Might as well make it a two-fer in posts about overbearing ego monster celebrities saying/doing things that at least have the value of annoying the more conservative elements in our society. I loved Sady Doyle’s defense of Madonna taking a piss on a specific, annoying standard that female celebrities are held to, which is acting like the production of your uterus is the most interesting thing about you, even though you’re self-evidently famous for your work you did with your brain parts. Madonna comes across as the asshole she is, of course, but I have to admit that I laughed at this exchange, too, the one millisecond where she doesn’t seem like a megawatt asshole.*
LETTERMAN: If you had to be one thing in your life, in this world, would you just want to be a parent?
MADONNA: No! Yikes!
LETTERMAN: [Parenting] is the most important job, isn’t it?
MADONNA. Yeah. Uh, yes. That’s the politically correct answer. Uh-huh.
It’s refreshing to hear a female celebrity say this stuff, especially in an environment where getting married, getting impregnated, and shopping around pictures of your totes adorable impregnation-results is de rigeur for other female celebrities, where women whose lives don’t and may never include a husband and baby are portrayed as pathetic lost souls (“Jennifer Aniston is freezing her eggs,” anyone?) and where motherhood is consistently portrayed, for women, as the Holy Grail and the key to becoming a whole, fulfilled, worthwhile person. How many times have you heard that women don’t know what love means until they become mothers, that being a mother automatically becomes the most important and fulfilling thing in a woman’s life whether or not she ever believed it would be or planned for it to be (just GET PREGNANT, ladies! It’ll make you happy EVENTUALLY), that women are sacrificing their one true destiny and purpose in life by delaying children or not having children at all? I mean, God knows people have children and love their children and should, by all means, consider the well-being of their children a major priority. But I don’t hear talk-show hosts asking men if they’d sacrifice their careers for fatherhood. Nor is anyone shocked when men don’t consider having children a priority, or don’t consider “fatherhood” the one true purpose of their lives.
At this point, the defenders of this tabloid practice of obsessing over the reproductive lives of female stars would point out that women are the ones who make this practice lucrative, and so therefore feminists can’t say anything about it so shut up. And it’s true. Most tabloid buyers are women. Women drive the obsession with celebrity uteruses. I won’t deny this.
It’s actually more interesting to ask why this narrative about how being a mother is the most important thing that eclipses all other things is so important both for female celebrities to spout and for tabloids to relentlessly parrot. If you watch the video, you’ll see that Madonna backs off her original and honest reaction to the mommy talk, and instead tries to play off her initial answer as something she said only because being a mother is so hard and she was totally joking and yes, it’s the most important job in the world don’t hate her. Part of the reason this pressure no doubt works is no one wants their kids to think they don’t love them. The other part of it is that they know saying that being a mother is an all-encompassing role that eclipses all others, even though it’s obvious that Madonna the singer and not Madonna the mother is who gets invited onto Letterman, is what the public wants to hear, and they know that they live or die by adhering to that standard.
So why is it that there’s so much female-driven tabloid interest in establishing this reproduction-centric narrative about female celebrities? I think that it’s because it makes the female audience for this narrative feel better about themselves, honestly. There’s still an enormous amount of pressure on ordinary, non-celebrity women to define themselves mainly through men and children, but celebrity women are so obviously defined by what they do, and there’s a gap there that’s enviable like other gaps, such as the wealth gap and the perfect body gap. No one a lot of women are eating up a narrative about how even these celebrity women are no better than they are at the end of the day, that they too are subject to being defined by who they fuck and who they gave birth to, and not by themselves. It’s a lie, of course, but I suppose the kinder word for a lie we allow ourselves to believe for short periods of time is a “fantasy”.
It’s similar to the whole tabloid thing where they follow female celebrities around and relentlessly document their weight, whether they have cellulite, or whether or not their boobs are perfect looking. Ordinary women are made to feel constantly like we’re not good enough, that we’re failing in the body project, and so it’s appealing to see women whose job it is to be sexy also fail to be perfect. Instead of pushing back against the pressures on us, which is a lot of work and frankly is going to fail us most of the time—many feminists who have an intellectual understanding of the viciousness of the body project still feel low when they see cellulite on their thighs!—it’s just easier to spread the misery and enjoy the company.
Of course, motherhood is a different thing, because unlike the body project, motherhood is an honorable job and an important role. But it shouldn’t be all-consuming, and if the pressure to make it all-consuming gets to women, well, who can blame them?
I just wish that it didn’t take a blatant ego monster like Madonna to take a swipe at this pressure. I realize that one reason that women feel obliged to suggest that they should be defined through their children instead of through themselves is that doing otherwise is a surefire way to get marked as insufficiently humble, and therefore unladylike. Well, screw that. I want more women to show that you can manage to hold your head high and be proud of who you are without being a self-absorbed asshole.
*We should have a Bono vs. Madonna asshole showdown, except Madonna really would win. Both of them commit the crime of taking themselves way too fucking seriously when they’re famous, in order, for writing safe rock songs and having a decent voice that works well in dance music performed by other people, but Madonna pretends, depending on the context, to be Jewish or British and doesn’t raise as much money to fight AIDS, so she wins.