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Fashion in American Popular Culture

Last spring, a sign at the entrance to the Whitney Museum of American Art announced that no baby strollers were allowed in the 2004 Biennial. But that does not mean that there were no babies in attendance. On the contrary, when I went to the show, there were babies everywhere. Riding on the front of their parents in slings or snuglies or on their backs in baby-backpacks, passed back and forth from one able-bodied adult to another, babies, it appears, are this year’s hot, art world accessory. This trend is not limited to the New York art community. The covers of glossy magazines like Us, People, and In Style routinely feature images of celebrity mothers and their children, and popular shows such as Sex and the City and Friends incorporated babies, as well as infertility problems, into their well-publicized final storylines. There was little mention of the actual hardships faced by real-life single mothers on the shows or the often devastating physical and economic effects of infertility treatments, though. Rather, the babies on the shows acted primarily as plot devices, ultimately aiding in the romantic reconciliation of the parent characters in both series. But perhaps the most extreme example of babies serving as accessories has been the recent Gucci advertising campaign in which a series of androgynous-looking models, wearing Gucci accessories and often nothing else, each carry a naked baby.

In one Gucci image, a topless blonde woman, whose closely-cropped, platinum hair brings to mind Annie Lennox in her prime, wears elbow-length brown leather gloves, giant mirrored sunglasses, and black leather pants. A large black leather bag with pronounced gold accents is draped over one arm. Her naked torso is shielded by the baby, whose sex is undisclosed and whose big blue eyes look rather forlornly at the camera. In another ad, a black woman, whose flat-top recalls Grace Jones circa 1986, wears a black leather jacket, skin-tight black pants, and gold-studded, black stiletto heels. A white leather bag, much like the one in the previous ad but smaller, is slung over her shoulder. Perched on her upper thigh is a small black child, again of indiscriminate sex.

Another ad features a smiling white man with dazzling white teeth wearing a grey turtleneck, a grey military-style jacket with brass buttons, oversized grey sunglasses and a grey fur hat. Cradled in his black leather-clad hands is a blond baby, who rather anxiously bites its hands. Yet another ad contains both the black and white women, dressed in floor-length, red satin dresses. The white woman holds the black child while the black woman holds its hand. Aside from their proximity, there is little interaction between the individuals in the images. In each case, only the baby’s gaze meets ours, which suggests a sense of agency, yet, in each case, the babies, like the gloves and handbags, act as trimmings.

We all know that advertisements act as a form of fantasy wish fulfillment. The babies’ role in these images underscores this fact. The women’s bodies are not postpartum bodies. They are slim, toned, and well groomed. Taken literally, there is a sense of the absurd in every frame: the floor-length couture gowns and the naked baby do not go well together. Disaster, in the form of bodily fluids, is imminent. Likewise wearing six-inch stiletto heels while carrying a baby is a certain recipe for back problems. The naked baby in the arms of the well-bundled man is similarly off putting. One is clearly dressed inappropriately. But these images are not meant to be read literally. They are meant to be ironic. Accessories are supposed to fit, and the forlorn-looking babies in these images clearly do not fit; yet their irony also betrays their critique. The babies in the photos lack sexual organs and are thus devoid of bodily functions, at least in the split second when the final take was shot. Despite their gaze they have no agency; they are merely props. But what are they selling?

There are many ways to read these advertisements: as prelapsarian reminders of an Edenic state; as a call to wear Gucci or nothing at all; as a commentary on the possibilities of color-blind and gay parenting; as a form of post-punk nostalgia targeting former CBGB’s-goers now wearing babies at the Whitney Biennial exhibit. In the Gucci ads, the women’s bodies as well as those of the babies, have been dematerialized - there are no accidents, no stretch marks or leaky breasts - and rematerialized as commodities. The babies as they appear in the ads, without genitals or corporeal needs, are indeed pure fantasy. They are not bodies; they are accessories. While children have always been the site of what Thorstein Veblen termed “vicarious consumption,” or satellite vehicles for the family patriarch to display his wealth and taste, today babies themselves have become the objects consumed. Likewise, the women’s bodies have also become sites of consumption in that their labor literally has been commodified. The actual work of producing and caring for these children has been concealed from public view, leading to the ultimate form of commodity fetishism. In these images, female production, or more accurately reproduction, has become a source of, as well as a site for, the dissemination of consumer goods. Like the Gucci gloves and handbags, the babies have become something stylish to wear. The women are no longer the producers of these babies - few would mistake the models in the ads as the biological parents - but rather their consumers. Both the women and the babies are simultaneously consuming and being consumed. While these images seem to generate critique, they also undercut the possibility of critique through their heavy use of irony. Through their absurdity, these advertisements challenge representations of the over-idealized mother-child relationship fed to us repeatedly through print advertising; but they also complicate the relationship between images and desire, they blur the lines between the political, the personal, and the economic and thus challenge our notions of what is public and what is private.

