Pop Culture's Fraught Obsession With Celebrity Baby Bumps

Beyoncé’s announcement both feeds and disrupts the tabloid-pregnancy ecosystem, says the author of Pregnant With the Stars.

Jon Palmer / AP

At a time of national political controversy, no one would argue that Beyoncé’s pregnancy with twins is particularly consequential news. But no one can deny the public’s fascination with it, either. Her colorful and evocative Instagram post about the matter quickly became the most-liked in history, and celebrity pregnancies have been objects of widespread obsession for years.

In her 2015 book Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, Renee Cramer argued that the way that famous mothers-to-be are discussed and obsessed over reflects deep-seated attitudes about gender, race, and reproductive rights. A professor and chair of law, politics, and society at Drake University, she analyzed Beyoncé’s 2011 pregnancy with Blue Ivy while writing the book.

I spoke with Cramer on Thursday. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: You wrote about Beyoncé’s first pregnancy in your book. What did you say about it?

Renee Cramer: What I argued was that the pregnancies of women of color were being covered in popular culture and the blogosphere in ways that replicated the ways that dominant culture talks about women of color in general: that they were hypersexualized, overly abundant, dangerously fertile.

With Beyoncé in particular, people didn’t believe that she was pregnant—[they believed] that this was just a media stunt meant to solidify her relationship with Jay Z in the public eye. This sense of the black female body as untrustworthy was a real dominant narrative of coverage of her pregnancy.

This time, I’m not seeing that [suspicion] at all. Maybe that’s because the announcement was made with a photo that is an undeniable baby belly. It’s there. I actually don’t know what the gestational age of the twins is, but it seems as though this is a later announcement than the Blue Ivy announcement. Women show their second pregnancies more quickly, and in a twin pregnancy certainly [they show more].

Kornhaber: What were some examples of other celebrity pregnancies you compared her to?

Cramer: There are all these different ways we can see celebrities. They can be “good girls” like Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts. There are “bad girls” like Britney Spears, there are “bad girls redeemed” like Angelina Jolie. They can be this docile and worried-over woman like Katie Holmes or Nicole Kidman.

But women of color in particular—not just black women but also Latinas—are treated as much more sexualized objects than the white women. With Halle Berry, almost every headline about her was titled with “whoa,” like, “Whoa, sexy mama!” With J. Lo it was an obsessive emphasis on how quickly she returned to her pre-pregnancy bod, and of course the booty. So less an emphasis on the bump for these women and more on the bust line and the back side.

Kornhaber: What do you make of how Beyoncé announced her twins?

Cramer: There’s a huge market in the images of pregnancy and babies. Jay Z and Beyoncé have been amazingly good at stifling that market, or at least using it to their own benefit. They have privatized these images and made fans feel part of the family circle that gets to see them, rather than selling them—or worse, having the paparazzi grab them.

It disrupts this narrative we have of the media being in control of outing celebrities when they’re pregnant, and it really refocuses on her choice to say “yes, I am [pregnant].” Just like her choice to discuss her miscarriage in 2013. These are private moments that are selectively curated, much in the way that all social-media users do, but to maintain an image of control.

Kornhaber: In the photos she released, there are ones of her nude, which calls back to pictures like Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair cover. What is an image like that typically trying to do?

Cramer: It used to be an image like that was trying to shock and reclaim women’s sexuality in pregnancy. Now, I think there’s a different resonance to those photos, and it’s more of an assertion of comfort. As I’ve watched how people are responding to the announcement, I’m noticing much more glee and happiness than shock or disdain.

Our obsession is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s lovely to be distracted from some of the crap that’s going on in the world by following some celebrity’s pregnancy. On the other hand, doing so enables us to feel comfortable being surveilled in our own reproductive lives. I see a lot more of the former in this one. People are going, “thank you for announcing right now because we really needed a distraction, and we recognize it as a distraction.” I’ve seen speculation that the announcement is timed in such a way as to celebrate black fertility at a moment when that feels powerful but not overtly political.

Kornhaber: Why should we care about celebrity pregnancies?

Cramer: Because we do. She broke the internet. It was the most liked picture on Instagram. That’s insane. When a celebrity announces she’s pregnant, magazine sales go through the roof, [as do] social-media clicks. People care. They care for lots of different reasons, but the fact that they are so interested in someone else’s pregnancy and body is an important thing to notice.

Kornhaber: In your book you say some celebrities have an “inscrutable pregnancy.” What does that mean?

Cramer: I used it to apply to a couple of ways of parenting. So moms who parent without the bump: Melissa Harris-Perry or Sarah Jessica Parker have surrogates, that’s a subversive act. Moms who parent without dads, whether they’re lesbian moms or whether they’re Minnie Driver, who for a long time refused to say who the dad was. M.I.A.’s performance of pregnancy was outside the boundaries of what pop culture has seen when she rapped three days before she had Ikhyd. And Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher used pregnancy subversively—naming a daughter Wyatt as a new gender-neutral name, the way they played with baby pictures.

Those things are part of their curated image, but they also disrupt a coherent narrative. And when we disrupt coherent narratives, that’s where social-movement activism and peoples’ capacity to recreate their own lives comes in.

Kornhaber: Any other thoughts on Beyoncé?

Cramer: She is so in charge of the image. And the fact that she is in charge of her image gives women a deep desire to also be in charge of their bodies.

Kornhaber: So you think she is pushing back on social control of women’s bodies?

Cramer: Yes. Of course she has tremendous wealth, and that helps. But my goodness, I live in a state that’s going to vote in about 20 minutes to defund Planned Parenthood. It isn’t something I intended to have the book become about, but clearly in the last 10 years as our obsession with celebrity pregnancy has risen, so has other peoples’ obsession with controlling the reproductive capacity of average women. And [Beyoncé’s] image of an empowered black woman embracing her own autonomy as a reproducing human, I think that resonates with people.