Mr. Robot, Ms. Robot

Culture

USA’s new hacker drama is a surprise hit that deserves attention for its subtle critiques of gender norms and hacker masculinity.

USA

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There’s a conversation in the second episode of USA’s hacker drama Mr. Robot between the protagonist, a programmer named Elliot, and the show’s titular character. They’re in an abandoned arcade, the HQ of an Anonymous-esque hacker collective called F Society, and one of its members, Darlene, has just stormed off in a huff. Earlier she cursed at Elliot, broke into his apartment to take a shower, and ranted to him on the subway about her ex. “What’s her deal?” Elliot asks Mr. Robot, F Society’s mysterious leader (Christian Slater). “She’s a complicated woman,” he replies. “Most malware coders are, am I right?”


‘Mr. Robot’: A Dark, Compelling Drama for the Paranoid Internet Age



Dramas about hackers are notorious for taking liberties to make the mundane, time-consuming work of hacking, well, sexier. But since it debuted in June, Mr. Robot has earned praise for its creator Sam Esmail’s devotion to accuracy: Even now, at the midseason point of the show, much coverage of the show still centers on how deft and realistic its handling of technology is. But one underappreciated aspect of the show is how Mr. Robot treats its female characters, as well as how it critiques the kind of traditional masculinity often valorized in antihero dramas. In doing so, it offers a smart realignment of the gender politics you might expect from a series about big corporations, cybersecurity, and hacking—arenas that have been historically unfriendly to women. And it’s all coming from a breakout show, not on HBO, but on a basic cable network from a first-time showrunner.


The men of Mr. Robot harbor deep-seated pathologies, perhaps none more so than its main character, played by the terrific Rami Malek. Elliot is a morphine-addicted, anxiety-ridden programmer who works for a cybersecurity company named Allsafe by day and hacks into bad guys’ computers at night. When F Society taps him to bring down “Evil Corp,” an Enron/Apple/Google-type conglomerate, it sets off a chain of events that threaten his coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. Elliot—who provides the show’s voiceovers—is the textbook definition of an unreliable narrator. He talks to possibly imaginary people, questions his own sanity, grapples with paranoia and hallucinations, and is often either high or going through withdrawal.



Which is to say, viewers are more likely to pity Elliot than they are to idealize or emulate him. Unlike most TV antiheroes, he’s neither a tortured ball of testosterone (True Detective, Mad Men), nor an emasculated nobody seeking to become a somebody (Breaking Bad). He’s an outsider who snarks to himself about people who drink Starbucks lattes and post selfies on Instagram, not because he thinks he’s better than they are, but because he feels disconnected from them. In his attempts to act like a normal guy, he’s adopted a well-meaning but patronizing attitude toward the women in his life, including his childhood friend and AllSafe coworker Angela, his drug dealer/girlfriend Shayla, and his psychiatrist Krista. He goes out of his way to fix, protect, or help them by hacking into their social-media accounts or those of their boyfriends, like a bedroom superhero testing out his powers for good.


But Elliot’s creepy intrusiveness helps Mr. Robot puncture a flawed masculine value: A man’s need to defend a woman isn’t always heroic; it can be self-serving, presumptuous, and disrespectful. The show doesn’t just rely on the audience to intuit his white-knight complex either—both Shayla and Angela openly challenge it. “Even if I’m losing, let me lose, okay?”Angela tells Elliot, after he tries to stand up for her in a meeting with AllSafe’s sexist CTO.  


On the less-sympathetic end of the spectrum is the AllSafe executive, Tyrell Wellick, a Scandanavian ubermensch whose Patrick Bateman-esque egoism has yet to find its limits. He’s the ultimate embodiment of the show’s vision of corporate psychopathy: amoral, unflappable, manipulative, vain, inhuman. For therapy, he pays homeless men to let him beat them up. He’s the kind of guy who prepares for big meetings by practicing speeches in front of a mirror and slapping himself when he screws up. But like Elliot, he’s far from a sympathetic or admirable in the way that handsome, powerful men on TV typically are, no matter their flaws. Instead, the ill-channeled aggression, the self-destructiveness, the blind ambition, the neuroses, and the devotion to physical fitness all render Tyrell a caricature of male perfection.



