Pregnant with the Stars
Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump
Renée Ann Cramer

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Introduction

Obsession With The Celebrity Baby Bump

In October 2011, when Beyoncé Knowles announced her due date, and Jennifer Garner began the second trimester of her second pregnancy, the website BumpShack.com received more than 345,000 visitors from the United States. With worldwide traffic, the site—devoted solely to coverage of celebrity pregnancies—saw more than 500,000 hits that month. Celebitchy.com, a celebrity-watching website that often features pregnant stars, had more than 200,000 U.S. visitors.1

Cultural obsession with celebrity pregnancy is evident in print journalism, too. People magazine offers readers multiple pages of glossy photos of pregnant and mothering celebrities, week after week. In Style magazine has articles about famous women’s “Pregnancy Style.” The industry standard Entertainment Weekly often prints stories about celebrity pregnancy, and the impact that pregnancy has on story line, plot development, and stars’ marketability.2 And, of course, supermarket tabloids and magazine headlines are full of speculation:

Is Katie pregnant?

Is Jennifer expecting?

Will Kim have a baby girl?

Will the Royal Baby be a boy?

How long will it take Jessica to lose her baby weight?

Yet popular culture obsession with pregnant celebrities and their “baby bumps” is not only a guilty pleasure. The baby bump itself is more than just a trending topic on a Twitter feed or a headline grabber for infotainment venues. Rather, the visibly pregnant celebrity body, on display in hundreds of popular culture sources, is both an indicator of rapidly changing contemporary understandings of pregnancy in the United States and a lens through which we can interpret a complex set of social and legal regulations of pregnant women and their bodies. Images of pregnant celebrities—focusing on their baby bumps—and press coverage of these women’s postbaby bodies saturate our contemporary media; we watch these popular culture representations and are told to want them, as well. These activities, watching and wanting, embroil us in a relationship to celebrity pregnancy that has ramifications for our behavior as consumers and citizens.

When we watch the pregnant celebrity, we can see how our culture judges which bodies are acceptable and desirable—which performances of femininity and pregnancy are considered ideal. In the coverage of these pregnancies, we see the exoticization of women of color, the valorization of the super-wealthy, and the imperative to extreme slimness. We are also encouraged, in the invitation to watch the celebrity bump, to surveil, to gossip, and to judge. Ultimately, we are enlisted in the regulation of the bodies of pregnant women, even as we are called on to accept and internalize our own regulation. As we judge and regulate the bodies of pregnant celebrities, we are simultaneously accepting and internalizing the very same regulations of ourselves.

When we want the pregnant celebrity body, we are confronted by the objectification of that body and multiple modes of commodification: of pregnancy, of the child itself—or at least its image, and of the “rockin’ beach-worthy post-baby body.” We are confronted with normative ideals of femininity and family that depend upon race, ethnicity, and citizenship, as well as socioeconomic class status and access to high fashion, good nutrition, and round-the-clock help. And, even as we are confounded by our inability to attain what we are told is perfection, women are provided strategies and products that promise rescue, for a cost.

A Neoliberal Biopolitics of Consumption, Surveillance, and Regulation

In these two ways—by compelling us to watch and to want—media coverage of the pregnant celebrity body becomes an interpretive lens through which to view the twin pillars of the state in late neoliberalism: an expansion of technologies of governance through proxies that enable state- and self-regulation and totalizing commodification via global capitalism. Neoliberalism, as a historical moment in the United States, commenced with the Reagan presidency with massive industry deregulation and continued during the Obama administration apace with global capital expansion. It is an economic ideology based on unrestricted trade and unfettered competition, and a political ideology that seeks to limit the seeming size of government in favor of privatization of most goods and services traditionally provided by the state.3 Neoliberalism’s deregulation and privatization are accompanied by a hyperfocus on individuals as consumers, rather than citizens or political actors.

For all of the deregulation undertaken in the economic sector, however, citizen-consumers find themselves, and their individual choices, increasingly monitored, surveilled, and regulated. This regulation often takes the form of “biopolitics”—theorized by Foucault as power exercised over living beings, as living beings, at the level of both the aggregate and the individual.4 As we have less and less control over the forces shaping our daily lives, we have also become more and more responsible for how we live them.

In popular culture representations of celebrity pregnancies, biopolitical governance and commodity fetishism work in tandem to reassert formal and informal control over women’s bodies, especially through a charged political discourse advocating a proliferation of fetal protection measures. Paradoxically, this occurs even as press coverage trumpets tales of women’s liberation and our increasing cultural openness to pregnancy. Pregnant women are governed by a complex web of regulatory policy and informal social control, meant to structure their patterns of consumption and delimit access to autonomy and meaningful choice, in the name of contemporary “motherhood.”

