LAST WEEK, Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel gave a speech criticising the erosion of Kate Middleton in favour of the beatific mummy character designed carefully to take her place.
Her lecture was wilfully misinterpreted by the tabloids, who took swathes out of context in order to manufacture a jealous attack by an uppity harpy on an innocent treasure. The swiftness of the condemnation of Mantel was remarkable; people were only too happy to launch themselves into the fray headfirst and claws-out so as to protect the Royal Incubator from anything that might distract her from her higher calling.
Just the week before, Beyoncé Knowles’ autobiographical documentary ‘Life Is But A Dream’ aired on HBO, and almost immediately breathed air into a conspiracy theory I had thought had been retired by all but the most bored crazies. Beyoncé, whose daughter is just over a year old, is deemed by a perplexingly significant number of rubberneckers to have used a surrogate, rather than having personally undertaken the messy business of pregnancy and birth.
“A public woman’s body is public property”
Beyoncé appeared on TV whilst pregnant and her baby bump appeared to ‘fold’. Beyoncé ran in five inch heels to a waiting car the night before her daughter was born. Beyoncé vaguely offered that pregnancy was a magical time in which she lay around looking radiant as cherubs fed her grapes and rubbed her photogenically swollen belly. All instances are totted up as ‘proof’ of her gynaecological history, when the real issue is that it’s not for us to demand the details of how the Knowles-Carter baby was born. If Beyoncé and Jay-Z ordered her from a vending machine, it wouldn’t be anyone else’s business, but there you go. A public woman’s body is public property, and pregnancy doesn’t constitute an amnesty.
If anything, a celebrity’s pregnancy is the time when we’re most interested in her, innards and all. Post-Diana, post-Britney, post ‘socialite’ becoming a valid career choice, the elevation of pregnancy from biological imperative to picture-perfect feminine vocation has been striking. Whatever the celebrity in question has done in her pre-motherhood incarnation is forfeit; we’re now free to empathise with and coo over her. Partied lots? Wore hot pants? Clambered, knickerless with legs akimbo, from a taxi? All forgiven and forgotten, as if her life up to this point had been but a placeholder for her true form: motherhood.
How she handles this transition is of the utmost importance.
It’s unusual for pregnancy to be a wholly enjoyable experience. There are lots of women who have had relatively problem-free pregnancies, but it’s a rare lass who hasn’t experienced at least one of the following: morning sickness, evening sickness, early-afternoon sickness, swollen ankles, swollen calves, back pain, front pain, phantom pains, real pains, mood swings, mood swings whilst puking, having to get up twice in the middle of the night to pee, having to get up twice in the middle of a bus journey to pee, having to get up twice in the middle of a pee to puke… and those are just some of the normal symptoms of that miraculous time when a woman is growing a new life inside her.
“She’s required to present a rosy image of pregnancy”
For the female celebrity, handling the public’s newfound interest in her uterus is quite the balancing act. She’s required to share enough to present a rosy image of pregnancy, without grossing anyone out with the gory details. It’s a great idea to be seen parading a baby bump in a designer dress, or, even better, posing naked on the front of Vanity Fair in a tastefully sexless shot that manages to show off as much un-stretchmarked skin as soft lighting and Photoshop skills will allow. It’s not such a great idea to have a documentary film crew recording you as you stumble out of your car and barf exuberantly onto the hard shoulder.
Kate Middleton has tried her very best to sanitise The Royal Pregnancy in this way, save for an embarrassing interlude with hyperemesis gravidarum, which some onlookers treated as some sort of madey-uppy excuse for laziness. She’s since atoned by appearing in public sporting a fetchingly tidy bump in a sophisticated dress. Feigning perfection while her body lurches from one internal crisis to the next is in the duchess’ job description, and I’d wager many of those who were so eager to defend her from Mantel’s supposed disparagement would back away very quickly if she were to relapse into ugly ill health.
“Speculation that she procured her daughter through nefarious methods”
So what, in that context, was Beyoncé’s crime? Apparently, it was keeping the details of her pregnancy a secret, not giving any of herself away, not courting a nosy public with belly-cradling glamour shots or details of her funniest cravings. She didn’t present the expected version of pregnancy: blooming grandeur without the ick factor. She didn’t present any version at all, and instead kept it all to herself like a right greedy mare. Her vague references to a time in her life that’s no one else’s business is punished by speculation that she procured her daughter through nefarious methods.
So what can we extract from the public treatment of Kate and Beyoncé’s contrasting experiences? That a female celebrity’s body is in the public domain from her debut, and that we somehow believe that we’re entitled to her stories of mumsy cutesiness – speculation on baby names and stories about wanting chocolate ice-cream for breakfast, rather than sickness so bad it requires hospitalisation.
That there’s no special dispensation for baby bumps; female flesh is ours to pore over, rank and judge.
And the stark, depressing usual: that female celebrities can’t win.