Had Angelina Jolie and Katie Holmes given birth out of wedlock even 50 years ago, they may very well have been pilloried, not only in gossip columns and Sunday sermons, but on the floor of the U.S. Senate. When, in 1949, Ingrid Bergman became pregnant during her notorious affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Edwin Johnson, a senator from Colorado, rallied to the defense of motherhood and denounced her as “a horrible example … and a powerful influence of evil,” “an apostle of degradation” “whose unconventional free-love conduct must be regarded … as an assault upon the institution of marriage.” He then led a successful vote declaring her persona non grata, thus preventing her from appearing in American films for the next seven years.
By integrating her own pregnancy into the plot of her sitcom, Lucille Ball broke the taboo against media representations of expecting celebrities, but despite her unprecedented candor during the nine months preceding the birth of “Little Ricky” on the “I Love Lucy” show, cast members never once uttered the forbidden word “pregnant,” even when episodes revolved around Lucy getting stuck in chairs and experiencing uncontrollable cravings for ice cream and sardines. Compare such prudery to the openness of the present when photographs of celebrities’ newborn children, illegitimate or not, are splashed across the pages of People and Vanity Fair, and bloggers speculate if Katie Holmes has “preggo boobs” and if it is premature to put Maggie Gyllenhaal on a “bump watch.”
Hollywood actresses have always presented an image of smoldering female sensuality incompatible with the dull domestic routines of child rearing, a sexual hedonism freed of the unwanted consequences that our cinematic fantasies were once in flight from. Now, by contrast, public displays of the pedestrian responsibilities of family life are as vital to the star’s media profile as appearances on the red carpet. The recent obsession with maternity is changing the face of Hollywood promiscuity, which has given way to a new conservative ethic, one in which fertility is a crucial component of a star’s sexual magnetism.
The candor with which we address celebrity pregnancies, which many speculate originated with the famous 1991 Vanity Fair cover of a hugely pregnant and naked Demi Moore, would seem to mark a step forward in public attitudes toward sex. But, in fact, it may signal the rise of a new prudery on the part of the mass audience, which refuses to sanction the proverbial bed-hopping of the stars. Instead, it looks on approvingly — almost certainly with a large measure of schadenfreude — at their enthusiastic acceptance of the burdens of reproduction. Despite the salacious images celebrities project on the stage and in the movies, they have seldom been more wholesome. Far from being Jezebels and gigolos, they are dutiful moms and dads who, no sooner do they remove their costumes, than they dash off to their son’s soccer match or throw birthday parties for their toddlers — gala events that offer not only magic tricks and Mylar balloons, but, according to industry insiders, valet parking.
The recent obsession with high-profile pregnancies would never have occurred without significant advances in maternity fashions that have allowed celebrities to remain in the limelight well into their third trimester, all the while retaining a modicum of glamour. The messy physicality of fallen arches and protruding navels has been supplanted, or at least camouflaged, by an improbable new chic, the unanticipated consequence of the aggressive merchandising of procreation. In 1997, Liz Lange, a designer whose mission is to reinvent the whole look of maternity, began vigorously courting pregnant stars to wear her line of dresses. Other high-fashion collections for expanding waistlines followed, enabling celebrities to remain in the public eye all the way from their first sonogram to the onset of labor. Not only are pregnant stars better dressed than they have ever been before but their offspring are no longer puke-stained slobs in hand-knitted rompers and crocheted sun bonnets. Instead they’re infantile fashionistas decked out in angora booties, bibs that cost $113, and two-ply cashmere chenille sweaters that start at $165.
Pregnancy has long rid itself of the stigma of shame, but recently a higher level of candor has been achieved, a lack of reserve that has effectively ended the state of retirement mothers were once forced to endure out of ladylike bashfulness. This deliverance from restrictive propriety has been accelerated by the career needs of a group of professionals who retreat into voluntary seclusion only at the peril of their most precious asset, their fame, which cannot withstand even a few months’ neglect. Because of the requirements of exposure — and because this media attention makes them the perfect manikins for product placement — celebrities are in the vanguard of the new commerce of pregnancy, which has transformed nine months of nausea, sore breasts and frequent urination into a 40-week photo op.
