Their Bodies, Our Business: The Celebrity Pregnancy Craze


Jon Stewart, this year's Oscar host, neglected to mention the record four women nominated for screenwriting awards. But luckily for all of us, he did manage to make a stupid joke about four prominently pregnant actresses. He had the camera zoom in on these unsuspecting — but expecting — women and as though they were vying for an Oscar, drew out an envelope and opened it slowly, saying "And the baby goes to…" None of the reaction shots picked up particularly amused facial expressions. I normally adore Jon Stewart's wry commentary on the Daily Show, but this particular stab at humor was an unfortunate barometer of the times.

The bump-watch fad continues to flourish, and has shown no sign of abating. From J-Lo's new twins to Jessica Alba's belly-hiding gowns, from the pending addition (biological this time!) to Angelina's brood, to teen mama-to-be Jamie Lynn, their wombs belong to the public: to the first photographer who can get evidence, the first interviewer who can get proof, and then to everyone.

With every child conceived by a celebrity, the news cycle is fed on the biological processes of the female body. There are months of doctor's appointments to chronicle, expanding waistlines to eyeball, questions about prenatal smoking and caffeine to wag in these women's faces. Once the child is born, there's the baby weight to drop, a process which, if you think about it, may be one of the most heinous social rituals ever invented: let's remove all the physical evidence that you had a child and get you back to rock-hard abs, quick! The whole childbearing cycle is a never-ending windfall for the paparazzi and the publications that keep them in business, and it's all fueled by a public claim to the physical knowledge, and metaphysical ownership, of women most of us have never met.

There have been lots of reasons posited for this growing obsession with the reproduction of the rich and famous. A few years ago, even before Brangelina, Salon's Rebecca Traister interviewed the top tabloid magazine editors who acknowledged that the public's baby love was two sides of the same coin. On one side is a desire for empathy and identification with stars who go through the very same physical transformations we all do. On the other is a tinge of schadenfreude at seeing so-called "perfect" bodies get contorted and bloated like everyone else's.

The Terror Dream author Susan Faludi would likely add, and I'd agree, that the current baby boom on screen and in the glossies must have something to do with the climate engendered by the war on terror. The obstetrician's office is the hip new backdrop for screwball comedy antics and perhaps, that office is the home front, too. Every healthy baby produced by a rosy-cheeked American woman is a weapon against the "evildoers!"

Like the images of domesticity and sainted motherhood that dominated pop culture during the height of the cold war in the 1950s, we may be turning towards images of female fecundity to assure ourselves that this country, and in fact the world, isn't headed towards apocalypse. After all, if pop stars are procreating, than things can't be that bad, right?

Ultimately, what underlies all the fertility-fixation is our massive social anxiety over the female body, its power to attract and change and reproduce. Thus the obsessive pinpointing of the minute we can see the bump, the minute the last vestiges of baby weight melt away; the details of women's appearances and personal lives are on the public stage in a way that men's aren't.

And if you analyze which pregnant celebrities get stalked the most vigorously, they're always the sex symbols, the paparazzi favorites to begin with. Those figures whose bodies are already home to controversy always attract the most flashbulbs when they start wearing tunics instead of midriff-baring tops. J-Lo, whose turbulent romantic history, unabashedly curvy body and reputation as a diva made her a target for years, and Jessica Alba, who is marketed as a male fantasy and who was recently victimized by the most invasive camera shot stalking imaginable, have been the hottest property for bump-watchers.

And then there's bad-gal-gone maternal Jolie, who has managed to turn her image from wild child and home-wrecker to sainted mother. But her newfound reprieve dangles over a precipice. As the public obsession over her baby bump grows and scrutiny increases, it feels like an ominous warning. One false step with her brood of kids and she could become like Madonna, whose decision to devote herself to motherhood has been criticized every step of the way, and who just got inappropriately, and idiotically, ambushed by Diane Sawyer in a fake gotcha-moment, reminding Madonna that she is still ours: How can you write for children when you once wrote about sex?

Is it any surprise that we've co-opted celebrity wombs? Consider the fact that most women's bodies, even ordinary ones, are still considered public property by many (I'm looking at you, Justice Kennedy!), from co-workers and neighbors who criticize our clothing and appearance to public figures who moralize about our choices. Maybe what celebrities go through is just what most of us do, except with more cameras.

The fact that many women can now go out in public proudly displaying their pregnancies, and swollen stomachs are now considered beautiful is fantastic and undeniable. But it's still the ultimate challenge for women to celebrate our bodies without being reduced to just our bodies-bumps, baby weight and all.

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