Published: Nov. 1, 2008 By

(part of a series in Special Issue #48: GOING CHEAP? Female Celebrity in Reality, Tabloid and Scandal Genres – Edited by DIANE NEGRA and SU HOLMES)

In the lives of many young people, that person [responsible for curbing bad behaviour] is a parent. But what if it’s not? What if the whole family is along for the ride, with photographers and TV crews watching from the sidelines? Let’s ask Nicky Hilton, Ali Lohan, and Jamie Lynn Spears in five years.
[Vanity Fair, November 2007]

Good grief; that’s like Michael Vick giving advice on dog-rearing.
[Kelly Bermuda May 8, 2008 – a gossip blog user who responded to the news that Dina Lohan, Lindsay Lohan’s mother, gave public advice to Tish Cyrus, Miley Cyrus’s mother, to “stay strong…be her mom” after the Vanity Fair photo scandal. Michael Vick is the NFL quarterback who is serving a 23 month jail sentence for his role in a dog-fighting ring. Miley Cyrus plays the highly popular Disney character Hannah Montanah whose main demographic is pre-teen girls. In late April 2008, photos from a Vanity Fair shoot with Annie Liebovitz were circulated on the internet, the most controversial of which showed Cyrus nude, holding a bed sheet to her front while exposing her back and looking over her shoulder to the camera.]

“Moms gone wild:” the limits of celebrity and motherhood.

[1] In the August 19, 2007 edition of The Observer Magazine, Alice Fisher writes, “The mother/daughter relationship isn’t easy, and stardom does little for this delicate bond. Especially when mothers become celebrities off the back of their daughters.” In the article, Fisher mentions a series of American and British female celebrities’ troubled relationships with their mothers; however, the article focuses on the mothers of a set of intensely famous American young-adult female celebrities who experienced a series of public image meltdowns—arrest, time in jail, alcohol/drug abuse, mental health problems, time in rehab—in 2007: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears (I use first names in this article as a way of avoiding confusion since I will inevitably refer to various members of the same families). Alongside the ambivalent censure and promotion of these three young women as celebrities in the tabloids and celebrity gossip media outlets (such as magazines People, Us Weekly, OK, and Hello, as well as online sites such as TMZand Perez Hilton) their mothers, Kathy Hilton, Dina Lohan, and Lynne Spears have been strongly criticized in the media for not raising their daughters “well” and for not taking immediate corrective measures when their troubles began. The critiques of the mothers’ past and present parenting skills are invariably founded on the public perception of their most egregious crime—pushing their daughters toward celebrity in order to gain celebrity status (and money) for themselves. All three of these mothers have been accused of “cashing in” on their daughters’ fame, by starring in their own reality TV shows (Lohan and Hilton) or authoring a book (Spears), thereby capitalizing on their roles as mothers of female celebrities. In these accounts, their apparent selfishness is the manifest sign of their bad motherhood and transgressive femininity, both of which can engender only more of the same in their daughters.

[2] My discourse analysis below includes broadsheet newspapers, tabloids, and gossip magazines, but I also refer to online celebrity gossip blogs and their readers’ comments in particular in order to consider the ways that fans can participate in celebrity narratives by posting comments online. My intent is to analyze how consumers of celebrity gossip use the discourse of bad motherhood in order to negotiate their own investment in the young female celebrities’ downfall narratives. The blogs also offer a space for users to moralize the celebrity narratives that they consume. In her article, “Sometimes You Wanna Hate Celebrities: Tabloid Readers and Celebrity Coverage,” Sofia Johansson argues that “the social currency of tabloid celebrity stories is just this: they stimulate debates about fundamental moral and social issues, contributing to create an experience of community” (Johansson, 348). On such sites as TMZ, PerezHilton, the online versions of Us Weekly and People, as well as the gossip blog, Kathy, Lynne, and Dina have engendered some of the most vociferous user comments and debates.

