Hermione Eyre: Forget the Angel Gabriel, now we have Popbitch

When even a scabrous internet site thinks things have gone too far, you pay attention
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The Independent Online

Jamie Lynne Spears' pregnancy became public last week, and it was a very modern annunciation. The media told her sister Britney before the family did, by accosting her with the news in a shopping mall. Gossip websites went into overdrive. And the father's reaction to the news was gauged from his online status update: he had split up with the mother and was feeling "Blah". The authenticity of this response was put into doubt when it was discovered that his personal page might have been created by a hacker, but by this time the story had already done the rounds.

The Sun, for its part, created an online poll in which readers could either register support or condemnation of Jamie Lynne. It doesn't have to be Christmas for us to realise that something is going very wrong with the media's approach to pregnancy.

This year has seen the way it is reported growing increasingly invasive and, occasionally, downright disrespectful. Since when did it become acceptable for magazines to mock celebrities for the way they look when carrying a child? Heat magazine is not known for its tact, but it surpassed itself with a recent issue in which it splashed a picture of the pop singer Christina Aguilera across the front cover with the words "Pregnant and bloated". Inside, there was a feeble story in which anonymous "friends" of the singer claimed she was unhappy with the weight she had gained.

The faux-sympathetic tone of the article did not ring true: Heat simply wants any photo it can find of a celebrity not looking their best. Surely pregnant women should be exempt from this kind of superficial analysis, this endless fault-finding? The iconography of the pregnant Madonna with a halo and seraphim is one of the most glorious images in art, but these values seem to have been lost from modern life.

Pre-emptively reporting a pregnancy is a serious matter. The risk of miscarriage is high in the early weeks, and to suffer such a thing in public is something no woman should have to face. But our culture of over-familiarity with stars has seen the date when a pregnancy becomes public moving inexorably forward.

In February this year, Charlotte Church turned 21, and the fact that she didn't drink at her birthday party fuelled widespread baby speculation. When she gave confirmation of this on her website, it was with the words: "In an ideal world, we would not have made this announcement so early..." (The usual period of 12 weeks had not been cleared.) "However, due to recent speculation and persistent questions from the media about this most private of matters, Charlotte felt she had no choice other than to go public."

This was a clear case of media intrusion. Sometimes, however, the Faustian pact between a star and the press means the issue is more clouded. Jamie Lynne Spears received a payment for talking at length about her pregnancy to OK magazine, so she had, in a sense, willed wider media speculation into being. Our own Kerry Katona has a close relationship with OK. She pops to the shops and it prints an exclusive. It's a mutually profitable exercise. In September, she announced in a cover story that she was six weeks' pregnant with her fourth child. Her reasons for announcing early were partly because she "feared the story would leak to a newspaper" and also because "I can't keep my big mouth shut for very long". At around the same time the story hit the news-stands, Katona suffered a suspected miscarriage. Her medical struggles have been reported in the papers in painful detail, with Max Clifford giving a running commentary on her ultrasounds and haemorrhages. It's hard not to feel that the whole business would have been better for everyone had it remained out of the public sphere.

Looking back over the past 12 months, the celebrity cyberbulletin Popbitch decided: "We can't help but think the strangest trend this year was for the womb to become public property." There was a note of sad bafflement there. Popbitch may be a conduit for low gossip, but it normally keeps specific pregnancy rumours off-limits. When even a scabrous internet site thinks things have gone too far, you pay attention.

The pagan world celebrated power and riches; Christianity's great contribution was to venerate the lowly and the vulnerable. This was exemplified by the way the Madonna and child ended up in gold leaf iconography.

Being put on a pedestal was restricting and oppressive for women and it's good that in our secular society there is now a more realistic approach to maternity. But perhaps we've gone too far. A little veneration might be nice, once in a while.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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