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(WOMENSENEWS)–Demi Moore made history posing nude and heavily pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in 1991. Moore’s glistening tanned body, an outrage to many, transformed the pregnant body from desexualized and shameful into something glamorous, even sexy.
Annie Lebowitz‘s cover photograph of pregnant Moore (“More Demi Moore”), with the magazine sold in plastic wrapper to conceal her belly, incensed the public. But it also changed our image of the pregnant body. Lauren Berlant describes the change: “Once a transgressive revelation of a woman’s sacred and shameful carnality, the pictorial display of pregnancy is now an eroticized norm in American public culture.”
The skintight reflective surfaces make Moore’s pregnant belly appear as yet another celebrity accessory to be glamorized and objectified. It is as if Moore is wearing her pregnant body as the latest fashion. This sentiment was made all the more poignant when Moore appears on another Vanity Fair cover a year later, with her thin post-pregnant body covered in body paint that looks like she is wearing a man’s suit. In this later photo, in a strange sense echoing the first, she is literally wearing her skin.
Iris Young and other feminists writing in the 1970s and ’80s may not have been able to predict what would happen when maternity and sexuality came together to create a sexy pregnancy, or what one website calls “knocked-up knock-outs,” but Young’s insistence that women’s own experience of themselves as sexual subjects should be primary has not yet been realized within popular images of pregnancy. Discussing a bikini contest for pregnant women in New Zealand, a phenomenon that is popular around the industrial world, Robyn Longhurst identifies a paradox in the way that pregnancy has “come out of the closet”: “The ‘bikini babes’ both subverted and affirmed hegemonic constructions of gender for pregnant women. They subverted the construction of pregnant women as modest and inwardly focused by exposing their stomachs and making a claim for being pregnant, public and proud. Paradoxically, this claim was made by way of a ‘beauty’ pageant.”
‘Out of the Closet’
Pregnancy may have “come out of the closet,” but has pregnant sexuality or maternal sexuality? In Hollywood and popular media, do we see representations of women’s subjective experience of their pregnant embodiment? Or, rather, do we see representations of the pregnant body as sex objects for others, or objects of what film theorist Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze”?
“Momshells,” “hot mamas,” “MILFs” (“mothers I’d like to fuck”), “yummy mummys,” “knocked-up knock-outs,” and in some way even “baby mamas,” appeal to both men and women. Indeed, if the underlying values of making pregnancy sexy and desirable are family values, then they are effective only insofar as they make pregnancy look attractive to women and paternity look attractive to men. These labels and the media attention to pregnant celebrity constitute something like a new cult of motherhood.
Hollywood bad-girl become earth-mother Angelina Jolie tops most lists of hot mamas and yummy mummys; her celebrity motherhood helped spark the MILF movement. And the “Brangelina” clan has become the poster family for multicultural and therefore seemingly progressive American family values. Along with making a large family look easy, they make adoption, childbirth and having it all as beautiful as a rainbow.
But, like more traditional objectifications of the female body in art and film, recent sexy and cute images of the pregnant body are represented as “to be looked at” for visual consumption by both men and women. What is new in the representation of women’s bodies as objects is that now it is not an idealized female form that is opposed to the maternal body but rather that the pregnant body itself has become desirable, if not entirely attractive. Still, it is important to consider the complicated ways in which representations of pregnancy as desirable both objectify women and promote conventional family values at the same time that they bring pregnant embodiment “out of the closet” and empower women.
Search for ‘Momshells’
A reality television show is searching for “momshells,” another MTV program (“16 and Pregnant”) features pregnant teenagers and another re-creates and simulates young women giving birth who didn’t know they were pregnant. It is noteworthy that “momshell” is a play on the notion of sexy women as “bombshells,” which suggests that female sexuality, like a bomb, is dangerous; maternity becomes associated with a deadly weapon. Moreover, momshell also connotes the idea that the maternal body is a shell, a container.
MILF is an obvious sexual reference used in popular parlance by men about mothers who are hot. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was called both a MILF and a GILF (“governor I’d like to fuck”), ignoring whatever qualifications–such as they are–that she had for the job. There are even T-shirts and onesies that say “My Mother is a MILF”–what would Freud have to say about that? Insofar as the 2008 presidential election had female candidates on both sides, there were many references to these women’s bodies and to their roles as mothers.
Palin was not the only candidate reduced to her reproductive, if sexy, body. Michelle Obama was referred to as “Obama’s baby mama,” a term that is used in popular parlance to suggest an unmarried black woman whose only relationship with a man is as the mother of his children. This term not only reduces her function to bearing a man’s children but also defines the woman herself as a baby as well as a mama.
These examples from popular culture demonstrate not only our culture’s obsession with the maternal body but also our culture’s continued objectification of women’s bodies and the reduction of those bodies to reproduction even when they have college degrees from prestigious universities and they are running for the highest offices in the country.
Excerpted from, “Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films” by Kelly Oliver. Copyright 2012 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the author of “Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to be Human” and “Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media.”
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