[3] During the Summer/Fall of 2007 The Observer article mentioned above was not the only mainstream news media piece in the UK and US to pick up on this refrain within the celebrity news sphere. In June 2007, the actor Jamie Lee Curtis wrote a blog on The Huffington Post entitled, “Mom, It’s Not Right.” She writes, “the sad paths of the three most popular young women — privileged but from varying backgrounds, talented, beautiful and spectacular — have ended in prison, rehab and mental illness. I hope their mothers are worried sick and wondering, ‘What could I have done differently?’ And our culture should be asking the same question too” (Curtis). In July of 2007 The New York Times reported on the mom-bashing of these women in an article titled “Sometimes Mothers Can Do No Right,” taking a more balanced approach to mother-blame than Curtis’s blog: “No one is saying that parents are blameless when it comes to their children’s risky behavior…But the amount of derision directed at mothers seems out of proportion” (Jesella). However, in November of 2007,Vanity Fair published an article titled “Moms Gone Wild,” which appears to be, though it never states as much, a rebuttal to The New York Times piece. TheVanity Fairtagline declares, “Sure mothers always get blamed for everything. But—as a look at the women behind Paris, Lindsay, and Britney reveals—if your child is your meal ticket and career booster, it’s hard to be the parent she needs” (Newman, 176).

[4] The final phrase of the preceding line points to two cultural issues raised by the widespread critique of the mothers of young female celebrities: first, that a woman’s identity as a mother and as a working person are perceived to be mutually exclusive, as opposed to the masculine ideal in which having a job means being a good father; and second, that the mother continues to be seen as the proper primary caregiver and parent to children. The “problem” with Kathy, Dina, and Lynne is that they have made motherhood and career the same thing. Consequently, according to the narrative of bad celebrity motherhood, that means they are not filling the idealized role of the “parent [their daughters] need.” The young women’s other parent, their fathers, play their part in the narrative by filling three different roles: Rick Hilton rarely materializes in the media, and when he does he appears to be a largely ineffectual former playboy; Michael Lohan has been generally dismissed as a “lost cause” and, more recently, as a religious freak; and Jamie Spears was hardly seen as an element in his daughter Britney’s life until January of 2008 when he became conservator of his mentally ill daughter’s life and estate, performing the role of father-savior in the narrative of her downfall. All three types of celebrity dads reinforce the narrative of celebrity bad motherhood. However, the cultural desire for the return of the father to save his daughter articulates western culture’s ongoing need to control disruptive femininity (in this case signified through both the daughter and mother) through an image of an authoritative but kinder and gentler patriarchy, filling the role of the “parent she needs.”

[5] The media discourse of bad celebrity motherhood constructs Paris’s, Britney’s, and Lindsay’s “troubles” as a product of their mothers’ individual(in)actions and character and yet simultaneously symptomatic of the perceived problems of a contemporary culture “out of control.” In our neo-conservative, postfeminist culture, working women and celebrity culture have become scapegoats in a new traditionalist rhetoric regarding gender and class. Recently, several feminist media scholars have noted and critiqued the popular discourse of postfeminism that, as I define it, assumes the end of feminism, suggesting that in our individualistic capitalist society women have all the choices they could want available to them (including careers, motherhood, and “new men”) while promoting traditional gender roles as the best, if not the only, choice to make (see Tasker and Negra). Motherhood as a choice plays a central role in the rhetoric. In their book The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels articulate and analyze what they call “the new momism,” a cultural discourse that insists “that no woman is truly complete or fulfilled unless she has kids, that women remain the best primary caretakers of children, and that to be a remotely decent mother, a woman has to devote her entire physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual being, 24/7, to her children” (4). They argue that “the new momism” is the “central, justifying ideology” of postfeminism (24). Along these lines, the new momism, as it intersects with celebrity culture, constructs Kathy, Lynne, and Dina as selfish mothers or not really mothers at all because they are not suitably, exclusively maternal; not only have they “gone wild” but, as The New York Times article ponders, “worse, perhaps, is that they refuse to apologize for their unconventional behaviour” (Jesella).

