Friday essay: family as ‘brand’ – the rise of the digital mumpreneur
“TAYLEN HAS BECOME a brand,” says Angelica Calad, the mumpreneur behind the #influencer account #taylensmom. Taylen Biggs, age five, has more than 150,000 followers. In an era of advertising ennui, #influencers like Taylen’s mother can collect more than 3,000 likes on a single post, with some garnering sponsorships worth thousands.
“Believe in your inner Beyoncé,” declares one post, tagged “#bdaymonth #tayoncé”. The text is accompanied by a photograph of Taylen in a silver leotard topped with a gold tiara. US-based Taylen has worked with fashion labels Betsey Johnson, Sherri Hill and Little Miss Aoki, walking their shows at Fashion Week, along with the Kardashians. Between back-to-back photoshoots Angelica can be seen spruiking concepts for a television show hosted by her daughter, or even a sideline in home decor. “Tag your girls,” declares another post, this time on Facebook. “I meannnn Pay attention to that leg pose.”
A few seconds of video posted above the text features Taylen gazing at a bunny-shaped mirror in a way that’s guaranteed to set a second-wave feminist spinning in her grave. But Taylen’s mother doesn’t see it like that. Angelica understands the branding as a natural extension of her maternal caring work. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, who runs my daughter’s career,” she told Cosmopolitan last year.
Then there’s Alonso Mateo, age ten, the so-called prince of Instagram, who appeared in the Dior show at Paris Fashion Week. Mateo, commonly photographed in his signature drop-crotch pants and Ray-Ban sunglasses, has more than 600,000 followers. Mateo turned Insta-famous before the age of four.
But, for sheer numbers, few can beat Korean toddler Yebin, who went viral as a three-year-old with over 21 million views on a single YouTube video. Yebin has now moved with her parents to the United Arab Emirates, where demand for Yebin product endorsements runs high.
There’s a special kind of middle-class horror that attaches itself to parents who make money out of their children by setting them to work as social media celebrities. It’s a qualitatively new and largely symbolic horror that bears little or no resemblance to the centuries-old spectre of children set to work as chimney sweeps or in match-making and boot-blacking factories.
“I look at this whole thing from afar and think, ‘This is not normal’ … ,” Jacenko confessed in 2015, “but if you see an opportunity, if you’re savvy, you maximise it.”
Condemnation of #influencers runs high in mainstream media, where the comment boxes invariably teem with outraged incredulity – “Wrong on so many levels,” said one commentator on a Guardian story about the high-end world of children’s fashion. “What a terrible indictment on our society,” declared another.
When New South Wales police investigated a case involving obscene photographs of Jacenko’s daughter circulating on social media in 2016, the mother received little journalistic sympathy. “You’re absolutely right to be disgusted”, Waleed Aly told Jacenko on Channel Ten’s The Project. Aly then set out to address what he called the “broader criticism” of Pixie’s Instagram account, speculating that at some point in the future Pixie may well take legal action against her mother for “commercialising her daughter as a four-year-old” and “turning her into a commodity”.
And yet, strangely enough, this same level of disapprobation does not attach itself to Zoë Foster Blake, the former Vogue Australia fashion editor and founder of @ZoTheySay, a similarly well-tracked – albeit, more restrained – site which combines pictures of Foster Blake’s luxurious lifestyle, including her spritely Bonds-clad toddler Sonny and baby daughter Rudy, with a line of “Go-To” skincare products.
A typical Instagram round up from Buzzfeed or Cosmopolitan magazine may read “29 Times Hamish Blake’s Son Was the Cutest Kid You’ve Ever Seen”, “Sonny Blake Was 100% The Cutest Part Of Hamish And Andy’s 60 Minutes Interview” or “Sonny’s got a Sister!”, but Zoë seems to have her audience on side when she insists in relation to Sonny, “we are as sure as shit not exploiting him”.
