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Gender + Sexuality

Spears as Whore, Jolie as Saint

Why teen mothers keep getting shocked up by the media.

Vanessa Richmond 15 Oct

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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More hysterical pregnancies for the tabs.

Here's a game. Match the tabloid quote to the new mom it is discussing: Jamie Lynn Spears or Angelina Jolie.

"Having [another] baby now would only be a recipe for disaster,"

"[Her] family is hysterical [about the news that she is pregnant again] and pressuring her to abort."

"I was considering her for an upcoming cover," CosmoGIRL! editor-in-chief Susan Schulz told Friday. "But with this news, I'd have to rethink that."

Ding ding ding. You guessed, I'm sure, that all three of these are about Jamie Lynn Spears. In a story that starts "Whoops -- she did it again!" The National Enquirer broke the news that "Teen Prego Queen Jamie Lynn Spears has another bun in the oven... and her pals are begging her to abort." And the quotes above are from the Enquirer and Us Weekly.

What's really at stake isn't whether it's true or not (the story has since been declared not true, then true again) but the way pregnancy news is delivered (har har) depending on the age of the mother, and then the way that pregnancy and birth are treated by the media and public.

The Spears story was one of the two top tabloid stories this week. The other was that of Angelina Jolie's recent interview in W magazine, about her happy pregnancy and family life, accompanied by "intimate" and "private" photos of her and the kids taken by Brad Pitt (all of which was subsequently written up in all the tabs).

It's an understatement to say the two women's stories were treated differently.

Reportedly, friends and family are encouraging Spears to abort and Casey Aldridge, the baby's father, "erupted in anger when he found out."

Most commenters under the TMZ version of the story weren't pleased either: "YOU KNOW IT"S TRUE THATR GIRL IS A STUPID REDNECK WHORE!!! FILL HER VAGE WITH CEMENT!!!!!!" offered one.

And "The stupid redneck whore is Sarah Palin's daughter. Like mother, like daughter" added another.

Shocked up

In a related story, Us Weekly had a call out to "see more shocking photos of teen pregnancies." They were all photos of smiling, wealthy, well-nourished teenagers, so I guess the pregnancy alone is enough to classify the photos as shocking.

On the other hand, the most popular quotes from W's interview with Jolie that ran in all the tabs were: "I think one of the life changing things that [Brad Pitt] did, one of many, is that I was absolutely never going to get pregnant. I never felt that it was the right thing to do. Now I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. It taught me a lot about life, just the process of it, and now we have three other beautiful children that wouldn't otherwise be here."

And then "I'm with a man who's evolved enough to look at my body and see it as more beautiful, because of the journey it has taken and what it has created," she says. "He genuinely sees it that way. So I genuinely feel even sexier."

People commenting after the Jolie interview said such things as "I love her," and "I love that family."

Pitt's photos that ran with the piece show Jolie laughing with her kids, breastfeeding a baby, smiling. The photos of Jamie Lynn Spears were of her looking stressed while shopping in Wal-Mart.

Angelina as Madonna

"Angelina is the Madonna and Jamie Lynn is the whore," as the media plays it, says Deirdre Kelly, a professor of educational sociology at UBC and the author of Pregnant with Meaning. The word "whore" has come up repeatedly in the Spears story, and Kelly says there's a long history of using it in this way. Even in Victorian England, "whore" didn't mean prostitute or sex worker, but was a slur directed at women, often middle or upper class ones who broke the rules of propriety. It was a way to suggest the woman was lower than her class, and cheap, as a result of behaving in sexually stigmatized ways. The term also has racialized implications, much like the racist slur "white trash" that's sometimes applied to teen mothers (and has often been applied to her sister Brittney).

Kelly says that even though Spears is wealthy, and the star of a TV show (Zoey 101), she's "coded" as working class because of becoming a teen mom, and because of the various scandalous behaviors of her sister Brittney.

Angelina Jolie, however, is as far from working class as it's possible to be. She's glamorous, successful, powerful and partnered with a man who's equally so. "Instead of being from a supposed family from hell, she's seen as altruistic, giving money to charity and helping developing countries. She's the Madonna."

Stuck with stigma

On the other hand, even though it was the norm to be pregnant at 19 even a few decades ago, it's now heavily stigmatized. Even if teen moms are wealthy or highly capable, they're always seen as too young and therefore immature." And there are hints that they will be abusive or neglectful." All doubly so if they're living in modest situations or receiving social assistance.

Is it the case that they're not up to the job? "There's nothing inherently about young mothers that makes them less able" says Kelly. When she was writing her book, she interviewed about 50 teenaged mothers in depth, "and most of them were excellent."

The key is that "women of all ages need support to do a good job. It's just that if you're middle or upper class, you can buy that support." It's well publicized that Jolie and Pitt have many nannies, including several that are there during the day and others that stay through the night. Whereas, of course, most teen moms wouldn't be able to provide that.

But certainly most mothers in their 20s, 30s and 40s can't afford that either and they're considered OK. Further, there's been no media criticism of Ashley Simpson, who's 23 and expecting. Or Nicole Ritchie, who also gave birth at 23. "Most of the so-called teen mothers are 18 or 19 years old. They're old enough to vote, they're full-fledged citizens. I think the distinction between 19 and 23 is arbitrary. We all know people who are immature at age 40 because of their lack of life experience, and others who are mature at a young age because of what they have to handle."

And women in history, who tended to have kids very young, weren't all considered terrible mothers. My parents tell me quite the opposite -- that one woman they knew, who was 34, my age now, was labeled an "elder prima" by the hospital, and friends urged her to think carefully about keeping the baby since she might be too old to deliver and raise it healthily.

Having it all... or else

One reason for the shift to thinking teenaged motherhood is a bad thing, according to Kelly, could be that women now are largely expected to be co-breadwinners. Many teenage mothers can't afford to get support so that they can attend post secondary, "and we know women can't find jobs that pay a living wage without it."

So, in a sense, society is stigmatizing teen moms for prioritizing breeding over climbing the job ladder, even though they could do both if we stopped stigmatizing them.

The other factor is that "there's something Puritan about our society -- that we want to punish people." Nobody thinks about how we could all do better by providing good sex education or providing better support to teen moms. Instead, we want teen moms to "wear a scarlet letter." Ironically, she said that means teen moms don't always get the support and resources they need since they sometimes forego getting medical and community help rather than deal with judgmental attitudes.

I've never met either Spears or Jolie and know nothing of either's actual parenting skills. I'm just wondering why we automatically assume that Jolie, a woman who encourages her son to use knives, is a good mother. And Spears, who risked public censure and her career to have a child, is automatically unfit.

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