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Frankenmom: Theatre as History in Deconstructing American Celebrity Motherhood

  • Emily Roxworthy


When Paper magazine attempted in 2014 to “break the Internet” (as its cover declared) by publishing French artist Jean-Paul Goude's photos of reality star Kim Kardashian brazenly displaying her infamous derriere, the public reprimands to Kardashian from fellow celebrities quickly zeroed in on an even more essentializing aspect of her identity. As actress Naya Rivera posted, “You're someone's mother.” Singer Lorde articulated Kardashian's transgression even more simply, retweeting the photos along with a single word that served as a hex: “mom.” The judgment of her female peers seemed to be that Kardashian, who gave birth to daughter North West in June 2013, should have known better than to flaunt her sexuality on the public stage now that she was a mother. Meanwhile, in a related realm, an American celebrity tabloid such as Us Weekly can generate annual advertising revenues of $403 million (that magazine's 2013 figure) with a profit model based on spectacularizing celebrity mothers and appraising their so-called “baby bumps.” Former US Weekly editor-in-chief Janice Min coined the term “Frankenmom” in a now-notorious 2012 New York Times article about the pressure she felt to regain her pre-pregnancy body after the birth of her third child. In that article, she paid penance for “our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom” that she had helped create through celebrity journalism. (Kardashian's decision to pose nude in Paper was later explained by celebrity outlet TMZ as a gesture “to show the world how she bounced back after giving birth to North West.”) Despite the personal pressure she experienced as a mother, Min boasted that because of her magazine's focus on maternal bodies during her time as editor (2003–9), American novelist “Tom Wolfe once remarked, ‘the one thing that Us Weekly has done that's a great boost to the nation is, they've probably increased the birthrate.’”

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1. “Us Weekly's Advertising Revenue from 2006 to 2013 (in Million U.S. Dollars),” Statista: The Statistics Portal, accessed 12 November 2014,

2. Janice Min, “Can a Mom Get a Break?” New York Times, 19 August 2012, ST1.

3. “Kim Kardashian Fully Nude: Meet My Vagina … Again,” TMZ, 12 November 2014, accessed 14 November 2014,

4. Min, “Can a Mom Get a Break?”

5. Peter L. Rudnytsky, Freud and Oedipus (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 6.

6. Mari Yoshihara, Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 87.

7. Edward Zigler, Katherine Marsland, and Heather Lord, The Tragedy of Child Care in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

8. Jacob Bernstein, “The Baby Bump,” New York Times, 29 April 2012, ST1.

9. Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001), 49.

10. Beth Osnes and Jennifer Popple, “Introduction,” in Essays and Scripts on How Mothers Are Portrayed in the Theatre: A Neglected Frontier of Feminist Scholarship, ed. Beth Osnes and Anna Andes (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010), 1–2, at 1.

11. Cameron Lynne Macdonald, Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1.

12. The original stage version of the Butterfly title character is David Belasco's 1900 play Madame Butterfly, in which she is called “Cho-Cho-San,” a romanization of the Japanese word for “butterfly” (choucho) plus the Japanese honorific “san.” Readers will be more familiar with the Italian spelling of the character's name as “Cio-Cio-San” in Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera version, Madama Butterfly. In the analysis that follows, I focus primarily on Puccini's opera version because of its global influence and its continuing presence in the opera repertoire, and thus I refer to the character as “Cio-Cio-San.” However, I refer to his opera's title in its English translation (Madame Butterfly).

13. Rudnytsky, 5.

14. Ibid., 87, 259. Other scholars, including Richard H. Armstrong, identify Oedipus’ two mothers as his adoptive mother, Merope (labeled the “Good Mother”) and his biological mother-cum-wife Jocasta (labeled the “Bad Mother” for attempting the infanticide of her son). Richard H. Armstrong, “Freud and the Drama of Oedipal Truth,” in A Companion to Sophocles, ed. Kirk Ormand (West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2012), 477–91, at 489. However, Rudnytsky's assignments of the Sphinx as the phallic mother and Jocasta as the ideal mother are directly linked to Freud's reading of the play, particularly the reflection included in his biography on the onstage life of Oedipus, so I retain these assignments in my analysis.

