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The flaunting of fertility: popular media representations of the maternal

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Deborah Chambers

Newcastle University, UK April 2009

This paper examines the transformation of fertility into a media spectacle. The display of the pregnant celebrity, flaunting her ‘ornamental bump’, forms a powerful visual iconography of maternal beauty. Since the 1990s, meanings ascribed to the maternal body have been reconfigured, casting light on the precariousness of woman’s agency. While the naked pregnant body is publicly flaunted as alluring, the fertility and parenting skills of working class, poor, ethnic minorities and Third World groups are interrogated by the media. Fertility is celebrated, as long as the fertile are wealthy, glamorous and/or white. Images of the maternal range from affirmative icons of feminine agency to signs of ‘monstrous feminine’, framed to disgust and shock. As part of a global enquiry about ‘who can parent and under what conditions’, I draw on feminist cultural debates to explore intersections of gender and race/ethnicity in popular media significations of maternity.
The meanings ascribed to the pregnant body within popular culture have been reconfigured in the last two decades. Through celebrity culture, we have witnessed a spectacularisation of maternity and childbirth in the western media. In a global culture dependent on images, the naked maternal body has been reshaped and publicly flaunted as an alluring sign. I examine the ways that fertility is being used in popular culture to communicate powerful meanings about the ‘woman as subject’ from the 1990s to the present. Visual narratives of the maternal are explored in order to cast light on changing family values and consider the precariousness of woman’s agency. Within the content of changing significations about maternity, my enquiry is about the roles being played by public images of pregnant women and of celebrity transnational adoption.
In 1992, Carole Stabile examined the way photography was transforming ideas about pregnancy. She argued that new visual technologies used in medical science have erased the mother as subject. Until the 1990s, woman as ‘pregnant body’ and woman as ‘mother’ were associated with nature, within a reactionary problematic and articulated within regressive configurations of ‘femininity’. As Stabile (1992) pointed out, a shift then took place in the early 1990s. Through medical photography of the foetus, fertility and reproductive technologies were visually re-presented as a progression, bypassing the female body as subject. A further shift is now taking place. With the ‘rich and famous’ taking the lead, fertility is now profoundly fashionable. Celebrities are regularly portrayed, in ‘soft news’ from weekly and glossy magazines to tabloids and online news, in their maternal and parental roles. And a striking feature of this trend is the display of the heavily pregnant public figure, showing off her celebrity bump. This practice forms part of a powerful visual iconography of pregnancy. The question is why there is now an overdetermination of fertility through celebrity culture.
This question is particularly pertinent given that representations of the fertility and parenting skills of working class, poor, ethnic minorities and Third World groups continue to be interrogated and often demonised in the media. Fertility is being celebrated as long as the fertile are successful, wealthy, glamorous and/or white. This suggests that certain favoured figures are functioning as role models – as signifiers of ‘woman’, ‘maternity’, ‘family’. Film stars and pop stars are even engaging in the adoption of babies from Third World nations, evoking neo-colonial discourses of family, race and geopolitics. In this paper, I explore the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity in significations of maternity within soft news. ‘Soft news’ is a major platform on which family themes are played out, forming a dominant framework in which the family is scrutinized within western society and through which ideals are both staged and questioned. This form of popular media is characterized by sensationalized presentation and human-interest themes (Baum 2002). It provides a distinctive focus on the personal biographies and experiences of family life of all social groups and, in particular, the rich and famous. Soft news speaks to the rest of us through the personal (van Zoonen et al 2007). It is characterized by morality tales: moral codes and values set within a personalized discourse.
Fertility as Spectacle: The maternal body and the popularisation of fertility
Pregnancy defines an unfinished, transitional state and identity on to which a plethora of desires and fantasies are transmitted. It is the becomingness of motherhood. Stabile pointed out in the early 1990s that the pregnant body remained invisible and undertheorised:
Pregnancy has been traditionally predicated on an essentialism that reduces women to passive vessels, the receptacles of sperm. Pregnancy, moreover, is seemingly inextricably linked to biologism, to a particularised understanding of the female body as reproductive machine…Furthermore, when conflated with mothering, pregnancy takes on the added significance of entirely defining woman’s ontological state of being, her desires, her goals (Stabile 1992:192).
The maternal feminine remains strikingly undertheorised in feminist theory. As Patricia Crain (1999) says of children, it is ‘[T]he last refuge of unexamined essentialism’i. Now treated as spectacle, I argue that representations of fertility suggest social anxieties about the constitution of the maternal subject.
Medical photography and X-rays were used by the pro-life lobby from the 1990s to support anti-abortion campaigns. Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson represented, in Life magazine in 1990, a 7-week old foetus with high-tech scanning electron microscopes to inspect a woman’s womb. As Stabile (1992:185) points out, all traces of the female body and maternal environment disappear, with no evidence of amniotic sac or placenta. In debates about abortion and the rights of the unborn child, medical photographic representations of the ‘foetal personhood’ rely on removing traces of the female body as subject. Stabile refers to the example analysed by Valerie Hartouni (1990) of brain-dead or comatosed women who have been kept alive long enough to give birth. As Stabiles states, “[T]he reinforcement of hierarchy and the consequent erasure of the pregnant female body have proved a formidable weapon in the hands of the New Right. The disappearance of the pregnant body renders female and male contributions to reproduction equivalent” (Stabile 1992: 196). She argues that this erasure of the female subject gives further credibility to the “rights" of men, in questions about termination of a pregnancy and even child support and custody.
A series of films depict pregnant women who sacrifice their lives for the baby by giving birth and dying. Referring to The Seventh Sign 1986; Switch 1991 as examples, Stabile observes that popular culture is saturated with discourses of maternal altruism that reinforce ideas of the maternal woman as a passive, self-sacrificing subject who forfeits her identity. As Valerie Hartounie (1990:43) states, the maternal figure has become ‘not only dysfunctional but potentially dangerous’ii. Morality tales about the deviant and cruel ‘anti-mother’ played out in films such as Fatal Attraction (1988) and The Hand that Rocked the Cradle (1992) exemplify the institutional surveillance and disciplining of women as maternal subjects (Stabile, 1992). More recently, we can point to the re-emergence of pregnancy as the symbol of both anguish and hope gaining momentum in post 9/11 films, for example as depicted by Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart (2007).
The fertile celebrity body
Within everyday culture, beyond the medical discourse, pregnancy was kept out of sight until very recently: hidden, veiled. Breast feeding in public was once universally regarded as vulgar, offensive and taboo. In his work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu (1996:39)iii found that photographic images of the naked pregnant woman were abhorrent to the working class but regarded as aesthetically pleasing to the middle classes as a sign of class difference in cultural tastes. In more recent popular media representations, the appeal to motherhood has not been about the elimination or veiling of female subjectivity and sexuality during pregnancy. Rather, representations of the maternal have transformed to incorporate the exhibition and even sexualisation of pregnancy through public display. The docile body of the mother as maternal altruism and as self-sacrificing has been overlaid or complicated by representations of the heavily pregnant superstar as an icon of beauty in contemporary popular culture. Does this trend indicate a new machismo maternity: an aggressive flaunting of the body beautiful? Pregnancy is now being portrayed as something aesthetically beguiling and intriguing. In stark contrast to the elimination of the female subject in photos of the foetus, today a named maternal subject is flaunted in within celebrity culture. However, that which is flaunted is inevitably reduced to her body. Cindi Katz emphasises the significance of the concept of spectacle “..[A]nxiety is the raw material of spectacle – giving it legs so to speak – and thus is an affective field of politics and its cultural formations. Understanding its work is then a political project’ (2008:7).
The custom of the celebrity displaying her heavily pregnant body has been in vogue since Demi Moore appeared nude on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991. At the age of 28 and seven months pregnant, Demi Moore posed for photographer Annie Leibovitz in a photo known as ‘More Demi Moore’. The objective was to portray "anti-Hollywood, anti-glitz" image according to its magazine editor Tina Browniv. Demi Moore was quoted as saying: “I look beautiful pregnant”. Tina Brown apparently added: “and not ashamed of it"v. This performative statement, “I look beautiful pregnant” is aimed at challenging the habitual shame associated with representations of pregnancy that had dominated popular culture until then. The front cover image provoked extensive controversy. The circulation editor of Vanity Fair refused to send this edition out to newsstands beyond New York without the magazine being wrapped. This brings to mind the treatment of porn magazines even though the level of nakedness was no different from many other glossy front covers. The issue that had the power to offend readers was not the nudity but the pregnancy. Leibovitz's bold image led to divided opinions, ranging from protests of sexual objectification of women’s bodies to celebrations of the photograph as a symbol of female empowerment. It was widely discussed right across the media and the photograph was also subject to numerous parodies. The image sparked the most passionate debate in Vanity Fair’s history. The question is why?