The Gucci ads’ focus on women with children certainly fits within the present historical moment. Issues surrounding motherhood are regular and highly contested topics in the popular media, from Oprah to 60 Minutes. Recently, The New York Times Magazine, Time, and Newsweek have all done cover stories on selected motherhood choices - to work or to stay home, to adopt or to undergo fertility treatments - and a number of books extolling the virtues of maternal desire, as an essential female trait, as well as a number of publications questioning such desire as socially constructed, have also taken the market by storm. Despite the language of manifold choice, the authors of these tracts repeatedly present mothering options in either/or terms. Foremost among these motherhood dichotomies are a “feminist” and “non-” or even "anti-feminist” division. These subject positions are almost always tied to when and if the mother works outside of the home. For example, Lisa Belkin begins her October 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Opt Out Revolution,” by delimiting such a feminist divide: "The scene in this cozy Atlanta living room would - at first glance - warm an early feminist's heart. Gathered by the fireplace one recent evening, sipping wine and nibbling cheese, are the members of a book club, each of them a beneficiary of all that feminists of 30-odd years ago held dear. The eight women in the room have each earned a degree from Princeton, which was a citadel of everything male until the first co-educated class entered in 1969. And after Princeton, the women of this book club went on to do other things that women once were not expected to do. They received law degrees from Harvard and Columbia. They chose husbands who could keep up with them, not simply support them. They waited to have children because work was too exciting. They put on power suits and marched off to take on the world."

While certainly one of affluence, the picture Belkin paints of feminist success - Ivy League educations, successful husbands, power suits and book clubs - is rather limiting and defined almost exclusively in terms of these women’s relationships to what we might call traditional sources of female pleasure: husbands, children, novel reading, and wine and cheese parties. What makes these women appear “feminist” “at first glance” are their prestigious educations and their six-figure salaries. Despite their deferral of child-bearing for work, their lifestyle choices are ultimately still quite conventional and rooted in the normative construct of the upper-middle class, heterosexual family dynamic. But this limited notion of feminist success quickly gives way to its opposite as Belkin continues her story: "Yes, if an early feminist could peer into this scene, she would feel triumphant about the future. Until, of course, any one of these polished and purposeful women opened her mouth. 'I don't want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,' says Katherine Brokaw, who left that track in order to stay home with her three children. 'Some people define that as success. I don't.''' Brokaw, like all of the women spotlighted in the article, has left the corporate rat race for fulltime motherhood, and this, according to Belkin’s either/or paradigm, is not a feminist move.

In many ways, Belkin’s equation of feminism with a winning lap on the career fast-track and non-feminism as the desire to leave the race, is directly in line with notions of what constitutes feminism coming from the right. Belkin’s definitions ignore the important issues of race, class, gender, and sexual identity that feminist theorists and activists have spent the past “30-odd years” addressing. Her limited definition of feminism, as measured solely in terms of professional success in comparison to men, becomes the proper object against which she measures all other lifestyle choices. The desire for things outside of this correspondingly becomes, in her equation, anti-feminist and in most cases, normalized. Indeed, defining feminism in relationship to an opposite empties the concept of its radical as well as its pragmatic potential. Distilling the complex relationships between feminism, work, and motherhood into binary terms and then coding these as either feminist or anti-feminist acts as a reductive strategy: arbitrarily bringing together diverse groups of people and force-fitting them into a predetermined identity positions. In so doing, it closes the spaces for dissent as well as for social change. Moreover, such moves allow for the concept of feminism, as well as its uses, to be essentialized and then dismissed. Through such formulations, writers such as Belkin collapse the boundaries between public and private life and in so doing, they present an upper-middle class privilege as natural.

The lines between public and private have always been blurry. As Michael Warner explains, “Because the contexts overlap, most things are public in one sense and private in another.” The blurring of these boundaries seems particularly acute within contemporary representations of and debates over the proper relationship between mothers and their children. Women’s work in the domestic realm - as the civilizing anecdote to the cruel world of the competitive marketplace and the sullying effects of the political arena - traditionally has been relegated to the private sphere and feminist scholars have spent considerable energy delimiting and challenging this balkanization. Yet the domestic sphere has also acted as the location of privacy, which is becoming increasingly important in delimiting spaces where the Law cannot reach. Because of the right to privacy, however limited it might be in contemporary America, the state cannot legally dictate right and wrong in issues such as reproductive choice and sexual practice.

However, as Lauren Berlant has compellingly argued, today, more and more, we are seeing the emergence of what she calls “an intimate public sphere,” where ostensibly private choices, such as how to raise one’s children, have become the source of wide-scale public debate. Rather than see this bleeding of the private into public life as a means of breaking down gender-freighted hierarchies and power relations, Berlant warns “Something strange has happened to citizenship…. In the process of collapsing the political and the personal into a world of public intimacy, a nation made for adult citizens has been replaced by one imagined for fetuses and children.” Debates over seemingly private issues, such as access to emergency contraception, smoking during pregnancy, or breastfeeding past a certain age, have moved to center stage, in some cases pushing graver civil-rights issues to the periphery. And despite the continued focus on fetuses and children, babies are often merely pawns in this larger socio-political dialogue. As in the Gucci ads, children assume a position of seeming agency within contemporary culture. Once again the presence of children within these larger political debates becomes almost devastatingly ironic since for the first time in history more mothers work outside the home than stay at home yet affordable childcare, government subsidies to women and dependent children, educational programs such as Head Start, and access to sustainable maternity benefits are disappearing at an alarming rate. Instead of pointed critique and political dialogue extending these issues beyond the arena of upper-middle-class heterosexual privilege, we get the testimonies of women like those profiled in Belkin’s piece who can afford to “opt out.”

Despite Belkin’s claim to be asking feminist questions, her presentation of feminism in “The Opt Out Revolution” is closely in line with definitions of feminism coming from the far right. It echoes the work of conservatives such as Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly, and Danielle Crittenden, for whom feminism is the bête noir of American public life. For example, in her recent book Feminist Fantasies, the virulently anti-feminist Schlafly defines feminism thus: "The ideology of feminism teaches that women have been mistreated since time began and that even in America women are discriminated against by a male dominated society. As a political movement, feminism teaches that a just society must mandate identical treatment for men and women in every phase of our lives, no matter how reasonable it is to treat them differently and that gender must never be used as the criteria for any decision."

Anyone even vaguely interested in feminist theory knows the centrality of gender in recent - and not so recent - scholarship in the field. Yet writers such as Belkin and Schlafly have gained control of what feminism means in the popular imagination. By defining it in relation to its negative through assertions such as “feminists would be aghast” and emptying it of the possibility of difference, they presume a unified feminist stance and present a homogenous picture of who feminists are and what they want by attempting to delineate what they are not. Through their Manichean equations, they have also reified ideals of motherhood and in so doing shifted the boundaries between public and private desire, essentializing and thus normalizing what should be individual private choices. More specifically, they have presented the choice to have children and stay home with them as anti-feminist and the wish, or need, to leave them, feminist. Issues of class - many mothers have to work for economic survival - as well as other forms of what could be called non-biological maternal desire - many mothers find satisfaction in arenas that might take them away from their children, and they may identify as something other than a mother for part of their day - have fallen out of their scenarios and thus out of the larger popular debate. By defining the relationship between feminism and motherhood in stark black and white terms, they flatten very personal and complicated decisions into either/or scenarios and make it easier to pass moral judgments on the types of choices women make regarding their children. In so doing, they too make babies into a type of accessory within their public discourses on work and feminism. Like the Gucci advertisements, they give babies a seeming agency while disembodying and flattening them to merely representations.

The images in the Belkin article further substantiate this move but this time from the seemingly liberal media. The cover photo for her story depicts a thirty-something woman with long dark hair, olive skin and dark eyes, dressed in a crisp white blouse, black pants and black boots. Diamond bands adorn both hands and tasteful gold bracelets ring her left wrist. Bathed in golden light, she sits cross-legged beneath a ladder that reaches far out of the picture frame. She stares blankly into space. On her lap, a small boy in denim overalls, who bears a striking resemblance to the woman, looks directly at the viewer. Identified as Tracey Liao Van Hooser, the woman could be anyone: she is nondescript yet stylish, “ethnic” looking yet Caucasian, hip yet non-threatening. As in the Gucci ads, in this image only, the child’s gaze meets ours. The woman is looking elsewhere, neither up the corporate ladder nor at her child. She stares into a void. Like the Mona Lisa, her face betrays little emotion. Her gaze, and thus her desire, have been diverted. This cover of The New York Times Magazine depicts having a baby in one’s arms as desirable. Yet this image, and more significantly, the accompanying text, omit the dark circles that come from the three AM feedings, the varicose veins and stretch marks of pregnancy, and the intense boredom and alienation that can come with staying home all day with a child. Once again, this is motherhood, and feminism, without organs.

Using pictures of women and children to sell something - either a product or an ideology - is not a particularly new strategy. Images of women with children have played a central role in Western visual culture, from medieval depictions of the Madonna and child to the contemporary photographs of Sally Mann. Indeed, as art historian Anne Higonnet argues in her book, Picturing Innocence, “Pictures of children are at once the most common, the most sacred, and the most controversial images of our time.” Furthermore, she writes, “approximately half of all advertisement photographs show children.” Analyzing these images within their historical contexts have been key in the emergence of a feminist art history. For example, in her 1973 essay, “Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in Eighteenth-century French Art,” Carol Duncan makes compelling links between what she calls images of the “happy family” in eighteenth century French genre painting and the emergence of a modern bourgeois culture which depended upon an essentialized notion of a woman’s nature - as maternal, submissive, and attentive to the needs of her husband and children - to predicate the necessary separation of public and private life to allow for the social and political conditions needed to sustain a capitalist economy. Similarly, Higonnet identifies a thematic shift that took place within the mid-nineteenth century art hierarchy in which images of the Madonna and child became re-ranked at the top. “The effect,” she writes, “was double edged.” By secularizing the Madonna and universalizing images of Motherhood, there was a shift in meaning “from theology to bodies.” As a result, all mothers and all children became sacred objects.

The works of American artist Mary Cassatt nicely exemplify the nineteenth century attitude towards the sacrosanct mother-child relationship. Paintings such as The Child’s Bath (1893), for example, directly evoke images of the Virgin Mary holding her son (as an infant, as well as in his last moments as depicted in more canonical works such as Michelangelo’s Pieta). In Cassatt’s paintings and drawings, everyday interactions between mothers and children, such as bathing, reading, and playing in the park, take on larger sacred overtones. Despite the seemingly radical milieu in which Cassatt herself lived, as a single American woman in the male-dominated French Impressionist circle, she was acutely aware of issues of social respectability and thus, surrounded herself with suitable chaperones - her parents, her siblings and their children - to protect her reputation.

Such family scenes became a favorite subject matter, and she painted them regularly. As Harriet Chessman writes of Cassatt’s paintings of mothers and children, they “seem to us to have an air of the natural.” Indeed, she continues, “The privacy of middle-class interiors, the intense focus on the mother-child dyad, the quiet absorption of the mother in her child, the appearance of effortlessness and tranquility in the mother’s occupation, the Madonna and child motif - all may suggest an idealization so familiar to us as to be almost invisible.” Yet Chessman also sees Cassatt’s mother-child paintings as a site for the artist’s empowerment. She draws compelling parallels between the subjects of Cassatt’s paintings and Cassatt’s relationship to her own artistic labor. In these mother-child works, Chessman writes, “Cassatt creates a situation in which her subjects’ sexuality can be intimated within a protective framework…. The child offers a safe figure for the mother’s more hidden erotic life” and, by extension, Cassatt’s as well.

The sacredness of mothers - at least certain types of mothers - and children persists in the popular visual imagination. Yet today, images referencing the Madonna and child have given way to images of Madonna with her children. Indeed, the often controversial pop star has very publicly embraced her role as a mother; her most recent artistic endeavors have not been albums or videos but rather children’s books. Yet like Cassatt, Madonna simultaneously challenges and reifies the ideal of sacred motherhood. She is repeatedly photographed pushing her giant silver-cross pram though the genteel streets of London (where she now makes her home - no more raucous South Beach) or gamboling in a Central Park playground with her husband and two children. While having children gives her an aura of respectability, motherhood also provides her with a new position to eroticize. Following the birth of her second child, Madonna appeared on stage, buff and toned, wearing a tight rhinestone studded shirt with "mother" emblazoned on the front and "f----r" on the back.

While the Material Girl may be subverting the ideal of the sacred mother, her mother f----r attitude has become increasingly materialized and commodified in the process. Her version of eroticized motherhood, like the stories of the Princeton mothers detailed in Belkin’s piece, has become yet another model narrative of maternal satisfaction within the public realm, in this case tied to a celebrity body. Following the 1991 appearance of Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, on the cover of Vanity Fair, celebrity bellies have become ubiquitous and pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable in public. In 1991 many were outraged by Moore’s naked belly and demanded that the magazine be sold on newsstands inside an opaque wrapper. Today, we see celebrity bellies - and non-celebrity bellies - everywhere. But today, we also see the babies. With Moore, we did not see the results of her labor, she rarely appeared with her children in public; rather the public focus has always been on her body. Her sculpted form continues to be the site of her labor. For example, when she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair the following year she was once again naked, but her curvaceous physique was masked by a painted-on man’s suit; there were no visible signs of her recent pregnancy - no flabby stomach or children in sight.

Moore’s pregnant pose - as well as her flaunting of her postpartum body - have become celebrity rites of passage. A recent W magazine, for example, bearing the headline “GWENYTH: Hollywood’s Hippest Leading Lady on Movies, Marriage, and Motherhood,” features a very pregnant Gwyneth Paltrow as a cover girl. Her pre-Raphaelitesque locks cascade down her shoulders and a tight, groovy-looking tank-top from San Francisco’s Chinatown stretches just over the top of her swollen abdomen, nicely marrying images of the nineteenth century muse to the hip mama of today. While it may be tempting to see this celebration of the pregnant body as progressive, even subversive, and the embrace of motherhood as a sexy vocation as forward thinking, this is not always the case. Like the Happy Family paintings of eighteenth century France and the nineteenth century cult of ideal motherhood, the hip mamas of the twenty-first century can also be read within a larger socio-cultural moment - a moment in which women and their labor are increasingly exploited, often in the service of an encroaching conservative political culture that denigrates the needs of working women and privileges private choices within the public sphere.

Originally, the term “ hip mama” referred to both a West-coast mothering zine published by the radical activist Ariel Gore as well as to the website founded in 1998 by the feminist writer Bee Lavender. For both Gore and Lavender, hipness is not a style but rather a radical political ideology. For them, being “hip” is not defined by representations or “pleasure preferences.” Rather, as a January 2004 post on the website defines it: "Whether you dress Goth or Goodwill, listen to the Clash or classical, or whether you have a nose ring or a pearl ring… being *hip* means tolerating all of these differences and understanding that people make their own, private choices that they feel best suits them and realizing that those choices may not always mesh with your own sensibilities. Being
*hip* to me also means living with compassion. Obviously having compassion for raising our children, but having compassion for the poor and neglected, the environment, and the world. That how you do things is more important than what you do. That teaching kids respect for all othercreatures is paramount. So please, take your child to soccer practice if
that's what he decides to do. Live compassionately and you will always be*hip*."

Since founding the zine in 1997, Gore has written a number of advice books and memoirs, among them The Mother Trip: Hip Mama’s Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood and The Hip Mama’s Survival Guide. More irreverent than most parenting advice books, The Mother Trip includes chapters with titles such as “Learning to be Unacceptable,” “It Takes a Heap of Loafing to Raise a Kid,” and “If It’s All You Can Do to Get Out of Bed in the Morning, Just Get Out of Bed.” Yet Gore’s work transcends the merely humorous; it is actively political in that it challenges the “right or wrong” stance taken by so many parenting advice books. Gore’s feminism is pragmatic. It defies binary divisions. Unlike Belkin’s or Schlafly’s, her work is nuanced and allows for multiple forms of difference. She treats private decisions and personal lifestyle choices as private and personal. Single parents, stay at home mothers, and mothers on welfare are all welcome in her universe, and she sees all of these positions, in all of their diversity, as potentially feminist. Gore concludes The Mother Trip with a “Maternal Feminist Agenda.” The radical nature of her manifesto is rooted in acceptance of maternal desire in all of its forms: "Motherhood is not what we thought it was, that’s true. It’s more difficult, more heart-wrenching, and more delightful than we ever dreamed…. But I imagine that my children and perhaps even my children’s children will be grown before we have completely reinvented family and society so that they can serve women as well as children and men, so that we can have kids, be swallowed in the mad-love of child rearing, but also work, create, worship and love without feeling that we have to do these things simultaneously, at a break-neck pace that doesn’t allow us to savor any of it."

Despite its best intentions to do so, hip motherhood has not spawned a feminist revolution; on the contrary, its popularity corresponds to an increasingly hostile attitude towards feminism in the popular media which ironically embraces hipness but as a form of representation determined by the proper pleasure preferences and accoutrements - foremost among them, a pregnant belly or a young child. Despite the tolerant tone of Gore’s books, many reviewers take issue with her feminist politics of inclusion. Some readers applaud her utopian vision, such as this one from Fairbanks, Alaska, who writes, “With so much pressure today telling us that we can't be young moms and hip feminists at the same time, I found Gore's book empowering for our generation, and those to come.” However, the majority of the posts reviewing the work on take issue with Gore’s “feminist” viewpoint. A reader from Arizona writes, “This is more of a feminist book then[sic] a survival guide.” Another reader responds, this “is mostly a feminist book. Her advice is shadowed by this.” Yet another adds, “angry feminist author in the guise of humor” and “This book provides a few funny moments, but is not so much a humorous take on parenting as an essay on feminist, ultra-liberal viewpoints.”

Regardless of its traditional subject matter, by including the marginalized and often dispossessed in her accounts - teenage mothers, mothers on welfare - Gore’s mother and child relationships defy naturalization. Perhaps this is why they are critiqued as too feminist. Her babies are not accessories. Her women and children have organs that mystify, repulse, and repeatedly fascinate them. Gore’s books have sold well and are regularly carried in chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. But, as it becomes increasingly commodified, hip-ness has begun to lose its radical nature - if one views tolerance and acceptance of difference as radical. And, once again, as the history of the website shows, “feminism” as defined by its critics bears much of the fault.

According to founder Bee Lavender, who started the site in 1998, the goal of was to “build a forum for marginalized voices - teen mothers, poor mothers, queer mothers, mamas of color, mamas with disabilities, urban parents and activists.” Lavender wanted to provide “a place to talk and meet other parents with similar interests.” She hoped the site would inspire participants “to go back to their own neighborhood or city and build local networks of like-minded families.” “Aside from being explicitly feminist,” she writes, the community did “not adhere to one particular political ideology.” Like Gore’s zine and subsequent books, there was room for a wide variety of people with varying politics and belief systems on the discussion boards and forums. But then Hipmama’s advertising potential was discovered. According to Lavender, “We were an exotic little nibble of youth culture, but we were also mothers: a whole untapped online market.” Courted by advertisers and web administrators, she and her partner “were offered vast amounts of money,” but they were also advised to be “more perky and less political…more cute and less cutting edge.” Although the site did not become more perky or less cutting edge, as a result of the amplified advertising dollars and increased publicity, “an influx of people arrived who did not share the project’s radical politics.” Brutal attacks by “discussion-board trolls” haranguing teen mothers, criticizing women who had abortions, spinning homophobic tirades and spouting racist insults, ultimately forced Lavender and the site’s volunteer moderators to shut it down.

Today is back online, but it now consists primarily of individual blogs and calls to activism rather than heated debate and community building. But this does not mean that the hip-mother market has disappeared. On the contrary, it has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Instead of being defined by a shared feminist politics, hipness is more and more rooted in static representations in which private choices become loaded with intense public meaning. And, once again, images in which babies appear as accessories attesting to their mother’s style allow for the emergence of a prescriptive, normalized narrative of what the mother-child relationship should look like.