[6] In critiquing the discourse of bad motherhood as it constructs these women as unapologetic for their “bad” behavior, I want to expose the complicity of class and racial discourses that write all three as “white-trash” women who do not display the cultural tastes appropriate to the privileges of whiteness and wealth. Curtis’s Huffington Post piece alludes to this when she describes the daughters as “privileged but from varying backgrounds.” “White-trash” is usually a derogatory term for poor, often rural, whites with little education and a lack of “manners,” situating them as “a breed apart, a dysgenic race unto themselves” (Newitz and Wray, 2). Since the early 1990s, there has been some ironic appropriation of the white-trash stereotype in popular culture (in forms such as Roseanne’s and Jeff Foxworthy’s comedic characters). However, the term retains its insulting connotations in general and seems to become even more vitriolic when applied to women who transgress middle-class ideals of femininity. That Kathy, Lynne, and Dina are (no longer) poor or working-class does not preclude them from being labelled white trash; in fact, their rise from relatively low-income backgrounds to their current wealth is precisely what makes them white-trash. The ideal of white, middle-class femininity as decorous, selfless, and deferential has become only more strident and contradictory under the regimes of choice promulgated by postfeminism and the new momism. As women who have gained new wealth and celebrity status “off of their daughters’ backs,” these women already transgress the feminine ideal of motherhood. That they also are seen to “misbehave” by partying with their daughters, telling (or selling as they are often accused of doing whether it has been confirmed or not) their stories to tabloid newspapers and magazines, and seeking more fame (by attending red-carpet events and producing the TV shows and books mentioned above) makes them the white-trash problem of contemporary celebrity culture. In other words, they do not have the supposedly innate cultural tastes and decorum that wealthy white people should have. The New York Times article, quoting Susan J. Douglas, neatly summarizes my point: “‘What Britney Spears evokes is this whole down-market, ‘trailer trash’ upbringing. Paris evokes the opposite — very rich parents who spoil their kids rotten and set no boundaries.’ It’s as if these ‘bad mothers’ couldn’t achieve the balance that middle-class motherhood prizes” (Jesella).

“Spare a thought:” moralizing celebrity motherhood.

[7] The public scandals and private problems of Paris, Lindsay, and Britney have been widely reported and thoroughly documented in various popular and celebrity news outlets. In the summer of 2007, their scandals seemed to reach a peak as Paris served a jail term for violating probation for her driving offences, Britney was in the midst of divorce proceedings and gave her mother a letter demanding that Lynne stay away from her young sons, and Lindsay was arrested for drunk driving and possession of narcotics for the third time. Through these episodes, Kathy, Lynne, and Dina came under much public, and often vehement, censure for not being good mothers to their daughters. The criticism did not wane throughout the year and went on in to early 2008 for Dina and Lynne. Dina’s reality show, Living Lohan, which showcases her younger daughter Ali’s initial attempts to secure fame, has aired through the Spring of 2008, generally receiving bad reviews. Dina has been criticized for “pimping” Ali to celebrity culture for her own gain (an accusation I look at more closely below). Britney’s younger sister Jamie Lynne, who gained her own fame as the eponymous protagonist of Nickelodeon’s pre-teen girl power showZoey 101, maintained a good-girl image throughout the early stages of Britney’s scandals. In December of 2007, she, and her mother, announced her shock, unwed pregnancy at the age of sixteen – a turn of events that strongly clashed with her star image. The scrutiny of Lynne increased in January of 2008 when Britney refused to hand over her children after a custody visit, and then locked herself in a bathroom, resulting in her being taken away in an ambulance and put under a psychological hold in hospital. Of all the celebrity magazines Us Weekly was most blunt in its blame for the troubles of the Spears daughters. Its December 26, 2007 headline declared, “Destroyed by Mama, Shame on Lynne Spears, Sold Pregnancy for $1 million, Let Jamie Lynn live with Boyfriend, ‘She treats her girls like a piggybank'” (US Weekly). As I noted in the previous section, Johansson argues that celebrity culture stimulates “debate” about moral and social issues. Within the discourse of celebrity motherhood, there is some debate over the moral and social issues of mothering as a complex individual and communal experience. Most often, the discourse participates in the moralization of motherhood, removing it from any wider social or political debates and placing the responsibility for society’s moral character on mothers, keeping within a long western cultural tradition of making women the guardians of society’s honor.