In the past decade, as press coverage of pregnant celebrities has proliferated, invasive and radical fetal protection and anti-abortion measures regulating and criminalizing the average woman and her pregnancy have emerged as public policy. At the same time, the general public’s willingness to interfere in women’s pregnancies also seems to have markedly increased.

Sarah Buttenwieser’s witty and biting contribution to the feminist publication Bitch! noted the “rabid gestation speculation” of the popular press as it stalked and publicized celebrity pregnancies. Buttenwieser presciently noted that media coverage of celebrity pregnancy focuses on joy and glamour, on the “odd, unreal, and idealized version of celeb pregnancy—part dewy-eyed, part hot-pants”5—while the same publications’ coverage of the average, everyday, normal pregnancy focuses on risk and danger and discomfort. The message is clear: celebrity pregnancies can be watched in order to be wanted; but regular pregnancies must be watched in order to be regulated and controlled.6

Fetal protection laws proposed in the 2010s stalk and discipline women in ways similar to approaches taken by the star-crazed media; ideas of “good motherhood” in the media portrayals of some celebrity’s bumps are reinforced by and replicated in law. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) reports a steady increase in anti-choice measures enacted nationally since 1995, when 18 such measures were in place, to 2012, when that tally reached 755. These laws are not simply controls on access to termination of pregnancy (such as South Dakota’s nearly universal ban on abortion); they are extensions of surveillance and criminal control over women’s bodies in the specious name of fetal protection. These laws are not only proliferating, they are increasingly punitive. And the Supreme Court is increasingly willing to uphold these laws: restricting buffer zones for protest around clinics that provide reproductive health services and allowing employers to deny their workers access to birth control via company health plans.

I am not making a causal claim here. Viewing images of pregnant celebrities does not cause legislators to write bills mandating transvaginal ultrasounds, nor does it lead regulatory actors to advise against too many servings of fish or lunch meat. Rather, my claim is interpretive: we are in a unique moment of cultural, political, and legal convergence in which strangers feel entitled to warn women off sushi and mandated transvaginal ultrasounds seem to make as much sense (even if they do not sell as many magazines) as does surveilling Kate Middleton for the first glimpse of her “royal bump.”

An Interpretive, Feminist Approach

The methodology I use in this book is interpretive. Interpretive methods allow scholars to read closely, to attend to complexity, and to situate particular phenomena within a cultural context that helps them be more legible.7 These methods also give the scholar a wide choice of frames or lenses through which to view the issues at stake. Rooted in traditions of immanent critique through dialectical and hermeneutic methods, interpretivist scholars do not use their work in order to make causal claims, but rather to see connections.8

I am therefore interested in situating images of pregnant and mothering celebrities more deeply within the context in which they appear and with which they form a constitutive relationship. Pregnant women in America don’t only see images of Angelina Jolie; they also see Jennifer Garner, MIA, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, their best friend Tina, their coworker Nancy, and their partner Amelia. Contemporary American women live in a society that devalues their work (figuratively and financially) and treats them in discriminatory ways based on their racial or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and feminine/masculine presentation. They live in a culture of continuous battles within a constructed “culture war” that seems to make meaningless or impossible any deep conversation about reproductive freedom. And they live in a culture that is structured by the impulse to consumption and purchase that typify late neoliberal global capital.

My questions became what the proliferation of images of pregnant celebrities says about contemporary American law and culture, how we can read shifts in legality and governance through them, and how they grow from a particular history of pregnancy. Grounded in an analysis of changing popular and legal understandings of pregnancy in the United States since the 1970s, and focusing on the normative idealizations of certain pregnancies and pregnant bodies through popular culture representations of the pregnant celebrity body, this book examines our increasing comfort with governing pregnant bodies through the neoliberal processes of regulation, surveillance, and commodification. By taking an interpretive approach to social science research, the book argues that our obsessive attention to celebrity pregnancies is a reflection of, and reflected in, legal and political discourses of pregnancy. Tracing regulation of motherhood over time, I investigate popular culture representations of pregnancy to understand contemporary legislation and political discourse. In other words, I am less interested in what these images do to us and much more interested in what they tell us about ourselves.

I first came to this research wondering what the obsession with “the bump” said, in fact, about me. I first became aware of the celebrity baby bump as a popular culture phenomenon in 2004, when I was expecting our son and living in southern Los Angeles County. I was pregnant at the same time that Julia Roberts was, and many of the women I knew through pregnancy—from yoga, from birth classes, from La Leche League meetings—and from my scholarly research on midwifery and homebirth9 were also interested in Roberts’s pregnancy. We had conversations about what she wore and ate and how she planned to give birth (reportedly, she planned a water birth at Cedars Sinai). The idea for this book was planted there, as I watched myself watching Roberts and her pregnancy and wondering what it meant about how I was living mine.

In 2008, I began to write a chapter to contribute to a book on fashion and feminism; the chapter discusses mainstream portrayals of celebrity pregnancy fashion as the expression of particular tropes of femininity and womanhood. While researching the topic, I collected and analyzed print and web images of pregnant celebrities.

I tore photos out of magazines—at the gym, at my mom’s house, at hair salons, at the dentist, and in our family’s doctors’ offices—and I taped them to my office wall. Nearly everyone who walked into my office asked about the photos and often would return with stacks of torn-out photos of their own to add to my collection. Soon my office was papered in hundreds of these images. I eventually took down the pictures of those women who were merely sensational and not celebrity; I removed pictures of those who were daughters of famous people, or married to famous men, or those whose fame I expected to be fleeting or was somehow more niche-like than broadly based. And although cultural obsession with her pregnancy is exceedingly interesting, this book does not engage the significant subject of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy. A royal baby is somehow different from a celebrity baby, though the lines are not hard and fast. Though I make passing reference to media obsession with Kate’s bump, I do not analyze treatment of her pregnancy in this text, nor do I discuss Chelsea Clinton’s recent pregnancy, for similar reasons.

The photos that remained on my wall, and that are represented in this book, are those of iconic women. Ultimately, the celebrity pregnancies that I chose to focus on were embodied by women like Katie Holmes, Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Britney Spears, Salma Hayek, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé Knowles, and others—women famous for their own work, if also for their partners.

Having narrowed the field of potential pregnancies to analyze, I used People magazine’s archives to search for all articles and photos in that publication related to these particular women. This search turned up thousands of pieces of data to interpret. I also performed web searches in Google, using key terms composed of each star’s name, plus “pregnancy,” “pregnant,” “bump,” and “baby”—as well as searches that specified certain publications and televised “infotainment” programs (Us! Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, and TMZ). Soon, hundreds more photos inhabited my hard drive. Finally, I lurked on highly trafficked celebrity websites such as Just Jared, Celebitchy, and Bump-Shack. Quite quickly, I began to see themes in the coverage of the pregnancies and births: easily recognizable tropes of femininity, which form the basis of the first article I wrote, as well as much of the third chapter of this book.

That first analytical pass generated an intersectional, feminist analysis. Approaching my work with a feminist analysis means first and foremost that I am attentive to gendered experiences, with an eye to social justice. Central to my analysis are standpoint epistemology10 and intersectionality.11 Standpoint epistemology is the claim that we know, and experience what we know and experience, because of where we are located within political, economic, and social structures, as well as how we are situated culturally, in our families, and in our own psyches. Standpoint epistemology exposes the “taken-for-granted” aspects of daily life and situates that life institutionally, contextually, and temporally.

Standpoint epistemology acknowledges that some ways of being and knowing and acting are foreclosed to some individuals because of their gender identity, location in geography and history, racial identity, and class positionality. Conversely, other novel and important ways of being and knowing are opened by those same aspects of positionality, though those perspectives have often been marginalized by dominant masculine and heterosexist discourses and powers.

Intersectionality is the anti-essentialist position that members of groups, while able to participate in identity politics based on their held identities, are also discrete and unique individuals with multiply held identities related to their social, temporal, and cultural contexts.12 An intersectional analysis understands that some identities gain primacy, or are deployed, based upon the context an individual is acting within. For example, I am a wife in a heterosexual marriage, a biological mother and active parent to a son, a white (non-Hispanic), a progressive, a professor, and a cis female. My professional identity is not as salient at my son’s school as is my identity as one of his parents; my whiteness affords me unearned privilege in front of a classroom, even as my female identity offers challenges in the same context.

Embodiment is a third important aspect of my feminist analysis and an area to which this book holds debts. Robin West early articulated a theory of hedonic feminism that recognized the embodied aspects of women’s existence;13 Sara Ruddick’s work on mothering also understands the embodied aspects of women’s lived experiences14 and the way those experiences contribute to political beliefs and actions. Latina writers Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, as well as African American womanist writers Alice Walker and Audre Lorde placed significant focus on what it means to live in the body of a woman of color.15 How, they asked, does it feel threatening, or powerful, or unsafe? How are some female bodies read as overly voluptuous and fertile or, alternatively, as cold and sterile? Feminists and women of color writers make it clear that the body is both a cultural battleground and a site of pleasure. Additionally, stylized figures and narratives of these bodies—scripts of “the black butt,” for example—impact popular understandings of women and their lives.16

The import for my work of these understandings has been as strong for me as the insight from feminists in an earlier generation, that “the personal is political.”17 Grounding experiences of feminism deeply in the body enables us to understand feminist politics and theory as rooted in everyday, lived, embodied experience. It also enables feminists to understand bodies as locations upon which politics and law are worked out and contested, to read particular bodies as cultural texts, and to understand the legal regulations and pressures upon them. And doing so allows for an exploration of the implications for regulatory policy and legality of particular bodies as they are understood in particular ways.18 Thus, pregnancy—an embodied, extraordinary, and unique (while simultaneously mundane and everyday) series of moments experienced only by women—offers a particularly rich site for intersectional feminist analysis.19

Looking at images of pregnant celebrities, I asked, “What norms of gender, racial, and class identity are visible via the bump? What messages do women receive when they look at thousands of images of pregnant celebrity icons?” What resulted from that analysis was first published in the book Feminism, Fashion, and Flair as a chapter titled “The Baby Bump Is the New Birkin,” which I have expanded upon and offer as chapter three of this text. The title of that original chapter hints at a second level of analysis, which is only marginally developed in that piece, but which serves as the basis of chapters four and five here. This analysis investigates the baby bump—and the pregnant body in total—as a site of consumption, as a product to possess. As a site of both consumption and production, the pregnant female body emerges as a worthy and necessary object of state and social control.

As I began analyzing the images of pregnant celebrities, it became clear that those wearing and buying and eating the “right” things are portrayed not just as ideal mothers, but also as ideal consumers and ideal citizens. One paparazzi photo shows a glowingly fresh-faced and pregnant Jennifer Garner shopping for groceries; the camera zoom enables us to see that her handwritten list includes “hot dogs” and “macaroni and cheese.” How quintessentially American! And, paired with a basket already full of produce, how healthy! A photo of Britney Spears, on the other hand, features the star in dingy sweat pants and a shaved head carrying a venti-sized coffee. The picture is accompanied by caption text suggesting that she buys more potent—and illegal—uppers at other times of the day. One woman is clearly a good consumer, a good American, and, thus, a good mother; the other is drawn toward the criminal, the subversive, and the unacceptable and is clearly portrayed as a bad mom.

Examination of images like these makes it evident that the obsession around celebrity pregnancy does not merely reaffirm normative idealizations of femininity that are racialized and eroticized. It also enables women to feel comfortable with, accept, and even welcome the dual powers of neoliberal governance: social control through commodification on the one hand, and regulatory surveillance on the other. This control is achieved through the internalization of norms and the deployment of a disciplinary social gaze, to be sure. But it is also achieved politically, through legislation and political rhetoric, as well as juridically, through court decisions. And it is achieved through the use of proxies—nonstate actors like medical professionals, restaurant wait staff, friends and neighbors, and the media. Women’s bodies are sites of contestation in the contemporary American culture wars being fought socially, politically, and juridically. This book is animated by an interest in law and governance—their relationship to culture and as cultural powers in themselves—as we see them in contemporary obsession with pregnant celebrities.

A Law and Society Take on Law and Popular Culture

Is there any place a law and society scholar will not go to understand law in its magnificent variety, complexity, and possibility?

—Austin Sarat, “Imagining the Law of the Father”20

As a sociolegal scholar, I explore changes in law and state regulatory power, as well as political discourses around them, from the point of view that law, culture, and society are mutually constitutive.21 Both pregnancy and popular culture are wonderful places from which to do this. Understanding that realities of social and cultural life are reflected in law at the same time that law creates many of the conditions within which social and cultural life is organized, law and society scholars are aware of the presence of law and legality in the areas of social and cultural life that are conventionally understood as “informal” or “not legal.”22 They are attentive to both that legality and the potential for reification of the dichotomy crafted by just such a discourse of formality and informality, legal and extralegal.23 As such, work on law and society/law and culture understands that legal, social, and cultural aspects of lived experience have similar import; this work attends to the uniquely legal (that is, state-sanctioned) use of power as it impacts people, and to the quotidian, the seemingly nonlegal, extralegal or informal, as it impacts laws and legality.24