Mr. Robot show’s female characters aren’t angsty antiheroes, but like their male counterparts, they’re by turns aggressive, impulsive, myopic, idealistic, and naive. That is, they’re human. But they do sometimes fall victim, to varying degrees, to the men in their lives. Angela faces sexism at work, and is tethered to an insufferable, cheating boyfriend. Shayla lives under the thumb of her sexually violent drug supplier. The show implies that Darlene’s demanding personality may be a byproduct of belonging to the mostly male hacking community. And no wonder: In the pilot, Elliot stares at her in disbelief when she tells him that she wrote the malware program that attacked his company’s data centers.


Men dominate the hacker subculture, even though women comprise 28.5 percent of all computer programmers. But of the six members who make up the tiny F Society, two are women, one of whom, Trenton, is a Muslim who wears the hijab. This matters, not as a way to police representation on TV, but to show that Mr. Robot’s departure from strict accuracy in some areas makes it a more forward-thinking show that others could learn from, even if it’s not exactly radical. Through Darlene and Trenton, the series nods at real-life examples of female hacker groups, including one led by a Jordanian beauty queen that’s taking on ISIS.


The drama’s treatment of its female characters feels like an extension of its broader portrayal of those typically marginalized on TV. Mr. Robot and Darlene are the only white members of F Society. Trenton is shown praying early one morning. Malek, like the show’s creator, is Egyptian American. Mr. Robot also depicts an array of non-heteronormative relationships: There’s a sexual espionage thread involving two male characters; Elliot’s gay boss discusses the anxieties of formally coming out; during a hacking attempt, one target is a woman preparing to have a baby with her wife. The show isn’t without its messier moments: There was also a drugged pseudo-lesbian kiss whose merit is up for debate and a rape-revenge subplot. But considering Mr. Robot as a whole, Hollywood and its audiences should welcome this kind of seemingly effortless diversity, one that strikes an enviable balance of natural and deliberate.



The season’s only halfway over, and a lot could still go wrong by the time before the August 26 finale (viewers might never get as much backstory for Darlene, Trenton, Angela, or Shayla as they do for Tyrell or Elliot). But the fact is also that, five episodes in, Mr. Robot has proven itself to be more than a realistic hacker show or a cinematically adventurous Fincherian tone poem.


As the writer Brit Bennet has pointed out on Twitter, “We constantly debate how stories represent or erase types of people, but I wish we’d shift focus to whether stories empathize or imagine … I just think representation is easy. Imagining yourself in the body of another is the hard work of writing and the hard work of being human.” For better or worse, Mr. Robot has a lot to say about getting inside the minds of others. Some characters seek to use that ability to exploit and destroy those around them. But starting with its thoughtful reframing of traditional gender politics, and moving onto its treatment of others typically excluded in Hollywood, the series has already taken promising steps from representation (which on its own can have tremendous consequences) toward even more meaningful empathy.


The Women Who Rule Pluto

Technology

The New Horizons team may include more women staffers than any other NASA project in history.

Pluto as seen from New Horizons on July 11, 2015 NASA / JHUAPL / SWRI

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For all the firsts coming out of the New Horizons mission—color footage of Pluto, photos of all five of its moons, and flowing datastreams about Pluto’s composition and atmosphere—there’s one milestone worth noting on Earth: This may be the mission with the most women in NASA history.


“I don’t know whether it’s technically the most,” said Fran Bagenal, an astrophysicist who has worked on NASA missions for four decades. “But I was involved in Voyager going back to the ’70s, as well as Galileo, and a whole bunch of missions. I can say: There are certainly a lot of us.”


The New Horizons team includes about 200 people today, but there have been thousands of scientists and engineers who have contributed to the mission since it began more than a decade ago. Women make up about one-quarter of the flyby team, those responsible for the high-stakes mission taking place this month, according to NASA. The flyby is planned for Tuesday morning, when NASA’s probe is scheduled to be within about 8,000 miles of Pluto.



Bagenal is not the only one who has noticed the “dramatic change” in number of women on the team. It’s meaningful at a time when women who are scientists routinely face gender-based discrimination at work.


