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Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back or One Step Sideways

As many of you know, I am very behind in reading issues of People magazine.  So woefully behind that Brad Pitt just left Jennifer Aniston — can you believe that man?

I actually just finished up an issue from April that contained an interview with Susan Sarandon, one of my favourite actresses.  It brought an entirely new perspective to the obsession magazines have lately with pregnant women and and/or their offspring.  We are bombarded with talk of Kardashian pregnancy struggles (forgive me, I can’t actually tell the girls apart so I have no idea which one goes with which story), Kate Middleton belly watch, Jessica Simpson pregnancy pictures, Suri Cruise’s outfits.  Magazine covers hawk stories about losing the baby weight and how to show off your gorgeous, growing belly and feature pictures of beatifically smiling parents gazing down at newborns.

Pick up an issue of People from 1980 (yes, I think some of those may be in my tottering pile) and you can clearly see the difference.  Fewer stories about babies and more stories about marriages.  Fewer stories about pregnancy and more stories about divorce.  With the exception of Princess Diana’s children — celebrity in their own right — few issues focused on showing parent and child together or talk about the children except in passing.

Susan Sarandon explained in the article why she put off having children as long as possible.  As a woman in Hollywood, children were the obstacle to longevity instead of the accessory de rigueur.  Once a woman had children, she was no longer looked at as a sexual entity and would be shunted off to matronly roles that were few and far between, even as child-free women the same age were courting lead roles.  Sarandon said, “You put off having kids as long as possible, and you didn’t talk about being married.  I’m happy that has changed.”

Which brings me to the greater point: women fought for the ability to openly and unapologetically have children and still be seen as relevant, sexual, vibrant human beings.  There was a generation of women who lived with something else who longed for this.  Who fought for this.  Who see these new magazine covers in a very different light.  Women can now have the choice of motherhood (yes, yes, which is obviously easier for some to reach than others; that part is not lost to me) and not be shoved into the house, out-of-sight.  And while this isn’t always true across the board, for the most part, women can have any job, get any role, regardless of their marital status or parenting status.  Women can have a child and still be a sexual entity vs. the SNL joke: “I’m not a woman anymore; I’m a mom.”

I don’t know of any other time period; I’ve always had the girls can be anything chant in the back of my head.  And I wonder how differently I would look at these magazine covers if I had lived through a time period where I felt anxiety that I would lose my career if I had a child; when I had to make a choice over whether I was willing to walk away from all the hard work I did to break into a field that few people succeed in entering or whether I wanted to parent.  If it had come down to having a child or publishing books, would I have been able to walk away from writing in order to have a child?  If I knew that there would never be a space for me to publish anymore once I had a child, would I have had children on my timetable (fine, so our kids didn’t actually come on our timetable, but you get my point) or would I have put it off?  And how would I feel about parenting knowing that entering that stage of life firmly closed another door due to society’s preconceived notions?

I tried to see the onslaught of pregnancy and parenting articles through the eyes of someone like Susan Sarandon who remembers a very different time period.

The reality is that I wouldn’t ever want to return to the time period that Sarandon mentions, a time period very different from now when women can be portrayed as “fun and sexy and smart.  It wasn’t always like that.”  And while the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction, it may just be society’s over-enthusiastic proclamation: “we don’t hate you guys!  We really love you!  Look at how we love mothers.  We haven’t killed your careers!  We celebrate you.”  Which frankly is better than what Sarandon refers to in society denying that they hate mothers while they stop offering them roles.

I would rather have women celebrated too much than have women punished for making commonplace choices.  Though I would love to have a separation of artistic life and family life, with the personal life only being mentioned when it directly affects the artistic life.  I just don’t need to be kept up to date on the latest news about a singer’s pregnancy or delivery.  I don’t really want to know what a celebrity has named their new offspring.  But the Susan Sarandon article made me see the glut of magazine covers — which are emotionally difficult for me to look at every single time I’m in the food store — in a different light.

Perhaps one day the pendulum will rest in the middle where women are neither rejected nor slobbered over based on their status as a parent.


1 Mina { 10.08.12 at 11:41 am }

The things we take for granted apparently change from one generation to the other. I was thinking the other day that women lived thousands of years as ‘household managers’ and it’s been only during the last fifty years that that changed and we have been told that we ‘can have it all’. It is not easy to change a thousand years old image and it will take a lot more tweaking to get an accurate panorama of what women are. And it is probably natural to get there by exaggerating certain facets of this gem. We should probably make the most of this ride, since I doubt we’ll get to the destination any time soon (i.e. the true image of women).