[8] I return now to Curtis’s Huffington Post article as it exemplifies the moralizing of motherhood through female celebrity scandals within the media. That Curtis is a (second generation) celebrity herself as well as a mother and that she writes in the most visited political blog on the web, only adds weight to her criticism and concern: she is someone who knows about fame, and she is dissecting it in a “serious” news context rather than within an entertainment news context. Curtis writes, “I am in no glass house. I understand only too well the pitfalls of maternal amnesia and denial” (Curtis). However, the piece never evokes her own experience of fame as an actor or what it was like to grow up as a celebrity daughter; instead she invokes only her own motherhood. (Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, began acting on television and in film in her late teens. She also starred in the remake of Freaky Friday (2003) with Lindsay Lohan.) Still, that Curtis is a celebrity critiquing celebrities is a repressed, structuring element of her commentary. Moralizing the scandals of Paris, Lindsay, and Britney she suggests that their stints in jail and rehab are just the celebrity version of what she calls a “national epidemic.” For Curtis the troubles of these three young women exemplify a national disease of “omnipotent children running amok or sitting amok as they watch TV and play electronic games and shop on eBay.” For her, the problem is over-indulgent “PARENTING.”

[9] Significantly though, Curtis speaks directly to and only to mothers: “Can we take the wrenching site of Paris asking her mother, ‘why?’ and ask it of ourselves?…Wake up, Mothers and smell the denial (sic).” It is mothers who have created children who think that “the rules don’t apply to them.” In the case of Paris that rule is driving without a licence, the conviction that sent her to jail. It appears that the rules that do not apply to the nation’s children have something to do with excessive media (games) and material consumption (ebay). This creates an image of laziness and self-indulgence, which, presumably, leads to the breaking of actual laws. This moral narrative of bad motherhood hinges on a cause and effect link between indulgent parenting and self-indulgent children. Curtis places the blame squarely on individuals who cannot teach their children to appropriately circumnavigate capitalism; however, she never suggests that wider cultural issues within the pressures of a late capitalist economy, such as the commodification of youth for women, might be a factor. As Diane Negra argues, “postfeminism has accelerated he consumerist maturity of girls, carving out new demographic categories such as that of the ‘tween,’ it has forcefully renewed the conservative social ideologies centering on the necessity of marriage for young women and the glorification of pregnancy; and it has heightened the visibility of midlife women often cast as desperate to retain or recover their value as postfeminist subjects” (Negra, 47). Instead of pointing to the cultural and political complexities of contemporary female subjectivity, Curtis speaks down to her audience (mothers) and assumes a stance of moral authority, established through her own success in surviving life in a celebrity “glass house,” an achievement made all the more respectable by the fact that its existence requires no notice (Curtis’s attitude fits in with a wider professionalization of motherhood that infantilizes real mothers; see Douglas and Michaels, pp. 298-330).

[10] Douglas and Michaels argue that “all these media suggest, by their endless celebrating of certain kinds of mothers and maternal behaviour and their ceaseless advice, that there are agreed upon norms [for motherhood] ‘out there'” (Douglas and Michaels, 18). I will turn my attention now to the users of gossip blogs, which I hope will add an analysis of how media consumers also participate in the discourse of new momism and celebrity bad motherhood, often repeating and reinforcing those “norms out there,” but sometimes challenging them. For many gossip users, the gossip blogs offer the opportunity to moralize about femininity and motherhood in a symbolically communal space that presents itself as “just a bit of fun,” in which celebrity gossip is just a frivolous hobby. This enables irony and sarcasm to pervade the debate about bad motherhood. The many readers and consumers of internet celebrity gossip sites have been no easier on Kathy, Lynne, and Dina than Curtis. In May of 2008, there was much indignation within the celebrity gossip sphere over the fact that a Long Island charity group (Mingling Moms) voted Dina “Mother of the Year.” Posts on Perez Hilton’s blog included the following: “You know, cuz she did such a great job with Lindsay…Fret not, Dina’s still got two young kids whose lives she can fuck up!” (PerezHilton). The New York Times article mentioned above began with a recognition of this consumer trend by quoting from several gossip site users. The article included the following posts, responding to news that Lindsay had been arrested on driving and drugs charges: “I feel very strongly it is her mother who is her worst enemy; i blame her mom. father wanted to do the wright thing; her mom doesn’t even act like a mother figure, she acts more like a sister to lindsay! (sic)” (Newell).

