Critical Methodologies • November 2007
The task is to map the connections that organize the intelligibility and agency of any particular identity, experience, or practice. As articulations, popular aunt figuresare not merely entertaining representations; rather, these figures are nodal points ina complex of contingent but persistent and often uneasy connections that make upthe aunt as a familiar cultural identity and aunting as a form of feminine agency.For example, aunts who appear as central characters in family narratives are oftencast in a maternal caretaking role: Auntie Em in the classic film
The Wizard of Oz
,the title character in the film
, Aunt Bee in the classic television series
The Andy Griffith Show
, and, more recently, Aunt Helen in the film
.The easy conflation of aunting and mothering in these popular enactments articu-lates the pernicious assumption about women’s inherent maternal capacities andfamilial responsibilities. The analogy of aunting as a kind of mothering associatesthe aunt with other dominant identities and practices as well: the nuclear family,stereotypic femininity, and self-sacrificing maternality. However, when our experi-ences with and as aunts are uncritically understood in these terms, the potential of aunting as an alternative relational dynamic is rendered both difficult to imagineand politically compromised.This brings us to the task of rearticulation. As Slack and Wise (2005) pointout, articulation “draws attention to the contingent relations among practices,representations, and experiences that make up the world” (p. 2). It is this contin-gent aspect of articulations that offers political and strategic potential for feministcritique because any particular conjunction of relations can always be rearticu-lated. We find in the performance of each aunt figure evidence of quiet trans-gressions that depart from and unsettle culturally dominant articulations. By quiet, we mean that these are not openly defiant or militant features of the aunt-ing performance but rather moments of uneasiness, ambivalence, difference,deviance, or even resilience that link aunting to historical and political strugglesover family relations and feminine roles. In calling attention to such linkages, wechallenge the articulation of particular popular aunt figures to conservative mod-els of family, maternality, and kinship and rearticulate each of them to feministchange efforts variously promoting inclusive family models and practices, an eco-nomic revaluing of care, relational autonomy, feminine wisdom and sensuality,and racial justice.
Aunt Bee: Uneasiness in the Selfless, Loving Maternal Aunt
The aunt as maternal caretaker with primary responsibility for her nieces andnephews is a familiar figure on the popular culture scene. This figure links aunt-ing explicitly to the (White, middle-class, historically recent; cf. Glenn, 1994)cultural ideal of the mother as the selfless and loving center of the family, the iconof psychosocial nurture and care in the context of intimate dependencies anddomestic demands. Our example is the popular figure of Aunt Bee on the classicsitcom
The Andy Griffith Show
(Leonard, Thomas, & Flicker, 1960-1968).