2 Brid { 10.08.12 at 1:43 pm }

Interesting post, Mel. I wrote my thesis regarding this idea of a ‘feminine trinity’ of woman to be either a virgin, mother, or whore… It was based on religious and political oppression, but it is interesting to see how this sort of securing of the heterosexual/patriarchal paradigm has evolved. I think it is weird however, that celebrities are the ones we look to when we talk about women having it all. It came up with Marissa Mayer too… But, I think there has to be a bit of a separation between the celebrities we see, Mayer included, and ‘regular’ women, working and raising babies, and generally picking up all the slack at home. Celebrities, now more than ever, even since Sarandon’s breaking into the business, are drawing obscene incomes. Their support systems include nannies, tutors probably (so the kids can go to work with them), drivers, cooks, etc… So if we think they have it all, they do, but they’re not doing it all, which I think you might have mentioned before. The tactic has changed (from unattainable body image to unattainable life skills), but the result is likely the same, namely, regular women who can’t keep up feeling more and more inadequate. So, not only am I chubby and worth less because I don’t look like some celebrity or model, I am also not smart enough or successful enough… Because if I was, I would have worked my way to the top (or even the middle) and hired the necessary staff to manage my luggage.

3 Stupid Stork { 10.08.12 at 4:58 pm }

I freaking love Susan Sarandon. LOVE.

And yes indeedy do, in Hollywood even if you’re not in FRONT of the camera having babies is sadly seen as a liability. Sign her up for AARP and pass her a glass of prune juice, she just popped out a kid and is clearly on her way to retirement.

I would never have looked at it from this perspective of it being an accomplishment to have babies all over the place – thanks for that. I just – and honestly fertility issues completely aside – don’t get.. why it’s interesting… to read about… (although in the case of Suri Cruise, I’m just fascinated that any parent would spend that much money on a child’s clothes).

4 persnickety { 10.08.12 at 7:26 pm }

It’s sometimes hard to remember how far we have come. When I was at uni there was a real push to have a feminist club (society/group) as part of the mix because there wasn’t one. This was a college that produced several of the key feminist personalities and yet we had nothing to promote this on campus. In part, I think this was because most of us did not perceive that it was needed (in retrospect i am still not sure).

Japan opened my eyes to how lucky we are – my japanese teacher (volunteer) spoke English and french in addition to her native japanese, had worked for an international IT company, yet had to give it up to move to a dinky country town when her husband was transferred. She was expected to be a housewife. She was not resentful of her life- she wanted kids- and that is still a death sentence for many careers- but in the years it took her to get there (she definitely had fertility treatment) there was not options for her.

5 a { 10.08.12 at 9:48 pm }

Interesting take on the matter. I am really quite tired of the constant wedding/bump/baby/child progression…but I guess it’s great that attention doesn’t die off. I do believe that attitudes still change with the advent of motherhood. When you see photos of moms, something about their children almost always crops up. I guess it’s inevitable – the women are not out and about at the clubs; they’re shopping with their husbands and kids, so the story changes.

6 luna { 10.09.12 at 2:27 am }

interesting perspective. but yes, I’m tired of the gory fascination with glam bumps and how celebrities with personal trainers, chefs, house cleaners and nannies manage to lose the baby weight.

in truth, though, there are still many careers where being a woman who may merely want a family — let alone have one with real obligations — simply can not achieve success as others might.
it’s not just actors, of course, whose careers once ground to a halt after a baby. today women still must often choose one over the other. and yes, sometimes we’re lucky to have that choice. but not always.

7 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 10.09.12 at 12:58 pm }

I think it’s a really great thing if people facing infertility can look at the baby-hype from this sort of historical perspective. Really puts it in context and allows you to be less angry, to not take the mother-worship so personally, and most importantly, to maintain an optimistic outlook for the evolution of society’s perspective – when you can make yourself calm down enough to do it, of course.

No, we don’t want to go back to the bad old days. It is definitely a matter of the pendulum overswinging, and hopefully it will start to correct itself sooner rather than later and we can look forward to a more balanced and nurturing future.

8 Mali { 10.10.12 at 6:48 pm }

Like you, I want the pendulum to sit in the middle. But I think in many ways, the pendulum has gone too far – women are seen as less worthy if they don’t have children, they’re seen as less worthy if they don’t conform to the slim, beautiful, sexy requirement. Men going grey are distinguished and experienced, women going grey (in business as well as the rest of society) are past it and dowdy. Double standards still remain. And rather than having the choice to do everything, there is now pressure to do everything. (I loved Brid’s reply). I mean – look at Hollywood, the pressure to be so thin as to be skeletal, to be sexy, to show skin. I think that continues to oppress women just as much as they used to be oppressed in terms of lack of career opportunity. We just don’t realise it in quite the same way, it’s different, so young women let it slide. Feminism was all about choice – we still haven’t reached that. It makes me sad.

9 Lisa @ hapahopes { 10.14.12 at 3:15 pm }

I really liked this post and the comments, but my brain is not functioning well enough to add anything to the conversation, so I’ll just say, “What her said.”

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