One of the places sociolegal scholars have looked, of late, to examine law where it might not “at first glance” appear to be25 are popular culture representations of legality in film and television. Scholars interested in popular culture often examine films and television shows for what they say and demonstrate about law in the culture that produced them.26 They show how these forms of cultural production can be interpreted in a way similar to the interpretation of legal texts and propose to use analysis of them “to get a better purchase on [the] study of how law operates in the larger culture.”27 This work often examines televised and filmic representations of formal legal moments in order to show the importance of legal conventions, such as the trial, to contemporary drama and the prevalence of legality as a dramatic trope in popular culture.28 They see, in popular culture, representations and reflections of the legal. They argue that film can help us understand legal power and that an examination of film can shed light on the contingencies and possibilities inherent in a legalized social order. They also make the constitutive point that law is crafted through discursive and representational practices.29

These analyses of law and popular culture almost always return to a focus on formal moments of and in law—usually via popular culture representations of the trial. The majority of the work focuses on representations of law in films, via characters, plot lines, and metaphor—they focus, that is, on examples of popular culture production that are meant to represent and discuss something “legal.”30

However, pregnant celebrity bodies, and our obsessive cataloguing of them, are not intended as legal texts, nor as representations of law. They are not overtly legal; they do not ask viewers to think of, invoke, or reflect upon law as such. And yet, they construct legal meaning and reflect contemporary legal ideologies.

Law and culture scholars understand that just as often as they refer to overtly legal images, popular culture sources can also be read to understand and construct particular ideologies. Elayne Rapping, for example, has shown that conservative partisan ideologies are expressed in popular culture televised crime dramas like the CSI and Law and Order franchises.31 Sarat and Kearns have noted that popular culture has been tied, via political discourse, to identity politics, in ways that serve to advance the “culture wars” that are, at core, about defining “American identity” through both popular culture and law.32 Rosemary J. Coombe draws on Althusser’s theory of interpellation to argue, “Law must be understood not simply as an institutional forum or legitimating discourse to which social groups turn to have pre-existing differences recognized, but, more crucially, as a central focus for the control and dissemination of those signifying forms with which difference is made and remade.”33 In Coombe’s view, “cultural flows are legally regulated, imagined, managed, and contested”34 via regulatory policy, in terms of broadcast, customs, and the like. Drawing on Angela McRobbie’s work, Coombe writes, “Regimes of law are constitutive of the cultural conditions of production and reproduction of representations.”35 Sarat and Kearns’ introduction to Coombe’s contribution to their volume stresses that cultural studies “connects [cultural] texts with larger cultural contexts.”36

I do not disagree; yet I find that the relationship between law and cultural production is more complex, and more mutual, than this. I argue the constitutive other side of Coombe’s statement: cultural forms also inform—help us imagine, accept, tolerate, welcome, manage, and contest—the legal controls of the regulatory state, beyond the realm of cultural production itself. These “signifying forms,” to adopt Coombe’s usage of Althusserian language—the texts and images of cultural production—are interpellated, to constitute legality via governance and regulation.37

Haltom and McCann make a similar argument, referring to popular culture treatment and media coverage of contemporary tort litigation and the political arguments for tort reform. They argue that mass media is central in the production of cultural narratives that subsequently impact policy. Haltom and McCann are interested in the way that these popular culture narratives help to constitute and inform a set of institutions, individual actors, and ideologies that constrain and open particular interpretations of and possibilities within law. They argue that these narratives, scripts, and logics are objects of public interest that can help us crystallize conversations about important legal and political issues, abstract legal concepts, and the way that we construct identities like race, class, and gender.38

The analysis here relies on a framework of law “in” and “on” sites of popular culture, and the constitutive interaction of popular culture as seen in representations of the celebrity baby bump with political life and legality. Such a constitutive circle is made possible, in large part, by the paradoxical proliferation of regulatory governance typified by late modern capital in neoliberalism, a point to which we turn at the end of this introduction. Pregnant and mothering celebrity bodies—and cultural obsession with them—are sites of legal and political contestation and learning. These bodies have nothing overt to do with law and politics, but they are deeply embedded in contemporary practices of law and governance and reflected in them. Ideologies of mothering and pregnancy, neoliberal capitalism and control, regulation and risk, become manifest and visible in our popular culture obsession with pregnant celebrities and in a simultaneous proliferation of laws meant to control pregnant women.

