undermining the goal of racial equity by positioning white women as rescuers.

Black mothers, after all, have twinned their motherhood with activism for decades without the same broad recognition and public embrace. As Kelly Glass pointed out in The Lily, before there was the Wall of Moms, there was the Army of Moms: a group of Black women united against gun violence in Chicago — the same city where, a week before the Wall of Moms was founded, there was a march of moms from Black and Latino communities. All of them are part of a singular and powerful tradition of mother symbolism, with their own reference points and cultural touchstones.

In response, the Wall of Moms founders have emphasized that they are not speaking for the movement, simply standing with it.

And by standing together in a generic sea of yellow or white tees, faces erased by bike helmets, goggles and other protective head gear (the better to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets), some scrawled with the word “mom,” the individual is increasingly erased, the symbol residing in its stead.

The fact that the symbol may be a gross generalization of an idea also makes it effective. The bet is that most of the people on the other side can relate; can find in this mass of moms in yellow their own specific connection.

As Ms. Barnum said on Tuesday in an email, “the whole premise was that we would look nonviolent and it would force the federal officers to take a pause.”

In 2017, President Trump famously mentioned that he thought the women in the White House should “dress like women,” which loosely translated seemed to mean “dress like Ivanka.” In response, women across the country took to social media posting pictures of themselves as individuals clad as they saw fit: as astronauts, firefighters, boxers. And protesters.

Credit…Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images

This time around, despite the complications associated with even considering the idea of how to “look like a mom,” the same has not been true and is reflective of where priorities lie.

This strategy has been a part of protest since protests began: the creation of a visual force via clothing, one that immediately demarcates the people involved, communicating a sense of solidarity and cohesion while also sending a subliminal message. The suffragists in white knew it, the Hong Kong democracy activists in black knew it, and the yellow vests in France knew it.

Though the yellow of the Wall of Moms is not that yellow.

The yellow of the French protesters was the fluorescent yellow of warning, of distress; a yellow that signaled the economic pain of those who were protesting.

The yellow of the moms taps into another association. The one that represents sunshine and all the images related to it: joy, happiness, life-giving warmth. (Also morning eggs! Sunny-side up.) In case anyone didn’t get it, the women also carried sunflowers.

(Initially, Ms. Barnum said, she had wanted the moms to wear “a new color every night, but we quickly realized that would require an extra shopping trip. So we just stuck with yellow.”)

Whether or not Ms. Barnum and her confederates took color psychology into account when they made their choice, the net effect creates a stark contrast with the federal forces in their camouflage and riot gear — characterized by the historian Anne Applebaum as “performative authoritarianism.” It also undermines recent efforts by the Trump administration to paint the protests as manipulations of antifa groups, identifiable largely through their all-black choice of clothing.

This is also one of the rare uniforms associated with the racial justice movement, which has been characterized by its lack of a dress code and multidimensional, multinational reach.

As for the Wall of Dads, they are mostly wearing orange. We’ll see what happens with the jeans.


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