Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark and Vicki Harman
Digital technologies and platforms are increasingly important parts of our everyday lives, so much so that it often makes more sense to think about how we come to exist with and through these technologies, rather than how we “use” them. This entanglement between humans and technologies can be uncomfortable at times, even troubling, as they unsettle commonly held assumptions about what social life should look like. Importantly, these relationships and our negotiations of them always take place within, and are reflective of, the specific socio-political conditions of the time.
A New Yorker article published in late 2019, titled “The Quiet Protests of Sassy Mom Merch” by Jia Tolentino, explores the intimate and somewhat fraught relationship between technology and user through the case of Amazon Prime and motherhood. Specifically, Tolentino examines the expression of this complex relationship as it manifests in the form of “sassy mom merch” which includes T-shirts boasting slogans such as “Coffee, wine and Amazon Prime”. While the notion of mums wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “sassy” declarations of a particular form of motherhood might initially seem trivial, it emerges as an emotionally laden phenomenon with socio-political relevance. It brings the sphere of family life into focus and situates mothers’ online purchasing practices within the broader socio—material and political conditions of motherhood. The slogans playfully convey the important role of the online shopping platform in helping mothers meet the daily demands of child rearing and keeping a household going in a less-laborious and less self-sacrificing manner than other available – and celebrated- representations of motherhood circulating. This includes the contrasting figure of “The Pinterest Mom” who carefully crafts different ideas into new combinations for her family. The voices of mothers and t-shirt producers captured in the article suggest that such merchandise is a way of inserting some humour into a situation where the expectations around motherhood have become heightened and contradictory. Plouff, an owner-creater of an Etsy store interviewed for the article elaborates:
“It’s true that you’re supposed to act like you’re a stay-at-home mom, but you’re also supposed to have a full-time job,” Plouff said. “It’s expected that your hair and makeup should be done, and that your house is spotless, but also that you can afford child care, and if you work, when do you have time for your child? You really can’t win, so you just have to laugh.”
Wearing t-shirts with “coffee, wine, and Amazon Prime” emblazoned across the chest may then be a public declaration that one sometimes fails to meet the near-impossible-ideals of intensive mothering and that one is OK with this. These mums may be attempting to signal that they do things differently, that they in part refuse the expectations placed upon them, although of course this refusal is performed through the market and it comes at a price. Interestingly, the article highlights that such merchandise is often produced by entrepreneurial mothers seeking to combine childcare and employment.
Tolentino’s piece also draws our attention to a tension that emerges between mothers’ need for convenience, and the limitation of “sassy mom merch” as a means by which to critique the structural problems facing mothers, or society at large. She highlights the ways “Amazon Prime moms” are symptomatic of the unachievable standards of motherhood noting “it seemed to me that what actually sucked was the idea that kids absolutely needed confetti on their birthday, and it was a mom’s job to get it”. However, she also contemplates the motivations of those who embrace the image of “Amazon Prime mom” while – in her analysis – largely remaining disengaged from broader concerns like the labour practices (warehouse workers and delivery drivers) implicated in the use of Amazon Prime and social issues such as maternity leave and childcare.
Through the juxtaposition Tolentino sets up between the discussions her own friends have about “socialism and universal childcare” and the Amazon Prime mum’s approach, the author (perhaps unintentionally) invites the reader to see “sassy mom merch” indicative of a mother that is more interested in buying things than important political issues. However, perhaps inadvertently, is this placing one more demand on mothers? That is, to demonstrate the “right” kind of ethical consumption and political awareness.
Given this starting point for sociological analysis, we might ask – who is let “off the hook” here? This account doesn’t give us the full picture of the ways in which technologies, practices and relations of power constitute what is possible in this scenario. Nor does it invite us to question the social, economic or material conditions that give rise to mothers’ practices and choices, rather it locates mothers and their choices as “the problem”. In so doing it places other institutions, systems of governance, relationships and individuals outside of the analysis. There is, perhaps, altogether too much emphasis placed on the choices that mothers make – whether they use Amazon Prime, whether they discuss universal childcare– rather than the conditions from which those choices emerge. While certainly the critique of Amazon’s business ethics is a fair one, addressing this critique at the level of individual consumer choices is limited. There may be a range of socio-economic factors that create conditions in which Amazon becomes an important source of goods for these mothers. Affluent city dwellers may have access to ethical choices that may be much more difficult for those living in less accessible areas, or with less means. Furthermore, there are a number of beneficiaries of the mother’s labour – that is the easy purchasing of goods on Amazon – such as fathers, who face no such critique. Indeed, even Amazon gets off lightly when individual choice becomes the focus of our criticisms as it is the consumer who is supposed to make the correct choice, rather than the company.
The example of “sassy mom merch” and the reaction to “Amazon Prime moms” reveals the way our preoccupation with individual choices can come at the cost of accounting for the complex context that makes these choices possible. This is not to say that there is no responsibility for individuals per se, rather how we understand this responsibility needs to be broadened to include all the important actors. It’s always easier and more comfortable to attribute all the responsibility to an individual – in this case a mother – rather than confront the reality that there are companies like Amazon with significant power and inadequate laws that allow these companies to exploit their vulnerable employees. The messy relations of power that must be shifted to change the everyday reality for mothers far exceed a choice between being an “Amazon Prime mom” or a “Pinterest mom” or choosing not to use Amazon Prime. Though the “sassy merch” may not challenge the impossible expectations on mothers or fight for social change, by finding humour in the imperfections of motherhood they provide spaces for solidarity and connection.