“I distinctly remember on more than one occasion, when I’ve been the only woman in the room, people thought I was the secretary,” said Kimberly Ennico, an astrophysicist who builds and calibrates space instruments on the New Horizons mission. “It got to the point that there were some times in which people would ask me to take notes and I would have to say, ‘I take notes for me, not for you.’”


Ennico says it never dawned on her, until New Horizons, that she might someday be on a mission where women would outnumber the men. “From personal experience, this will be my fourth space mission, and by far this mission has the most women on it,” she said. “To be in a room full of more women than men or equal number of women and men? First of all, it feels normal, which is wonderful. Whenever it was only one woman in the room or two it always felt awkward.”


There’s a sense among many scientists, including Ennico, that the fight for equality has “totally slowed down,” she says. “We’re not equal. I’m sorry to say we’re not there yet. I think when we get to the point in which we don’t need to call attention to whether you’re a woman or a man, that’s when we have succeeded.”



Ongoing discrimination against women in science is well documented. In 2012, researchers at Yale found that biologists, chemists, and physicists saw men as more favorable job candidates than women, and were willing to pay men $4,000 more per year compared with women who had the same qualifications. And despite widespread evidence of such imbalances, earlier this year, researchers found that men “flipped out,” as The Washington Post put it, even when presented with proof of gender bias in science, many of them publishing sexist remarks in response.


Women of the New Horizons flyby team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (SwRI / JHUAPL)

In April, a reviewer for the journal PLOS ONE told female researchers that their work would be improved if they could “find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors).” And in June, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist suggested that “girls” cause trouble in laboratory settings because “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” (Many women responded by making fun of the comment.) The dismal state of affairs in labs and universities is arguably a distraction itself. Which may help explain why many women in science are reluctant to discuss gender at all.


“We do have a lot of women on this mission,” said Cathy Olkin, a planetary scientist and a co-investigator for New Horizons. “And I’m not really sure why that is. We have an amazing team and I’m not sure how gender fits into that.”


“I would agree that there are a higher percentage of women working on this project,” Alice Bowman, the missions operation manager for New Horizons, told me. “When I look at a team and somebody says, ‘Oh, look at the mix of diversity on your team,’ it’s something that I don’t see unless someone points it out.”



Instead, Bowman is looking at something more distant: a celestial body nearly 5 billion miles away from Earth. “Pluto is my favorite,” she said. “Because we don’t know a lot about it.”


She and her colleagues are curious about what Pluto’s atmosphere is like, and how quickly it’s disappearing. They want to know more about what the dwarf planet is made of. They want to piece together its topography. “Looking at the data every day, it looks different,” Ennico told me. “And the data every day is better than anything you ever had before.” The people on the New Horizons team are taking what has long been a pinprick of light in the distant universe—a tiny pixel—and transforming it into something real.


“We’re turning that single point of light into a geological world,” Ennico said. “It is revealing itself before our eyes. It’s overwhelming.”


What Other Activists Can Learn From the Fight for Gay Marriage

Politics

The success of the gay-rights cause has many in politics—particularly on the left—hoping to replicate the model.

People dressed as the five U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of same-sex marriage march in last month’s San Francisco gay pride parade. Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

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The movement for gay marriage is one of the most successful issue campaigns of the last several decades, having convinced the American public—and the Supreme Court—that an issue once considered ridiculous was a matter of basic rights.


So it’s no wonder that a lot of causes, particularly on the left, now want to copy the effort.


“What I’m finding is that there is a real hunger to put one foot ahead of the other on progressive causes,” says Marc Solomon, the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, one of the leading groups pushing for gay marriage. (Now that the Supreme Court has made gay marriage legal across the country, the organization is winding down and will disband later this year.)


The marriage campaign’s major innovation was fusing litigation with a political campaign, using lawsuits and state-level political victories to reinforce one another. The combination worked to create an impression of momentum even as the tide of public opinion gradually turned. “What’s really compelling to people is this idea of a campaign that drives a national narrative, but the work is largely in the states,” Solomon told me recently.