It is not just the radical intervention of high fashion into maternity that is fueling the current obsession with celebrity pregnancies. A more powerful stimulus is what lies beneath the clothing, the body itself, which has never been so vulnerable to public scrutiny now that celebrities starve themselves into skeletal wraiths whose emaciation reveals even the slightest swelling. Stars are constantly fighting to protect their privacy in a game that is as much a tease as it is an expression of genuine reticence, a never-ending round of hide-and-seek that generates a staggering amount of litigation, much of which is a mere pretense, a transparent gambit for publicity. The cult of the pregnant star represents a deeper penetration of this privacy, which has now escalated from mere surveillance to a psychotic episode of stalking.
As their progesterone levels soar, their very cravings become matters of public record, as in the case of Toni Braxton, who for nine months pined for Doritos and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats; Victoria Beckham, who battened on smoked salmon; and Angelina Jolie, who stuffed herself with Reese’s Pieces, which she had flown into Namibia from the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania. What’s more, we download their pirated sonograms from the Web and even submit our favorite personalities to probing gynecological exams. Consider the National Enquirer, which travels like a scope through Jennifer Lopez’s allegedly barren womb, taking us on a tour of her entire reproductive tract: “Doctors injected a dye into Jennifer’s fallopian tubes, where a blockage was discovered. The pressure of the dye injection opened the blockage. She was also put on the fertility drug Clomid to boost her production of eggs.” So deep is the spell of Hollywood on the mass audience that it has turned us into amateur internists and obstetricians, crazed anatomists who seek a perverse intimacy with our divinities, attempting to narrow the physical distance that divides us, reaching out through photographs and gossip columns to touch their bodies, measuring the motility of their sperm and the thickness of their uterine walls.
Hollywood moms and dads are, at least according to legend, monsters. They provide us with deliciously wicked examples of parenting run amok — the hapless Britney Spears, for instance, who, carrying a drink that most mistakenly assumed was alcoholic, nearly dropped her baby on the sidewalk. They also abandon their infants to a retinue of strangers, hired hands with dubious credentials and ample bosoms, while they themselves selfishly pursue their own careers, a situation remarkably similar, indeed, identical, to another instance of neglect: our own.
Virtually all parenting, that of the rich as well as that of the poor, is now delegated to a special class of professionals, whether it be nannies or day-care workers. The delectation with which we relish the culpable negligence of self-serving egotists who care more about their Cessnas and swimming pools than they do about their kids originates in the fears all parents share about juggling their work and family lives.
A dilemma endemic to the two-career household is stoking the fires of gossip about celebrity pregnancies, which afford insecure moms and dads, as tethered to their jobs as any movie star, an irresistible opportunity for back-seat parenting. Electronic bulletin boards are rife with postings that speak disparagingly of “Shitney” Spears, a “hoochie mama” and a “sex freak” who “has a very low selfasteam of herself” and who needs to “take court ordered parenting classes.” That “psychotic flaming queen from hell,” Tom Cruise, by the same token, is widely rumored to have defied doctors’ warnings and, through gratuitous exposure to ultrasound, disfigured his daughter, who, according to various bulletin boards, has a fiery red birthmark on her forehead, a cleft palate, or scoliosis. His adherence to the Scientologists’ practice of silent birth led many to request that he mind his own business, suggesting to hospital staff that, while Katie Holmes writhes speechlessly in the delivery room, “they should shove a watermelon up Tom’s A** and tell him to stay quiet.” The guiltier we become about the dereliction of our own duties as mothers and fathers, the more irresistible it is to take potshots at the child-rearing styles of the stars.