15. Miriam Leonard, “Lacan, Irigaray, and Beyond: Antigones and the Politics of Psychoanalysis,” in Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, ed. Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 131–2.

16. Richard Armstrong, “Oedipus as Evidence: The Theatrical Background of Freud's Oedipus Complex,” PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts (1 January 1999), accessed 25 March 2013, In a later essay, Armstrong admitted that “while there is no direct evidence that Freud saw Mounet-Sully's Oedipe Roi or Wilbrandt's König Oedipus, he was in both cities during periods when he would have been made aware of the success of Sophocles’ play on the modern stage.” Armstrong, “Freud and the Drama of Oedipal Truth,” 482.

17. Mounet-Sully quoted in Armstrong, “Oedipus as Evidence,” who cites Vernay, [L.], “Chez Mounet-Sully à propos d'Oedipe Roi,” Revue d'art dramatique 11 (1888): 136–41, at 138–9.

18. Fiona Macintosh, Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 90. See also Simon Goldhill, Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 193–4.

19. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams [1899], trans. A. A. Brill (1913; repr., Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth, 1997), 156.

20. Armstrong, “Oedipus as Evidence.”

21. Freud, Interpretation of Dream, 156–7.

22. Armstrong, “Oedipus as Evidence.”

23. Richard H. Armstrong, A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 227; Armstrong's italics.

24. Armstrong, “Oedipus as Evidence.” The precise quotation from The Interpretation of Dreams is this: “If the Oedipus Rex is capable of moving a modern reader or playgoer no less powerfully than it moved the contemporary Greeks, the only possible explanation is that the effect of the Greek tragedy does not depend upon the conflict between fate and human will, but upon the peculiar nature of the material by which this conflict is revealed” (Freud, 156). In other words, Freud's collapsing of the millennia between these two theatrical eras is essential to his argument for the Oedipus complex.

25. Ibid., 158.

26. Macintosh, 12.

27. Armory, “Le Théâtre aux Arènes de Nimes” (review of Oedipe Roi), L'Art dramatique et musical au XXe siècle 3 (1903): 218–19, at 218; translated by Julie Burelle.

28. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990; repr., New York: Routledge, 2006), 103.

29. E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London: Routledge, 1992), 29, 45.

30. Amber Jacobs, On Matricide: Myth, Psychoanalysis, and the Law of the Mother (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 57–8.

31. Moi, Toril, “The Missing Mother: The Oedipal Rivalries of René Girard,” Diacritics 12.2 (1982): 2131, at 27.

32. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 170.

33. Ibid., 12.

34. Ibid., 95.

35. Moi, 29.

36. Ibid., 24. Ciriaco Morón-Arroyo quoted in ibid., 25.

37. Rudnytsky, 258; Rudnytsky's italics.

38. Ibid.; Rudnytsky's italics.

39. Rokem, Freddie, “The Female Voice: ‘Greek’ and ‘Hebrew’ Paradigms in the Modern Theatre,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 10.2 (1996): 7898, at 85, 87.

40. Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd ed., vol. 1, ed. J. Ellen Gainor, Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013).

41. Rokem, 85. Some artists have attempted to restore Jocasta's voice in her own story. In her exhaustive production history of Oedipus Tyrannus, Fiona Macintosh calls choreographer Martha Graham's 1947 Night Journey “the first of numerous feminist reworkings of Sophocles’ tragedy for the stage” because it “radically refigures the Sophoclean text in order to allow the mother figure, Jocasta, to come centre stage.” Macintosh, 184, 182.

42. Rokem, 82.

43. See, for instance, Graeme Turner, “Gossip: The Extended Family, Melodrama and Revenge,” in Understanding Celebrity (London: Sage, 2004), 113–18; and Joke Hermes, Reading Women's Magazines: An Analysis of Everyday Media Use (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).

