Friday, June 25, 2010

Filial piety: fine feelings and hard work

Parenting is hard work. If only the Singapore government were as good at recognising that when making policies that have material consequences for parents, as it is in making sappy videos full of fine feelings.

But that, of course, as Funny Little World explains, is the whole point. This video on filial piety is about displacing political responsibility from the government for collective problems that need (to some extent) collective solutions. It promotes a moralising discourse, about the fine feelings we should all supposedly have about our parents (failing to recognise that they might have been wholly abusive, indeed perhaps specifically notwithstanding any abuse), to avoid questions about society's and the government's welfare obligations, about the fair and appropriate distribution of the hard work of eldercare, as between individuals and the state.

We were all ruminating on this in the Barn, prompting the following wisdom from the Complaining Cow:
The ad plays on people's fears about growing old alone and unassisted, a huge source of insecurity in a country without a social welfare system. The idea that it's possible for elderly people to be abusive is generally unrecognised (even though many people have experienced this firsthand in their own family, from what I've been told -- in particular elderly people abusing each other). Such behaviour is seen as 'demanding' and 'unreasonable' at most, but something to be put up with because the way society functions is stacked up against older people, so family members have to be accommodating.

I was thinking about the ad, where the elderly mother says she wants to move out. Personally, I think I would want to have my own household when I'm old (whether or not I have children), and I wonder, in the context of the fictional ad family, why her moving out would be a bad thing for the family? The family in the ad seems to have no choice but have the grandmother live with them. I'm aware there are all sorts of possible reasons: eg if someone for some reason she can't afford their own home anymore, or needs assistance, or does want to live with their child's family but just suffers occasional fits of pique against them, etc.

But these in turn point to problems like homelessness, access to care for mental/physical disability, general accessibility of our built environment to anyone who's not 100% able-bodied; and MCYS's response to that seems to be: have children now so that they'll provide you with these social services FOC when you need them, 'cause we sure as hell ain't going to. Which fucks over everyone who can't or won't have children, or for whatever reason doesn't want to depend on them.
The Cow also raised questions about the other toxic messages packed away in the ad:
Also: what's up with all the other toxic narratives that are peripheral to the ad's intended message but tightly woven into its fabric?! Eg setting up the woman as the primary caregiver of the family in both generations (it wasn't the man's cooking the grandmother was criticising, was it?), framing relations between the woman and her mother-in-law as adversarial, etc.
My Magical eye alighted upon these items too. Not only does the filial piety conversation attempt to displace collective obligations onto individual households, it also (less overtly) displaces collective obligations onto women, in particular, who are assumed to be the ones who should provide free care work for the sake of family togetherness. The stamps of this assumption are all over the video, which is - funnily enough - entitled "Father and Son". There is no indication of what relationship the woman has with her own parents (presumably this is a nod to the notion that they ought to have bothered to have a useful child, i.e. a son and not a daughter, of their own); in fact, there are no daughter-parent relationships portrayed at all. Not only is the work of cooking done by the woman, but also, at the beginning, she goes off to sort out tasks on behalf of the family, while telling her husband and son to stay with her mother-in-law and with each other. The lesson the boy learns is evident in his question: he asks not about the work involved in caring for his grandmother, but about his father's feelings.

The message here is gendered. The fine feelings of filial piety are for men and boys: but the hard work of elder care, which makes the sustenance of those fine feelings possible, is for women and girls.

If we have to watch videos about fathers and son, I think I prefer this ad:

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