What worries me about making a family into a brand
It has nothing to do with the kids' privacy
Last month I was invited to talk about my research on an NPR call-in show called Think, produced by KEXP in Dallas. A listener asked what I thought about how children are used in the mamasphere to shill products for their mothers’ brand partnerships. The listener wanted to know if I think it’s exploitation.
This question nags the mamasphere. Ever since Heather Armstrong of Dooce signed the first-ever mommyblog spon con deal, moms have been accused of profiteering off their kids’ cuteness.
But until I got that question on live radio, I honestly had not given it much thought. Kids and digital privacy is its own field of study. (If you’re interested, check out the work of Sonia Livingstone). I’ve always found the audience’s concern for the well-being of momfluencers’ kids a bit pearl-clutchy. Privacy-wise, I’m not sure there’s a huge difference, strictly speaking, between momfluencers and regular folks sharing pics of their kids on social media. In both cases, the images are being broadcast in exchange for possible income — it’s just that in regular peoples’ cases, it’s the platform that pockets the ad revenue, not the parents.
But more to the point, I observe momfluencers making active, ongoing choices about how and when to share pictures of their kids. Momfluencers’ followings can explode exponentially following a viral post, and can cause them to rethink everything they previously took for granted about their community and how they felt about sharing pics of their kids. This experience can change a way a mom chooses to post. Every momfluencer has her own guidelines: Some won’t show their kids crying or frustrated, because they feel that it’s disrespectful to the kids (that’s right — it’s very rarely because they want their family to appear happy all the time).
Last week, after years of constantly posting pictures and videos of her children, Amber Fillerup Clark announced in an Instagram story that she’s decided to stop posting pictures of her kids altogether. She didn’t go into specifics, only that she’d done “a lot of thinking” and had discussed it with the kids. Good for her! Then again, she can do whatever she wants, she has 2 million followers and two successful hair-products businesses. I’ve said this before: It’s not the moms with massive followings that you really have to worry about - it’s the ones with like 50k followers who are potentially willing to compromise their own comfort for a few thousand dollars. This tier is where the precarious labour is located.
The truth is that momfluencing is less and less about the kids anyway. You need proof-of-kid to be a momfluencer. They need to be in the house somewhere. But the success of a momfluencer’s brand has everything to do with her. The exception to this rule is newborns, which are engagement-cocaine (gross; sorry); you can read more about that in this previous entry I wrote. Everyone loves a newborn. We love growth milestones, first steps, messy meals. Truly, we are quite simian, as an audience. But once they get to be about 4, the audience is no longer very interested.
But relatively speaking, deciding what to do about kids in the pics is one of the few things in this line of work that momfluencers actually have control over, so I choose to trust that they can navigate those choices in ways that make sense for them.
So if I’m not worried about the kids’ privacy, what am I worried about?
What happens when a teleology of brand growth is grafted onto the family?
I don’t tend to make value judgements about momfluencers. However, there’s an undercurrent to all sponsored social sharing that makes me nervous.
For momfluencers to be successful in their brand partnerships, part of what they need to do is maintain a narrative that everything’s moving forward, ever-improving, ever-renewing. Even when things “don’t go to plan,” even when the kids freak out at the grocery store, a successful momfluencer’s family keeps moving forward, adjusting and adapting. Just like how free market capitalism is meant to work. When you link your representations of family to a logic of capitalist progress, you are applying a teleology of ongoing upward growth to your lives. What might this mean?
Yes, some families operate on a teleology of biological growth — which also includes death. The growth is not perpetual; there are ups and downs. The kids grow, it’s fun to watch that happen! And then, we get old and die. And then, the kids get old (and I guess they also die? Let’s not dwell.) Etcetera.
And in the mix there is the entirety of human existence, some of which is triumphant, but most of which is something else — the other, more common feelings of being human: boredom, heartache, habit, duty, ambivalence, dread, obsession, futility. Care and maintenance happens. Iterations, cycles, repetitions, returns, rebirths, and also failure and the abandonment of plans. Having grown up on a commune I have seen way more than my share of the remnants of things that people tried to do and failed at, but that process is creative and interesting even though it makes a mess. I never see any of that in sponsored representations of family. I should add that I haven’t done research about this — this is just the off-gassings of my content analysis.
Influencers are not the first ones to introduce a logic of continuous growth into the idea of family life. One of the ironies of the easygoing hippie counterculture is that hippies brought their holistic ideas about self-help with them when they decided to start making money in the 80s, and this is how we got the whole discourse of the “power of positive thinking,” which morphed into “manifesting wealth” and all that bullshit. (One of my favourite books I’ve read in graduate school is about this: Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s by Sam Binkley. I recommend it!!!)
You might say, “sometimes bad things happen to influencers too, and brands don’t abandon them!” It’s true. Influencers experience tragedy just like us; @littlemissmomma’s Ashley Stock, for example, has been mourning the loss of her daughter to cancer last year. There will always be exceptions, and Stock is an example of someone who seems able to both experience profound grief and also continue to run a personal brand. I think many people in her position would simply retreat from social platforms altogether until they were ready to start posting Ws again. What she’s doing is pas évident.
Grief, mourning, chronic pain, disability, and recovery all have their own robust and interesting communities on social media. A capitalist market logic does not necessarily inform the discourse in these communities; I don’t know enough about them to say much more. But I can say without hesitation that among the momfluencers, what’s taken for granted behind every post is an idea that families can and should expect ongoing forward progress in all areas: upward class mobility, personal growth, adventure, and opportunities. When you think about that taking place in the midst of climate collapse, it’s actually quite fucked up.
This triumphalist family ideology is everywhere in America once you start paying attention. If you’re American and you’re reading this, you might not even know what I’m talking about, because this is your air. In my neighbourhood in Montreal, there’s a halfway house for women recovering from addiction. It’s called a “Centre Pour Femmes en Difficulte.” I swear if it were in the States it would be called a “Women’s Leadership Center.”
There’s an abiding belief in the power of faking it in America, we know all about this. The other side of that coin is the powerful fear of personal stagnation, frailty, the experience of getting “bogged down." It seems odd to use the same rubric to assess ourselves as we do the stock market.
I’m uneasy about how momfluencers’ content is structured by the logic of the marketplace, and about the influence this might have on regular peoples’ feelings about their own families. I should clarify that what bothers me isn’t “aspirational content” per se. We all aspire, right? What bothers me is the naturalization of the idea that upward progress is the basic goal of family life. Ads for fancy consumer goods are not the issue here; it’s that a one-dimensionally progress-oriented view of family life is bogus and sad.
It is wonderful when we achieve great things. Watching my children thrive is my life’s absolute greatest delight. The opposite of a triumphalist view of family life isn’t negativity or failure. There’s an entire spectrum of human experience that unfurls between “crushing it” and utter abjection. It would be nice if there were more representations of motherhood online that occupied that space. But as long as momfluencers are working with brands, they don’t have much choice in the matter.