identity management: countering the burden of stigma [Erving Goffman + Sally Mann]

MicroReading Response to Goffman’s text Stigma via the countering of the stigma of bad mother


Shiva at Whistle Creek, 1992. Fotografía. Copyright © Sally Mann.

Erving Goffman suggests that there are common cues that we become temporally and situationally dependent on that allow us to anticipatorily size up individuals as recognizably human or as suspect. The cues that we rely on to categorize another as suspect, as not “normal,” Goffman calls stigmas. Stigma’s are social constructions and as such are thus based on social cues or assumed cues. “Real” or perceived, these stigmas often render our self or another as not whole, “tainted, discounted,” and undesirably different and thus “not quite human” (Goffman, 1963, p 11, 14). Goffman goes on to say that cues of normalcy and our tendency to expect, even demand, adherence to them goes unnoticed “until an active question arises as to whether or not they will be fulfilled” (p 11). In the face of implicit or explicit questioning, when possible, the stigmatized may “make a direct attempt to correct what he sees as the objective basis of his failings” (p 18) thus managing a reconstitution of the damage social self.

ILLUSTRATION—BAD MOTHER STIGMA is as real as any social construction even if misapplied: In the 1980s the artist Robert Mapplethorpe propelled the arts into controversy before congress and the press for his photographic work that captured images of children along with sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery. Within the same timeframe Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party were debated on the floor of the House, Congress. Reactively the NEA federal funding was significantly reduced.

Immediate Family series, 1992. Photograph. Sally Mann

In the wake of these ongoing Cultural Wars involving the federal dollars and the arts, Sally Mann’s photographic exhibition opened in NY accompanying her third photographic book, Immediate Family. Within this cultural context what had been intended as a decade of chronicling the day to day of her children—“the wet beds, insect bites, nap times, their aspirations toward adulthood and their innocent savagery,” was reframed by NYT Magazine interview with Mann by Richard Woodard titled “The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann.” This article shot her to fame’s controversial forefront. In the article, Woodard, captured or caused the controversy with loaded questions that implicated her with the stigma of bad mother based on her artistic choices:

“If it is her solemn responsibility, as she says, ‘to protect my children from all harm,’ has she knowingly put them at risk by releasing these pictures into a world where pedophilia exists? . . . Do these sensual images emerge from the behavior of her subjects or are they shaped by the taste and fantasies of the photographer for an affluent audience? (Woodard, 1992)

Immediate Family series, 1992. Photograph. Sally Mann

Within these questions, the photographs of her family published on the heels of the sexually and gender charged works of other artists, the cultural cues made it all to easy to cast the stigmaizing net of bad mother over Mann. Gendered and sexualized stigmas seem to stick regardless of due process, innocence or acquittals. The stigma of bad mother has stuck to Mann regardless of her families lived realities.

A plethora of subsequent articles and books have been published over the last decades continuing to call Mann into question in terms of her motherhood as well as defending her. But like a man falsely accused of child abuse and proven innocent, the identity taint remains.

In a NYT article published in 2015, twenty-three years after Mann’s initial stigmatization, which she authored, Mann continued her quest in countering the stigmatic controversy of her family series. Her counters are expounded on in detail in her 2016 book, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs. Mann chronicles the 1992 opening, book release, NYT interview, other bodies of artwork, the various responses and her subsequent actions to protect her family.

Laced through ever chapter she addresses how she and her husband raised their children and why in rich detail—perhaps with the like vividness and mystery as that of her photographic work. Mann comparatively documents her experience with her own mother, a mother perceived as emotionally distant, and her husband’s mother, who murdered his father and then committed suicide. She chronicles far more than a direct deliberation and accounting of her own motherhood pulling from the troves of memory stirring artifacts and texts she pulled from the attic family archives during the development of her memoir. Yet within the context of Mann’s identity as mother repeatedly being called into question, I experienced much of her textual journey as a subtly portrayal of herself and her mothering style as healthy and natural, as good mother.

Mann immediately aligns herself as both artist and credible character within the first few pages when she notes her invitation to give the 2011 Massey Lectures at Harvard. Further she exposes her human frailties that make her likable in her description of her reaction to the Harvard invitation.


Jessie Bites, 1985. Photograph. Sally Mann

Motherhood is such a central identity to a woman that even I without children bare a stigma for being a woman but not a mother. It becomes evident in the subtle shifts of discomfort and evaluation skim across another’s face when they uncover my childlessness in relationship to my apparent age. I have acquired a series of humorous sound bites employed to diffuse others’ discomfort and judgment as well as my own awkwardness.

Sally Mann is a mother and bears the stigma of being a bad one as “evidenced” by social cues (not her lived experience) we link with her photographic artwork for over two decades. Covering and passing has not been an option for her. As artist and writer she has the both the vehicle and venue to counter the identity distorting stigma.

Mann’s writings subsequent to 1992, appear to be an ongoing deliberation circling the questioning of her personhood, her identity as mother, resulting from the taint she bears from her art. Throughout Mann’s memoir she uncovers and deconstructs her lived experiences with her art practice and family through the lens of mother, daughter, wife and artist. She counters the stigma of bad mother making a solid case for the logic and goodness of her being and doing as artist, as viable human, and as good mother. She invokes with each word a plea to be rid of the stigma and be reinstated as human.

For those who bother reading her writings, she successfully relocates herself out from under the weight of the dehumanizing social taint of stigma (Goffman, 1963, p 11, 14). For those who are not exposed to her counters, she will continue to be stigmatized as bad mother in the same way a man continues to bear the cultural questions after being proven innocent of an assumed sexual offense. The taint of even a false stigmatization is a burden of soul Mann has been left to carry despite her counters, despite innocence. Some things just suck! Easy for me to say, since I have not been branded in that particular and public way.

Falling Child, 1989. Sally Mann.

I highly attracted to Mann’s photographic work but am far more taken by her textual accountings at every level. Judith Butler suggests “I only begin my story of myself in the face of a ‘you’ who asks me to give an account. Only in the face of such a query or attribution from an ‘other’—‘Was it you?’—do any of us start to narrate ourselves, or find that, for urgent reasons, we must become self-narrating beings” (Butler, 2008, p 22). Butler expounds on that suggesting that giving an account of oneself, the narrator necessarily acknowledges a “causal relation to the suffering of others,…accept(ing) the possibility that the self has causal agency, even if, in a given instance, the self may not have been the cause of the suffering in question” (Butler, 2008, p 23). Mann was smacked between the eyes with a huge stigmatic loaded question—“WTF kind of mother are you?”—with the implication that she caused the suffering of her children. The overlaying of the stigma of bad mother that rocked her identity construct called her to account, her story of herself begins there.

“A body is itself defined, delimited, and articulated by what writes it” (Certeau & Rendall, 1984).



Butler, J., & Davies, B. (2008). Judith Butler in conversation: Analyzing the texts and talk of everyday life. New York: Routledge.

Certeau, M. D., & Rendall, S. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma; notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mann, S. (1992). Immediate family Series [Photographs].

Mann, S. (2015, April 18). Sally Mann’s Exposure. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-cost-of-sally-manns-exposure.html?_r=0

Mann, S. (2016). Hold Still A Memoir With Photographs. Back Bay Books.

Woodard, R. G. (2992, September). The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann [Editorial]. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html?pagewanted=all




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