44. Kaplan, 45.

45. See, for instance, Ann Curry, “Jolie's Most Important Role, Not in Movies,” Dateline NBC, 10 June 2005, accessed 28 March 2013,

46. John Bowe, “The Octomom and Her Babies Prepare for Prime Time,” New York Times Magazine, 12 November 2009, 50.

47. “Pure sacrifice” are the words the Pinkertonesque character Gallimard uses to describe his misinterpretation of the female impersonator Song's performance of Madame Butterfly's death scene in David Henry Hwang's Tony Award–winning satirical play M. Butterfly (1988; repr., New York: Plume, 1993), 17.

48. Joshua S. Mostow, “Iron Butterfly: Cio-Cio-San and Japanese Imperialism,” in A Vision of the Orient: Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts of Madame Butterfly, ed. Jonathan Wisenthal et al. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 181–95, at 193.

49. Susan Koshy, Sexual Naturalization: Asian Americans and Miscegenation (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 48.

50. Seung Ah Oh, Recontextualizing Asian American Domesticity: From “Madame Butterfly” to “My American Wife!” (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008), ix.

51. Stanley, Sandra Kumamoto, “Settling Scores: The Metamorphosis of Madame Butterfly and Her Transnational Legacy,” Pacific Coast Philology 42.2 (2007): 257–63, 261.

52. Emily Bazelon, “The Place of Women on the Court,” New York Times Magazine, 7 July 2009, 22.

53. Ibid., my italics. Thanks to Joshua Chambers-Letson for bringing Ginsburg's statement to my attention.

54. Groos, Arthur, “Cio-Cio-San and Sadayakko: Japanese Music-Theater in Madama Butterfly,” Monumenta Nipponica 54.1 (1999): 4173, at 53.

55. Ibid.

56. Jan van Rij interprets Puccini's condensation of the opera's action differently, arguing that the excision of a scene at the consulate was a return to Belasco's original dramatic structure and a way of focusing on the “crude confrontation” between the two women competing for Pinkerton's affection. Van Rij believes this confrontation was of particular interest to Puccini because it mirrored the “neurotic fixations” in the composer's personal life: Puccini's Kate-like wife, Elvira, had forced him to break off an extramarital affair with the self-effacing (Butterfly-like) Corinna, even offering the mistress money to leave her husband alone. Jan van Rij, Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001), 97, 100.

57. Mostow, 194.

58. Van Rij, 10.

59. Mostow, 194.

60. Keiko Hirao, “Contradictions in Maternal Roles in Contemporary Japan,” in Working and Mothering in Asia: Images, Ideologies, and Identities, ed. Theresa Devasahayam and Brenda S. A. Yeoh (Singapore: NUS Press, 2007), 51–83, at 68.

61. Ibid., 66.

62. Janet W. Salaff, Arent Greve, and Xuan Chen, “Motherhood Shifts When Chinese Families Relocate: Chinese Women's Education Work in Canada,” in Working and Mothering in Asia, 221–50, at 227–8.

63. John Luther Long, Madame Butterfly (1897; repr., New York: Century Co., 1903), 27–8; Long's italics.

64. Giacomo Puccini, Madam Butterfly, English libretto by R. H. Elkin (New York: Ricordi & Co., 1904), 65. Significantly, it is only the live, embodied versions of the Butterfly myth (Puccini's opera and Belasco's play) that have demanded that the mother be sacrificed. In Long's original story, Butterfly is unable to go through with the suicide when she hears her baby crying and instead runs away with him. Long's story ends with the famous line, “When Mrs. Pinkerton called next day at the little house on Higashi Hill it was quite empty.” Long, 152.

