The Power of Blame is a Curious Thing

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Two blogs recently hit a nerve about blaming girls and mothers. While the reaction to each was quite different, the underlying message was the same. And each is wrongly blaming individuals for what are ultimately cultural problems.

Poor Kim Hall. In a very short amount of time, she received a painful lesson in hypocrisy, feminism, irony and the power of the internet. Kim, a mother of four who is the director of Women’s Ministry at a Presbyterian church, has a blog. Like most blogs, her readership usually is limited to family and friends. That changed. In early September, she posted an open letter to teenage girls telling them that they need to stop posting scantily clad pictures of themselves on social media lest boys think poorly of them. And the firestorm began as her post quickly went viral. By the time she closed her comments section, over 800 people had commented.

Although many people agreed with her, others pointed out the hypocrisy evident in posting a diatribe against female bare skin alongside pictures of her sons at the beach showing a lot of bare skin themselves. Feminists commented and wrote blogs themselves about the sexism inherent in chastising girls while making it seem like boys play no role in the objectification of women’s bodies or even in their own sexuality. Although it was Kim who began everything by shaming girls for posting things online that she found offensive, in a delicious bit of irony, now she is the one who is on the other side of the fence. You would think that a woman working in a Christian ministry would know better than to try and remove the speck in someone else’s eye before removing the log from her own.

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It’s funny what people choose to get upset about. There is another article going around that also is generating a lot of feedback (at last count, it has close to 800 comments as well), but most of it is overwhelmingly positive. This is written by Michelle, who does not include her last name. Despite the shaming title, “Moms, When Are You Going to Learn?” it’s actually about mothers not judging ourselves or other mothers for not being perfect. There is even a picture of Michelle with her children with the big headline of “I’m Not Supermom.”

Now, of course I absolutely agree with most of what she says. We all have our own strengths as mothers and we should be celebrating them rather than feeling guilty for not living up to some unattainable ideal. I have been preaching this idea for YEARS! So why am I comparing the two blogs? Because it seems to me that both of them are blaming individuals for cultural problems.

In Kim’s case, she was trying to get teenage girls not to post sexy pictures of themselves in various states of undress. But this is a much, much larger issue than just a few girls showing skin on Facebook and Instagram, and she showed no understanding of that fact. Where Kim ran into trouble was that she did not stop to ask why these girls think posting those pictures is a good idea or who truly benefits when they do. She failed to question what role boys and men play in this type of behavior — in psychology terms, she was not analyzing the type and level of reinforcement — and she also neglected to consider the double standard we have for girls and boys with regard to dress, relationships and sexual behavior. Had Kim done all this and then gone after the true culprits — the businesses and people who profit when women take off their clothes — then she might not have suffered such a backlash.

However, Michelle did the same thing that Kim did. In her situation, she blamed mothers for being judgmental and all too willing to compare ourselves to each other. She didn’t ponder why it is that we hold ourselves and other mothers up to an ideal or even question where that ideal comes from. Michelle failed to make even a basic inquiry about who benefits from mothers thinking we have to be Supermoms and making sure that others toe the line too. Like Kim, she neglected to consider the double standard women have to endure. For example, nowhere in her blog did she wonder why it is that fathers seem to get kudos for completing the most minimal of tasks yet mothers are blamed for every little thing that goes wrong. So, if Michelle did the same thing Kim did in not looking at the big picture, why did her blog receive almost 800 “You go, girl!” comments while Kim endured a lot of anger directed her way?

The answer to that question is complex. Kim’s tone was much more negative, and she held herself and her family up as good examples (she came across as smug), while Michelle was funny, more positive and wisely included herself in the “to be blamed” category. But overall, I think the difference in response has to do with who got blamed. Kim went after teenage girls, a group that is viewed as needing protection. Michelle blamed mothers. Who protects us?

Mother blame is something that occurs so often that I wonder if it is actually our national pastime and I just didn’t know it. Mothers get blamed for everything from our children’s physical health and behavior to their educational situation and achievements (or lack thereof). The mental health profession has been one of the worst offenders as we have blamed mothers for everything from autism, schizophrenia and anorexia to homosexuality and juvenile delinquency. In the larger culture, mothers are blamed for all kinds of things including child poverty, crime rates, bad manners and poor educational outcomes. As Mary Kay Blakely wryly commented, “‘Mother’ is the first word that occurs to politicians and columnists and popes when they raise the question, ‘Why isn’t life turning out the way we wanted it?'” I would go further and add that mothers are blamed whenever children and even adults are acting in ways we don’t like. And now mothers are being blamed for blaming ourselves! Dandy.

So while Kim’s blog was definitely cringe-inducing, Michelle’s blog was perhaps worse because of its positive nature. We can all easily get behind, “Let’s not blame ourselves or others!” without stopping to wonder about the historical background of such blame (to keep mothers in line), the class assumptions inherent in it (poor mothers don’t have time to worry about being Supermom), the systemic nature of mother blame (so that mothers do not have the time or energy to advocate for ourselves) and how best to stop it (like joining together to challenge existing structures). Instead, we pat ourselves on the backs for not insisting upon a “company ready” house or not turning up our noses at another mother’s choices and just stop there.

Unlike the 800 commenters on Kim’s blog, there was little systemic or feminist analysis of Michelle’s post, just unwavering acceptance. Thus, the likelihood of anyone going further than individual change is low and that is simply unacceptable. If we truly want things to change for mothers, we have to take a long, hard look and figure out what needs to change. And then we must roll up our sleeves and start doing the tough work of making it happen. Although she didn’t put it this way, Michelle was right about not seeing ourselves or other mothers as the enemy. Instead, we need to view each other as sisters and remember that sisterhood is powerful. Only in togetherness will there be change.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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