Regarding Celebrities as Cultural Texts with Legal-Political Implications

Celebrity as a general category has a long history of inclusion in analysis of Western popular culture and politics. Celebrity provides a powerful means by which to understand emerging cultural trends and through which to read contemporary politics.39 David Marshall’s early definition of celebrity has become standard. He writes:

In the public sphere, a cluster of individuals are given greater presence and a wider scope of activity and agency than are those who make up the rest of the population. They are allowed to move on the public stage while the rest of us watch. They are allowed to express themselves quite individually and idiosyncratically while the rest of the members of the population are constructed as demographic aggregates. We tend to call these overtly public individuals celebrities.40

Marshall’s definition understands that athletes and politicians can achieve celebrity status just as readily as the “stars” focused on in this book: film actresses and musical performers. His focus is on the power accorded celebrity status and the way that status functions in popular culture imaginings.41

Whether understood as the physical embodiment of a particular set of “signs,” as a “system,” or as a set of “symbols,” celebrity functions to valorize particular cultural messages. As Marshall explains: “The power of celebrity status appears in business, politics, and artistic communities and operates as a way of providing distinctions and definitions of success within those domains. Celebrity status also confers on the person a certain discursive power: within society, the celebrity is a voice above others, a voice that is channeled into the media systems as being legitimately significant.”42 With this discursive power, “the celebrity . . . allows for the configuration, positioning, and proliferation of certain discourses about the individual and individuality in contemporary culture.”43

Many of those who focus on celebrity in a scholarly way share general agreement on four propositions that are important to this book:

1. Celebrities express ideologies of the wider culture.

2. Celebrities channel cultural anxieties, often through representations of particular identities.

3. Celebrities stand at the junction of “ordinary life” and the “extraordinary.”

4. Celebrities cultivate a wide range of desires.

Most important for most scholars of celebrity, that designation helps express a culture’s founding ideologies and contemporary priorities. Dyer argues that stars have particular ideological meanings and functions and that particular stars become important at particular cultural moments in order to crystallize and assert particular ideologies.44 In the context of the United States, celebrity is widely acknowledged to express (and justify) a focus on “conceptions of individuality that are the ideological ground of Western culture.”45 For instance, it is well documented that Ronald Reagan, the president, was able to channel the persona of Ronald Reagan, the film star—traditionalist, rugged individualist, masculine—in order to attain political success by merging conservative American ideals with his celebrity status.46

Even as celebrity popularizes particular ideologies, it also channels cultural anxiety. Dyer sees these as related; he argues that stars serve to reinforce the status quo, and in particular to reinforce particular values that are considered “under threat.”47 The star might do that by embodying those values for the popular culture to emulate. Or a star’s transgressive acts might serve to reinforce traditional values by embodying the “threat” of, for instance, the female sexuality of Madonna in the 1980s, or the gender-queering performances of David Bowie in the 1970s; Lady Gaga in 2010; and Miley Cyrus in 2013.

Given the focus on hyperindividuality underlying Western cultural ideologies, it is unsurprising that some of the cultural anxieties being transmitted and mediated through celebrity regard issues of identity and boundary crossing or transgressing. Celebrity confronts questions of identity on the national stage. Sometimes, celebrity offers reassurance about stereotyped identities. As Pamela Robertson Wojcik puts it: “The star system . . . relies on recognizability, marketability, and the necessity for known commodities. . . . [I]nsofar as the actor represents human characters, film acting relates to changing conceptions of identity and identity politics, and thus the actor will inevitably negotiate stereotypes and represent identities inflected by race, gender, and ethnicity.”48

But stars often embody contradictions within, and contestations over, identity. Marshall argues, “The celebrity offers a discursive focus for the discussion of realms that are considered outside the bound of public debate in the most public fashion.”49 We can see this in obsession over which stars are gay or not—in the obsessive coverage, in the popular press and tabloids, of John Travolta’s sexuality, and Hugh Jackman’s, and Jodie Foster’s. As we obsess on the private sexual lives of real (famous) people, we work out, culturally, the proper role of sex—and what kind of sex is proper—in public debate.

The same is true of pregnancy. In the early 1980s, when talk of pregnancy was still largely taboo, celebrity was one of the vehicles through which it became public. There remains a tension among notions of motherhood, womanhood, feminism, power, and identity. Accordingly, we continue to use the pregnant celebrity body as a location from which we can have conversations about pregnancy, motherhood, and gender roles for contemporary American women.

Pregnancy is arguably a mundane and ordinary event—millions of women are pregnant every day of every year—but pregnancy is experienced, and culturally celebrated, as a unique and extraordinary moment in an individual’s life. This strange and incompletely realized dichotomy—the blurred line between the exceptional and the ordinary—is also at the heart of celebrity and is the third hallmark of its power. Celebrity is always both about “a capacity to attract attention,” and about “some degree of ‘ordinariness.’50 Here, for example, we find stories of the average, rural, teenager (Ashton Kutcher, for instance) brought to fame by a television show (That 70s Show) nominally about daily life in average, small-town America—made extraordinary by his wealth, marriage to, and divorce from Demi Moore—later becoming a parent with bump-watched Mila Kunis.

