Pregnancy porn

Wacky names! Baby "bumps"! The "most anticipated baby in the world"! Why do we salivate over spawning celebrities?

Published July 31, 2004 8:03PM (EDT)

Gwyneth's Apple, Helen Hunt's MaKena Lei, Debra Messing's and Cate Blanchett's respective Romans, Marcia Gay Harden's Hudson and Julitta, Heidi Klum's Leni, Courteney Cox Arquette's Coco: They sound like a roster of best-of-show dogs at Westminster, but are actually another set of well-pedigreed puppies. They are the babies whose entrances into the world have recently provided the entertainment media with its hottest storylines.

For more than a year, we have been drowning in the most intimate details of celebrity pregnancy. The big four entertainment weeklies -- People, Us Weekly, Star, and In Touch -- have read like high-gloss versions of "What to Expect When You're Expecting," if that childbearing classic were littered with cheerful arrows pointing to the "bumps!" on otherwise lithe famous bodies. The bumps turn to bellies bulging out of Juicy Couture waistbands before our eyes. Heavily pregnant stars get gussied up and lumber precariously down awards-show red carpets. We know how much their offspring weigh, whether they were born vaginally and with the help of an epidural, and which PoshTots products they were showered with upon arrival. Stretch mark for stretch mark, the gestations of the rich and famous are more intimately dissected than the gravidity of our own closest girlfriends. But when magazines chock-full of actual baby news begin to splash their covers with panting headlines about the potential pregnancies of Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and poor beleaguered Jennifer Aniston, perhaps it's time to step back and consider what it is that's keeping our heads stuck so firmly up these women's birth canals.

"A baby boomlet happened in Hollywood. A lot of famous women came of age and had their babies in the last 14 months," said Martha Nelson, editor in chief of People, which in June broke the news that Julia Roberts is expecting twins. "We've long known that stories about celebrity life events are catnip for readers," said Nelson, who acknowledged that the cover bearing Roberts' announcement sold well, "as you would expect of major life news from one of the country's most popular actresses. It's not exactly rocket science."

Nor is it news that we -- as a human race -- have an insatiable appetite for voyeuristic narratives. Bring us tales of your engaged, your married, your drug addicted and your anorexic, dying to binge and purge. Pregnancy is special. From Henry VIII's bloody wait for an heir to the birth of Chastity Bono, the replication of rich and powerful genetic material has held a special place in our cultural imagination. But we haven't always wanted to look at it. We are not far from the days when dads did not crouch in delivery rooms with video cameras, and Lucille Ball was not allowed to say she was "pregnant" with Little Ricky. Norma Broude, professor of art history at American University, said in an e-mail that images of pregnant women "have largely been a taboo in Western culture," until artists like Alice Neel, who painted her expectant daughter-in-law in the 1970s, re-envisioned the pregnant body as beautiful rather than dirty or shameful.

Three decades down the road, the images aren't shocking; they're ubiquitous, and they signal that high-profile mothers-to-be have shed anything resembling shame about their condition. Paparazzi photographers caught Hudson stuffing her pregnancy-bloated face with food in public well into her third trimester; she's since spoken publicly about how great her sex life was while she was expecting. A high-end fashion photographer immortalized Paltrow's swollen tummy for the June cover of W magazine. A photograph last week of Courteney Cox Arquette's taut thigh muscle was evidence that she is back in shape a month after her daughter's birth and proved compelling enough to get plastered in newspapers. Mary-Louise Parker thanked her new baby for her ample breasts at the Golden Globe awards show in January.

Pregnancy porn is addictive. In some respects it's such a humanizing relief, these glimpses of women we're used to seeing perfect and fat-free suddenly walking down the street in ill-fitting clothes looking like their breasts are about to leak. How about the groans of sympathy for that flaxen sylph Paltrow, who pushed out Apple at 9 pounds 11 ounces? Oof, we thought, clucking with the knowledge that birth isn't like maintaining a hot body and a cool wardrobe: There were no personal chefs or free designer clothes paving a comfortable shortcut for this bruiser of an infant's journey from womb to world.

It's also empowering. Liz Lange, the high-end maternity-wear designer who started her business in 1997, argued that the confidence of being able to look good and remain visible is what's created the illusion of a baby boomlet to begin with. "It's not that people are getting married more or having babies more," Lange said. "It's that we gave them something to wear so that when you get pregnant you don't just sit those nine months out. You go to all the fabulous glamorous parties you were always going to." Lange could be talking about Catherine Zeta-Jones, who in 2003 not only attended the Oscars, but sang and danced through her musical number from "Chicago" at a glorious stage of pregnancy that looked to be closely associated with the words "four centimeters dilated." That bra-busting appearance earned Zeta-Jones pats on the back and a lot of attention, though the adulation was dulled a bit by the online appearance, several weeks later, of photos of the actress in the last days of pregnancy, stark naked and sucking on a cigarette.

