When it comes to mothers in the public eye, the world is watching, ready to name and shame.
In recent years, journalists have revisited and reassessed the media’s cruel treatment of famous women. But those reassessments have not generally named the specific focus on motherhood. Becoming a mom, for many celebrities, has been the catalyst for some of the very worst moments of public censure—certainly the case for Courtney Love, Britney Spears and, to a certain extent, Mariah Carey. As headlines about Rihanna’s Super Bowl Halftime performance swirl, I’m reminded of the unfair and double-sided pressure on these celebrity-mothers, and how this coverage sends damaging messages to moms everywhere who are already struggling in so many ways.
During Spears’ career, so-called journalists regularly discussed her body, sexuality and mental stability. But this mistreatment took a particular turn when she became a mother. The most malicious attacks on her body occurred then, in the aftermath of her performance at the MTV VMAs in 2007; a New York Post headline declared, “Lard and Clear.” As many celebrities have learned, they are supposed to “snapback” immediately after giving birth—never mind the physical toll, needs of the baby and general exhaustion.
The harshest speculation about Spears’ mental health also happened then. I remember the pictures in 2007 of Spears enraged and hitting a car with an umbrella. But I didn’t know at that time the full story—that she had been attempting to see her kids that night, that she was refused by Kevin Federline, and that she eventually parked at a Jiffy Lube, where she was pursued again by the paparazzi. She hit the car of one of those men, one of the many men harassing her for profit.
In Pamela Anderson’s new documentary, we see a moment of similar provocation, when she goes out for the first time since the birth of her first child. Though her baby’s home with Anderson’s mom, the paparazzi shame her, shouting, “Where’s your baby?” No one says anything similar to her husband, also there. The world is watching, ready to name and shame—as long as you are a celebrity and a mom.
In some ways the music industry and Hollywood make the situation particularly impossible for famous moms, given the conflicting requirements involved: Look attractive, even as your body changes; don’t age, while obviously entering a new phase of life; keep performing or touring, despite any new attachment to home or expectation of that attachment. It’s an impossible set-up.
But, in the media coverage of celebrity moms, we all receive the message and feel the pressure to get it all right. As a mother myself, I know how moms struggle with the sky-high expectations. Regular moms might need a break but wonder if they are allowed one. They might want to dress a certain way—to feel like themselves or feel like they used to feel—but worry that that style of dress might now be seen as inappropriate (just as people criticized country singer Maren Morris). Mothers might need to do something for themselves—whatever that is—but choose to deny themselves for the sake of everyone else and societal standards set against them.
In the media coverage of celebrity moms, we all receive the message and feel the pressure to get it all right.
Frankly, we can’t afford the public observation, regulation and related self-denial. Under the best of circumstances, becoming a mother is wildly difficult. But parenting during the pandemic became a mental health crisis for moms. And the anxiety and worry linger, and may be even worse. Postpartum depression is also still frequently misunderstood, as illustrated in recent conversations around the case of Lindsay Clancy. Now more than ever, mothers need support, not additional stress and judgement.
In this context, the many takes on Rihanna’s performance mean something more. Before the performance, there were the regular stories monitoring her post-baby body. But even positive stories started to appear sinister, like one announcing that she’s “ready” and “focused.” Imagine similar coverage of a male performer. It’s as if the media was actively countering biased attitudes towards working moms, including the idea that they’re “less dedicated” than they once were, while at the same time making it perfectly clear that the issue is still an issue.
After the performance, there were the expected right-wing attacks. Additional commentary called the performance “boring” or “low energy”—no doubt an attack on the casual coolness of her choreography. The idea of Rihanna’s pregnancy seemed to imply a certain limitation or deficit, even though, as Cassandra Stone observed, male performers don’t offer anything more, just a “whole lotta standing and walking.”
I admit that my reading of these articles may be influenced by my own experience pregnant and facing doubts about my commitment and ability to work. But, either way, I wish the constant media scrutiny of celebrity moms didn’t exist. I wish the pressure broadcast in their media coverage didn’t exist. And I love that Rihanna got out there and performed with one baby and another on the way. She did it on her own, without any other big-name performers. The message was clear: I’m enough.
That’s the support we all really need.
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