Significantly, when Demi Moore and Bruce Willis had their first baby in 1988, the birth was recorded by three video cameras before an audience of six friendsvi. Demi Moore’s birth performance preceded and anticipated the Vanity Fair photo of her naked pregnant body.
Before ‘More Demi Moore’, the pregnant body was approached with ambivalence in popular culture: as abject and yet also with mystical reverence as well as traditionally the object of medical voyeurism and surveillance. In a western culture that places such a premium on thinness, the pregnant body has been regarded, until recently, as abhorrent: it is one of the most visible and physical marks of sexual difference and a sign of deeply embedded fears and anxieties about femininity, bodily control, and the female reproductive system. Back in 1992, Stabile stated: “With the advent of visual technologies, the contents of the uterus have become demystified and entirely re-presentable, but the pregnant body itself remains concealed” (1992:192). Even as medical science exposed the foetus, popular culture was continuing to denigrate the pregnant body. Yet the photograph of Demi Moore’s pregnant pose was a defining moment, prompting numerous future celebrities to pose for photographs in advanced stages of pregnancy. Pregnancy photos are now fashionable and part of a profitable celebrity business. The ‘More Demi Moore’ photograph continues to be one of the most revered magazine covers. It sparked off a trend within popular culture. The nearly nude photo of international pop star, Christina Aguilera, published on the front cover of Marie Claire in January 2008 was referred to as the ‘Sexy Mama’ shoot, regarded as ‘saucy’ yet sophisticated by the popular mediavii.