Both sets of images of Zeta-Jones generated wild interest from a reading, gawking public-- an interest that fuels the unending battle between the celebrity news-organs vying to publish the prettiest, ugliest, sexiest, fattest, most disheveled, most intimate, most revealing, most eye-catching images they can find. It's easy to imagine that we are only a uterus-cam away from seeing Zegna-clad sperm meet Dolce and Gabbana-clad ovum. "This is a market situation," said People editor Nelson. "It's not that the world has suddenly changed and people care about celebrity babies more than before; it's that there are more magazines being published that devote space to it. And that means that there are more people going after those stories."

A recent Los Angeles Times article about pregnancy coverage suggested that the increased market for paparazzi photographs of pregnant stars has led to the defensive "domestication" of otherwise reticent personalities. It's true that some new celebrity parents, like Sarah Jessica Parker or Cox-Arquette, have scheduled photo-ops or sent pictures to the press in the hope of fending off unexpected intrusions. But Joe Dolce, editor of the Star, said that they're not exactly knocking down his doors handing out cigars. "We work very hard to get these photographs," he said. "Actually, the paparazzi work very hard to get these photographs; we bid very hard to buy them." He commented, "I never know whether the appetite began first and the coverage caught up, or whether the coverage began first and that created an appetite. It doesn't matter to me. In this world, pregnancy is considered news, and it is a nine-month news cycle."

The length of that cycle means that there is more time for readers to become invested in the narrative. It's a saga we can follow along with, making it intensely more satisfying than a one-off celebrity wedding, already weeks over by the time pictures of the 12-tier wedding cake make it to magazines. A weekly publication can rely on a pregnancy to provide pages of melodrama, physical transformation, prenatal-care news, and brand-name baby wish lists sanctioned by celebrities. In Touch's news director Dan Wakeford said, "It's great for service-y weeklies. There are the first signs, the cravings, the weight worries, the possible problems, preparing for the baby, the shower, and then finally baby itself. It really is a soap opera of someone's life we can get involved with." Wakeford said that one of his magazine's top-selling covers of the year featured the baby dramas faced by Cox-Arquette (infertility), Debra Messing (enforced bed rest), and Paltrow (should she give birth in London or New York?).

Pregnancy is a point of entry into the otherwise inaccessible existence of someone much richer and more attractive than we are. "The thing we all do with celebrities is comparisons," said Janice Min, editor in chief of Us Weekly, who had her first child seven weeks ago. "You really have nothing in common with these people but in the same way that you want to wear the same shoes and carry the same bag as Kate Hudson, you also think, 'Do I look bigger or smaller than she did at four months?'"

And there is the illusion of girlish, giggly involvement, the false sense that if we're seeing these women in the midst of what we know is a private physical and emotional upheaval, then we must almost know them. "From a visual point of view people love seeing baby bumps," said In Touch's Wakeford. "When a normal person is pregnant people want to touch their baby bumps, and people want to see that even stars' bodies get pushed and pulled out of shape. It's not an evil satisfaction, like 'Ha ha, look, Gwyneth got fat!' It's like, 'Hey, I had to go through that as well!'"

No, of course there's no evil satisfaction. Except that the reporting style of some magazines does leave readers with the teensiest suspicion that all the feel-good, we're-all-in-this-together coverage of expanding asses and abdomens gone wild may be playing on other kinds of desires. After all, the July 19 Star cover story "Celebrity Flaws" featured images of Roberts' hairy armpits, Britney Spears' "flubby tummy," and Darryl Hannah's missing finger. It's the kind of thing that makes readers and newsstand registers purr, but leaves room for us to supply our own dastardly captions for images of the heavily pregnant. "Fecund fatties," perhaps? Couldn't it be that while we're patting Kate Hudson on the back for losing her 60 pounds, we're also taking diabolical pleasure in pointing out that the wispy Goldie-spawn gained 60 pounds in the first place? Might there be something backhanded in In Touch's Aug. 2 interview with Messing, showing "then" and "now" pictures of the "Will & Grace" star before and after baby weight? The captions read, "She's always been committed to being thin, but now Debra's priority is to remain healthy," and "Debra still has great style, but since the birth of her son, her look has become more casual and comfortable." In other words: Debra used to be a well-dressed twig. Now she's a heifer.

"Undoubtedly there's that aspect," said Star's Dolce about the expanding-body schadenfreude. "But realistically, I do think that pregnancy is a very positive thing. Like anything interesting there is a little of the wonder and a little of the imperfection."

Min said that the imperfections are an important part of the equation. "In our office there is this minutiae with which editors examine the pictures: Is she gaining weight in her face? Is that dress flattering?" she said. "When the enviably reed-thin Gwyneth Paltrow is suddenly carrying an extra 30 to 35 pounds, it's both gratifying and you root for her. It warms her up. Someone like Gwyneth Paltrow has been described as an ice princess but then wow, she's pregnant. So there's confirmation that she has had sex, and she gains weight, and you know she's going through this hideous experience in the delivery room. And all of a sudden it brings her to a level 'regular' people can relate to."

