Good women becoming “queens”: Young mothers on welfare as cultural readers
This dissertation project is an ethnographic audience reception study that approaches its participants as an interpretive community in order to access their standpoint as young mothers of color on welfare and explore what their media readings reveal about their lives and U.S. society. The project focuses on young (16-21 years old, primarily Puerto Rican and Black) mothers who were students in a series of critical media literacy classes I taught in 2006 at a local social service agency. The classes involved viewing and discussing media products that highlighted race/ethnicity, class, and gender, with the purpose of stimulating social consciousness and revealing central themes in the students' lives.
Class discussions revealed that the participants share traditional U.S. values; yet their exclusion from mainstream economic and political resources leads them to find alternative means of actualizing their values, which positions them in opposition to the middle-class mainstream. For example, they value "respectability," however, not having access to traditional means of establishing social respect, they use the means available to them and become "good mothers," which earns them judgment as "social deviants." Thusly judged, their efforts to gain social respect via upward mobility are hampered by a combination of factors that reflect social hierarchies.
In the private sphere, they are negotiating the tension between being empowered agents in their social world, in the sense of being physically and emotionally independent of men, and their desire for loving partnerships with men who inhabit a patriarchal social environment in which men establish social respect by denigrating women. In the public sphere, their status as young mothers on welfare renders them vulnerable to public policy and subject to intimate surveillance unheard of among middle-class women. Believing in the "American Dream," the participants eschew a "victim" mentality and—further demonstrating their internalization of traditional U.S. values—adopt the Protestant work ethic: if they work hard enough, they will succeed in their goals. Being low-income single mothers just means they will have to work harder. Implications for advocacy and women of color feminisms and the transferability of the methods to other populations are explored.
0325: African Americans
0453: Womens studies
0708: Mass media
0737: Hispanic Americans