For example, celebrity gossip Weblog, Perez Hilton declared: “The singer bares her bump and so much more, but she does it tastefully and sexilyviii. The primacy of the foetus appears to be challenged in such images in which the ‘woman as subject’ is flaunted rather than erased. These images mark and assign honour to a named celebrity, first Demi Moore followed by a string of others such as Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and so on.
The impact of celebrity pregnancy is pervasive.  It is not uncommon for moIi It is not uncommon these days, for new mothers to own personal collections of pregnancy memoriesix. An article on MSNBC states that the idea is to capture the woman’s “blossoming belly in all its glory”. Or “they might be making a plaster ‘belly cast’ of their changing form. Or even consult a ‘pregnancy stylist’ to map out a cool, midriff-baring maternity wardrobe”. In short, pregnancy has become fashionable, glamorous and sexy. The article goes on to say, that “There has been a huge psychological shift in the last few years. A key factor is that women are having babies at an older age, meaning they often have more money to spend on their pregnancyx, and they are more reflective about it. The planning of pregnancy during a ‘career break’ allows it to be viewed as a positive choice.
Fuelled by a spiralling interest in the lives of celebrities within a consumer culture, the very act of reproduction has apparently reinvented itself. Stimulating this trend has been the ‘Brangelina’ baby phenomenon. Pictures of the newborn twins of Hollywood actors, Angelina Jolie and husband Brad Pitt, were published in 2008 on the front cover and in several central pages of Hello magazine after a $14 million picture deal. Jolie and Pitt now have six children, some of whom are adopted. This celebrity couple has formed, as part of their humanitarian work, a foundation to send the profit from photos of their children to charityxi. This practice has transformed their children and their parental activities into a spectacle. And this spectacle has spawned the idea that large nuclear families are cool, fashionable. Angelina Jolie disclosed to the media in December 2008 that the couple is planning to adopt a seventh child. She claimed that her other children would be unfazed by yet another addition to the family. "We have so many children that they are not really stunned any more when kids come home"xii.
Going a step further, celebrities are now doing what Demi Moore did before the Vanity Fair episode. We can now ‘Watch Kerry Katona giving birth’ ( 12 April 08). Kerry Katona came to fame as singer in girl band Atomic Kitten, formed in 1999. According to
She spent three days in hospital before giving birth to new baby Max Friday afternoon.

The MTV crew was there with her and husband Mark

And we’ve got an exclusive video from the delivery room...Kerry had a natural birth and we can reveal Max was born in three pushes!”

MTV’s ‘fly on the wall’ show: Kerry Katona!xiii
These kinds of representations form part of a wider commodification of pregnancy and childbirth. This new trend in flaunting the pregnant body of the celebrity has given rise to a whole market in chic maternity clothes and all manner of accessories for making pregnancy look more chic and stylish. Many new magazines aimed at pregnant women create a public platform for the emergence of the idea of ‘pregnant woman’ as fashion icon. Maternity can now be transformed into an affirmative experience, rather than a shameful one. The entertainment and celebrity gossip sections of online news that talk about celebrity pregnancy are often accompanied by advertisements for fashion items aimed at the expectant mum. Pregnancy functions as a rhetorical device. While old age can now be confronted through an abundance of face products and surgery, pregnancy continues to mark out an exclusive age group - gradually being nudged upwards.
Grotesque excess and the cost of parading the pregnant body:
Through celebrity culture, then, the disciplined docile female body has apparently been challenged. Or has it? The Demi Moore trend certainly disrupts the brutal medical discourse that Stabile identified in the 1990s. While medical discourse erases the female body, the pregnant celebrity parades her body. Yet it seems that in challenging the disempowerment of medical intrusion, celebrities have not necessarily generated more positive maternal connotations. Instead, they have conformed to yet another strict form of surveillance and set of codes associated with the ideal of the ‘body beautiful’. And this social pressure is being imposed on women at a time of least personal control over one’s body.
In order for the celebrity to gain honour from her maternal status, her body must be severely regulated as flawless and disciplined. Heterosexuality is constantly recited and reiterated through the sign of the perfect body of the pregnant superstar, to paraphrase Judith Butler (1990). This postmodern pregnancy involves an extreme body regime, an excessive investment in bodywork to create the petite bump as an adornment, as fashion accessory to avoid a collapse into ‘monstrous feminine’ (Creed, 1993) . The fetishisation of the bump as ornament transforms the large belly into a commodity, materialising pregnancy as spectacle. The quest for perfection and complete control around maternity is now articulated through the rigid control of this pregnant body. It has to be ‘worked at’ and regimented. Yet there is something aggressive about these kinds of images: the assertion of beauty in what would, in past times, have been deemed the worse, most vulnerable and grotesque conditions of femininity. In fact, the swollen belly, the exposed swollen belly has now become the erogenous zone: competing with the sexualised, enlarged breast area. Several YouTube videos indicate a widespread public interest in titillating, pornographic ‘come-hither’ images of the swollen pregnant belly.
However, this enlarged belly has to be worked at: in the gym, through the diet, at the beauty salon. The once fertile celebrity now has to pay a high price to continue to look pre-menopausal. Women are even under pressure to have plastic surgery after giving birth. A UK Cosmetic Surgeons blog declared in January 2009 that ‘More Young Mums Choose Plastic Surgery after Giving Birth’xiv. Known as a ‘Mummy Makeover’, cosmetic surgery is considered to be an acceptable way of disposing of the accumulated baby fat and flabby skin, ‘both of which can be difficult to sort out just by exercising and eating healthily’. The article performs the role of an advertisement, going on to say: ‘Surgeons offer a specifically designed cosmetic treatment package to the person, generally consisting of a breast uplift, breast enlargement, liposuction and a tummy tuckxv.
Despite a public celebration of pregnancy as beautiful through soft news images of glamorous and famous women, a moral panic continues to surround pregnancy which taps into wider moral anxieties surrounding reproduction and motherhood. While Demi Moore, Christina Aguilera and the earlier, affirmative version of Britney Spears have transformed the naked pregnant body into ideal beauty, an intrusive fascination with the flip side of this icon prevails: a distorted, fat maternal body which forms the grotesque and excessive facet of pregnancy, motherhood and femininity (see Rowe, 1995). The exposure, the uncovering of the wrinkled flabby mass is usually associated with the older or spinstered woman. Yet this was even the fate of international American pop star, Britney Spears.

In 2005, motherhood was said to provide a ‘natural career break’ for Britney, who had been working almost continuously since her Mickey Mouse Club days (according to the profile of her on Hello magazine’s websitexvi). However, after having two children and getting divorced at the age of 25, her troubles were played out in the tabloid press. First, Britney was photographed at various Hollywood hotspots partying hard with Paris Hilton: appearing drunk and out-of-control. Britney ended up spending a month in rehab, recovering from alcohol and drug abuse. Then Britney shaved her head, providing excellent visual spectacle of personal chaos. She was ordered to relinquish custody of her children by a judge who had cited her drug-and-alcohol-fuelled lifestyle. The judge ruled that ex-husband, Federline, should take charge of her two year old and one year old children. Britney was also ordered to meet weekly with a "parenting coach" who was to observe and report back to the court about her parenting skills. She failed to adhere to any of these orders. Britney was held up as a supreme example of bad motherhood. The portrayal of Britney as ‘bad mother’ has frequently been accompanied by images of her pregnant and smokingxvii.
An unflattering photograph of a pregnant Britney was displayed on BBC News online in June 2006 portraying her as obese, that is, as out-of-control pregnant and with a sheepish grin that implies guilt. The caption states ‘Spears was recently seen driving with her son Sean Preston on her lap’xviii.

Britney Spears is transformed into the monstrous feminine in which grotesque feminine excess is signified through images of flabbiness and lack of control. Britney is depicted as bodily and emotionally unruly: overweight, brazenly outspoken, disorderly, and a bad mother. Obesity and unruliness render the woman excessive and as an unworthy mother. The pregnant body still has the ability to shock and horrify, when the subject is deemed unstable. At the time of writing, the story is about Britney’s attempt at a ‘come-back’. Her struggle to regain her popularity as a celebrity singer and her visual presentation in the media are entirely dependent on restoring the image of a ‘good mother’.

The spectacularisation of pregnancy is exemplified through a more recent example: the media exhibition of the birth of the octuplets. The news that a Californian woman gave birth to octuplets in a suburb of Los Angeles on 26th January 2009 led to worldwide debate. An unnamed woman was reported to have delivered six boys and two girls prematurely by caesarean section. There are no known cases of naturally conceived octuplets. The news at that point was about the surprise that doctors had only spotted seven babies in the ultrasound images. The storyline was that a medical celebration took place. But later that same week on 29th January, the tone of the media debate shifted radically. CBS news reported that the mother already had six other childrenxix. It was then divulged that the mother’s name was Nadya Suleman, that she was Latino, that she was a single mother, and that she lived with her parents. This narrative was already drawing on the idea of the excesses of the welfare mother, the working class, minority ethnic groups and the problem of excess fertility. This maternalistic manoeuvre caused outrage among those who believed that the alleged hordes of welfare frauds were exploiting the system through childbirth. Photos of the ‘jobless single mum’ taken eight days before she gave birth, with distended stomach were widely circulatedxx.

By the end of the week, we were told that all fourteen of Suleman's children were conceived through IVF with a sperm donor pal. She had the cheek to bypass the role and rule of the father.
By mid February, the British tabloid newspaper, the Sun had a further damning article claiming that ‘Hollywood beauty’, Angelina Jolie, was said to be “creeped out” by ‘Octuplet mum’ Nadya Suleman:
Friends of Suleman said she had altered her appearance to look like Jolie who has six children herself…The movie star is said to be irritated by Suleman, particularly as there are rumours that the single mum appears to have had facial surgery to make her look more like Jolie. And sources close to the Tomb Raider actress said she had received several admiring letters from 33-year-old Suleman.xxi
At the end of an online article in the Sun that showed the photos of Nadya Suleman heavily pregnant, readers were invited to ‘Have your say’: Tell us what you think of this story. The following were examples from 60 postings overwhelmingly from women:

  • Huge! I’ve never seen so many stretch marks either!! She is gonna have one hell of a saggy jelly belly after that!!

  • I’d like to know how ‘a someone’ who gets benefits can afford IVF....... She is unable to work but can give birth to that many children at one time.

  • I agree...they aren't all stretch marks though, they’re her veins!

  • That’s just gross...

  • She looks like a balloon ready to pop.

  • Thank God I wasn’t eating anything when I looked at the photo of the woman…it’s disgusting!!

These kinds of comments at the end of news articles are significant in setting up public debate by private citizens, within a feminised public space, about family values through celebrity discourse (see van Zoonen et al 2007 in relation to soft news, blogs and political participation). It provides important clues about women’s networking online, given the prominence of issues relating to women in the topics aired. Imperfect female bodies are a dominant theme in such debates.

Nearly a month after she had given birth to octuplets, the story of Nadya Suleman continued to take on the twists and turns of a soap opera. CNN reported that the home that “octuplets mom is living in” was in default, and the mortgage owner, the grandmother of the octuplets, was in debt to the tune of $23,225 on her mortgage paymentsxxii. “The California home where Nadya Suleman plans to raise her 14 children is at risk of foreclosure”. Should we be surprised? Could this not be the consequence of irresponsible bankers? It transpires, from a local media source, that Nadya Suleman has a degree in child and adolescent development from California State University, Fullerton, and had been studying for a master's degree in counsellingxxiii. As a working class, ethnic minority, Latino mum, she is unable to control the image-industry in the way that the celebrities like Angelina Jolie can. The next episode in the saga is that a former husband of Suleman’s came forward in the press to claim he might be the father. Much was made of the fact he had been shunned by Suleman and wanted a DNA test to prove fatherhood. An ABC news headline stated: Possible Octuplet Dad Gave Sperm Because He Was in Love With Sulemanxxiv, evoking the idea of Nadya Suleman as monstrous feminine for exploiting and rejecting the possible biological father and for having children outside the rule of the father.
Defective Motherhood and the Demonising of Dati
The monstrous feminine is not restricted simply to maternal images of women who signified as out of control, as welfare mums, as grotesque. In January 2009, Rachida Dati, the 43 year old French Justice Minister made headline news. By daring to return to work looking ‘slim and fabulous’, a few days after giving birth to her daughter by caesarean section. Photos of Dati back at work were displayed across newspapers, in online news and became the subject matter of numerous blogs. She was vilified for her refusal to take maternity leave. How dare she “totter along the Elysee in smart heels to attend a cabinet meeting just five days after her baby is born through Caesarean?xxv

Unlike Britney Spears, for whom motherhood was seen as a ‘natural career break’, Rachida Dati did not take a single day off up to her daughter's birth, apparently declaring that pregnancy is “not an illness!"xxvi. The press made much of the fact that a makeup artist arrived to style her before visits from Nicolas Sarkozy's mother and brothers. However, Isabelle Alonso, founder of the feminist group, Les Chiennes de Garde, saluted Dati’s "courage and tenacity" in the Métroxxvii. But on several blogs and newspaper reports, many mothers complained that she had done nothing to support the argument for increasing France's minimum maternity leave from 16 weeks (France, at the time had between 16 and 26 weeks). A business leader, Sophie de Menthon stated: "By absolutely wanting to play superwoman, Rachida Dati does a disservice to women’s’ cause ... What is more, I, as the head of a business, would go straight to prison if I took back a colleague who returned from maternity leave after five days."xxviii