Solomon is in demand as a speaker these days. When I talked to him last week, over lunch in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, he was getting ready to go to California and give a presentation to a group of criminal-justice reformers. He’s already worked extensively with gun-control advocates, and he’s fielded requests from climate-change activists, poverty fighters, women’s-rights groups, and immigration reformers, to name a few. (Some conservative activists—including the very social conservatives who opposed the spread of gay marriage—are also looking to the marriage campaign for inspiration.)


Solomon wrote the book on winning marriage: It’s called Winning Marriage, and it’s a great read for political junkies, giving the full blow-by-blow of the underdog effort. Released last year, the book is getting a Supreme Court epilogue for its paperback edition this fall.


The quest for gay marriage had some unique features. Most other issue campaigns, for example, have Congress as their ultimate target, not the courts (though the environmental movement has long used lawsuits to advance its aims, including the elimination of coal plants). But the basic design—strategically targeting states to create momentum for national change—could still apply.


The first lesson other campaigns could learn from the marriage movement, Solomon told me, is: Use state and local politics to put points on the board. With Washington so gridlocked that virtually nothing gets done, the hopes of many reform groups—immigration, climate, gun control, the minimum wage—have run aground even when there appeared to be enough votes in Congress to pass a measure. But municipalities and states have become laboratories for reform, as they were with marriage. Gun-control campaigners won a referendum in Washington state last year, and numerous states and cities have recently hiked their minimum wages.


The key, Solomon says, is to ruthlessly pick the right targets based on careful research and a tough-minded willingness to say “no” to well-intentioned local leaders; losses can set a movement back. It’s also important, he says, to go on offense when possible. For a decade, gay marriage was a consistent loser in ballot measures sought by social conservatives to ban it at the state level; this kept advocates constantly on the defensive and gave opponents a powerful talking point. In 2012, Freedom to Marry carefully vetted state-level campaigns and decided to back ballot fights in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington, while lending less support to one in Maryland. When the gay-marriage side won in all four cases, it changed the issue’s political calculus nationally.



A major factor in those four state wins was an overhaul in the message used to win over voters—from an argument about the rights and benefits of marriage to one about the fundamental human desire for love and commitment. This is another lesson Solomon believes other movements could learn: Make an emotional argument based on positive values. For years, pollsters told gay-marriage advocates that attacking discrimination and invoking the Constitution were their most resonant arguments—but over and over, these cerebral ideas proved no match for the visceral appeal of the opposition’s messages about family and faith. And the emphasis on rights convinced many voters that what gay people wanted out of marriage was fundamentally different than what they thought marriage was about. It was by framing the issue in personal terms that campaigners started to win hearts and minds. This is something immigration reformers have recently tried to do by making young strivers—the “dreamers”—the human face of their movement.


The marriage campaigners spread their message using a sophisticated persuasion campaign—a tactical innovation that many others are now trying to emulate. Armies of canvassers—both paid workers and volunteers—set out to have in-depth conversations with thousands of voters using ideas developed with help from the liberal Analyst Institute, a quasi-academic campaign-tactic lab. Rather than parroting a script, the canvassers used a few open-ended prompts (“What does marriage mean to you?”) and drew on their own experiences to have long conversations about family and faith that often turned personal—and changed people’s minds.


These techniques came in for some scrutiny recently with the controversy over a study by the political scientists Michael LaCour and Donald Green that turned out to be based on fake data. The study purported to show a huge, lasting effect on people’s opinions about gay marriage when they had a personal conversation with a gay canvasser—but not a straight one. Published in Science, the study was retracted when the data forgery came to light. Had it been real, the study would have provided the first academic proof of the kind of techniques the gay-marriage campaigners pioneered. But Solomon and other advocates say they have plenty of rigorously field-tested evidence from their work that these techniques do work. (There’s no evidence, however, that a canvasser has to be gay to have an effect.) And other campaigners, notably abortion-rights advocates, are already putting similar tactics to work.