[11] Similar comments appear on the celebrity gossip blog of the high profile women’s website The gossip blog is titled, “Daily Blabber: Celebrity news everybody will be talking about today,” which includes a regular video feature on the site by staff writer Emily Stone. Reoccurring tags (online names) in the comments section of the blog suggest that some readers regularly view and use the page, and there are references to Stone’s awareness of some of the regulars’ opinions on certain celebrities. For instance, a recent post on Angelina Jolie’s new Public Service Announcement for World Refugee Day ended with the line, “You guys can’t possibly find fault in this, can you?” attesting to the community’s general disapprobation of Jolie as a celebrity figure who does charity only as “PUBLICITY STUNTS — DO NOT BUY any of HER CRAP!!!”(maria, posted 18 June 2008, 7:33pm). The comment on Jolie’s charity work as a publicity stunt also exemplifies the ways that the users of the gossip blog moralize about celebrities as good or bad people, in this instance signified through a judgement of Jolie’s (lack of) authenticity. As Joshua Gamson has argued in his book Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America, most celebrity watchers are aware to some degree of the “production process” of fame and to varying degrees integrate that knowledge into their consumption of celebrity culture and news (see Gamson, Part-Three). The ivillage readers regularly share their awareness with other consumers and compare their “travel[s on] the axis of belief and disbelief” (Gamson, 142) where celebrity gossip is concerned. At the same time, they sometimes reproach each other as well

[12] On Mothers Day of 2006, the ivillage gossip blog posted an entry title “Celebrity Moms from Hell” that began, “While you reflect on the warmth of your mom this Mother’s Day, I think you should spare a thought for stars like Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore and Lindsay Lohan, whose mothers ain’t exactly June Cleaver” (“Mothers Day”). The post features female stars’ mothers who “cash-in” on their daughters’ careers for money and/or fame, and asks the users, “tired of seeing Britney’s mom, Lynne, on the red carpet?” Several of the posters respond vehemently like these below:

these are obviously mothers who didn’t have their chance at fame so they are doing it through their daughters now (“Mothers Day,” post by jacks, May 9, 2006 2:52 PM) [sic].

None of the moms would win any prizes. They are self centered, hangers on. It’s sad how many of these parents sell their kids for a buck or two. I would much rather be poor as a church mouse and have my kids love and respect (“Mothers Day,” post by PepperAnn60, May 10, 2006 7:51 AM) [sic].

these mothers all have one thing in common, no shame/no pride- it’s a pitiful sight for any nice young teenager to want to look up to one of these celeb types. It’s really scary the image these mothers and daughters portray, It’s not just a shame, it’s a disgrace…everyone of them (“Mothers Day,” post by Scared, May 10, 2006 11:22 PM) [sic].

It is important to note the 2006 date of these entries, as they appeared long before any of Paris’s, Britney’s, or Lindsay’s most serious public scandals. At this time, the narrative of bad celebrity motherhood constructs these women as deficient mothers because they are “hangers on”—in other words, they appear to use their daughters’ success to indulge their own desires for fame, money, and access to celebrity spaces (i.e. the media). Writing in 1994, Gamson called these kinds of celebrities “peripherals” and suggested that concern with them by celebrity watchers was atypical. My research on the ivillage gossip blog and other celebrity gossip website suggests that this is no longer the case, that at least in the case of mothers who become famous because of their famous daughters, the “disdain toward the ‘peripherals'” has become a regular feature in the consumption of celebrity news (Gamson, 165). In Negra’s terms, these mothers are attempting to claim their value as subjects in a highly mediated postfeminist culture, in which youth, glamour, and fame have come to dominate the public image of female subjectivity. The second comment cited above assumes that the mothers do not have their daughters’ “love and respect;” which could be guessed at only in the few cases when the female celebrities make public statements about their mothers. The significance in the statement, however, is in its iteration of the ideology of new momism, which Douglas and Michaels compare to Betty Friedan’s well-known articulation of the “feminine mystique,” the difference being that “the new momism is not about subservience to men…it is about subservience to children.” (Douglas and Michaels, 209, emphasis in original). The mothers to whom the post is directed are seen as self-indulgent mothers rather than self-sacrificing mothers – according to the comments. The association of motherhood with self-sacrifice has a long history, but it has become particularly virulent in postfeminist new momism as the discourse elevates and makes examples of those mothers who are perceived not to be prioritizing their children and thus challenging the conviction that motherhood is inherently self-fulfilling and an essentialized form of subjectivity.