However, there is strong evidence that many employers view pregnancy as a problem and too often fire women for being pregnant. In the UK, the Fawcett Society reported in April 2008 that 30,000 British women lose their jobs every year just for being pregnantxxix. The insecurity being felt by Dati was well-founded. In a Guardian article titled “We should mind our own business”, Siobhain Butterworth asks “Should we praise Dati's dedication, or demonise her for her disservice to the cause of feminism? Perhaps we should mind our own business and leave it to her to decide how she handles her new role as a mother”.xxx But this journalist wasn’t in the mood to mind her own business. She then went on to say: “There are the benefits of breastfeeding and the need to bond with her child to consider. There's also a political issue: maternity rights have been hard won and should not be ignored by new mothers. From this perspective, Dati has a duty to take advantage of labour laws”.
Significantly, Rachida Dati was France's first Muslim woman with North African parents to hold a major French ministerial post. She was brought up in poverty on a housing estate in ‘deepest Burgundy’, and is resented by several experienced, male, white, centre-right politicians who believed they are better qualified for the high-status post she held. Writing in the British Guardian, 08/11/08, Angelique Chrisafis remarked that Dati has been hailed as the “nearest thing France's fractured society has to Barack Obama”. She further states:
Born to a poor immigrant Muslim family, France's justice minister has had an astonishing political assent, appearing in glamorous magazine shoots and holidaying with the Sarkozys. But now pregnant with a child whose father she refuses to name, and facing a rebellion by the country's judges over her 'incoherent policies', her future looks uncertainxxxi.

Rachida Dati is therefore emblematic on several levels. She was a symbol of ethnic diversity in Sarkozi’s government and then became an emblem of ‘defective motherhood’: the career woman who dares to be beautiful, powerful and have a baby in between schedules. And finally, she is the woman who refuses to name the father of the child: who renounces a patriarchal relationship. In fact, Dati was right to be anxious about her career and the timing of the birth. Perhaps she read the signs that she was about to be sacked by Sarkozy. She probably knew she was in a vulnerable position and was compelled to show that she was capable and not ‘ill’ or ‘confined’. In private, Sarkozy made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Dati’s performance as minister. Her unpopularity among judges and lawyers was said to be overshadowing Sarkozy's plans to reform the judicial system. Women and ethnic minorities are all too familiar with the profound pressures placed on them when they are used as tokens. Without support, positive discrimination is often used precisely to set them up for failure by catapulting them into jobs surrounded by hostile masculine professional networks. So this explosion of negative press about Dati was not simply about her incompetence as Justice Minister. Her refusal to name the father of her child has been the cause of immense public speculation in her job. The media have named a series of prominent public figures as the possible father, including President Sarkozy's younger brother. This gossip was seized on by international celebrity magazines and has become the subject of satire and low jokes in Paris political circles.

Significantly, at the age of 27, Rachida Dati briefly returned to Burgundy to marry an Algerian engineer chosen by her family. Three years later she persuaded the courts to annul the marriage on the basis of lack of consent. Twenty years later, in 2008, Dati was at the centre of an unpleasant national dispute known as the ‘virgin bride row’. It involved an annulled marriage between two young French people of North African origin. The wife was reported to have lied that she was a virgin. Under Article 180 of the French civil code, a marriage partner can demand an annulment if his or her spouse fails to fulfill an "essential" part of their pre-wedding agreement. Fadela Amara, the minister for France's multi-racial suburbs, a courageous campaigner against sexism in immigrant communities, said the court ruling was a "fatwa against the emancipation of women”xxxii. Dati shocked observers by agreeing with the Lille judgment: "The annulment of a marriage is a way of separating rapidly – a way of protecting someone who wishes to be free of a marriage," she saidxxxiii. The French press failed to make a connection between this episode and Dati’s own annulled marriage. As John Lichfield points out, Dati's sympathies may have been with the young woman, remembered her own narrow escape from a loveless marriagexxxiv. Finally, Dati was forced to retreat on this.
The monstrous feminine is, then, evoked to condemn women who disrupt the prescribed patriarchal norms about taking time out for birth, for refusing to honour the father and for being commanding and independent. If we take the contrasting example of Michelle Obama, a black woman now ensconced in the powerful, once all-white, world of American politics, she is affirmed as the ‘good mom’ because she has opted out of her high powered and high paid career in law to be a ‘good wife and mother’. This is in stark contrast to Rachida Dati and other public figures like Cherie Blair who, through ‘machismo motherhood’, disrupt the image of the mother who should sacrifice her career for the sake of the birth and childcare. Michelle Obama has been valorized. She is labelled the ‘straight talking new Mom-in-chief’ in Hello magazine: “In political circles their union is regarded as the epitome of a modern partnership with all decisions taken jointly, including the choice to run for White House...The mother-of-two's public style is marked by an elegance that has earned her comparisons with Jacqueline Kennedy”xxxv: This is no unruly, threatening black woman. She has been recuperated.
By contrast, Rachida Dati is reminiscent of the femme fatale figure of 1940s films noir, such as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity: the strong female character was glamorous, intelligent, independent, an icy woman in control of her emotions, but also a temptress who used her sexuality: the black widow, armoured with fetish items such as the stiletto heels. Her clothing was her armour. Yet she was continually exposed as crazy and psychotic. “The bad girl must be punished”. This incarnation is part of the backlash now. As women gain more power, the representations of women are more warped: the good girls must be styled to look like babes, as novelist, Bidisha has remarked. The feared independent woman of the 1940s, she says, is told to “get back in your place: we don’t want you to be the cool dame anymore”xxxvi. There is, then, little tolerance for this powerful woman during the noughties.
The display of pregnancy and machismo maternity reveals an extreme public anguish about the independent unattached single woman who dares to ‘go it alone’: pregnant without the permission of a nuclear family structure. Rachida Dati refuses to perform a consistently subordinate role as maternal African in a white French political system. She represents a profound threat to patriarchy. Indeed, the public display of pregnancy by apparently confident, assertive women now represents a threat to patriarchy in a society where women’s rights and the trappings of independence from men have apparently been won.
Transnational Adoption: The Case of Angelina Jolie and Madonna
In 2006 Madonna was criticized in the press for adopting a child from Malawi. She gave an extended interview to Oprah Winfrey in October 2006 to talk about her widely publicised and contested adoption. “If everyone went there [Africa], they’d want to bring one of those children home with them and give them a better lifexxxvii. In her study of childhood as spectacle, Cindi Katz (2008: 13) states, “Witness the competitive world parenting of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt versus Madonna, which is not easily separable from the baby as bauble, humanitarian concerns notwithstanding”. Transnational adoption has been incorporated as part of the strategies of western motherhood that appear to address issues of structural and systemic oppression in the Third World. Yet the phenomenon of celebrities adopting babies from the Third World is steeped with racial resonances. As individualistic responses within a colonial framework, this practice raises questions about the circulation of children in a contemporary global political economy. Karen Dubinsky (2008) asks, “How does feminism make sense of the high profile and now widely questioned politics of transnational adoption”? She argues that transnational adoption can be read as a metaphor for global inequalities of health care and bodily integrity, US foreign policy, and the increasing commodification of childhood.

