The tragic killing of Harambe the gorilla has prompted an international outpouring of grief and rage. Harambe was killed by Cincinnati zoo officials to save the life of a preschooler who somehow entered the gorillas’ enclosure. It’s a decision officials maintain was their only possible course of action, given Harambe’s great strength and the fact that tranquilizers can enrage animals before they take effect.
Since then, more than 350,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding “justice for Harambe,” which blames Harambe’s death on “parental negligence,” insisting, “the zoo is not responsible for the child’s injuries and possible trauma.” The signatories ask for Child Protective Services to investigate the family and for the Zoo and the Cincinnati Police to “hold the parents responsible” for Harambe’s death.
As many parents of young children can intuit, the logic of this petition is questionable. It is reasonable for parents to expect a zoo to have barriers sufficient to prevent small children from entering the enclosures of dangerous animals. According to a statement made by primatologist Julia Gallucci, the design of Harambe’s enclosure was faulty: “The gorilla enclosure should have been surrounded by a secondary barrier between the humans and the animals to prevent exactly this type of incident,” she noted.
Furthermore, calling the parents “negligent” is excessive. It contradicts eyewitness accounts of how fast the little boy was. As bystander Deirdre Lykins has reported, the boy’s mother said, “He was right here! I took a pic and his hand was in my back pocket and then gone.” Lykins said she had to stop the boy’s distraught mother from entering the enclosure.
Despite these facts, the conversation attached to the petition and elsewhere online has taken an ugly turn. Internet commentators have directed excessive vitriol at the boy’s parents and, especially, his mother. But why?
In my analysis, the hatred towards the boy’s parents reveals some unpleasant insights about widespread cultural assumptions about parenting today.
First, the call for Child Protective Services to become involved indicates an unreasonable belief that parents should be able to keep their kids safe 100% of the time. If we are being reasonable, and not lashing out in grief at the loss of a majestic primate, we know this is not possible: Kids are fast and fearless, and accidents happen.
And yet people supporting the petition have angrily commented, “CPS should take their kids, first thing! Obviously they can’t be bother [sic] with supervising them!” The Mirror reports even worse: that the little boy’s parents are now receiving death threats from an angry internet mob.
Many of the commenters have dwelled particularly upon the mother, harboring a tremendous amount of ill-will towards her. One commenter on the Change.org petition wrote, “This lady was obviously not paying attention to her kids! Child neglect!” Others were quick to suggest that the mother deserved to die, with another commenter writing: “The mom should have got put down for not knowing how to take care of her damn [sic] child. The gorilla was doing a better job at parenting then [sic] she was!!” People have been sharing memes on the subject via social media, with one example reading: “I was killed because a bitch wasn’t watching her child.”
When I read words such as these, I am keenly aware that the outrage towards the little boy’s mom reveals an undercurrent of sexism and misogyny that permeate our culture.
The sexism is found in the assumption that childcare is the mother’s responsibility—an assumption that goes hand in hand with talking about dads “babysitting” their kids and “helping around the house,” when honestly, doing 50% of child care and house care is simply doing their share. Note that in most of the comments and facebook conversations I’ve read, angry remarks focus either on “the mom” or “the parents.” What about the dad, who was also there? The absence of comments criticizing the father underscores that people really believe tending children is on the mom, even if the dad is right there. Despite espousing the equality of the sexes, as a society, we still tend to hold moms to a much higher standard than we do fathers. If a dad is inept, it’s a source of comedy material; in fact, in recent days, a few posts have gone viral in which fathers have played up just how helpless and inept they are with their own kids when their wives aren’t around. People find it hilarious, and comment and share the posts laughingly–but I doubt they’d find similar commentary hilarious from a mom. We as a society still hold moms to a much higher standard than we do fathers. When we expect parents to be 100% perfect, we are really expecting moms to be 100% perfect.
The misogyny rears its head in the hateful words and ideas people are communicating. For example, the sentiment that this mother is a “bitch” who deserves to be “put down” for taking her eyes off one of her four children is misogynist. It denigrates her for failing to live up to an unreasonable standard of maternal perfection.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail published an unjust piece dredging up the father’s criminal history, in which the article’s author even noted that “in recent years he appears to have turned his life around to become the proud father of four.” Commenters sensibly remarked that the father’s past is irrelevant to this case. As one astutely noted, “In this instance it dies not matter about his past. His child fell into a gorilla enclosure.”
And yet the piece’s most popular comment (with more than a thousand upvotes and counting), concludes by returning the focus of outrage to zoo officials and the little boy’s mom, noting: “The child’s mother and zoo officials make me sick.”
Harambe’s death is tragic, and his loss is absolutely worth mourning. But as we mourn him, let’s not victim-blame, parent-shame, or perpetuate misogyny. Harabe’s death is a wake-up call that we need to do better by the precious animals in our care. But it’s also a potent reminder that scrutinizing and shaming humanly imperfect parents does no good.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters.