For Photoworks Annual Issue 20, Susan Bright, curator of Home Truths, explores prescriptive models of motherhood peddled by tabloid media. What are the implications for our understanding of motherhood and can contemporary art provide a critical counterpoint to mainstream representations?
Lily Allen, in her song Fear, sang:
I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
And when do you think it will all become clear?
Cuz, I’m being taken over by the fear …
Lives about filmstars and less about mothers.1
What Allen did not seem to realise was, that, when she first wrote this in 2009 the lives of film stars as mothers were to become much more dominant in just a few years. Indeed, her own fecundity was to add to the fodder, as was played out only a year later when she tweeted a picture of herself holding up the front page of The Sun newspaper reporting her pregnancy. In a double act of self-aggrandising media ‘selfie-ing’ she not only undermined her own lyrics but also secured the media interest in her as a mother (a fact that was already acute following a very public earlier miscarriage and treatment for depression following it). Complicit, but also resistant (in part), she plays the role of celebrity mum with caution. She, whether she likes it or not, is not only a public figure for her singing, presenting and acting talents but is also a vital player, alongside others such as Mylene Klass and Katie Price (to name but two) in the ‘celebrity mum’ phenomenon in Britain. A bizarre and modern phenomenon, where it would seem that any female in the public eye who has a baby becomes, by default, a celebrity mum. Even the singer Adele, who rigorously keeps her child and her maternity out of the press, has been awarded the dubious moniker of ‘Best Loved New Celebrity Mum’ on the grounds of staying out of the spotlight.2
The celebrity mum is a subgroup of celebrity culture that has offered celebrities both commercial and profile opportunities for many years. Stories can include speculations on whether a celebrity is pregnant (or not), pregnancy announcements, bump watching, baby showers, progeny name guessing, birth, newborn pictures, losing the baby fat (or not), life as a mother versus ‘former’ life, and the spin-offs as a ‘mumpreneur’ designing maternity lines or nappy bags and endorsing products often with a green and or organic leaning. This is not an exhaustive list. It extends as public interest in celebrity children continues as the children grow older.
The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels charts the phenomenon in the USA from the 1980s and the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.3 His politics surrounding family values and conservative attitudes towards women occurred simultaneously with the rise of print space given over to celebrities becoming mothers at this time. This was no coincidence. In Britain, it is also important to remember that the most famous woman of the nation in the 1980s, Princess Diana, also became a mother.4 The stories, on both sides of the Atlantic, were similar, and the message was that becoming a mother was wholesome, self-serving and overtly positive. Or to put it another way: ‘Rising out of the ashes of feminism, and repudiating its critique of the narrow confines of middle-class motherhood, the celebrity mom profile was an absolutely crucial tool in the media construction of maternal guilt and insecurity, as well as the romanticizing of motherhood, in the 1980s and beyond.’5
Douglas and Michaels also chart the shift from the clichéd 1980s ‘how I do it all’ mother to a more benign mother figure moving into the 1990s, where media messages were much more based around giving up work, and life being more rewarding when staying at home with children. The mothers, whatever their working status, were, nevertheless, all on message, and portrayed mothering as both a heroic and noble position. As the presence of the celebrity mum increased, so did the demand, and one only has to the look at the many comments, which often run into their thousands, underneath photographs of new mothers in online magazines to see that the appetite is as voracious as the output.6
Into the 2000s, as the output has increased with the growth of the web, one of the most noticeable things is how the celebrity mother can use her maternal status to extend her time in the limelight. Where pregnant actors and television presenters were once shuffled off out of view, now the opposite is the norm. In a very short time, social changes in the visibility of a mother have significantly shifted. Compare, for example, a barely pregnant Neneh Cherry who shocked the British nation in 1988 by appearing on Top of the Pops, with MIA, who appeared on stage at the 2009 Grammys the same night she went into labour, to cheers of adoration and admiration. Currently in America, Jessica Simpson (a singer who had her last chart success over ten years ago) is regularly front-page material, as is Nicole Richie, who has managed to reinvent herself from Paris Hilton’s sidekick with eating disorders to an earth mother and jewellery designer. As a recent New York Times article on the subject commented, ‘they have found, to be blunt, that motherhood pays. In the last few years, salaries for movie starts have plummeted, record sales have tanked and roles in scripted dramas are going the way of the IMB computer. Yet for a number of underemployed actresses, singers and would-be entrepreneurs, parenthood is a viable Plan B.’7
The celebrity mum, as well as the media portrayal of mothers who make it into the news, is the subject for an ongoing project Media Mothers (2012–present) by Anonda Bell. She presents images of women in news reporting that often do little more than illustrate vitriolic preconceptions and perpetuate hyperbolic maternal clichés rather than uncover what is really the issue. Her work, and the screeching headlines that are used as the titles, either demonise or sentimentalise, and the mother comes to stand in for an omnipresent archetypal figure often held responsible for societal standards and behaviour.
Such expectations and value judgments are impossible to live up to. The symbolism of the mother figure is further exacerbated in Bell’s work by her choice of material and presentation. Transforming the photographic reproductions found in print media, or the web, into paper cut portraiture—a method of likeness that was a popular precursor to photography and often used to ‘prove’ character traits in the pseudo-science of physiognomy—the work deftly shows that it is still difficult for a mother figure within the media to exist in a critical space beyond the ‘Madonna/whore’ dichotomy.
These oppositional representations of mothers (and women generally) are nothing new. Insidious value judgments in regard to the mother figure are among the most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions in Western culture. My interest in the mother figure is how she is represented in photography in popular culture through the proliferation of photographs of ‘celebrity mums’ and the branding of motherhood as a photographic opportunity. In this article I refer to celebrity pictures, which have been paid for, styled and PR approved rather than paparazzi shots and those taken for social media outlets. Here, I would like to concentrate on what photographic strategies are at play to construct meaning, reinforce stereotypes and reconfirm age-old preconceptions of the mother figure. And, like Anonda Bell, I would like to revisit the Madonna/Whore dichotomy and ask why there is little critical space for the mother to exist in between these poles of culpability.
The Mum ‘Makeover’
This transformation from woman into mother (although of course they are not mutually exclusive) can be seen as the ultimate version of the makeover paradigm, which the academic Rosalind Gill has argued is one of the key proponents of postfeminist media culture.8 In an attempt to cut through the conflicting and often contradictory definitions that still swirl around this contentious term, she offers a way to best understand it is as a sensibility made up of interrelated themes—of which the makeover is just one.
The makeover is most broadly understood to be a person who believes that their life is somehow lacking, and can be ‘made over’, that everything will miraculously get better. Such programmes have dominated television in both Britain and American for over a decade, and the term can be applied to houses (Property Ladder), gardens (Ground Force), clothes (What Not To Wear), Dating (Would Like to Meet) and general appearance (10 Years Younger). The formula is that of being shamed in the former existence and transformed and empowered once made over. When applying the metaphor to celebrity mums, we see that she often shames herself (rather than calling on an ‘expert’), claiming that her former professional life was superficial, and that being a mother is much more fulfilling. She literally changes her whole character and persona.
The implication of this is that being ‘just a woman’ is not quite good enough as that is somehow lacking (having not been made over). Those who are really being shamed here are women that choose not to, or cannot, have children.9 It can be seen as a profoundly sanctimonious and unfeminist gesture thinly disguised as an act of both assertiveness and humility.
Often the new mother is made over to be a Madonna. The linkages between celebrity and religion are nothing new, as Chris Rojek in his book Celebrity points out: ‘Celebrity culture is secular. Because the roots of secular society lie in Christianity, many of the symbols of success and failure in celebrity draw on myths and rites of religious ascent and descent.’10 What could be a more potent symbol of Christianity than the Madonna? What better visual axiom to reinforce cultural ideals?
So, well-known iconography underscores the excessive use of imagery that accompanies stories of mothers and their newborns, and it becomes the perfect platform and ‘costume’ in which to make over one’s life, wiping the slate clean of any past misdemeanours. Becoming a celebrity mum is the ultimate makeover.
It may seem a leap to go from the Madonna motif to wrestling, but Roland Barthes in his essay ‘The world of wrestling’ states: ‘There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.’11 The exact same sentiment could be extended to the prolific use of Madonna imagery in celebrity culture. The perfection of the iconography is an act, the gesture of cherishing a newborn personifies the celebrity, and she is both mother and Mother—all giving, nurturing and selfless, although, as we know, her desires to be photographed like this are ultimately selfish ones, namely a desire to control public image and gain considerable income.
How can this motif fail? Its tropes and connotations are known and respected by all. Its efficacy is secured. It is the perfect celebrity pose to absolve sins of the past and start a new celebrity assent with the cloak of decency, respectability and reliability attached.
An example is Patsy Palmer in Hello! magazine in 2011. No stranger to media coverage or selling photographs of her family, this shoot was to introduce her one-month-old son Bertie to the public. The shoot is a perfect example of the Madonna motif being played out. She is in white; her hair is gently pulled back without any sign of strain, and the mood is gentle and pure. The cover adopts a well-used trope of the mother holding the baby up to her face (mostly reserved for single mums and adopted babies who have gone through some kind of ‘struggle’), and used here as the baby is a ‘miracle baby’ due to his premature birth, and therefore needs a different sort of treatment—one of survival and hardship. Like many celebrity profiles, motherhood is once again being portrayed as transformative (for the better), and there are no judgemental references to her past drug addiction and failed marriages—unlike the concentration on background details that dogged Nadya Doud-Suleman, below.
So, returning to Rojek and his claims that celebrity draws on the rites of religious ascent and descent, it is important to ask what happens when the maternal makeover goes wrong? When does the Madonna become a whore? As is often the case, what is more compelling is not the ‘good’ but the ‘evil’. And in pictures of a ‘bad mother’ what is really being represented are versions of cultural taboos. The mother is sexual, corporeal or, in the case of Nadya Doud-Suleman (or the ‘Octomom’ as she more commonly became referred to), excessive and unconventional, so therefore totally demonised and judged. Her image becomes the anathema of the previous example, and celebration turns abject.
Nadya Doud-Suleman gave birth to octuplets in January 2009. Frenzied media activity followed—much of it torrid and judgemental. In a confusing and often contradictory relationship with the media, Suleman both flaunted it and rejected it, using it as a means of income and self-promotion. Several factors seemed to fuel the incendiary reactions. One was that she already had six other children and was on welfare (unemployment benefit), another was her unmarried status. Her constant need to be a media sensation confirmed her negative image, her filing for bankruptcy and accusations of welfare fraud added to it, and finally her dalliance in porn12 secured her status as a ‘freak show’.
Underlying all the hoopla was a fascinating harking back to essentialist, and somewhat gothic, fears of our human relationship with science, echoing symbols, themes or motifs that can be linked quite directly to Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly (first published anonymously in 1818). For example, in both the Suleman story and Frankenstein the main characters desire to surpass previous human endeavour and successes; both creations are rejected from society (the mother here turns into the monster); value judgements and questions about what is ‘natural’ and manmade when creating human life are brought into question; and a weird tales of secrets and half-truths are delivered among a variety of different storytelling devices.
In terms of how Suleman was represented photographically, references to monsters and societal standards and levels of acceptability abound. Her first photo-shoot of her new babies for In Touch Weekly magazine is a fascinating assemblage of image and text, which plays out the two opposing attitudes on the cover. She is pictured with six of her eight babies in her arms. She is modestly dressed but without the usual white dress or pastel background. In comparison, the colours are quite lurid. In the left hand corner she is pictured picking up her baby in her home. The copy reads, ‘LOVING or MOM FROM HELL?’ The bigger type, the positioning of it and the print about the chaos in her house that runs next to the MOM FROM HELL makes this a purely rhetorical question. The magazine’s opinion is formed, it’s judgement made, her fate secured.
My book and exhibition Hometruths: Photography and Motherhood turn to fine art to look at examples of mothers who exist in a critical space between the two poles of culpability mentioned above. Where some of the work featured may share some of the iconography and connotations mentioned above, it does so knowing that the history of the subject and the pictures we experience on a daily basis can be both reductive and sentimentalising, reinforcing a set of cultural assumptions around the mother figure and maternity. By concentrating on work that disrupts these assumptions, but also, according to Gill’s definitions, falls into a theoretical understanding of postfeminist sensibilities, I hope to show representations of mothers that liberate women from photographic clichés and tropes and in an environment that is far removed from puerile media stories that often pit mothers against one another in the imaginary ‘mummy wars’, or make new mothers feel inadequate or demonised.
With the birth of the new heir to the throne, one can’t expect to see the media phenomenon of the celebrity mum disappear any time soon, but can hope that one day the mother can be more commonly represented in a way that offers a counterpoint to the clichés and ideals constituted through the pervasiveness of neoliberal conservative ideals and a thirst for capitalism—just two juggernauts associated with celebrity culture and the media, of which celebrity mum plays a vital role.
1 I am grateful to Toni Wilkinson for making me aware of these lyrics.
2 ‘Adele is voted Britain’s best-loved new celebrity mum’, Female First, www.femalefirst.co.uk/parenting/adele-voted-best-new-celebrity-mum-282432.html (18 August 2013).
3 Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels, The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined Women (New York: New York Free Press, 2004).
4 Prince William was born in 1982 and Prince Harry in 1984.
5 Douglas and Michaels, The Mommy Myth, op. cit., p. 113.
6 It is not only the comments but the growth in magazines devoting whole sections to babies (and by implication mothers) such as http://celebritybabies.people.com that reflect the insatiable appetite for celebrity mums.
7 Jacob Bernstein, ‘The baby bump’, The New York Times (2012), 27 April, www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/fashion/the-baby-bump.html (18 August 2013).
8 Rosalind Gill, ‘Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility’, European Journal of Cultural Studies (2007), vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 147–166.
9 Lulu Le Vay, ‘Mumsnot: If a woman doesn’t have any kids, does she have any value?’, New Statesman, www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2013/07/mumsnot-if-woman-doesnt-have-any-kids-does-she-have-any-value (18 August 2013).
10 Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), p. 74.
11 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) p. 20.
12 In 2012 she starred in a film titled Octomom Home Alone made by Wicked Pictures.
Originally published to coincide with the exhibitions at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum and touring to Chicago Museum of Contemporary Photography, Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood includes essays by curator of the exhibitions and volume editor Susan Bright; Simon Watney; Nick Johnstone and Stephanie Chapman. Co-published by The Photographers’ Gallery and Art / Books.
Published in Photoworks Annual, Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks