Two weeks ago, prime minister Julia Gillard hosted a morning tea. Fairfax parliamentary sketch writer Jacqueline Maley wrote:
Australia’s most popular ‘mummy bloggers’ – mothers and wives who write personal, confessional blogs about their day-to-day struggles and experiences, laced with iPhone photos from their lives – were invited to a morning tea at Kirribilli House on Friday.
While some of the attendees were happy to be described that way, others were … well, not even bloggers, or mothers. They were simply Australian women writers who wield considerable online influence, which is not nearly so simple or sexy a label.
‘I thought it was amusing, but also typical,’ said online opinion writer Clementine Ford, one of the attendees; who is single, childless and doesn’t have a blog. ‘This was the media’s way of turning it into a school gate meet. [The prime minister] wasn’t meeting with people of any significance or intelligence – she was placating and flattering women, who are so stupid they apparently only need to be given a plate of cakes and a smile to be won over.’
She noted that she didn’t think this was Gillard’s attitude, though it was the way the media chose to represent it. ‘Calling people ‘bloggers’ is also a way for the media to diminish the writing people do as not really journalistic or important.’
Other women present included Marieke Hardy (no children or husband) and Wendy Harmer (editor of magazine website The Hoopla, no blog). ‘According to the SMH I am now a “mummy blogger”. Must be having another one of those “oh shit! I forgot to have children” mornings,’ tweeted Hardy.
Mummy bloggers have been a distinct category in the US for the past few years, but it’s only recently become a public phenomenon in Australia. Just days before the PM’s morning tea, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a piece about the monetisation of ‘mummy blogging’, with the most popular bloggers so inundated by offers and requests by PR agencies that they’ve hired agents to filter them.
What is ‘mummy blogging’? Why is it so popular? And isn’t it a wee bit infantilising to label grown women as ‘mummies’?
‘I have wondered this before – am I a mummy blogger?’ says Penni Russon, a Melbourne author who has published several YA books with Allen & Unwin. Her blog, Eglantine’s Cake, is life writing with a focus on her children, though she also writes about other subjects, including writing itself. ‘I’d never introduce myself in a professional capacity as a ‘mummy author though my children influence my fiction writing too,’ she says. ‘I have a story in Island 129 that began life as a blog post.’ Though she doesn’t identify as a mummy blogger and dislikes the term (‘it’s creepy’), she says she’s not comfortable dismissing it out of hand.
Russon thinks the term ‘probably began as media sniffiness about blogging in general’. She says, ‘A mummy blogger is to writing what knitting is to fine art (and I deliberately chose knitting as allegory because it’s actually quite hard and some people do it beautifully and even make money out of it). However, the term is picking up marketing and political cachet: ‘Mummy’ bloggers represent the ‘mummy voters’ and ‘the mummy dollar’.’
‘Every how-to you’ll find on the web encourages you to find two things – your voice and your niche – and mummy blogging is one of those niches,’ says Tracy Crisp, who has recently closed her blog, Adelaide from Adelaide, where she wrote about her life with husband and two children in Abu Dhabi. ‘I don’t think you can ignore the commercial aspects of contemporary blogging, and I think mummy blogging is an advertiser’s dream. I’m not sure to what extent the market created mummy blogging or mummy blogging created the market, but you can’t ignore it as a reality.’
Crisp, a novelist and stand-up comedian, says she ‘wouldn’t mind’ being labelled as a mummy blogger, though she thinks her blog is too varied to fall into the niche. ‘There’s a lot I don’t like about the label ‘mummy blogging’,’ she says. ‘I don’t like the implicit dismissal of women and women’s voices. There’s a direct relationship between that and the discussion of women’s voices in literature. It’s in comedy as well.’
Cristy Clark’s blog, A Garden Somewhere, is eclectic but has a strong focus on the experience of motherhood, including open letters to her two children. It also includes posts on school lunches, attachment parenting and making the transition from vegan to ecotarian eating as a family. She ‘hates’ the term mummy blogger, saying ‘it carries an implicit message that the experience of motherhood is trivial and boring and the act of writing about it is self-indulgent and privileged’.
It’s labelling from the outside that she particularly dislikes; she can see why some bloggers have adopted ‘mummy blogger’ for themselves. ‘Partly out of pride and partly because people like to belong to a group. The experience of motherhood can be overwhelming and all-consuming at first and naturally people want to reach out to others in a similar position in order to make sense of it and to counter the sense of crushing isolation that can accompany that first phase of motherhood.’