To be sure, there are some unique features of the gay-rights fight that other causes don’t share. “An advantage we have is that we are in every family,” Solomon said. “Dick Cheney never has to deal with a poor person, but he has a lesbian daughter. That makes a big difference.” Gay rights also didn’t pose a threat to anyone’s economic interests, unlike many lefty priorities—but, Solomon points out, the marriage campaigners were up against well-financed opponents on the religious right, including evangelicals and the leadership of the Catholic and Mormon churches.


Solomon, a former Republican congressional staffer from the Midwest, got his start fighting for gay rights in Massachusetts. In 2003, the state supreme court ruled that gays should be allowed to marry, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers—from Republican Governor Mitt Romney to many Italian-American Catholic Democrats—were determined to stop it from happening by amending the state constitution. That was what happened in Hawaii in the 1990s, after a court similarly ruled in favor of gay marriage: Legislators put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage, and voters overwhelmingly approved it.


Solomon’s employer at the time, MassEquality, faced a seemingly impossible task: To prevent the issue from going to the ballot, they had to get 75 percent of the state legislature on their side. In order to put grassroots pressure on lawmakers, the gay-rights campaigners got creative: They combed through state records to find the hundreds of gay couples who had already gotten married, then sent each one a postcard asking if they’d be willing to talk to their legislator. This tactic paid off in a powerful way when a pair of lesbians in rural Massachusetts befriended their state representative and helped change his mind about the issue. In another case, when their research found that a certain lawmaker loved musicals, the campaigners got the author of Wicked to write him a personal letter comparing the main character’s underdog struggle for acceptance with the situation gay people faced.



Solomon’s book is full of colorful tales of this kind of creative political blocking and tackling. Some of this stuff—applying grassroots pressure, lobbying key lawmakers personally—is Politics 101, but progressive causes haven’t always been good at it. Another of the lessons from the marriage fight is that you have to play the political game and play it well; when what you want is change, there is no alternative.


The MassEquality campaigners saw to it that every single legislator who voted their way got reelected, while some who didn’t were targeted and ousted—including a virulently homophobic member of the state House’s Democratic leadership, who lost a primary to a young openly gay man with no political experience. Solomon moved on to help with the campaign for gay marriage in the New York state legislature; there, after losing a big vote in 2009, campaigners helped take out some of the Democrats who’d broken their promises to vote their way. “In the early days of this fight, our community had zero political power,” Solomon told me. “When they saw us mobilize, raise money, engage in elections, save some lawmakers and knock out others—that’s when [politicians] started taking us seriously.”


Taylor Swift and the Silencing of Nicki Minaj

The most important word in the Twitter drama that unfolded last night between Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, and their respective fan armies was “Huh.” As in Minaj’s only direct reply to Swift: “Huh? U must not be reading my tweets. Didn’t say a word about u.”


Minaj had been arguing on social media that the MTV Video Music Awards hadn’t properly recognized her clips for “Anaconda” and “Feeling Myself” in its nominations. Most relevantly, Minaj said that because “Anaconda” created a viral phenomenon that spread from red carpets to cathedral steps, it seemed strange it wasn’t up for Video of the Year. “When the ‘other’ girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination,” she wrote. “If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year.” Then she posted a bunch of smiley faces.


Yes, Twerking Is Feminist



Though her name wasn’t mentioned, Swift took this as an act of aggression. Her “Bad Blood” clip is nominated for Video of the Year, alongside works from Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Mark Ronson, and Ed Sheeran. “I’ve done nothing but love & support you,” she tweeted to Minaj. “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Cue hundreds of people making the obvious joke at the same time.


To the public, the actual awards at the Video Music Awards usually seem irrelevant compared to its ceremony’s spectacles—Madonna’s makeout, Miley’s twerking, etc. But whether it’s the VMAs or the Emmys or the Grammys or the Oscars, the last few years have made clear that accolades some people deride as arbitrary and silly still hold a lot of meaning for artists who feel condescended to by the entertainment industry. Recently, black creators in particular—the Empire showrunner Lee Daniels, the Selma director Ava Duvernay—have called out perceived snubs that, at the very least, fit a documented pattern of exclusion for minorities.



