The Most Important Role? Motherhood, Marriage, and Feminism

Feminists all over are buzzing about Natalie Portman’s “my most important role” comment during her acceptance speech at the Oscars. She was awarded the most prestigious award of Best Actress for her incredible and arduous performance in Black Swan. When she addressed her fiance, she thanked him for “giving me my most important role” referring to her soon-to-be motherhood.

Some feminists are saying they were not offended by Portman’s comment; in fact, some are even expressing gratitude that a woman amongst her career peers addressed another potential aspect of a woman’s life. Others are outraged that during what may be the pinnacle moment of her career, she willingly placed herself in a stereotypical female role. Portman has always been a favorite of mine, mostly because of her intelligence and careful selection of female characters she chooses to play. Does her decision to become a mother, and pride in doing so, take away from her so far successful career?

I have grappled with this issue myself as a young feminist; I often express sentiments along the lines of “if I ever have kids…” and that is often met with a perplexed look and a “you’ll change your mind” response. It is a personal choice yet women are expected to not only procreate, but to naturally desire to procreate.

How do feminists who decide to have children grapple with the knowledge of what the presence of children can do to a seemingly egalitarian relationship (if they have a child within the context of a relationship)? I wonder also (as a heterosexual self-identified feminist) how other heterosexual feminists negotiate the possible tension between their feminist identity and the decision to enter the inherently unjust institution of marriage. How does my oppressor become my most intimate partner? If someone would write a how-to book about this, I’d greatly appreciate it!

**Another thought: we shouldn’t criticize Portman’s decision and excitement over this next stage of her life. We already exist in a girl v. girl world as is, so we can discuss the broader systemic implications but I think we should support every woman’s CHOICE!

Masters student in Houston; hoping for a career in the nonprofit sector doing feminist activism and organizing.

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  • Shahida Arabi

    Thought-provoking post. While I understand why this was controversial, I think it’s important to also recognize that Portman is also an individual, not just her sex/gender identity. If a man had said fatherhood was his most important role, we wouldn’t blink twice. But since a woman is saying that, it holds totally different connotations for us because we jump to ideas of marriage/motherhood/domestic space= inherently equal. I don’t believe marriage has to be unequal. Two partners decide on how they conduct marital life, and whether there is already something inevitably unequal about it, I suppose, is something that’s up for discussion. Do women and men naturally assume a division of labor in marital life? Or can dialogue between both prevent this inequality?

    You posed an interesting question: “how does my oppressor become my intimate partner?” But this question assumes that your potential partner is ALREADY your oppressor. That is simply not the case. Any partner, male or female, has the potential to “oppress” through disrespect, violence, negligence, etc. I guess in order for that question to be valid it has to be established that male partners are bound to be oppressive in any marital context because the institution itself is flawed.

    On a sidenote, Portman has spoken of how she’s been raised by a fertility doctor. She’s expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for being able to create the “miracle” of a child. I think this is less to do with her putting herself in a stereotypically feminine role and more to do with her awe of being able to create life. This IS a great gift for women to be able to do, and I don’t think she saw any fault in expressing it.

    • Shahida Arabi

      inherently unequal*

  • Rachel

    To me feminism is about making the right choice for you. Feminism is not about making decisions because it’s what society expects of you. That being said, if anybody is going to choose to have children because she wants to and not because society wants women to have children. If being a mother is the most important role of Natalie Portman’s life then I say good for her.

  • natasha

    Feminism is about freedom and equality for everyone. Natalie seemed to be expressing her own personal feelings about upcoming motherhood, and to me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I think sometimes we, as feminist women, can be deterred from motherhood or marriage, because of the stereotypical gender role of women and the history that those things go along with. But I don’t think that means marriage is always unequal, and it certainly doesn’t make all men or husbands oppressors. It’s so important to know that feminism isn’t women vs. men, and I do believe gender equality is possible in personal relationships.

  • Matt

    “Does her decision to become a mother, and pride in doing so, take away from her so far successful career?”

    There have been sentiments echoed to this effect, but I think it is fine as long as she is being honest and it is equally acceptable for a man to make a similar statement. I don’t think men are all that inclined to make a similar statement (which would be somewhat disconcerting as it could reflect differing expectations), and I am skeptical it would be all that well-received. It is perhaps somewhat interesting that there could be uneasiness in both cases (one for fitting a stereotype, one for defying it), and in that event it would reflect that the legacy of the stereotypes that hang over us. Still, people should not be held hostage by pressure to defy them. As long as Portman can show passion for both stereotypical and non-stereotypical activities/institutions (even if the distribution is lopsided), she is probably doing fine.

  • Morgan

    Wow, thank you for the great comments! I think it’s an interesting to think about what the reaction would be if Colin Firth had said thank you to his partner for giving him his most important role. I think people would be thrilled and commend his exceptional parenting because men are often hyper-rewarded for being involved with their children.

    Also, just to clarify, when talking about men as oppressors I mean it more on an institutional level and as representations of patriarchy. I totally agree that men as individuals can be self-identified feminists (I know quite a few!) and make an effort to have an egalitarian relationship. I just think the research that has shown trends suggesting the presence of children in the household often results in the parents’ regression to traditional gender roles. In other words, the mother’s amount of housework increased drastically (the second shift) because of perceived obligation.**

    I don’t know, this post was sort of my nonsequitor rambling about issues I struggle with as a young feminist in the dating world and the expectation (almost requirement) that I should desire to get married and have babies. Any sentiments steering away from that path is often met with dismissal and belittling.

    **This is from DeMeis and Perkins (2006) if anyone wants to read it!

  • Amelia

    I think that often feminists (not to mention everyone else) have some unaddressed internalised sexism regarding motherhood and domesticity. Are traditionally female roles looked down on because they’re not valuable, or do we think that they’re not valuable because they’re traditionally feminine?

    I personally think that parenthood is far more important than any career. How could being responsible for the entire well being of human beings we bring into the world be anything less than the most important role we can have?

    I think the key is to get people of all genders to recognise and appreciate that – that way it will shift from being a role only for females, to being a role that anyone would think of as being extremely important.

    • Morgan

      I think we devalue anything that’s considered “women’s work” (e.g., nursing, childcare, teaching). I agree that parenthood is a large responsibility and a decision (notice my pro-chouce sentiments here!) that should not be made lightly.

      I guess my issue with all of this is that motherhood is (societally) expected to be a woman’s most important role but I’m not convinced that fatherhood is expected to be a man’s. I agree and hope one day we can all recognize that it’s important regardless of gender identity.

  • Calamity Cole

    I kinda read her statement in a different way… I don’t think she was referring to her “womanly ” role but as having to do with an acting role since she was accepting an award for that very thing. Perhaps it was just a poor choice in wording? A poorly thought out metaphor? She seems more intelligent to me than a-there-is-no-greater-honor-than-being-a-mother person.