For most of January, it was practically impossible to avoid encountering Amy Chua, fierce champion of her idiosyncratic interpretation of “Chinese parenting.” Talk-show hosts heckled and fumed. Top-flight pundits and psychologists offered rebuttals. Furious parents flooded letter columns, defending “Western parenting,” even calling for Chua’s prosecution for child abuse.
But make no mistake—despite what it says on the book jacket, Tiger Mother isn’t a child-rearing manifesto. It isn’t even a memoir. Instead, Chua has joined Elizabeth Gilbert in a burgeoning new genre—semi-autobiographical Chick Lit.
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The “Amy Chua” who narrates the book is a skillfully crafted artificial persona, cobbled together from the author’s real-life experiences, but far too naive and self-absorbed to have achieved any of her impressive accomplishments. The breezy, confidential style reads like a dish session between girlfriends, honest and self-deprecating but devoid of introspection. Like Bridget Jones as a Gen-X mother, Chua lives out a narcissistic fantasy through her children, stuffed with famous names, exclusive schools, fabulous vacations and designer brands. Readers are permitted to indulge in the luxuries of elite privilege, all the while feeling both smug superiority toward Awful Amy, and condescending affection for her cheerful vulgarity and stubborn self-deception.
Just when her monstrous maternal manipulations stop being funny and begin to feel uncomfortable, tear-jerking family tragedies and humiliating teen rebellion step in with a reassuring punitive schadenfreude. Chua learns the error of her ways and What’s Really Important in Life (plus, a pair of adorable pooches!), carefully averting any consequences that might be too realistically painful. Only in the final pages does Chua-the-author allow the mask to slip and allow the reader a peek into the messy complexity behind the artful storyline she has created from her life.
Some critics have seen a hint of feminist subtext here, as Chua prods her daughters to strive, excel and have confidence in their achievements. Like all good chick lit, the story does revolve about relationships among women: mothers, daughters, sisters, in-laws, mostly female friends and nannies and a small army of private tutors—even the dogs. While her husband occasionally appears as a charming, clever, endlessly indulgent (if oddly sexless) accessory, able to rescue her from her worst excesses, it takes more than the exclusion of men to advocate for strong women.
Because whatever agenda Chua claims to be selling, it’s really the selling that matters. Her media performances were calculated to stoke the “controversy,” pushing the title to the top of the bestseller lists. As an academic specializing in the study of social power, money and prestige, Chua has shrewdly tapped into a struggling middle-class’ deepest anxieties. Amid general economic woes, vanishing world influence and steady decline in most measures of health, education and security, it’s not surprising that many Americans put their hopes for the future on glib parental panaceas: “Tiger Mothers,” “Mama Grizzlies” and similar cartoon animals.
Just like earlier skirmishes in the Mommy Wars, this furor only pits women against each other, encouraging defensiveness, divisiveness and judgmentalism. Society’s collective responsibility to the next generation is deflected to impossible expectations of individual mothers. Any pretense of honest debate about “demanding” vs. “permissive” styles is a false dichotomy and irrelevant distraction until all children—not just cosseted prodigies with multilingual nannies, exclusive private schools and glamorous recitals in Budapest—can access at least decent childcare, up-to-date textbooks and three meals a day. We cannot control or protect our kids from the threats and opportunities of a complicated, fast-changing and fractured world simply by yelling at them—or at Amy Chua.
Lesley Knieriem is a Mongoose Librarian (“Run and find out!”) in Northwest Arkansas.