While I was writing this, I stumbled upon a “news documentary” on the E Network entitled “Hollywood Baby Boom.” Like the many celebrity newsmagazines on the supermarket checkout shelf, the hour-long show was full of fawning celebrity profiles of the many stars who have embraced motherhood in the past few years. Images of the swelling abdomens of the rich and famous, discussions of their designer maternity wear, prenatal yoga classes and “special glow” skin-care products filled frame after frame of the show. The piece concluded with the assertion that “Mommy and Daddy are not just roles to play anymore. Babies are here and they’re hip and they’re hot…and they are just as decked out as their celebrity parents.” Then images of Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet, Annette Benning, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Kate Hudson, to name just a few, with their newly re-toned bodies and their splendidly attired children were intercut with images of designer baby goods, as well as information on where to purchase these products. As in the Gucci advertisements and Belkin piece, the babies on the show were in large part accessories. Like their mothers’ pregnant as well as postpartum bodies, they became in large part representations, flattened to define a trend - the hip Hollywood mother. The babies became exhibits attesting to the idealized spaces of reproduction in which real bodies don’t seem to matter. While these narratives are seemingly all about bodies - maternal bodies, newborn bodies, toddler bodies - their actual corporeal needs are in large part hidden from public view. Aside from a mention of the intense daily yoga Madonna did to get back in shape after the birth of baby Rocco, the egg white omelets Elizabeth Hurley ate to shed the sixty plus pounds she gained over the course of her pregnancy, or the grueling kickboxing workout Uma Thurman engaged in to streamline her postpartum body for her role in Kill Bill volumes I and II, the show gave little acknowledgement of the actual work that these women do as actresses or as mothers. We did not see the army of nannies, personal trainers, chefs, and other assistants who make these mother-child fantasies possible. As in the Gucci ads, the corporeal needs and desires of these mothers and their children have been erased to allow for the perfect shot. We did not see pictures of Reese Witherspoon breastfeeding in her trailer on the set of Legally Blond II or Kate Winslet throwing-up from morning sickness. Nor was there any mention of the often non-traditional structure of many of these celebrity families. The issues of Uma’s divorce, Elizabeth Hurley’s paternity suit, the father of Jodie Foster’s two sons were brushed aside, and instead we saw only smiling mothers and adorable children. The diverse realities of these babies’ lives, which might have been used to forward the hipmama agenda of tolerance and inclusion, as well as their mother’s actual labor was once again hidden from view. As a result, the show normalized a particular form of maternal desire, as essential and natural, and further promoted the erotics of motherhood as the ultimate form of commodity fetishism. Like Belkin’s article, it erased the privilege of these women’s lives as it presented a uniform picture of beautiful mothers toting their adorable children and “having it all” as the ultimate form of Hollywood success.

While this show might seem like just another brainless celebrity lovefest, these movie-star mothers are selling something: myths of idealized motherhood, dream narratives of hipness within consumer conformity, and the false dichotomies that have come to define contemporary feminism. As scholars interested in the links between representation and desire, we must refuse to see these images as banal Hollywood publicity and pay attention instead to how they are working to promote an increasingly conservative socio-political public culture in which motherhood is held up as a sacred calling but in which mothers and children who do not, or can not, replicate the sacrosanct mother-child dyad are stigmatized. Instead of dismissing these celebrity testimonies as silly or banal, we need to challenge the power of their normalizing discourses to institute a more varied and progressive notion of motherhood (and feminism) in the popular media, one that allows for diverse and dynamic parenting choices in which women and their labor are respected. We need to applaud the efforts that go into balancing work and motherhood. We need to acknowledge all the help these starlets get to be working mothers and use it as a political tool to demand help for non-privileged parents. We need to realize that no matter how much yoga we do, we will never look like Madonna or Gwyneth. Moreover, we need to demand that the public recognize that many of these women are single parents and that many of their children have different fathers and use this to our political advantage to move towards the utopian future that Gore sketches in her maternal feminist agenda. Instead of seeing babies as accessories, we need to see them as the future citizens of the world.

June 2005

From guest contributor A. Joan Saab, Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester

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