But bringing luminaries down to earth by displaying them as fertility symbols is a worrying habit. In her e-mail, art historian Broude wrote that the imagery of pregnant celebrities "may play a role in reducing the celebrity woman to the common denominator that she shares with other women" and that while that can be healthy, it can also "reduce her to her sexual role alone and deny her exceptionality and her power in the public sphere." Are these public mothers empowering, or do they make women feel inadequate and reinforce the idea that the only path to real success or fulfillment is through the womb? In post-baby interviews, beautiful, sleek women extol the joys of motherhood above anything else they've ever done in their lives. Forget power and recognition and professional achievement, they say, nothing matters more to me than my role as a mother. "After a hard day, the baby makes it all worthwhile," Blanchett told the BBC, while Hudson opined to Film Monthly, "You have a baby, you want to be a mum all the time all day long." Great, unless you're someone who doesn't want to be a mum all day long, or hopes that there's something else in life that makes it all worthwhile.

Like any other movement embraced by celebrities, pregnancy has acquired, over the past couple of years a sort of hip cachet. It's a fashion, literally, and with enceinte moppets like Hudson and Liv Tyler chewing up press pages, elder flashbulb chasers like Demi Moore (who some maintain is the ur-goddess of the fecund celebrity after her alabaster-skinned nude cover for Vanity Fair in 1991) and Madonna are getting in on the act, by hinting that they too will soon be signing up for another tour of gestational duty. But it's an oddly retro trend. SUNY Buffalo art historian Elizabeth Otto pointed out that the wave of pregnancy porn speaks to a return to less graphic depictions of femininity from the 1950s -- "the intense interest in home life, home decorating and furnishing ... ideal womanhood as motherhood" -- that filled the pages of Life magazine.

And then there's how bad this can make the rest of us feel. After all, as we're sitting around thinking deeply about how much we have in common with Heidi Klum, we may also be casually considering just how much better she looked in that multicolored muumuu than we would have. While improved fashion choices may mean freedom for women who want to continue to party in front of cameras during their confinement, they are a whole other kind of oppression for those of us flipping through the photographs, Dr. Scholls and Preparation H piled high beside us. Designer Lange said, "I never intended to do this but there is more of a pressure now. There's the idea that you can't actually let yourself go, you have to look great. You can't just schlump around in your husband's big shirt."

And please, please don't schlump around in your husband's shirt if you're Jennifer Aniston. The actress who married actor Brad Pitt four years ago has not yet had a baby, though both she and her husband have spoken about the possibility in interviews. And that's all the chum the press has needed to fly into a full feeding frenzy. There has been so much fervid speculation about Aniston's fertility that she has mocked it herself on "Saturday Night Live." For the past two weeks in a row, In Touch's cover stories wondered whether Aniston (and/or Jennifer Lopez) was pregnant. There is no evidence that she is.

"Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt's baby is the most anticipated baby in the world since Lady Di and Prince Charles, and the whole world wants this beautiful creation to happen," said In Touch's Wakeford of why his publication continues to herald this phantom embryo. To be fair, that kind of excitement over the prince and princess of Wales in the early 1980s, no matter how overblown, had at least a tenuous link to history. Charles and Di's "heir" and their "spare" would be in line for the British throne. The only throne baby Pitt is likely to line up for is in the Fred Segal powder room. But the as-yet-imaginary Pitt-Aniston zygote has taken on a royal, if not biblical, place in the media's imagination. As Star's Dolce said, "In the celebrity lexicon, they are the perfect couple. Therefore they must go on and reproduce, to make perfect progeny."

Min said that the treatment Aniston is receiving makes her just like every other newlywed who gets relentlessly grilled about when she'll reproduce. "Baby-watch is a big American spectator sport," said Min, noting dryly that she and her husband were married for seven years before they decided to have a child. But it's not a new sport, nor is it uniquely American. In Jan van Eyck's 15th century Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, Broude noted, "the bride wasn't pregnant but the depicted pregnancy (covered of course by robes) was a projected wish for fertility in marriage." Woe betide Aniston should she fail to reproduce. Lana Thompson, an anthropologist and the author of "The Wandering Womb: A Cultural History of Outrageous Beliefs About Women," said ominously, "They would kill women who were married to kings who didn't produce heirs."

"Honestly I think it's reached a level of absurdity when there's a cover every single week asking 'Is Jennifer Pregnant?'" said Nelson. "You have to say at some point, give the woman a break."

She's not likely to get one. Min said that the fever is long from breaking. "Pregnancy mania is running so high right now that often we get photos in from agencies and the captions from the agencies read, 'Is she pregnant or did she just have a big meal?'" said Min. "It's very Salem witch trials, but in a more positive way of course. We hunt down and find the next pregnant person."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

MORE FROM Rebecca Traister

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Jennifer Aniston