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From nursing Virgins to brelfies: The project of maternal femininity

Johnson, Clare; Rintoul, Jenny


Clare Johnson
Associate Professor in Art & Design


Contemporary debates about breastfeeding are saturated with ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothering, ‘achieved’ or ‘failed’ femininity frequently derived from Christian representations of the Virgin Mother. In this article we trace deeply entrenched values about the maternal breast through the representation of the Madonna del Latte, specifically concentrating on breast ownership and the depiction of unattainable motherhood. The myth of maternal femininity is then explored in relation to contemporary visual discourses of the nursing mother in which the narrative of unattainable or failed maternal femininity is challenged. The performance work of Megan Marsh-McGlone and the phenomenon of sharing ‘brelfies’ on social media are read as indicative of a new relationship to the Mary myth in which mothers expose the cultural fear of achieved maternal femininity. Ultimately, we argue that what is required of mothers is that they are held in a process of becoming maternal and that representations that subvert this imperative signal a shift in the landscape of Marian iconography.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Apr 10, 2019
Online Publication Date Apr 23, 2019
Publication Date Nov 1, 2019
Deposit Date Apr 25, 2019
Publicly Available Date Oct 24, 2020
Journal Journal of Gender Studies
Print ISSN 0958-9236
Electronic ISSN 1465-3869
Publisher Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 28
Issue 8
Pages 918-936
Keywords breastfeeding, maternal femininity, brelfies, Marian iconography, renaissance art history
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Additional Information Additional Information : This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Journal of Gender Studies on 23/04/2019, available online:
Contract Date Apr 25, 2019


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