[13] Douglas and Michaels argue that celebrity culture has played a central role in developing this image of perfect motherhood and that the image is most strongly reiterated and imposed on American culture through what they call “the attack of the celebrity moms” (114). The “celebrity mom profile” in fashion, lifestyle, and celebrity magazines has become a staple feature. In it, celebrity mothers wax lyrical about how transforming motherhood is, how nothing compares to having children, and how they would be with their kids all the time if they did not have to make a movie now and then. At the same time that the profile “reads like an instruction manual” on how to be a perfect mother, it elides the financial and social advantages of these wealthy, famous, white, heterosexual women who have live-in nannies, private planes, and public relations assistants (Douglas and Michaels 114). Currently, the reigning queen of the celebrity mom profile is Jolie, who has three adopted children and three biological children—the most recent of which are twins Knox and Vivienne—and who lives with them and partner Brad Pitt on a one thousand acre estate in France (for more on the celebrity mom profile, specifically focused on Sarah Jessica Parker, see Jermyn). I would argue that the most important difference between the successful subject of the celebrity mom profile and the central figures of celebrity bad motherhood is that female celebrities like Jolie are, supposedly, “self-made;” they have successful careers of their own. They are celebrity moms, not moms of celebrities. They do not live off of someone else’s fame and money, as the discourse around Kathy, Dina, and Lynne suggests. Even as their children perform as a sign of their success, they do not use their children’s success to make money, as the Us Weekly headline mentioned above suggests, nor do they use their children to jump start their own careers, which has been the general reading of Dina Lohan’s reality show Living Lohan(Jolie and Pitt sidestepped to some extent the ethical debates about making millions of dollars for the first published pictures of their children by donating all the money to charity. The sanctified image of them in the press exists alongside the cynical view of the gossip blog users noted above).

[14] The distinction between good celebrity moms and bad moms of celebrities comes into a heightened focus when the celebrity news media circulate a story in which one of the good mothers publicly offers to take care of one of the bad mothers’ daughters. In a People piece from February of 2008, just after Britney’s psychological hold in the hospital, the supermodel Heidi Klum tells the magazine, “[Britney] can call me and come live in our house for a couple of months. I would help set her straight” (“Klum/Britney”). The obvious implication is that what Britney needs is a good mother, and it is clear that Lynne has been a bad mother. The piece turns into the classic profile described by Douglas and Michaels when at the end Klum expresses her belief “that the pop-star could benefit from being in her stable household” (“Klum/Britney”). Then the article quotes Klum saying, “I have never been as happy as I am today…I have found the man of my life, and we have three great kids” (“Klum/Britney”). A similar piece in March of 2008 quotes Brooke Shields as saying that she is “available” if Britney wants to talk. Shield’s ability to impart the necessary care is seen to emerge from her own struggle with post-partum depression – an insight given authority by the publication of her 2005 book Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Post-Partum Depression (“Shields/Britney”). The offer of help also proffers the image of the successful displacement of the bad mother of a celebrity with a good celebrity mom since Shields’s own mother had once been excoriated in the press for allowing the early and public sexualization of her daughter in Calvin Klein ads and films like Pretty Baby(1978), in which a thirteen-year-old Brooke played a pre-teen prostitute.

“Momagers:” celebrity mothers /celebrity pimps.

 "Destroyed by Mama" - Shame on Lynn Spears

Figure 1

[15] Three months after Jamie Lynn Spears announced her pregnancy (famously the story was sold to Britain’s OK Magazine, reportedly by Lynne),Us Weekly ran the front page story mentioned above in which Lynne Spears is accused of engineering her daughters’ success for her own gain. It suggests that Jamie Lynn’s teenage pregnancy was Lynne’s fault for “put[ting] her in situations she didn’t want to be in [and] letting her live with her boyfriend” while Jamie Lynn was forced into a public life: “[Jamie Lynn] never cared about celebrity…she preferred Kentwood [Louisiana]” (Us Weekly). Additionally, the article suggests that Lynne forced her youngest daughter to sell her story of teenage pregnancy to OK so that her mother could have the money and that, meanwhile, her sister Britney was not told about the pregnancy before the magazine came out because Lynne did not want to lose the exclusive fee. On the ivillage gossip blog, one user’s response to this news was simply, “Lynn Spears is a Hollywood child pimp” (FireZoey). Multiple users refer to Kathy, Lynne, and Dina as Hollywood pimps of their own children; others use the familiar term “stage mother.” By figuring these women as stage mothers, the users draw on the classed view of childhood beauty pageants as tastelessly sexualizing young girls. Their rebukes construct the mothers and daughters as inhabiting a transgressive femininity (which evokes inappropriate class behavior) that uses sex to get ahead, situated in opposition to the middle-class femininity that hides and protects its young girls’ sexuality (see Karlyn, 77 and Walkerdine).

