"They've taken her!" — Psychoanalytic perspectives on mediating maternity, feeling and loss


The disappearance of Madeleine McCann in May 2007 led to an extraordinary amount of media coverage, much of which focused on Madeleine’s mother, Kate. This extensive interest was fuelled by the deployment of a PR campaign to encourage the global hunt for Madeleine. The professionalism of the McCanns’ publicity machine caused them to come under intense media scrutiny, to the extent that Booker prize-winning author, Anne Enright, exclaimed in print that ‘disliking the McCanns [became] an international sport’ (Enright, 2007). The focus of this dislike, however, seemed to be disproportionately focused on Kate McCann as Madeleine’s mother, and her image rapidly became an object of intense media comment. The problem, according to Enright, was that ‘we [were] obliged to lay eyes on her all the time.’ Enright was not alone in making such an observation; hers was one of a number of female voices to be heard in the clamour of news attention around this case. Much of this had at its heart the notion of ‘woman.’ Like the wives of the Portuguese policemen, women commentators repeatedly drew attention to McCann’s ‘cold’ demeanour. Comment was contextualised in terms of her appearance, her faith and her profession, her attractiveness to the opposite sex and her rising status as a minor media celebrity. Once Kate McCann claimed that the level of attention being paid to her was due to the fact that she did not look ‘suitably maternal,’ female print journalists rounded on her. Such commentary indicates McCann’s own fixation on her media image and its affective consequences, but it also exemplifies an insidious tendency of contemporary print media with regard to images of femininity. How does Kate McCann’s status as an apparently middle class mother who was remiss enough to ‘lose’ one of her children prompt such an outpouring of denigration and critique? What is at stake in the debates that ensued? How does McCann’s status as a self-made woman who has achieved social mobility impact on her treatment by female commentators? More broadly, what do such analyses suggest about the contemporary formation of the (maternal) feminine and its political status in the current UK climate?

This paper scrutinises media comment by female journalists on Kate McCann, highlighting the notions of ‘woman’ and ‘femininity’ that pervade the commentary. Drawing on psychoanalysis and on the work of Luce Irigaray, it discusses how McCann has become a contemporary measure of what is meant by ‘femininity.’ It sets its discussion against the backdrop of ‘post-feminism’ and uses this case to illustrate the complex relation of contemporary women to feminism and its values.

How to Cite

Bainbridge, C., (2010) “"They've taken her!" — Psychoanalytic perspectives on mediating maternity, feeling and loss”, Studies in the Maternal 2(1), 1-18. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/sim.85


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Caroline Bainbridge



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