65. Yoko Kawaguchi, Butterfly's Sisters: The Geisha in Western Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 284.

66. Yoshihara, 78.

67. Ibid., 92, 82.

68. Bates quoted in ibid., 82.

69. Ibid., 94, 90.

70. Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

71. Yoshihara, 78.

72. Jacques Derrida, “Plato's Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (1972; repr., New York: Continuum, 2004), 67–186, at 100–1; Derrida's italics.

73. Lennox, Sara, “Women in Brecht's Works,” New German Critique 14 (Spring 1978): 8396, at 84. Iris Smith expands on Lennox's brief reference to Brecht's female characters (most of them framed as mothers), defining demonstration objects as “figures whose flatness is created not so much by the actress's demonstration of the character as by Brecht's appropriation of her to fulfill unquestioned models of natural or ‘appropriate’ female behavior.” Smith, Iris, “Brecht and the Mothers of Epic Theater,” Theatre Journal 43.4 (1991): 491505, at 495.

74. Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, trans. Tony Kushner (London: Methuen Drama, 2010), 9. The play was originally published in English in 1941 as Mother Courage, trans. H. R. Hays, in New Directions in Poetry and Prose 1941, ed. James Laughlin (Norfolk, CT: New Directions), predating German publication in 1949 as Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder.

75. The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, 2d ed., ed. Peter Thomson and Glendyr Sacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 121.

76. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 89.

77. Smith, 493.

78. Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis (New York: Routledge, 1997), 4.

79. Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht (1966; repr., New York: Verso, 2003), 34.

80. Brecht quoted in Peter Thomson, Brecht: Mother Courage and Her Children (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 77.

81. Benjamin, 35, 34.

82. Diamond, 9; my italics.

83. Harris, Susan Cannon, “Mobilizing Maurya: J. M. Synge, Bertolt Brecht, and the Revolutionary Mother,” Modern Drama 56.1 (2013): 3859, at 42.

84. Brecht quoted in Smith, 499.

85. Brecht, trans. Kushner, 147; my italics.

86. Sarah Bryant-Bertail, “Women, Space, Ideology: Mutter Courage,” in Brecht: Women and Politics, ed. John Fuegi, Gisela Bahr, and John Willett (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985), 40–61, at 52–3.

87. See, for instance, Brecht, trans. Kushner, 113, 131.

88. Joe Dziemianowicz, “In ‘Courage,’ Streep Braves Ill-Fitting Role,” New York Daily News, 22 August 2006, 37.

89. See, for instance, David Rooney, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” Variety, 22 August 2006, 6.

90. Meryl Streep quoted in Ruthe Stein, “Meryl Streep Draws on Family to Play Eldest Sibling in Lughnasa,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 December 1998.

91. Glenn Whipp, “Meryl Streep's ‘True’/Life: New Film Mirrors Values She Treasures Most,” Daily News of Los Angeles, 18 September 1998.

92. Ben Brantley, “Streep Meets Chekhov, Up in Central Park,” New York Times, 13 August 2001.

93. Charles McNulty, “My Meryl Streep Problem,” Los Angeles Times, 28 February 2012.

94. Whipp.

95. Rebecca Traister, Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women (New York: Free Press, 2010), 228.

96. For this latter interpretation of Palin's maternal failings, see the 2012 HBO film Game Change, an adaptation of the 2010 book by political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Actress and mother Julianne Moore won a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for her sympathetic but pathologizing depiction of Palin in the film.

97. Palin quoted in Kaylene Johnson, Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down (Kenmore,WA: Epicenter Press, 2008), 141.

98. McRobbie, Angela, “Beyond Post-Feminism,” Public Policy Research 18.3 (2011): 179–84, at 181–3.

99. Janice Min, How to Look Hot in a Minivan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012), 188–9.

100. Freeman, Barbara, “‘Frankenstein’ with Kant: A Theory of Monstrosity, or the Monstrosity of Theory,” SubStance 16.1 (1987): 2131, at 28.

101. Ariel Leve, “Toni Morrison on Love, Loss and Modernity,” The Telegraph, 17 July 2012, accessed 4 April 2013,

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