[16] The classed sexuality of the celebrity stage mothers and their daughters also evokes the insult “white trash” from many of the celebrity blog consumers. On the ivillage gossip blog, one user responded to Dina’s comment, “Scarlett Johannson goes to clubs and no one cares about it, but if Lindsay goes to a club it’s world news!” with the following post: “Both are sad white trash – Dina is a typical example of what’s wrong with parenting aka hollywood style – both are well past there use by dates! (sic)” (natalie). The regions of the United States from which the mothers come also corroborate the view of them as white-trash in this discourse. On the celebrity gossip blog, the blogger specifically calls Dina, “Long Island white trash” (prettyboring). Dina and her two youngest children live in North Merrick, Long Island, while the Spears are from a small town in Louisiana. Calling the Spears white-trash draws on the most common stereotype of the term: rural, poor whites of the South. The term “poor white trash” first appears in the 1830s, and in both the pre and post Civil War South referred to whites who were considered lazy, dirty, sexually promiscuous, genetically defective, and inferior to Blacks and Indians. The contemporary stereotype is of the Southern “redneck.” Long Island as a signifier of white trash depends on the distinction between “old money” and “new money.” North Merrick is on Long Island’s South Shore, an area defined by working class and “new money” communities; the North Shore is known for the old money of the long established New England elite. Long Island white trash conjures an image of the newly rich who join together a lack of cultural capital with the new found status of wealth. The stereotypical image includes those who vulgarly flaunt expensive, gaudy purchases, such as big gold jewelry, clothes, and ostentatious house decorations that lack a “refined” taste. In both cases, white-trash is often most easily summed up in the image of a woman with “uncontrolled” consumption practices, exhibited through sexual promiscuity or “excessive” material goods.

[17] As women who currently have substantial access to money, calling Kathy, Dina, and Lynne “white trash” succinctly condemns them for perceived inappropriate behavior within the socio-cultural expectations of those who are wealthy and white. For example, the Vanity Fair article suggests that “Hilton observers all have their favourite story about Kathy’s curious lack of appropriateness,” including finding humor in Paris’sSaturday Night Live skit, which made fun of her sex-tape scandal, while attending the taping of the show with Paris’s teenage brothers. Clearly, this incident is meant to be understood as an obvious transgression of white, middle-class morality and behavior (Newman, 177). And while, Lynne’s white-trash credentials seemed to solidify with the announcement of her teenage daughter’s pregnancy—a significant failure for a woman who claims to be a Christian at a time in America when conservative Christian values further circumscribe middle-class morality—Dina’s white-trash behavioral problems, for many celebrity watchers, are found in her apparent attempts to appropriate the limelight from her children.

[18] In his book The Color of Class: Poor Whites and the Paradox of Privilege,Kirby Moss critiques the standard view of Whiteness studies “that Whiteness and its position is unnamed, neutral, even invisible, and that part of the mission of a postmodern critique is to reveal it” (Moss, 113).” Moss’s book is a complex and impressive work of cultural anthropology that I point to only briefly here to suggest that the widespread denigration of Kathy, Lynne, and Dina is significantly classed and raced in addition to being gendered. In other words, instead of behaving appropriately as wealthy white women by living up to middle-class morality, all three women disrupt the invisibility of whiteness and, by extension, the normativity of its privilege. They also trouble American culture’s intense conflation of individualist capitalism with (white) middle-class family values. The mothers and daughters success at “selling themselves” is possible only in late-capitalist Western society with its emphasis on individualism. However, they lack the signs of middle-class family values, particularly in the case of Lynne and Dina who are divorced (on Living LohanDina regularly points out her success in raising her family as a single mother). As such, they invoke cultural anxieties about the superficial link between capitalist individualism and “family values,” as well as troubling the cultural assumption that the privilege of whiteness necessitates success at both.