It seems Foster Blake’s squeaky-clean image falls more neatly within the bounds of acceptable maternal representation, whereas Jacenko, the founder of the Sweaty Betty public relations firm and new owner of a $6.5 million Sydney mansion, is conspicuously fond of challenging the limits of the acceptable. She recently posted a photo of her backside in a thong on Instagram.
A social media phenomenon
Typically, disapprobation of the sort expressed by men like Aly, and also by many women, lacks the awareness that the mumpreneur phenomenon is not a case of “us” and “them” – the saintly mums and the money-grubbing sinners. Rather, along with child beauty pageants and feature-length toy commercials, family #influencers are inextricably entwined with the fabric of our culture. This is a social media phenomenon generated, produced and owned by everybody.
Indeed, down the rabbit holes of the internet, you’re likely to find mothers swapping tips on how to launch their own #ad company, with many other mothers seeking guidance on how to raise their children and make ends meet.
Inflexible and unforgiving work schedules loom large as topics in mothers’ chat forums, alongside discriminatory attitudes towards part-time workers and complaints about poor-quality part-time jobs and the high cost of child care. There’s also a strong sense of stay-at-home mothers wanting to validate their life choice not just by calling it a “job” but also by turning it into a viable income-generating activity.
Nor is #influencing entirely confined to normative family arrangements. “We are two mums, two sets of twins and a dog living our own ‘happily ever after’ in London,” declares Meet the Wildes, a briefly lived mummy blog production with a magical fairytale quality, featuring lots of long frolicking walks and inspiring same-sex parenting advice, set against a supernaturally green landscape.
The micro-celebrity of Instagram is especially appealing to mothers who feel limited in their social and economic agency. As mothers have moved back into the workforce, a lower cultural value has been placed on their caregiving work. But on the internet, these mothers appear to turn their social identity as carers into economic capital as #influencers.
Here, what sociologist Kara Van Cleaf once called the “fantasy” that motherhood could become an “entrepreneurial act” is daily conjured as reality. In this sense, family #influencers exhibit an uncanny understanding of the logic of socio-economic life – trading emotion for personal gain begins to present itself as an apparently rational choice.
These monetised blogs seem to bring their owners not only income but also a chimerical sense of empowerment. Other mothers recognise such women as positive, resilient and creative individuals who are “entrepreneurial” and therefore deserving of value.
And yet, despite the existence of websites like Meet the Wildes, it is relatively privileged, heterosexual, middle-class women with supportive partners who tend to dominate this particular cultural meme.
Moreover, aside from the flexibility, which is deeply valued, digital mumpreneurs often find themselves working more not less. Indeed, despite the hype that exists around a handful of highly paid micro-celebrities, the work for most of them remains precarious and poorly compensated.
Hashtag influencers accumulate social and economic capital because they turn themselves – and their children – into brands and corporations. But the chimera of corporate branding is no antidote for lives lived in precarious times. The problem is not just that money cannot measure sentiment. Rather, it is that branding and consumption threaten to become the primary mode through which our emotional lives are shaped and measured.
Family branding encourages us to value our social world through newly rationalised forms of emotional and economic exchange – our lives become so many Likes, Tweets and Friend Requests – and we are distracted from the pursuit of more profound and far-reaching social solutions.
Thorstein Veblen, in his sociological classic The Theory of the Leisure Class, was one of the earliest social critics to attempt to grasp the paradoxical relationship between consumerism and inequality. Veblen, writing in the late 19th century, argued that the shift to a consumer society had occurred at a historic point at which commodities were valued less for their intrinsic worth and more for their role as markers of social status or success.
According to Veblen, the incidence of a lower birthrate among the “moneyed classes” stemmed from their need to use children as markers of their social superiority. Hence the “conspicuous consumption” entailed by the “reputable maintenance” of a middle-class child acted as a powerful deterrent to having more children. For Veblen, children were essentially props in a game of wealth and social positioning. But what he overlooked was the changeable, if not contradictory, potential of consumption to both oppress and empower.
