On Monday, an image broke brains across the Internet, appearing to violate the rules of space and time. Hilaria Baldwin, a fitness expert, podcast host and the wife of Alec Baldwin, posted a photo of herself with her six children, including a newborn, for her more than 900,000 Instagram followers. This sounds mundane, except that Ms. Baldwin gave birth to a different newborn in September, and as far as we know, it is not possible to gestate a full-term infant in six months. Furthermore, she told People Magazine in November that her family didn’t have plans for another baby.
At first, the couple declined to discuss the provenance of this additional child. (When Katie Rosman, a Times reporter, asked about it, Ms. Baldwin’s publicist said, “Not sharing!”) Then, reports began to surface that the couple used a surrogate for the new baby girl, which the Baldwins did not deny. On Thursday, Ms. Baldwin posted a photo of the two babies with a long caption that included the sentence, “We are living each day, bonding, and grateful for all of the very special angels who helped bring Lucía into the world,” which appeared to confirm the surrogacy, but left room for more confusion.
Oh, and this comes just months after Ms. Baldwin was accused of perpetuating “a decade long grift where she impersonates a Spanish person.”
If you’ve made it through those first few paragraphs, you may be asking yourself, “Why does anyone care about the fecundity of this famous couple?” I have asked myself that very question several times this week as I scanned Ms. Baldwin’s Instagram posts, mesmerized by a video of her doing leg lifts while simultaneously entertaining one of her babies. The answer lies in America’s cultural obsession with celebrity pregnancy, and the way that social media helps perpetuate unrealistic ideals of motherhood — that you can build your business, raise a passel of kids without breaking a sweat and have a “bikini body” immediately postpartum, too.
This “supermom” ideal began to emerge in celebrity media profiles during the 1980s, as part of a post-second wave feminist push to promote mothers in the work force, said Elizabeth Podnieks, a professor of English at Ryerson University in Canada, whose research focuses on motherhood in popular culture. “There was this sense that the celebrity mother was the perfect role model for contemporary women,” she said. “They had these glamorous careers but were also these glamorous mothers.” That there was an enormous amount of money and child care support undergirding this glamour went unspoken.
The ideal went into overdrive in the early ’00s, said Anne Helen Petersen, a celebrity gossip expert and the author of “Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman.” That’s when tabloid magazines were competing for paparazzi photos of celebrities just living their lives, Ms. Petersen said, and the so-called “basketball” pregnancy was held up as the goal — that’s when a woman’s body looks otherwise unchanged by carrying a baby, save for a cute, easily adorned bump, like they swallowed a basketball.
In the early ’10s, when social media became ubiquitous, stars “internalized that tabloid surveillance and took control of it themselves,” Ms. Petersen said. In some ways, it was a smart move — after all, celebrity pregnancy is a big business now, and many of Ms. Baldwin’s Instagram posts are sponsored content for various pregnancy and kid-related products.
But there is a dark side. “They can’t escape from that lens once they turn it on themselves,” Ms. Petersen said. This is something Ms. Baldwin has lamented. In an interview with The Times in December she said, “I am entitled to my privacy. People say, ‘No, you’re not entitled to your privacy because you married a famous person and you have Instagram.’ Well, that’s not really true.”
Both Ms. Petersen and Dr. Podnieks find Ms. Baldwin’s stated desire for privacy tough to square with her savvy use of social media. “When they post these images, they’re promoting a number of things. It’s not done innocently or naïvely,” Dr. Podnieks said. In Ms. Baldwin’s case, when she posts a photo of herself just months postpartum in lingerie, “she’s promoting her capabilities as a fitness instructor,” said Dr. Podnieks; she’s implying that if you use her methods, you too can look like her.
By welcoming a sixth baby during a pandemic year where there may be 300,000 fewer births in the United States because of financial and health fears of the average American, Ms. Baldwin is taking the “supermom” image to the extreme. Intellectually, we know that most aspects of her life are not accessible for almost anyone, despite the banal images she posts — the domestic tableaus of happy, dancing children and fitness moves. So why can’t we look away?
“You could describe the audience’s relationships with these accounts as a staring contest,” said Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Concordia University, who researches the internet and motherhood. “I’m going to stare at it ’til it blinks” — which is to say, I’m going to look at these images until I see a crack in the perfectly imperfect façade, a dose of reality in this world of bliss.
In the end, when consumers of celebrity culture think and talk about Ms. Baldwin, it’s not even really about her — it’s about us. “We use celebrity images to gauge our own responses to motherhood, our own behavioral practices,” Dr. Podnieks said. “How we respond to her showcases our own ideologies.” If we aspire to the mediated glamour of Ms. Baldwin’s life, we follow her Instagram with admiration, possibly imagining ourselves with a smiling brood on a windswept beach in the Hamptons. If we think that she adds to the pressures on mothers to be physically and emotionally perfect, we will critique her.
At this point I should probably look away from this maternal Rorschach test, but I can’t help myself from staring, judging, vacillating between those two poles of envy and aversion.
Original posted at www.nytimes.com