Celebrities are exceptional; yet in order to maintain a connection to their fan base, they must also be somewhat accessible, their personas at least marginally attainable. The insistence on the partial ordinariness of celebrities enables the rest of us to use stars as embodiments of, or imaginary templates for, the ways that we will live our lives.51 This is part of the reason we see “makeover” features in women’s magazines that purport to make average women look like Beyoncé or Gwyneth Paltrow. It is why popular culture is fascinated by average or not famous people who happen to look like celebrities, without makeover manipulation. This need for ordinariness contributes to the contemporary interest in “un-Photoshopping” glamorous magazine advertisements and photojournalistic editorial spreads, and to paparazzi photos of celebrities out “without makeup” or “looking horrible” or “average.”

The audience, Marshall argues, yearns to know the star “authentically.”52 They seek to be able to say, with certainty, “this is what celebrity is, and is not.” Increasingly, such authentic knowledge is achieved through photojournalism that endeavors to show celebrities doing everyday activities: grocery shopping, taking children to school, getting their hair done. In US! magazine, there are pages devoted to coverage of celebrities that trumpet the headline “They’re just like us!” Stars like Katy Perry and James Franco promote themselves and their work through “selfies” and Instagram; the internet is full of memes of Ryan Gosling and Hugh Jackman (as feminists, no less), engaging in ordinary life.

Celebrity would not be nearly as pleasurable or enjoyable if it were off limits to those of us consuming it; rather, celebrity status becomes the embodiment of our aspirations.53 Simon Dixon’s analysis of photojournalistic coverage of celebrity homes makes the same point. He writes, “For all the decadence of stardom, a key ingredient is . . . an ‘ordinariness’ of background, something that makes the star typical.”54

Marshall argues that our obsession with the “real” lives of celebrities is incredibly important in the construction of the celebrity sign itself. He writes, “the disjuncture and intertextuality of the working life and the real life of the celebrity configures celebrity itself.”55 Celebrity, then, creates its own desire to know the (often ordinary) “truth” or “reality” of those celebrated as extraordinary. Even if we cannot attain celebrity status, or successfully look or shop like a celebrity, a particularly (bitter)sweet tension within celebrity is our deep desire to uncover the “real person” under the persona.56

Celebrity’s final function—this creation of desire—plays a significant role here as well. We learn to crave the movie star’s aesthetic: “With its close connection to the construction of consumer lifestyles, the film celebrity’s forays into recreational pursuits helped define the parameters of pleasure through consumption for all segments of society.”57 Dixon argues that “the star’s residence has in general been less a home than a temporary theater for the display of living.”58 And we go further, Marshall argues: we match our morality and personality with the star’s morality, lifestyle, and psychological personality.59 He concludes, “Perhaps the best example of this expansive and proliferating power to influence the entire society has been the growing centrality of the Hollywood image of the healthy body.”60

The celebrity body, then, is a text, a sign, something to be read and understood.61 It tells us what is construed as healthy, what is construed as decadent, what is construed as desirable. Dyer stresses the need to understand the context from which particular stars emerge and in which they operate;62 Marshall asks us to attend to the ideologies behind the construction of particular celebrity personalities. We can learn much about the star by attending to the context and ideology surrounding her. As with popular legal culture analyses, the constitutive relationship holds true: we can learn much about the context, and the cultural ideologies at play, by attending to the embodied star.

Governance through Celebrity: A Sociolegal View

The sociolegal literature has not yet theorized celebrity as a legal text nor attended to celebrity in the same way that it has attended to film or literature. But the pregnant celebrity body is a particularly important sign to be read and contextualized at this particular time because it serves as a uniquely powerful proxy of governance in neoliberalism. Pregnancy, as it is represented in these celebrity bodies, reflects the changing role of the state vis-à-vis the pregnant body. We can learn much by observing our popular culture’s mediated relationship with pregnant female celebrities.