In the post-industrial world, resistance to consumption – the sense of stigma attached to wild and imprudent consumption, including the
rise of so-called green and ethical consumption – more often than not derives from the educated middle class. Going without can be a sign of middle-class affluence. Organic gardening, recycled clothes, and cleaning your house with vinegar and bicarbonate soda have become markers of middle-class privilege.
This is not to dismiss genuine environmental initiatives, but to recognise that in an era of ethical consumption, green products are often priced out of reach for lower-income families.
The flipside of “shopping for change” is the idea of the bad consumer. That is, working-class families – or “cashed-up bogans” in Australia – who, in their wild and unrestrained expenditure, are claimed to be buying the wrong things. Veblen argued that working-class people spend more because consumer goods operate via a law of diminishing marginal utility – the less status you have the more you’re willing to pay to get it.
What he failed to see was that struggling parents often consume on behalf of their children in order to alleviate the stigma of poverty by erasing its outward marks.
Take, for example, Channel 5’s 2014 film The 12 Year Old Shopaholic, and Other Big Spending Kids – yet another in a long line of “shockumentaries” about families who seemingly lack taste and buy the wrong things. It included struggling single mother Jackie Walsh who claimed she worked three cleaning jobs to indulge her daughters’ fondness for designer shoes. Then there’s Emma Tapping, another hardworking mother who became a UK tabloid sensation when she gave her children 300 Christmas presents last year.
There’s an ethical danger inherent in moral panics over consumerism, especially those that demonise the practices of lower-income families, blaming the symptoms of capitalism on people who are more likely to be its victims – or else, blaming them for exercising the limited forms of agency afforded to them.
A wider social shift
In “Why Isn’t Your Toddler Paying the Mortgage?” – a 2017 New York Times story about the rise of the entrepreneurial family – Katie Stauffer was photographed on the airy front porch of her family’s home in Phoenix, US. She cradled her twin daughters, Mila and Emma, aged three, whose videos – scripted by their 14-year-old sister, Kaitlin – have chalked up more than 4 million views on YouTube.
“It is really lucrative,” said Katie, before adding plaintively, “but I wish people knew this is my job now.”
In the same story, Destiny Bennett proudly recounted the achievements of her son, Caidyn, age five, who first drew marketers’ attention when his “don’t touch my dreadlocks” video went viral, and is, according to his mother at least, busy working with his baby brother on a spin-off line of retail clothing. “We are a family of entrepreneurs,” Destiny said.
The entrepreneurial family is the product of a wider social shift through which the world of work has intensified and extended. This change is driven not only by the state’s withdrawal from social welfare programs and the spread of a neoliberal ethics of self-help and overcoming. It is underpinned by the reality of rapidly evolving mobile communication technologies.
These have made it possible for an increasing number of women to work from the kitchen, park or playground, replacing the frantic childcare juggle with something popularly dubbed “the merge”. An increasingly onerous blurring of the boundaries between work and all other time, obscured, for certain women, behind a carefully cultivated appearance of “having it all”.
The rise of “mumpreneurs” draws attention to the way in which the quandary of care work continues to haunt feminist assumptions. A woman’s progress has so often been measured in terms of her ability to smash the glass ceiling and enter corporate life that there is a real risk it may have been inadvertently reduced to this. The demands of income-getting work appear to be recasting every aspect of human activity in entrepreneurial terms.
There is a dark irony in the fact that it is only when the family is recast as a business requiring management – with everybody’s earnings linked to a culture of seemingly incurable waste and disposability – that caring gets to be called a “job”.
This is an edited essay from Dangerous Ideas about Mothers edited by Camilla Nelson and Rachel Roberts (UWA Publishing). Camilla Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, University of Notre Dame Australia
MAIN IMAGE: Roxy Jacenko and daughter Pixie at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia in 2016.
Pixie’s Instagram account has more than 100,000 followers and she has a signature line of hair bows. (Dan Himbrechts)