In the scene, Serena Williams cuddles with her baby daughter, then lays her down in a crib. As another woman, presumably a nanny, tucks the baby in, Williams walks out of the house and onto a tennis court, pulling her hair up and shedding her sweater. “Don’t call it a comeback,” she says in a voiceover. “I’ve been here for years, rocking my peers, putting suckers in fear … Don’t ever compare me to the rest.” Tender images of Williams and her child are intercut with shots of a gathering storm and her tennis racket. Finally, she serves so hard it sounds like an explosion. Looking straight into the camera, she declares: “Mama said, knock you out.”
This advertisement is part of JP Morgan Chase’s #ThisMama campaign, created in honor of the US Open and featuring Williams’s triumphant return to tennis after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr. But it’s also something else: A sign that the advertising industry is finally catching up to the fact that working moms have not been getting the representation they deserve.
The representation of motherhood in advertising tends to be fairly retrograde. For most of the 20th century, as AdAge explains, ads overwhelmingly portrayed mothers either as sexual objects or as homemakers. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the rise of the Supermom narrative gave rise to the idea that moms could have a career—but only if they were impeccable mothers as well. According to AdAge, a classic example of that period was an ad for Enjoli perfume, which depicted a sexy but capable woman who could “feed the kids and the gerbils, pass out the kisses, and get to work by five of nine,” as well as “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let him forget he’s a man.”
It’s also worth noting that the women with careers who were represented in advertising were typically white and affluent; as Deidre Johnston, a professor of communication at Hope College who has studied this question, explains, “Mothers of color were largely absent from representations of family and motherhood, and especially from representations of moms with careers.” That’s important, she says, because “these narratives … set up cultural expectations for parents’ roles,” and “parenting expectations in turn affect children.”
It’s not just about cultural narratives: Ads that offer a positive depiction of working moms are simply more accurate. Science shows that children of working moms benefit in a number of ways. According to a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School, women whose mothers worked outside the home are more likely to be employed, are more likely to supervise others at their jobs, and earn higher wages than women whose mothers stayed home full time. Meanwhile, men raised by working moms are more likely to contribute to household chores and spend more time caring for family members.
The JPMorgan campaign is an attempt to reflect both the diversity and complexity of the motherhood experience. Kristin Lemkau, JP Morgan’s chief marketing officer, tells Quartz, “Being a mother is no longer idealized. For anyone who has done it, you know it’s chaotic. You’re feeling remarkably blessed, totally depleted, full of joy and self-doubt, often at the same time. This ad is really about a mother–a very well-known one–going back to work. And Serena showing her ferocity and vulnerability at the same time.”
In fact, one of the reasons the ad is so impactful is that it reflects a type of motherhood that isn’t all pastel colors and nursery rhymes. While the ad opens with a classic scene in which a mom sings with her baby, Williams is also shown multitasking—writing in a notebook while the baby plays with a strand of her hair. The imagery then gets darker, featuring a storm, a monsoon, explosions, and a woman running. It shows Serena as fully human: A mom, an athlete, and a woman who may be navigating turbulent times, but is always fully herself.
For Johnston, #ThisMama is “a great example of reframing the cultural narrative of motherhood as a source of strength for working mothers.” It endorses the idea of mothers as workers, and as strong, autonomous individuals who feel no shame in relying on child care to help them balance parenthood with careers. Of course, not everyone has the resources available to Williams. As Johnston explains, ”For many women who, alas, are not Serena Williams, motherhood will continue to present additional obstacles when seeking career success, at least if success is defined in terms of monetary gain and status.”
Still, as Williams returns to a world-class tennis career while facing judgement and discrimination in the aftermath of a difficult pregnancy, she may be exactly the right person to represent working moms. As Lemkau says, “It’s a moment when we can all admit that none of us has it together and we are all a work in progress. Even Serena. If that’s true for the GOAT, it’s true for all of us.”