If anyone should be expected to speak out on this subject, it’s rappers—like Minaj—whose art is in large part about standing up for their own worth. The VMAs, remember, were where Kanye West objected to Swift getting a prize over Beyoncé (he may have opportunity to do so again—“7/11,” like “Single Ladies,” really is “one of the best videos of all time—one of the best videos of all time!”). Last night, the MTV nominations set off a tweetstorm for another emcee, Minaj’s boyfriend Meek Mill, who said,  “I don’t really trip about the awards… I know they gone give em to the white kids doing it…. That’s why we buy Rollie’s and shit our own trophies!”


You can debate whether the “Anaconda” video is brilliant or bad, but you can’t argue with Minaj that it was one of the most iconic pop-culture products of the past year, nor with the idea that a lot of people had a knee-jerk negative response to its glorification of big black butts. Her speaking up about those things doesn’t mean she’s dissing the other nominees. Yes, the video she’d most likely been referring to when talking about “slim bodies” was “Bad Blood,” a montage featuring a lot of supermodels and skinny actresses in superhero getups. But she didn’t question its merit; she even implied that it was commercially and culturally significant.



When Swift chimed in, it changed the conversation from woman versus institution to woman versus woman. Ironically, this is exactly the complaint Swift leveled against Minaj: “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other.” This fits with Swift’s recent campaign against the Mean Girls stereotype of women as catty infighters; her 1989 shows have featured clips videos of her famous buddies telling the largely tweenage girl audience about how great same-sex friendship can be. The cause is righteous, but Swift’s tweet to Minaj shows the limits of it. When female solidarity shuts down someone’s honest expression of frustration at society, inequality, and racial and body-type bias, that’s hardly progressive.


Minaj doesn’t seem to want there to be any bad bl—um, hurt feelings between the two stars. “I love u just as much,” she wrote in her reply to Swift, before sending some tweets about feeling mistreated by “white media” and retweeting followers talking about race and music. Swift’s only other comment was a reminder of her own success and another assertion that friendship could fix all problems: “If I win, please come up with me!! You’re invited to any stage I’m ever on.” Huh?

The Diaper Dilemma

Infants use about 240 diapers per month. A year’s supply of diapers costs $936. That means a single mother mother working full time at the minimum wage can expect to spend 6 percent of her annual pay on Pampers alone.


Meanwhile, the two biggest programs that assist low-income mothers, SNAP (food stamps) and WIC, don’t cover diapers or baby wipes.


That might be why, in a study of 877 pregnant and parenting women published in Pediatrics in 2013, a team of researchers found that needing diapers and not being able to buy them was a leading cause of mental health problems among new moms.


For the study, Megan Smith, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, approached women in New Haven, Connecticut, and asked them one simple question:


“If you have children in diapers, do you ever feel that you do not have enough diapers to change them as often as you would like?”


Almost 30 percent of the women responded “yes”—they often lacked sufficient diapers. Their explanations of what they did to “stretch” the diapers reflect the harrowing reasons why so many new moms feel depressed and anxious.


Mothers would take the diapers off, dump out the poop, and put the diapers back on. They would air-dry the diapers. They’d let their kids sit in wet diapers for longer than they should—a practice that can lead to UTIs and other infections. Other moms have reported potty training infants who are less than a year old—at least six months earlier than is recommended—in order to save money.


I learned more about this study during a week-long training with the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, where I am a grantee this year. Smith presented her work to the fellows and described what she’s done to help these mothers. The women told Smith things like, “My self-esteem plummets. I can’t soothe my baby because I can’t put a clean diaper on my baby,” she recalled.


The diaper deficit hurts more than moms’ self-worth: Many daycare centers require a week’s supply of diapers before mothers can enroll their children. Without the required diaper stash, women can’t drop their kids off and look for work.


“An adequate supply of diapers may prove to be a tangible way of reducing parenting stress and increasing parenting sense of competency, enabling parents to be more sensitive with their children, and thereby improving parenting quality and overall child outcomes,” Smith wrote in the study.


Smith now works with the New Haven MOMS Partnership, a support network for new mothers and their children. The Partnership operates several resource centers that offer stress-management classes and job-search help at locations across the city—including in places where moms are already likely to be, like Stop & Shop grocery stores.


The first thing the moms receive when they arrive for counseling? A bundle of fresh diapers.