Sunday Reading: May 13, 2023

This Sunday, we've curated a selection of reading around the theme of motherhood.

“Rather than being universal, motherhood is always figured within a necropolitical, racializing logic that constructs the appropriately maternal as white, as is the nation it reproduces and resurrects,” writes JB Brager in “Bad Mothers” (2011). The piece analyzes Ruby C. Tapia’s American Pietàs: Visions of Race, Death and the Maternal (2011) alongside “the public spectacle that is the Casey Anthony murder trial, playing simultaneously on two televisions, volume on, at my doctor’s office.” Instead of zooming in on the albeit horrible details of the case––Anthony was accused of killing her two-year-old daughter, Caylee––Brager looks at how dichotomous visions of motherhood (saintly, evil) are socially manufactured, and to what effect. “While teen pregnancy is stereotyped as a racialized epidemic of burgeoning inner-city welfare queens in public service and political campaigns, the airwaves are increasingly flooded with teen moms in the model of The Secret Life of the American Teenager character Amy Juergens––the nice, middle class white girl who made a mistake, but who will not present a burden to taxpayers.” As these then-popular teen mom reality shows reveal, disciplining motherhood is a way to discipline the present and future national body. Anthony was eventually cleared of all charges and now works at a legal office.

In 2016, 700 local cops and federal agents descended from helicopters and squad cars, storming the Eastchester, New York, housing project and arresting 120 supposed gang members. The justification for this sweep, as the anonymous author of “Public  Letter from a Mother of the Bronx 120” (2017) points out, was a federal law called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. RICO allows conspiracy charges: the prosecution doesn’t have to prove that the defendant has committed a crime, only that they intended to. It’s a ruling based, not on life, but on a speculative reality, where “intent” is intentionally nebulous. Members of the Bronx 120 found themselves charged just for being friends with someone who was supposedly in a gang, or for interacting with them on Facebook. The author of the public letter described the raid as a kidnapping. “They were handcuffed and shackled in chains as if they were slaves… But these are our sons, so violently ripped from us.” In indexing the long and violent history of black men being torn from their families, the author foregrounds whose motherhood is respected in America, who is allowed to live and grow old with their kids.

It's a question echoed in "Mommy Dearest" (2019), an interview between Hiji Nam and Hosu Kim. The majority of the world's transnational adoptions come from South Korea into the US, and the adoptees are usually children with living birth parents. Born out of the circumstances created by the US war in Korea, the flow of kids continues to follow lines carved by interests of the state, and they are hostile to poor women. Kim’s book, Birth Mothers and Transnational Adoption Practices in South Korea: Virtual Mothering "traces how South Korea’s modern nation-state has deployed the biopolitics of transnational adoption to affect normalized, everyday, gendered violence against working-class, poor, single mothers in South Korea. It is also a story of how their reproductive labor has been appropriated to serve the agenda of national security and economic development, under the aegis of both the cold war and today’s globalized, neoliberal capitalist state."

The Bureaucracy of Us” (2014) is also an account of what happens when “family” is allowed to be defined by the state. Amidst bans on transgender healthcare and rights, author Sarah Viren's account is a prescient look at the tension between federal and local governance in the US. Viren describes marrying her wife, Marta, in Iowa, where it was legal; five months later, gay marriage was legalized nationally as well. Once the couple has kids, though, their position grows more complicated. “The state agency in charge of birth certificates had continued to reject applications in which both the parents listed were women,” Viren writes, meaning that, despite being legally married, she cannot be listed as her daughter’s legal parent. Viren’s analysis of this bureaucratic war of attrition are peppered with first person accounts of being a new mom. When the family moves to Texas, however, Viren’s marriage and adoption are not legally recognized; they’re a family under federal law, but not, weirdly, at the state level. “We know who we are to each other, we know who our daughter is to us, but in times like these we often have no idea who we are under the law.” A decade later, as trans kids are increasingly forced to choose between staying with their families and moving to states where transition is legal (even though it is legal at the federal level), Viren’s account has proved to be a sadly relevant precedent.

A Feminist Theory of Violence by Françoise Vergès

As the fallout of Jordan Neely’s horrific murder demonstrates, it remains necessary to examine how capitalist and imperialist society mobilizes fear, especially the fear felt by white women, to oppress, criminalize and degrade Black and poor people. In positing a direct opposition between carceral
reform feminism and abolitionist feminism, Vergès’ book avoids both the trap of disavowing the feminist project entirely while refusing to ally herself with the destructive, ongoing elite capture of feminist politics. She also draws parallels between international histories of state-sanctioned violence across the globe, with a special focus on how “humanitarian” projects pit men and women from formerly colonized nations against one another. The territory Vergès covers in this lithe volume is well-trodden to some, but the book performs a necessary cataloging function and offers an international perspective for English-language readers tempted toward American chauvinism in the fight against global racial capitalism.


1 Hour with Ana Fabrega

If you’ve been to a Brooklyn comedy show in the past ten years, you’ve likely seen people try to pull off Ana Frabrega’s style. Instead of the traditional opening riff plus monologue, Fabrega delivers short impressions and jokes back to back, playing off the differences between each bit. “If every joke is a color, then I don’t want two jokes that are the same color to be next to one another. So it’s not like, ‘Grey, grey,’ but, ‘white, black, grey.’ That way, the audience knows when each joke ends.” The effect is a synthetic montage, with jumps between emotions and characters whose emotional whiplash resembles a social media feed (lesser comics just read out their tweets) "1 Hour with Ana Fabrega,” the series of solo shows at Littlefield through June 7th, features guests such as River Ramirezand Ike Ufomadu. When I asked about the time theme (the poster features a stopwatch), Fabrega said it was a riff on “60 Minutes,” but that she also wanted the audience to “know exactly how long the show would take, so that they can plan the rest of their nights.”

