We used to put Leunig cartoons on the fridge. Now we put them on trial.

On Friday, Michael Leunig wrote a piece for The Age defending a cartoon of his which featured a four-line poem about a mother being so attentive to her smart phone that her baby slips out of the pram and is left behind.

The cartoon — not one of his most compelling — provoked the same furore as earlier cartoons about childcare and vaccinations. Not the least fun was the response by his estranged sister, Mary, who opined that “I know mothers … And they are not the people Michael thinks they are”.

Mary’s earlier criticisms of her sibling include an extraordinary drawing of Mary herself shooting Michael in the bum, with blood, guts and dollar signs flying out of his genitals. Could it get any worse?

Well yes. Leunig, Michael’s defense of his cartoon is a little whiny in parts — if you’re going to punch down on mothers, perhaps a little less complaining about the free-floating hatred in the culture, hey? — but it also gets theoretical. His argument relies on the work of English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who developed the concept of the “good enough mother”, attentive and reciprocal, in raising a mentally healthy child.

The trouble is, Leunig, Michael appears to have misunderstood Winnicott’s concept, which the doctor developed in the 1940s and 50s as a response to an early episode of parenting wars, in which very specific theories were flying around.

Winnicott’s argument was that children were adaptive, and that as long as mothering/core parenting didn’t fall below a certain level of attention, play, babytalk, etc, into actual neglect, the kid would be alright. Indeed, lapses of attention — to the smartphone or the washing mangle — were necessary for a child to develop resilient, autonomous selfhood.

But Leunig, Michael, is right to insist that a cartoonist should explore these topics. And it is typical of the current era that he was most criticised for making mothers “anxious”, not that his argument was oversimplified or just wrong.

The notion that we can’t question social or technological changes is ridiculous. There’s much that needs to be interrogated: the rise of the two full-time wage home, the excessive use of commodified or simply impersonal childcare, the absence of adequate parental leave (based in part on a left/progressive refusal of it), the emergence of same-sex male couple parenting, the rise of what might be shallow and non-integrative forms of gender fluidity in adolescence (which may be caused by a cultural refusal to emphasise the primacy of the embodied sexed being). All these issues need to be explored with intellectual courage.

As does the other, perhaps greater, problem: that it’s the child that has the smartphone, and the tablet, foisted by the market and the education system, with an impoverishment of life as a result. And these are, of course, the very devices that most of us are now looking at Leunig cartoons on.

Peter Fray

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