Madonna and Angelina Jolie communicate a classic rescue narrative which, as Dubinsky points out, has long roots in the history of adoption and child welfare. This narrative is central to the wider discourse on First World charity for the Third World and child-sponsorship advertisements. Over 50% of adoptions are destined for the USA. The heart-rending photos of deprived children featured in magazines and newspapers are referred to by Laura Briggs (2003) as the ‘visual iconography of rescue’. A visual culture of needy children offers an avenue for privileged whites in the West to connect with the ‘plight of the poor’ in developing nations and to establish themselves as the rescuing hero. Tropes of rescue and kidnap dominate today’s debates about transnational adoption. Whole nations are signified as unsuitable for children. And the birth parent’s agency is obscured; their experiences and voices silenced. In the case of Madonna’s widely publicised adoption, it was discovered that there was a father. The rescue discourse suddenly became problematic, untidy and confused.
Adoption provides a critique of the normative nuclear family and a re-evaluation of the centrality of ‘genetic essentialism’ in western ideas of family and selfhood. Yet it also exposes the problematic and complex historical and contemporary relationship between reproductive control, racism, colonial domination and western [celebrity] individualism. The transfer of children often involves ‘extremely poor and/or culturally oppressed mothers who utterly lack choices’ (Solinger 2001:22). This leads to Dubinsky’s question, ‘who can parent and under what conditions?’ The Madonna/Jolie adoption episodes are about attempts by celebrities to get involved in the charitable act of tackling this ‘unequal world’. But what is remarkable is that celebrities are compelled to act compassionately within the realm of the personal and individualistic: at the level of family and intimacy. It is as if they barter for a child by asking: If I give you $6m in aid, can I have one of your country’s babies? Transnational adoption as spectacle diverts social concerns into individual ones. It allows the political conditions of transnational social inequalities to be obscured. Guatemala has the world highest rates of transnational adoption. Transnational adoption practices have been interpreted as a threat to Guatemalan women and children (Dubinksy 2008). It has led to rumours about organ theft, and the lynching of suspected baby-snatchers. It raises questions about the global ‘export of care’ (Rachel Salazar Parrenas 2005:24), which is related to transnational labour migration. As Dubinsky points out, Guatemalas’ recent history involves a US-backed coup, a genocidal civil war, human rights violations and wide scale poverty and ill health.
At first blush, we might assume that the image of the pregnant celebrity destabilises the claims of fixed heterosexual femininity: the veiled pregnancy is exposed and displayed; now apparently claiming a privileged identity. However, the over-determination of the work of reproduction leads to pregnancy as spectacle. Drawing on the concept of ‘the male gaze’ by Laura Mulvey (1975), we can see that celebrity pregnancy has been become part of a sexy to-be-looked at femininity (drawing on Mulvey 1975). It is displayed as narcissistic pleasure: creating and gazing at an image of the swollen belly. It evokes a kind of pornographic discourse of pregnancy because the expectant mother’s body is displayed as sexual.
The pregnant body and motherhood are situated in a hierarchical system of meaning, a system of meaning still controlled, surveyed, governed by patriarchal values of familialism. Pregnancy is no longer vilified as the grotesque and shameful except for those who fail to conform to conventional family values. In an age of celebrity exhibitionism, the image of the pregnant woman can be deployed simultaneously as an affirmative icon of feminine agency and as monstrous feminine. The pregnant body continues to have the ability to disgust and horrify. The judgments in the popular media about Britney Spears, Nadya Suleman and Rachida Dati are made by specifically associating their maternal bodies with the idea of the unruly woman. The disruptive female creature has a long history in high art and film and TV, as Kathleen Rowe (1990; 1995) points out. Working class status, black and minority ethnic status; obesity, sexual awareness, and breach of conventional family standards are all used as disruptive qualities of feminine excess and unruliness (Rowe 1990:410). But in these contexts, feminine excess is a trope within postmodern pregnancy that functions to erode their agency (see Brown 2005).
The pregnant woman is a troubled icon. Because the pregnant body seems to offer some certainty for family values and sexual morality in a climate of increasing uncertainty, it is a sign that gets hotly debated. Cinti Katz (2008) argues that children, including the expectation of children through the presence of the foetus, become emblems of a hopeful future in a society now struggling to address widespread unease about that future. These ideas are channelled in and through the maternal figure as the benevolent, the nurturing, the self-sacrificing. Anxieties about the future of the planet and the human race are, then, expressed through anxieties around the maternal body. The patriarchal struggle to control the fertile female figure is situated within this climate of change. Thus, the display of celebrity pregnancies is not a postmodern challenge to patriarchy; it is part of the renewed search for gendered certainties. The maternal body has become the site of a battle over female empowerment and family values.

