Legislating Maternal Emotion

14 Jul

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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.


Posted by on July 14, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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3 responses to “Legislating Maternal Emotion

  1. Patrick Cronin

    July 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    This is your best blog yet. What a wonderful way you have a zeroing in on the ISSUE….not the emotional baggagre around the issue but the issue itself. Thanks for doing this.

    Pat Cronin

  2. K.C. Gott

    July 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I didn’t watch the trial and spent a great deal of time trying to avoid all sorts of conversations about this issue but I have to say that when the verdict came in, I was impressed that the system seemed to work in that a doubt was raised and the defendant was found not guilty (not to be confused with innocent). But, the other thing that has struck me during all of this is that it’s rather interesting this case gets such attention and not a possible case of murder by a father or the disappearance and terrible treatment of a child of color.

    In any event, I think the points you raise here are good ones and I am glad someone is raising them. Thanks for giving me good arguments for how Caylee’s law is one that needs to be examined much more closely.

  3. Kelly

    July 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    I simply love reactionary legislation. I mean poorly constructed laws, hastily passed have never resulted in problems, right? [Please note sarcasm].

    The one thing the American culture doesn’t practice with grace is uncertainty. We don’t want to live in the gray area or embrace the Waiting. We want action, quick and often punitive. Frankly, I feel the same way much of the time: action is a virtue and inaction is an evil to be avoided at all cost. One of my best friends has long advised me: NOT making a decision IS making a decision.

    While I doubt it will happen, I wish we would be a bit more patient when passing legislation, especially where the victimization of children is concerned. In our zeal to protect our children and punish vile criminals, we seem to create laws that result in more confusion and even exacerbate pain.

    My decision after the Anthony case: I am simply Waiting to see how I feel/think about Anthony’s guilt over time. Don’t get me wrong. I feel the pull to weigh in and to convict her, but then I remind myself that the evidence I have viewed is through a selective lens. I’d prefer to wait & see.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and re-orienting post.


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