Motherhood, Morality, and, Ultimately, Madness: My Thoughts on the Casey Anthony Case

by Charity Carney

Will it never end?! Not the Casey Anthony media craze. There’s no hope there. But the complete lack of awareness on the part of the American public of their obsession with motherhood, proper familial relations, and these moral boundaries that so many claim exist but cannot agree on what they are and what they mean. I have to admit, I’ve been watching my fair share of Nancy Grace's commentary lately—the subtle movements in Anthony’s face, the ridiculous analysis of her hairdo (to ponytail or not to ponytail?)—and I keep watching because I have become entranced with the concepts of proper American motherhood AND fatherhood situated so squarely in our television sets. What this case has elicited is more than talk of mob rule and justice for a murdered child. It has revealed how the American mainstream views modern motherhood and family life and how their commitment to those ideals often trumps the mandates of the justice system and Constitution.

Casey Anthony is pretty. She is young. She is white. And all of these are reasons that she has captured the country’s attention for so long. But alongside these factors runs a strain of judgment based on maternal standards that have made themselves extremely clear over the past few months. Dubbed “Tot Mom” by Nancy Grace, Anthony has been criticized for not “acting” like a mother should (a penalty that many have said warrants death in and of itself), for being a liar (the temptress that she is, fooling policemen and her parents alike), and for even living with her parents after the birth of her child (unsure of who the father was and unable to take care of her daughter herself as a 22-year-old single mother). Despite the gruesome facts surrounding the court case, there is something to be learned about American morality when it comes to gendered subjects: even within a “modern” society where many women defy maternal stereotypes, the court of public opinion still retains a very conservative understanding of what moral parents do.

Pitted against Casey Anthony’s “immoral” behavior are the accusations against and defenses of her father, George Anthony, of child abuse and molestation. When Casey’s defense attorney’s brought this accusation to light and used it as a central part of the explanation of “Tot Mom”’s (ugh, it hurts to write it) actions, the media had a field day. The majority of newscasters, analysts, lawyers, and interviewed citizens rejected the idea that any father could do that to his daughter or cover up the death of his granddaughter. Not casting personal blame on any person, I simply observe that our patriarchal system is still firmly in place, you’ll be happy to know. In case anyone was worried, it’s doing just fine. The stark contrast of the moral questions cast upon Casey Anthony’s motherhood and George Anthony’s fatherhood is an indicator of the gendered status of ethical parenting.

Not that we did not realize this already, but I have not seen in recent times a more clear example of gendered judgment of moral/immoral behavior. I do think that the fact that the O.J. Simpson verdict has been held up as a comparison to the Anthony case only encourages this idea but the difference is that the Simpson trial was held up as a race-based incident and the Anthony trial is stuck in American psyches when it comes to any kind of higher gender analysis.


Kelly Baker said…
Charity, Ed Ingebretsen's At Stake has a whole chapter on Susan Smith; she emerges as one of his many examples of rhetoric of monsters in public culture. She becomes monstrous, of course, because she is mother who murders her kids. Smith was married with two small children, so the morality tale that emerged was *horror* over failed performance of normative motherhood. Anthony becomes monstrous because of gendered expectations, which you note in this lovely post.

I had a student last year write a paper about mothers who kill. The students had to present their work, and my whole class was flabbergasted by the student's topic choice. What can we learn from the sensational cataloging of "bad" mothers, gender expectations!
Judith said…
Thanks for starting a conversation on this complicated and wrenching case. I do think that it makes sense to try to keep issues of race in the mix when trying to understand the cultural impact of such media events, even as you highlight gender issues. It doesn't seem incidental to me that Anthony claimed that a (black?) Puerto Rican nanny took her child or that Susan Smith claimed a black man had carjacked her (and the resulting police sketch looked like an ad for a minstrel show). There are, of course, other similar cases ("runaway bride's" fake Hispanic kidnapper; Charles Stewart's fake black murderer of his wife, to name a few). What roles do race and gender (as intersectional categories) play in these cases when we think about the deployment of images of men and women of color stealing, killing, kidnaping white women and children?
Historiann said…
This is the smartest thing I've read on the media hoopla surrounding this case. Well done. I think your evocation of O.J. is right on, too.

Great comments from Kelly and Judith as well. Thanks!