Since the mid-1990s there has been an extraordinary proliferation of representations of maternity within popular culture, arts, literature, politics, consumer culture and ‘everyday life’. The fascination with celebrity pregnancy and motherhood, the emergence of ‘momoir’ literary genres, a new emphasis on the maternal in the visual and performance arts and the ascendance of ‘Maternal TV’ reality formats, are indicative of this new visibility. The maternal is no longer confined to traditionally domestic or child-orientated spaces, such as private homes, hospitals, parks and playgrounds, but is present in spectacularly public forms: think of British artist Marc Quinn’s 12ft statue of a naked, heavily pregnant, disabled artist Alison Lapper, in Trafalgar Square, London in 2005 (see Betterton, 2006) or pregnant beauty contests (see Longhurst, 2000).
Pregnancy and motherhood have even taken centre stage in mainstream politics: a global media storm surrounded the French Justice Minister Rachida Dati when she announced her pregnancy as a lone mother, and later made a very public and glamorous return to work five days after a Caesarean section in January 2009. In the United States the 2009 presidential election produced some striking maternal imagery: pro-life Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin went on the election trail brandishing a four-month-old son and a pregnant teenage daughter, whilst pro-choice Ivy League educated attorney Michelle Obama declared herself the nation’s rightful ‘mom in chief’. This plethora of maternal publicity is not simply a matter of representation, but signals the emergence of a range of new maternal identities and practices. For example, the internet has enabled the rise of a phenomenal ‘digital motherhood’; in Britain millions of mothers are online, creating blogs, sharing foetal scans and ‘celebrity style’ pregnant photographs in ‘bump galleries’, swapping tips and commiserating with each other in the chat rooms of sites such as Mumsnet, and uploading childbirth movies to video-sharing platforms (see Longhurst, 2009). So whilst it has been claimed that girls are the ‘privileged’ subjects of neoliberalism (see McRobbie, 2009) this is also the era of ‘maternal femininities’. Maternity has never been so visible, so talked about, so public and so deeply incoherent.
This chapter will examine the sexual politics of maternity under neoliberalism through a focus on one key contemporary maternal figure, which I will term ‘pregnant beauty’. One of the defining contradictions of neoliberalism is that it is packaged as concerned with individual freedom, choice, democracy and personal responsibility. In reality, as David Harvey argues, neoliberalism is a class-based economic project that systematically strips assets from the poor (including welfare provisions) and concentrates wealth within a tiny global elite (individuals and corporations). As a system of governance neoliberalism has fabricated new subjectivities capable, as Nikolas Rose phrases it, ‘of bearing the burdens of liberty’ (1999, p. viii). Within a neoliberal society the ability (and desire) to work and to spend are key measures of value and ideal neoliberal subjects cooperate with their subjectification within these markets (and compulsive consumption and workaholism are symptomatic pathologies).
As Angela McRobbie argues, popular culture is a privileged terrain for the production of neoliberal values (2009, p. 29). This terrain becomes legible through the appearance of specific figurative types, figures who move across and through different popular media and accrue meaning, form and value as they travel. In this chapter I will argue that pregnant beauty represents a particular neoliberal amalgam of maternity and femininity, and is deserving of closer analysis. In the last decade, feminist theorists have successively argued that young motherhood, especially lower-class lone motherhood ‘carries a whole range of vilified meanings associated with failed femininity’ (ibid., p. 732; see Tyler, 2008). Maternity is understood in this context as a ‘failed femininity’, in relation to a specific neoliberal femininity determined by economic productivity and flexibility. Young motherhood is constituted as a site of failure, not primarily because of a perceived sexual immorality, but because maternity signifies an unwillingness to work (or shop). It is the imagined economic redundancy and welfare dependence of this population which is repugnant. Thus the idealisation and celebration of youthful maternity in the figure of pregnant beauty may appear anachronistic. In what follows I will consider how pregnant beauty complicates feminist accounts of young motherhood, and reconfigures maternity as a neoliberal femininity. I will argue that pregnant beauty is highly spectacular and contradictory ‘maternal femininity’ that combines signifiers of (sexual) freedom, consumption, choice, agency and futurity in a powerful and seductive post-feminist cultural ideal. This chapter traces the origins of this figure within Anglo-American celebrity culture; it then outlines some of the consumer practices through which pregnancy has been reconfigured into an aesthetic ‘project of self’. It argues that the emergence of pregnant beauty signals the deeper commodification of maternity under neoliberalism, a process which is reshaping maternal experience and contributing to lived gender inequalities. I will conclude by reflecting on politics and aesthetics and asking whether a political maternal aesthetic might, nevertheless, form the basis of an anti-neoliberal feminist politics.