Karen Andrews, program manager of the Emerging Writers Festival, has been blogging at Miscellaneous Mum since 2006; she has identified as a ‘mummy blogger’ in the past but now prefers to call herself a ‘personal blogger’; she talks less about mothering and more about her own experiences these days. She thinks the term is sometimes used as shorthand, sometimes for convenience’s sake, sometimes ‘proudly worn and declared’ and at other times as dismissive. She says she blogs because ‘first and foremost, it’s nice to have an account of the activities of our family.’ She also enjoys the sense of connection with others and the creative challenge of blogging.
Andie Fox blogs about feminist motherhood at Blue Milk. She says that while she doesn’t personally identify as a ‘mummy blogger’, she is ‘relatively comfortable’ with others identifying her blog as such. ‘I think that it is part of my work in debunking stereotypes about mothers that I should be happy to be labelled a mummy blogger. It is not an insult to one’s identity to be a mother.’
Clementine Ford believes the label ‘posits them all in a groupthink – suggesting that ‘mummy bloggers have some kind of advertising or lobbying power, and that they’ll always fall on the side of conservative family values – it seems to suggest they have no interests outside of being a mother.’
‘Mothering, as well as the drudgery, also involves some moments that are incredibly thoughtful, and cerebral and intellectually challenging and also moments filled with intense passion. I have never been so full of thoughts in my life as since the past seven years of being a parent,’ says Andie Fox. She says that her blog is quite radical in that it focuses on herself as a mother, rather than her children. ‘I think it is actually a radical feminist position to consider the topic of mothers, themselves, rather than their acts, to be the important part of a motherhood discussion.’
While her site is not currently monetised, she is considering heading in that direction, ‘to a small degree’, though she can’t see that extending to the product reviews, advertorials and give-aways that are making ‘mummy blogging’ so lucrative for some.
‘I think it is great that so many women are recording their lives now,’ says Fox. ‘We are holding large-scale, global discussions that just weren’t getting the space previously … But I think there is a special kind of sexist criticism reserved just for mummy blogging. It is a shame that mummy blogging even self-promotes as this ‘pink/soft/ultra feminine’ place for women – because in reality, there are lots of mothers writing blogs outside of that narrow category.’
In his 2010 book Reality Hunger, US writer David Shields argued against traditional realist fiction in favour of a new kind of fiction, one that wasn’t afraid to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. It was a manifesto that appeared to be a theoretical mirror to the collapse of fiction and reality that is occurring in the online world, where invented personae proliferate. But when the writer of a blog called ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’ was recently outed as being 37-year-old US peace activist, student and heterosexual male Tom MacMaster, and not Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari, reactions across the world were a clear indication that, pace David Shields, we still expect some authenticity in our authors.
While the story has slipped off the front pages, the blog hasn’t been killed off. At least, not yet. Last Thursday, a contrite Tom MacMaster published another post. Writing as himself now, he blogged about a previous incarnation of his heroine. In Amina’s former existence (which ended in 2010), he had fabricated an Amina who was, on this occasion, a married Syrian-American mother of two. This proto-Amina, MacMaster wrote, also suffered injustice at the hands of Syrian authorities: her husband had disappeared for several days during a family trip.
In response, the silence – writes MacMaster – was deafening. “She received exactly one anonymous comment: ‘That kinda sucks’. Nothing more. No one was alarmed. No one started a campaign to free him. No one sent messages of support. The blog had two followers. I deleted it. A failure. No one had noticed. I revised Amina. Now, she was single and in Syria … and openly gay … I worked on her back story for a while before debuting the new version.” Amina mark II, on the other hand, received much more attention. Perhaps it was her youth, or her good looks, or her openly transgressive identity, or perhaps it was because world events caught up with her – whatever the reason, this Amina received decidedly more attention.
As some bloggers achieve celebrity status through their blogs (albeit of a minor order), it’s no surprise that flogs (short for fake blogs) will also mushroom. But whereas literary fiction retains prestige despite dwindling sales, flogs are the blogging world’s dirty little secret. And Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari is a case in point: a figure that for a day or two became the torchbearer of an entire nation’s tortured soul turned out to be a hoax. But in an online world that thrives on concealment, is is still reasonable to expect a clear demarcation between the invented and the real?
Addendum: we were alerted on Facebook to an article in The Age suggesting MacMaster has invented another persona for himself.
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