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i P. Crain, ‘Childhood as spectacle’, American Literary History 11 (1999), pp. 545–53, quoted in Katz (2008:8).

ii Quoted in Stabile (1992:181).

iii First published in French as La Distinction: Critique sociale du jugement, 1979 by Les Editions de Miniut.

iv Quoted by Susan Heller Anderson in the ‘Chronicle’ section of The New York Times. July 11, 1991.

v Ibid.

vi Ibid.

vii See for example, Evening Standard, Showbiz news section (29/11/07), available at (retrieved on 21/04/09)

viii Weblog, at (accessed 21/04/09).

ix See for example,, ‘Celebrities Make Pregnancy Seem Glamorous’ Associated Press, ET April 26th, retrieved on 24/02/2008.

x ibid

xi See for example,, accessed 21/04/09.

xii; Anita Singh, Showbusiness Editor
Last Updated: 9:53PM GMT 27 Jan 2009.

xiii 12 April 08.

xiv Accessed 21/04/09.

xv Ibid.


xvii See for example, blogs such as ‘Britney Spears Loses Custody of Kids’, 30th October 2007 accessed 21/04/09; and a more recent articles such as Daily Mail 14th May 2008, titled ‘Lets Hope Bloated Britney isn’t Pregnant’, available at accessed 21/04/09.

xviii, accessed 21/04/09.


xx See for example, The Mail Online 13th February 2009,

xxi, accessed 23/02/09.

xxii ‘Octuplets’ Family Reportedly Faces Foreclosure’, CNN 19th February 2009,, accessed 23/02/09.

xxiii A college spokesperson informed the Long Beach Press-Telegram,

xxiv ABC news online, 23rd February 2009,, accessed 21/04/09.

xxv ‘French lessons’, Editorial, the Guardian on line, 9th January 2009,, accessed 21/04/09.

xxvi Quoted by Ben Macintyre in ‘Rachida Dati: Who’s le Papa’, Times on line, 6th January 2009, accessed 21/04/09.

xxvii Angelique Chrisafis in Business as Usual at the Ministry of Justice, Guardian on line, 9th January 2009,, accessed 21/04/09.

xxviii Ibid.

xxix Fawcett Society report, ‘Sexism and the City. The Manifesto: What’s Rotten in the Workplace and What we can do About It’, April 2008., accessed 21/04/09

xxx - 98k -

xxxi Angelique Chrisafis, ‘The Rise and Fall of Rachida Dati’, Guardian online 20/11/08, , accessed 21/04/09.

xxxii John Lichfield, ‘Rise of Rachida Dati: The Minister, the ‘Virgin Bride’ and the Row That’s dividing a Nation’ The Independent online, 4th June 2008,, accessed 21/04/09.

xxxiii Ibid.

xxxiv Ibid.


xxxvi Bidisha, British novelist interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Front Row (13/3/09).

xxxvii Quoted in Katz (2008:339). For extracts of the interview, see Madonna on Oprah, BBC News at

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