The issue of “W” Magazine that hit newsstands this week sports a much-buzzed cover shot of Angelina Jolie breastfeeding one of her twin infants, with possibly more in the inside photo spread. Listening to the radio — and reading online comments — one gathers that many people are ambivalent as to how they feel about the appropriateness of such a thing. The layout — where Jolie’s assets are fully visible — brings up the ever-present question about whether public breastfeeding should be allowed and, more fundamentally: Are breasts firstly maternal, or sexual?
The fact that it’s Angelina Jolie’s breasts on display should answer the question once and for all. The woman is a sex symbol, and the choice of featuring a sex symbol to convey the notion of breastfeeding as a “beautiful, natural thing between mother and child” is disingenuous. There’s no way that anyone — particularly men — will easily look at the images and innocently think, “What a beautiful, natural thing.”
Nor is it likely that such was the motivation behind the editors’, and Jolie’s, choice to do the spread — regardless of what they may insist to the contrary. “W” is about to sell more magazines than it ever has before. And to a lot more men than it ever has before.
The 2000 Jim Carey movie “Me, Myself and Irene” actually made quick work of the motherly-versus-sexy issue, when the goody-two-shoes side of Carey’s split-personality reprimanded a group of men leering and talking dirty about an attractive, well-endowed mother feeding her baby on a park bench within their view. The guys laughed him off with a “Yeah, right — she’s a mommy!” Soon after, when the naughty side of Carey’s personality took over, the busty mother looked down to find Carey where her baby had been.
The on-again, off-again public breastfeeding controversy that the Jolie cover revives surfaced in the previous election year as well, when a Starbucks employee in Maryland asked a woman to cover up with a blanket while nursing her 15-month-old toddler, or to do it in the bathroom. The woman complained to the regional vice president and got her to recognize a Maryland law that permits public breastfeeding. Then the mother, named Lorig Charkoudian, went further, organizing a breastfeeding “nurse-in” at the store, in which two dozen mothers participated. The goal was to get Starbucks to allow breastfeeding at all of its stores across the country.
So in case you thought it was bad enough that the mommy set monopolizes tight coffee bar spaces with their strollers and double strollers, now they want customers to be either nauseated or aroused, depending on Mommy’s looks.
My husband and I were confronted with this scenario when a young hippie couple from Berkeley (pardon the redundancy) struck up a conversation with us at a Las Vegas buffet, where they were strolling around in between helpings with their three children. Two minutes into the conversation, the woman plops down on the floor by our table and flops out a breast to feed her youngest — and continues chatting. I could tell my husband was uneasy. On the one hand, he hasn’t seen a breast in person since he got married. On the other hand, it was a hippie breast. He stopped eating and we looked for an escape. But there was none to be had just yet, and so the conversation continued. We found out the granola family was in town for the adult film convention, and the couple was looking to break into the porn industry.
Once the “W” sales figures are tabulated, the Jolie spread should prompt us to come up with a compromise solution to the public breastfeeding controversy. Such as: If women should be allowed to openly nurse their babies, then they shouldn’t mind if men and lesbians openly leer at them while nursing their coffees or beers nearby.
Like Ms. Charkoudian’s “nurse-in,” Jolie and “W” are providing a public service, as there are plenty of men who no doubt would love to save money on their topless-bar and cable bills.
To answer the question, then, whether breasts are more maternal or sexual, the breastfeeding Jolie reminds us that this society repeatedly decides in favor of the latter. (After all, those breasts have been serving Mom a lot longer than they’ve been serving baby; they’re what got her to baby in the first place.) Which means that women who want to breastfeed in front of everyone and pretend it’s not an uncomfortable situation should move to an Amazon village. Or to some other third-world place like Europe, where breasts have been sufficiently desexualized. Because we’re not there yet. ExileStreet
copyright 2008 Julia Gorin