"1 Hour with Ana Fabrega" was announced right before a Peabody win for Los Espooky’s, the HBO series Ana co-wrote and stars in. Despite its popularity, the show was not given a third season, a fate Ana anticipated as the streaming wars concluded and the only winners were network CEOS. As the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strike has shown, even those who manage to “make it” are being pushed to do more work for less by studio execs who want infinite growth at all costs. The WGA is also fighting against the widespread adoption of Chat GPT, and so is asking the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) to not use it. As Fabrega explained when I spoke with her, one reason why networks and studios have so far refused to negotiate about Chat GPT is because they were already using AI to give script notes. “What they’re looking for is so formulaic that it could just be fed to the computer, which in the case of an action movie, would say, like, ‘You need an explosion by page nine.’” While writers may not yet be totally replaced by machines, the WGA fears dramatically pared down staff whose main role would be selecting script choices from AI-generated options.

But as Fabrega also points out, “the strike isn’t just about writers. When all the networks and studios prioritize profit at all costs, that affects everyone. I’ve been on shoots where the teamsters who load and drive the equipment are made to work eighteen hours days with only six hours of rest in between. And that’s for a month straight. Can anyone do a good job under those circumstances? Of course not. But, most importantly, that kind of schedule is very bad for your physical and mental wellbeing…and also dangerous, in the case of drivers. But the industry really thrives on this ethos of, ‘You should just be happy to be here,’ meaning, ‘We're making your dreams come true, so shut up and take the payment and working conditions we give you.” This penny-pinching, like all austerity, is not just profit-driven: it’s also ideological, a way to discipline workers into laboring more for less, and a way to dissuade audiences against expecting anything more than mediocre content. To which Fabrega adds, “I don’t think the studios think they’re making mediocre content.”

In 2021, Business Insider announced that "network executives have reportedly been fretting over a post-Trump era." Trump had been a ratings boon for CNN, a network which for decades had languished behind Fox News, barely cracking half a million viewers, while their more fascist competitor enjoyed the nation's favor as the most watched news network of the nation––with ratings comfortably in the millions. That changed once Trump became president, launching CNN to ratings highs that could finally compare with Fox's. Once Trump left office, CNN lost nearly half their primetime viewership. Since then, audiences have continued to decline, and, in February, CNN reported a ten year ratings low.

This week, CNN hosted a Trump "town hall interview" and instructed attendees, "Please do not boo."

The event garnered them 3.3 million viewers, almost six times their usual. As Fox News ratings plummet with the departure of Tucker Carlson, CNN may be exploring a shift in strategy. The "town hall" event was hosted by Kaitlan Collins, whose previous journalism includes ranking Syrian refugees by physical attractiveness for Tucker Carlson's website, The Daily Caller.

With the unabashedly positive coverage of Trump, the "town hall" was a ratings success, leading CNN CEO Chris Licht to deflect criticism of the programming decision by defending it, as well as the performance of the moderator, on journalistic merit. Never ones to miss an opportunity to tongue boot leather, The New York Times joined in the fawning, their Chief White House Correspondent praised Kaitlan Collins as "heroic", "a true pro," and "stellar journalist."

This week, Biden extended Trump-era border policy by further restricting the possibility of asylum for migrants escaping violence in South America. In 2020, the Trump administration used the threat of Covid to close the border to asylum seekers. This was done through a 1944 public health statute justifying border closing in the name of disease prevention that the Trump administration used to empower "Customs and Border Protections" agents to immediately expel migrants. The statute, Title 42, superseded laws that protected asylum seekers, including children and those fleeing violence and persecution. Even the CDC admitted that Title 42 never defensibly prevented the spread of disease, and the ACLU sued the Trump administration for invoking it. Still, the Biden administration continued the policy. Through the rapid rejection of asylum claims, Title 42 allowed migrants to continue seeking asylum because they could still reapply.

When Title 42 expired this week, the Biden administration issued an unprecedented erosion to the international right to asylum by instituting limitations on eligibility. Now, asylum seekers are being rejected under Title 8, which subjects applicants to a five year ban on reentry into the US and possible criminal prosecution for attempting entry. Asylum applications have been capped, and those seeking asylum are directed to queue through a glitchy smartphone app. This has left hundreds of people stranded at the border, with little recourse. These migrants do not have proper food, water, safety, or shelter. Many of them are from Venezuela and Nicaragua, and are trying to escape conditions created by US sanctions on those countries. By expanding the unprotected liminal state migrants are forced into, and severely restricting official pathways to legal status, the Biden administration encourages an increase in border violence against already vulnerable people. Those detained suffer from assault and abuse at the hands of border officials. This comes during an expansion of the powers of border enforcement officers, whose jurisdiction extends beyond the border. Like Trump before him, Biden is sending troops. This week, the first 550 active duty soldiers, of planned 1500 member "troop surge," arrived at the southern border. Biden supporters may not chant about building a wall, but their President is still building one.