French social theorist Michel Foucault was one of the first to define and describe the processes of state and social control related to neoliberalism in late capital, though he did not term them such. Writing just prior to the initiation of neoliberal consolidation under the Reagan (in the United States) and Thatcher (in Britain) regimes, Foucault delivered thirteen lectures between 1970 and 1984 that outlined his theory of governmentality. Key to Foucault’s theory is that in late modernity, developed societies shifted from a “disciplinary society”—one where institutions were emphatic and obvious in the ways that their rules and physical organization shape behavior, to a “society of control” via, in large part, the individual internalization of the rules we have been disciplined to accept. Drawing on the plans for a prison made by Jeremy Bentham, Foucault shows us that the “panopticon”—a physical structure for incarceration with a centralized guard tower and open-to-view cells—makes surveillance unnecessary, as eventually the prisoners internalize the presence of the guards and discipline themselves. Under panoptical power, the state no longer relies solely on governmental institutions with overt rules to gain compliance with norms.

Foucault further theorized “biopower”—power exercised over humans as living beings, both as individuals and as members of collectivities. Biopower exerts control over individual bodies by “prohibiting conduct such as masturbation, defining some activities as perverted, or celebrating other activities, such as heterosexual sex, as natural.”63 Biopolitical power works on larger populations by, for example, “measuring and calculating the demographics associated with how and when a child is fed, adjusting the social environment to promote the desired outcome.”64 Once individuals have internalized the panoptical gaze and the biopolitical imperative, Foucault theorized that they would act appropriately most of the time, even absent overt rules and laws.

What, then, becomes of the state? Theorists of neoliberalism widely accept that we have made the shift posited by Foucault from discipline to control, but differ in their views on the role and size of the state in such a society. To the extent that there remain deviant and undisciplined subjects whose presence justifies a need for state discipline and intervention, state surveillance and discipline remains necessary.

Counter to those who have argued that neoliberalism’s move toward privatization of social control has diminished the role of the state, a wide range of scholars have argued that the state remains an important site of contestation and control in neoliberalism.65 Indeed, these scholars argue that institutions of neoliberal capital expansion are dependent upon the neoliberal state, which focuses its biopower on the personal lives of discrete individuals.66 In addition to increased surveillance and regulation tied to criminal law and anti-terror campaigns, commodification and consumption become increasingly important sites for the locus of social control. Dean writes: “the individualization of politics into commodifiable ‘lifestyles’ and opinions subsumes politics into consumption. That consumer choices may have a politics—fair trade, green, vegan, woman-owned—morphs into the sense that politics is nothing but consumer choices, that is, individuated responses to individuated needs.”67

Rather than having fixed identities that they mobilize through protest or voting, contemporary citizens are offered, through neoliberalism, “multiple, imaginary identities” and are “encouraged to remake themselves, to see themselves as mutable projects ever available to improvement and refashioning.”68 In the service of this project, we are offered easy ways to engage politically (join a virtual petition, click a “like” button, shop at Whole Foods or The Body Shop), as well as a plethora of goods and services to purchase.

This focus on consumers as individuals dovetails with an upswing in popular culture obsessions with discrete, singular, individual stars—celebrities.69 And because one aspect of the political agenda of neoliberalism is the tendency to “politicize all aspects of family life and lived experience, [and] seek the intervention of law on their behalf,”70 it makes sense that pregnant women and their bodies are increasingly the subjects of discipline via surveillance and social control.71 Popular culture obsession with the celebrity baby bump enables biopolitical governance of women’s bodies for conservative ends, consonant with neoliberalism.

We can see biopower at work in the way that women are governed and disciplined through the images of celebrity pregnancies they receive in the popular press. Much of this biopolitical governance and discipline reinscribes norms of femininity, yet this is not the extent of the governance and disciplining of women through these images; such governance is also present in the commodification of products and bodies associated with pregnancy and in the rendering of criminal those women who perform their pregnancies in deviant ways through a desire for an abortion, through prenatal neglect, or by miscarriage. The state in neoliberalism is not absent nor declining in its power or presence in women’s lives or on their bodies; rather, it appears in different forms, with different intent and function. State power in neoliberalism may be more diffuse and dispersed; it is not, however, any less powerful.

Very few theorists of law and culture have attended to neoliberalism as part of the context within which representations of law in the popular culture are made and consumed. Ouellette, though, posits that the proliferation of reality television shows dealing with justice (judge shows and “cop” shows) seem to “be situated within [a] broader political reimagining of responsibility for civic life and public services.”72 She does not term this “broader political reimagining” as neoliberalism, but it seems appropriate to do so. She writes that within this broader context, “the point to be made is not that control is totalizing or seamless, but that ‘real justice’ entertainment stitches commercial television into a range of intersecting strategies for managing populations conceived as risky or at risk.”73 Coverage of the celebrity baby bump serves a similar purpose; it enables the general public to work out and develop strategies for managing pregnant bodies—those that deviate from idealized and normalized performances as well as those disciplined enough to maintain them.