They are the worst of parents but now, according to recent media coverage, they are also the best. Many have successfully shrugged off their sinister reputations as infanticidal careerists and emerged as exemplary parents, who effortlessly coordinate their work and family lives, setting up cribs in their dressing rooms and trailers, extolling the virtues of Snuglis and Baby Bjorns, and recommending in Good Housekeeping and McCall’s ways to “multitask” and eliminate rashes with bleach-free diapers. As they assume an unprecedented role as parental paragons, we are being deprived of the satisfaction of watching avarice and megalomania destroy their humanity, rendering them unfit to accomplish what we view as mankind’s highest mission, its biological destiny, the propagation of the species.
This new image of the celebrity super-parent is uniquely damaging to the self-esteem of the average mom and dad, particularly in light of people’s receptiveness during pregnancy to the often unsolicited advice of family and friends. Radical changes in a woman’s body inspire tremendous fear and insecurity, which can be assuaged only through the reassurances of others who have undergone the same experience. Information about everything from breast pumps to epidurals was once transmitted locally, from generation to generation, mother to daughter, or friend to friend, but in the 20th century, the source of authority began to shift to popular culture, specifically, to the self-help guru, who offered more than just standard advice on clean towels and hot water. Now an entirely new mentoring system is emerging, one in which the expert is increasingly the star, who is not only charismatic and glamorous but spectacularly well-informed, a fount of wisdom about the arcana of teething, morning sickness, doulas and post-natal Pilates classes. Christy Turlington insists on the importance of using only organic or environmentally friendly shampoos and lotions on one’s infant, while Felicity Huffman kneads the tired muscles of her two young daughters with Burt’s Bee apricot massage oil. Information is no longer available exclusively through local channels. National, indeed, global ones — popular culture itself — are becoming the new surrogate |ber mom cum friend.
We mimic them and they, in turn, mimic us. Celebrity parents are constantly minimizing the importance of their fame and fortune for what they refer to time and again as “the role of a lifetime” and “[my] most exciting job to date,” as if wiping dirty behinds and sniveling noses were as challenging and remunerative as $10,000,000 picture deals. They denigrate their careers as actors and musicians as little more than fortuitously lucrative hobbies, professing to be parents first and foremost and assuring us that “[my] priorities are very clear — family comes first” and “if you took away all the money, I would rather have happy kids.”
Such ritualized self-humanizing is the penance the mass audience exacts from them for their affluence, which we condone, albeit begrudgingly, only if they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the dirty business of “diaper duty” and hector us with passionate avowals that they are just like us, humble parents struggling to do their best for their kids with the resources available to them, namely, two nannies, a cook, a limo driver and a live-in housekeeper. Children have become a necessary accessory of fame in a democracy that worships archaic hierarchies of rank and power as much as it despises them. Infants throwing up on Armani suits and peeing on Chanel jackets help quell the feelings of resentment we experience at seeing these cynosures amass fortunes entirely incommensurate with their talent and intelligence.
But even as they protest that they are just like us, that their fame is meaningless to them, that they would abandon everything for the sake of their children, they prove that they are not at all like us, that they couldn’t care less about the vexed question of coordinating their work and family lives. Most people do not have the luxury of jettisoning their careers or even of speaking lightly of such a grim possibility, which, in all but the most exceptional cases, would result in almost certain bankruptcy. Only the fabulously rich can entertain such a desperate eventuality, even in a frivolously rhetorical way. Average hourly workers know that if they did indeed put their families before their jobs their children would starve or end up in a shelter, a public housing project or the foster care system.
Celebrities, by contrast, have the luxury of really and truly sacrificing their professions for the sake of their kids, even if virtually none of them avail themselves of this heroic option but, their protestations of uxoriousness notwithstanding, blithely cast aside half a dozen husbands and wives who end up issuing restraining orders and garnishing their wages. They assert their privilege in the very act of apologizing for it, indulging in exquisite daydreams about the noble forfeiture of their wealth and their romantic banishment to the poorhouse, the mortgages to their Bel-Air mansions foreclosed, their Oscars auctioned on eBay.