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Byron Shire
January 18, 2022

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Good mums don’t read

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Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: Good Mums don’t read

Sometimes art becomes reality

When I first started watching Handmaid’s Tale, the TV series based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, I thought it was simply a disturbing fairytale set in a totalitarian society where fertility is controlled through the oppression and subjugation of women as breeding stock.

But the more I watch it, the more I realise Gilead isn’t that far from where we live right now. In fact it’s an ideological suburb just a train ride away. Some people are already living there. Dystopian or Utopian? I guess it depends on your view of the value of women.

Leunig’s cartoon in the weekend papers certainly left me feeling a little more like it wouldn’t be long before I’d be losing my literacy, and slipping into my bonnet. In case you missed it, I’ll reiterate the content. The whimsical cursive text shows two big-nosed baby ‘angels’ at the bottom of a poem that reads ‘Infantile Statistic Poem: Working university-educated women with no religious belief are statistically less likely to have babies; to some babies that might be a relief’. The baby angels are looking worried and one is saying to the other, ‘I had a nasty scare last night – I was nearly conceived.’ It’s mean.

As an educated non-religious woman with five children I find this highly offensive. Have my children suffered from my ambition? Would they have rather not been born? Would I have been a better mother had I fewer opportunities? Why are our educational status and our fertility linked together anyway?

Highlighting the perspective of the worthiness of women from the perspective of the unborn is reminiscent of the right-to-lifers and their violent view on women’s right to choose. The cartoon not only insults educated mothers, it insults ALL educated women. Why is our breeding status discussed like it’s a given that ALL women will have children anyway? Why don’t we talk about the likelihood of educated MEN having children?

I don’t think you need to read between the lines to decipher the message in Leunig’s misogynistic musing. Working women, particularly professional working women, are bad mothers. We put our children in childcare so we can pursue our selfish goals. Goals like paying the mortgage. You might think I’m being harsh on Australia’s most beloved cartoonist, but I am still not over Leunig’s take on childcare from 2014. It depicts a baby’s inner narrative when it’s left in a childcare centre: ‘I can’t believe it! My own mother – who I want to be with more than anything in the world, my mother – font of all goodness and warmth dumps me here in this horrendous creche! I can’t believe it!’ It continues with stream-of-consciousness rants of the baby hating itself and then a promise ‘one thing’s for sure, I’m going to get myself back for this one day. I’ll punish myself. And serves me right too.’ Awesome.

Apparently we’ve authored our own beloved child’s inner narrative of self-hatred. It’s our fault. It’s our fault for being educated and putting our kids in childcare. Best our babies weren’t born. It’s powerful mother shaming from a culture that loves mother blaming. Any mother who has had to put her baby in childcare and knows the pain of walking away from her crying child. I’ve sat in the car and cried, then snuck back in to see my distressed child happy and laughing.

Why do women have to wear this? If courts now award separated dads 50/50 in care, then why can’t they take 50 per cent of the guilt as well? Why is the burden of good parenting always on the shoulders of a woman? And why is our beloved King of Whimsy being so cruel? Please, Michael Leunig, go back to ducks pondering the night sky. Every year I look forward to my free Leunig calendar, but this year it’s going into the bin.

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  1. From what I’ve been told, Leunig is a warm considerate man (sorry for appending a gender), more Left wing than Right on the whole, and probably crankier in his older age, but can ruffle feathers across the political stage. After all, he’s just a cartoonist (sorry Michael). So your feathers have been ruffled, Mandy. (Sorry, I don’t mean you’re a bird).

  2. Childhood is 90/10 who has custody, and secondly 90/10 who has the breast. Even in unsplit families it’s never 50/50, it depends on every little complication there in a family history the likes of a Tolstoy might imagine, and as that history grapples with the greater history outside the front door. Feminism has brought that outdoor history inside to sit at the bedside, so the cartoon is relevant. If people want to associate their particular circumstance with a cartoon … well it’s up to them. It seems to me the cartoon must have worked thus far in getting that reaction. Then again, reactions are the business of the Left anyway. Leunig must have had a pang on his Right side. Who cares if babies survive or prosper or idle along? I’d recommend the least interference from outside. I picked up a grandson from childcare once and he was standing in line like a robot waiting for release. Childcare and school as well are filled with such stories. We live with it and maybe progress. Noone’s blame. Facts of life.

  3. Are you disputing the facts that Leunig touts in this rather old piece Mandy? Or are you just cranky at being left with 5 children?
    Parenting is f”””ing hard as a father and mother and to complicate it by outsourcing to 20year olds in childcare centres must be worse.
    To those who are too blinded by the gilded maudlin feminists I would explain that Leunig makes an observation here of the additional struggle women are now presented with: being encouraged to be remote parents by what can only be described as the incessant capital machine.
    He is on your side.

  4. Who cares if Leunig is Left or Right? His cartoons have always struck me as twee and sentimental, and in this case highly judgemental. Small wonder some women are deciding not to have children, when people like Leunig are so quick criticise, as he did in his infamous cartoon on childcare. Seems we women are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
    Mandy, Margaret Atwood described The Handmaids Tale as “ realistic fiction”, which it certainly. All over the world millions of young girls and women are enslaved and their bodies used for sex and in some cases reproduction ( eg surrogacy in third world countries ). I thought it was fantastic viewing but felt quite emotionally exhausted by the end of each series, beacause it is so tragically realistic and relevant.
    Great article Mandy.

    • I’m with you , Lou. As a “privileged and white ” bloke around Luenig’s age i’ve often had reservations about his apparent attitude to women. The rest of his stuff is more mildly amusing than outright funny. And for the last 20 years or so it’s been pretty repetitive. He’s been lucky to trade on his reputation and the constant support of The Age newspaper.

    • I expect you want some imagined equality for women and at the same time begrudge the doodling of an old guy you’ve never met – blaming him for women’s lack of what exactly?
      Children are the product of a man and a women which I know will be strangely offensive to some. Having children ought to be viewed as a privilege and responsibility.. not entitlement. If you want to focus on a career why have children? That goes for either sex.


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