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The Problem With Hollywood’s Portrayal of Pregnant Women
The post-apocalyptic thriller Mad Max: Fury Road has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, numerous Producer Guild of America awards, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s been hailed as a stealth feminist masterpiece—and it is! But it also contributes to a larger problem: Nobody knows anymore what a pregnant woman looks like.
The plot of Mad Max centers on the escape attempt of several women who have been sexually abused by the monomaniacal cult-leader Immortan Joe. They are as nubile and scantily clad as the patriarch is decrepit and disgusting. A scene in which they take a break in the desert to drink some water resembles nothing so much as a bikini car wash.
One of the women, the Splendid Angharad, is especially eager to escape, since she’s carrying a child. Angharad is played by actress, Victoria’s Secret model, and fitness instructor Rosie Alice Huntington-Whiteley. The character’s IMDB page describes her as “gravidly pregnant,” opining that she “will probably give birth soon.” Indeed, when—SPOILER ALERT—her lifeless body falls into the hands of her captors and they perform an impromptu, unsanitary C-section in a moving car, the baby pulled from her womb appears to be full-grown.
Angharad looks like this:
That is not what 40 weeks pregnant looks like.
But you would be forgiven for not knowing that. Every image we receive as a society via pop culture about the gestational process is skewed. This fall, Newsweek used as a cover image a computer-enhanced, well-developed, even cuddly-looking fetus to illustrate a story about America’s Abortion Wars. As Sady Doyle pointed out in Elle, “it looks about five times bigger than the translucent, two-inch-long fetuses” that form in the first trimester, when 90 percent of all terminations take place.
Images matter. A person who assumes that a pregnant woman in her third trimester will look like “Princess Grace swallowed a basketball,” the way Betty Draper did when carrying baby Gene on Mad Men, will gape at ordinary women and say things like, “Are you sure it isn’t twins?”
The truth of what to expect when you’re expecting is that you may well look more like Fat Betty than Pregnant Betty. Almost half of all American women have what’s called “excessive weight gain.” Even if you only put on the recommended 25-35 lbs, though, you may notice that you resemble Angharad at some point in your second trimester, when your womb-fruit weighs in at 1-2 lbs.
Ah, you might say, but these are movie stars. A pregnant movie star probably resembles a pregnant lady no more than a not-pregnant movie star resembles a not-pregnant lady. Even movie stars are subject to the laws of biology, though, especially as they approach full-term. Unfortunately, you don’t often see the evidence unless awards season lures them out with the potential of acclaim and the promise of custom couture, a la Morena Baccarin, and Catherine Zeta Jones.
Not too long ago, even famous women could be realistically pregnant in the public eye. Gestation was a time when the strict and absurd standards of female beauty relaxed, when Princess Diana could go about in a synthetic muumuu. Nowadays, Anne Hathaway feels compelled to out herself on Instagram to scoop the paparazzi stalking her at the beach. Bustle estimates that Hathaway is due in June, yet she looks like she is as far along as Angharad. In other words, she appears to be in her second trimester, and she is. This is shocking only by the fun-house mirror standards of Hollywood.
Rachel Syme, in her great, lengthy meditation on selfies, calls actions like Hathaway’s “valuable mythmaking-via-imagery.” In other words, when celebrities like Hathaway release their own pictures online, they are trying to wrest back control of their narratives. Kim Kardashian, about whose body, image, and work “as a full-time professional metaphor” Syme has also written at length, is one of the few celebrities who has used social media to promote the un-Photoshopped reality of her two pregnancies.
Largely, though, starlets allow the paparazzi to intimidate them into a digital version of what used to be called “confinement,” rather than challenge Hollywood’s idea of what pregnant women should look like. Why does it matter? Well, fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself. Similarly, fear of how a thing actually looks increases fear of the thing itself. Pregnant bodies are not stick figures with cute bumps in the front. They are large, they contain multitudes. They take up space and for excellent reason. Even if we can’t get to point as a society where we celebrate that, we should at least be able to acknowledge it.
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Ester Bloom is a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and an editor at The Billfold.
• “Selfie” (Rachel Syme, Matter, Nov. 19, 2015)
• “Notes on Kim” (Rachel Syme, Matter, Dec. 19, 2014)