Last week, I took down a random picture of myself and replaced it with a picture of my daughter on my Facebook profile page. It was an innocent gesture prompted simply by boredom and the fact that an update seemed fitting.
But if you ask Katie Rolphe, author of a feminist missive in Slate's new doubleX, Get Your Kid Off Your Facebook Page there was nothing innocent about the switch. By choosing to represent my online persona with my kid's picture instead of my own, I was revealing something very unsettling about myself and the state of modern womanhood at large: I was subjugating my personal identity as a woman by putting my mommy face front and center. That means, says Katie, that I feel "I am only my children." She didn't stop there. She also went on to claim that I was one of many women "hiding behind my kid" by having her picture represent me, signaling something ominous for the modern woman that would leave Betty Friedan rolling in her Feminine Mystique-lined grave. My photo selection apparently was a way to appear "dowdy and invisible" reinforcing that "we are a mommy culture in which it's almost a point of pride how little remains of the healthy, worldly, engaged and preening self."
Despite Rolphe's interesting and well-written thesis she offers a very flimsy, myopic argument. It's built on the far-reaching initial presumption that facebook is the pinnacle of online identity, neglecting the myriad reasons why, how, when and where we choose to create our digital social persona. But, Katie, give a girl some credit: A facebook profile does not a women make. I read (see Goodreads). I work (see LinkedIn). I shop for myself (see ThisNext). I talk about my work (see Twitter). I am civic-minded (see MomsRising or Huffington Post). And if you want to read some of my secret thoughts about what motherhood really means, visit truuMOMconfessions.
Furthermore, Rolphe's description of the role of "mother" is framed through a dusty "feminist" lens in which she depicts it as a wholly undermining job that is mutually exclusive to being smart, engaged, productive and satisfying. Because, you know, if you don't put your own picture up that means you're essentially saying: Better you, you cute little coiffed child of mine, than me, who is standing in the background with unwashed hair, mom jeans and a shirt stained with pureed baby food.
"These facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement, a narrowing of our worlds. Think of a dinner party you just attended, and your friend, who wrote her senior thesis in college on Proust, who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in her twenties, a brilliant and accomplished woman. Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk about...what?...a book? A movie? A news story? ... You notice at another, livelier corner of the table that the men are not talking about models of strollers. This could in fact be a 19th-century novel where the men have retired to a different room to drink brandy and talk about news and politics. You turn back to the conversation and the woman is talking about what she packs for lunch for her child."
Hmmm. Let's set aside the obvious conversation about why what anyone packs for lunch is now appropriate fodder for a status update. Rolphe seems to have missed several nuances about online communities. Foremost, one can't isolate a single post -- such as a profile pic of one's child -- and extrapolate on it when it is a part of a living, changing representation of one's life, activities and ideas. What happens to this argument if tomorrow I put up a profile picture of myself on ABC news discussing society's unrealistic expectations for working mothers?
She also seems to miss the point that men are not posting in some segregated cigar smoke-filled chat room defining our political discourse while mommies debate the merits of Goldfish vs. Cheez-Its as an after school snack. For proof, Rolphe may want to confer with her Slate colleague, chief political correspondent John Dickerson, and ask why he represents himself to 480,000+ Twitter followers with a picture of his son and frequently mentions him in updates.
Finally, she presumes that facebook is "pioneered for a younger generation, of course. It lends itself naturally to strangers who meet at parties and flirtations struck up in bars." Clearly she hasn't read data that the fastest growing group of facebook users is women over the age of 50. Or noted the thousands of common interest groups, movements for social change, event invitations, reunions of long-lost pals and coworkers, shared news articles, or corporate profiles used by men and women in the facebook community on a daily basis. People of all ages use facebook for a variety of purposes, and heaven forbid a mom might want that old high school boyfriend she made out with under the football bleachers to see how happily married with a great kid she is now when he sends her that out-of-the-blue friend request.
While making strident sweeping statements about women, facebook and photographs, Katie's piece doesn't leave any room for other reasons women might as she says, "hide behind photos of their kids." Such as being proud of them or sharing their progress with interested friends and family. As I would do with this same collection of facebook "friends" in a group offline, I shamelessly share photos, updates on my emotional state and mundane details about my kids. So yes, one aspect of my identity is a boring housewife who *gasp* bakes cookies and sets up lemonade stands with her kids. (Should I mention that the little ones set up the lemonade stand in order to donate the proceeds to Barack Obama's presidential campaign?)
Perhaps now that I know being a strong woman means I can't post my kid's picture on my profile I can stick with something less offensive, like a picture of our family's golden retriever? But then I fear observers like Katie might jump to the conclusion that we women have gone to the dogs.
*Or worse, think I'm a dumb bitch.