Of Marriage, Babies, and Authenticity in Celebrity Culture

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, celebrity weddings dominated the world of celebrity gossip. They served as banner events where fans gained a behind-the-scenes look at their favorites’ romantic predilections and personal styles. While weddings of well-known figures are still big news, I’d argue that these events – particularly the nature of their excess – are no longer celebrated in the same way, a byproduct of the economic crash of 2008, a shifting wedding culture, and some measure of fatigue with the rampant materialism that so often marks wedding celebrations. As I’ve been thinking about the public’s expectation of authenticity from their favorite stars – a sense of realness with which they hope to identify or connect – I suspect the inevitable let down of so many celebs’ faltering unions had led to a hesitation to believe too deeply in the potential permanency of stars’ romantic pairings.

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  Brad & Jen, the olden days, 2000. The couple split in 2005. Both are expected to remarry this summer.

More than weddings, it seems now that a new focal point of celebrity gossip is pregnancy (and its aftermath). I noticed this shift well before the avalanche of coverage related to the Royal Baby and Kimye’s expected offspring. US Weekly, the/my holy grail of gossip magazines, regularly has pages devoted to bump watches, stars’ first days at home with their newborns, maternity style, and even celebrity kid versions of the ever-ridiculous “Stars – They’re just like us!”

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A new level of foolishness: Celeb kids – Who wore it best?

I’ve wondered what this shift says about public expectations of celebrity life and what the public believes it can really know about the lives of famed figures (a driving force among celebrity gossipites). To some extent, it seems as though we accept as “more real” the fruits of romantic pairings than we do the pairings themselves. Procreation and parenthood reveal the “real.” But is this a legitimate development?

With rapper Kanye West’s December 2012 announcement that he and reality star Kim Kardashian were expecting a child, Kim’s pregnancy became a staple of gossip rags for much of 2013. Kardashian, well-known for her willingness to share publicly the most private elements of her life, was pegged as fair game for the kind of pregnancy tracking that regularly takes place in American culture. In the eyes of many, a life and a career devoted to attracting public attention justified the scope and style of the coverage she received. By the nature of her own choices, she’d made herself fair game for whatever public reactions arose over the course of her pregnancy. To some degree, the choices made in regard to her wedding and marriage to basketball star Kris Humphries legitimated Kardashian as a flawed, fake figure rather than a person guided by real feelings or authentic emotion – and the unreality of the reality star meant that she could be regarded as a legitimate site of condemnation and critique.

When Kardashian wed Humphries in August 2011, few believed the marriage would stick. But even those who doubted the potential longevity of the pairing didn’t anticipate that it would only take 72 days for “irreconcilable differences” to lead Kardashian to file for divorce. Having publicized the wedding broadly and having profited from this publicity, many criticized Kardashian for what they saw as a) willful misleading of her fans and b) a gross disregard for the sanctity of marriage. The prolonged, contentious, embarrassing nature of the divorce, finalized only in April 2013, was exactly what many observers believed Kardashian deserved. Subsequent romances – and subsequent actions more broadly – would be hard to take seriously from someone who seemed content to pretend a life for publicity purposes and cultivate a circus-like atmosphere with her comings and goings.

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72 days before Kim Kardashian filed for divorce.

But with her pregnancy, I think, there’s been an interesting turn in which KK’s authenticity has been somewhat restored. Even as Kardashian faced constant coverage and regular criticism throughout her pregnancy – for excessive weight gain and failed fashion choices and in unfair comparisons to likewise pregnant Kate Middleton – the nature of the coverage had a different tone than did coverage related to her wedding to Humphries. Certainly, discussions of Kardashian veered toward the mean-spirited, but she also found herself with defenders, ranging from Gwyneth Paltrow to Gloria Steinem. As she struggled with her weight and admitted to finding pregnancy to be more challenging than she’d anticipated, Kardashian regained some measure of her humanity. Pregnancy and its difficulties, “natural” as they were, she could not fake. As a process she had far less leverage to spin or control, pregnancy allowed for a revelation of a “real” Kim, a figure made far more vulnerable by physical challenges of pregnancy. Challenges with which many members of the public could identify. And verify as “real.”

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Noted fashion faux pas that received condemnation – but which led to subsequent support for Kim.

How do I feel about the roles of romance and pregnancy in the loss and subsequent restoration of authenticity? I don’t know. On the one hand, “real” Kim still experienced pregnancy in a world of great privilege and protection. If her feet were swollen (and we have the evidence to tell us that her feet were SWOLLEN – see below), it was in part due to her ridiculous choices in footwear rather than a byproduct of a job that had her on her feet all day. She experienced her difficulties in a very, very  comfortable world. Further, I don’t love the idea of pregnancy as automatic legitimator. Pregnancy might make one uncomfortable but it doesn’t necessarily make one a better or truer version of one’s self. The Kardashians as a clan still had the power to spin the nature and coverage of the pregnancy and its aftermath, to reveal what they desired when they desired. And I think that for all the years of reality TV we now have under our belts, we should come to grips with the fact that image creation is part of this biz. Pregnant Kim was still reality star Kim. By agreeing to star in a reality television series, reality stars are basically telling us that they’re going to present us with a version of themselves, not necessarily their “true” selves. If there is a version that we especially like – that is particularly lucrative for them – then the likelihood is that we’ll see that version fairly regularly for as long as its profitable. The flawed nature of the stars may not be the problem. It may in fact be the flawed expectations of the audience.

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Poor decision making in action, exhibits A & B.

What I’m more curious about is what motherhood will mean for Kardashian. Already, the magazines and gossip websites are talking about KK’s devotion to her child and her desire to do everything for her baby herself. Meanwhile, rumors from LA suggest that Kim has a nanny to do everything for little baby North West. Who knows what will be revealed and when. If she has a nanny, so what? But if KK claims one thing, and the public learns another story, one that fails to fit with an idealized version of motherhood…yikes. If judgment rained down on Kardashian in regard to her wedding, marriage, and pregnancy, my sense is that she doesn’t know from judgment should people deem her mothering style to be less than what they believe it should be or less than what she’s claimed.

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