[19] Ultimately, the moralizing of race and class implied in the white-trash slur hinges on a need to police inappropriate female behavior. In her article “‘Too Close for Comfort’: American Beauty and the Incest Motif,” Kathleen Rowe Karlyn states, “for working-class girls, glamour and sexuality are realistic vehicles toward greater social power, through work or attachment to more powerful men” (Rowe, 77). The implication is that they “sell” their sexuality in some way whether that is through “marrying up” or through performance as a sexual object. The Vanity Fair article “Moms Gone Wild” notes that Kathy Hilton was told to marry for money by her mother “Big Kathy,” who herself married four times. The early heights of Britney’s pop music success caused some cultural consternation as her performance in videos for songs like “Baby One More Time” featured her sexualized school-girl uniform. At the age of seventeen she was playing what Karlyn refers to as the “nymphet,” the sexually interested and active young girl who intends to seduce the middle-aged, middle-class male (Karlyn, 72). I would argue that the only thing more threatening to middle-class femininity and “family values” than the nymphet is the nymphet’s stage mother. The archetypal stage mother has a long history, and she is most famously exemplified by Rose Hovick, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and subject of the musical Gypsy. The stage mother’s grotesqueness is signified through both her own aging femininity and the selling of her daughter’s youthful sexuality (both of which are played out in the public sphere) as an act of class aspiration. Of course, the stage mother is not exclusive to the working classes. Patricia Ramsey, whose daughter held several child beauty pageant titles before she was killed at the age of six, was a wealthy suburban mother in Boulder, Colorado. The problem with the wealthy stage mother is that she and her daughter transgress the boundaries of an appropriate performance of middle-class femininity and sexuality, making a kind of class spectacle of themselves. The negative attitude toward stage mothers, no matter what their economic class, still depends on the association of selling childhood femininity with vulgar class aspiration. This is despite the fact that many stage mothers present their intentions and hopes for their daughters in the same terms as a middle-class “soccer mom” who chauffeurs her children to a myriad of after-school activities, hoping to give them what appear to be necessary cultural advantages. In her article “Stage Mothers and Overly Ambitious Parents? How Parents Parent in an Age of Adultification,” Hilary Levey compares the practices of mothers who enter their daughters in beauty pageants and mothers who enroll their children in after school learning programs for educational advancement (Levey). She argues that the difference between the parents’ motivations are minor and that both types of parents are attempting to instill the skills they perceive to be necessary to be successful in contemporary individualist capitalism that increasingly demands adult qualities and abilities from children.

[20] Still, class snobbery toward the stage mother remains because of the conflation of middle-class family values with perceptions of appropriate femininity. The soccer moms of the 1990s have became the security moms of post-9/11 America, and protecting their children, especially their daughters (whether that be from pedophiles or terrorists), has become the current signifying feature of middle-class motherhood (for more on this topic see Douglas and Michaels, as well as Faludi). A version of this female figure has made headlines again with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin proudly calling herself a “hockey mom,” a figure which, in a convention speech joke, she likened to a bulldog with lipstick. Any suggestion that a mother might not be properly protecting her daughter or, worse, putting her daughter in harm’s way, borders on the criminal. The young beauty pageant winner or aspiring child actress has an appearance of availability that implies vulnerability and the idea of a mother acquiring financial or other gains from their child’s success appears to parallel the pimp who makes money off of prostitutes. The stage mother is seen to be “pimping” her daughter, as theivillage poster would have it. It is widely known that both Lynne and Dina have been stage mothers and official managers of their children’s show business careers. All of Dina’s children are Ford models (Lindsay signed with the agency at the age of three). Britney auditioned for The All New Mickey Mouse Club at the age of eight. Kathy Hilton participated in mother-daughter fashion shows with her two young girls in the late 1980s and, according to the author ofHouse of Hilton (Oppenheimer), she nicknamed Paris “Star” from infancy and told her that “she would be bigger than Marilyn Monroe, bigger than Princess Di” (Newman, 177). As the Us Weekly cover story suggests, the perception is that these mothers have pushed, if not forced, their daughters into show business careers in order to make money off of them, and the gossip blog users suggest that they do so to relive the youths that they gave up to be mothers, making an inappropriate spectacle of themselves and their daughters.

[21] Ultimately, Kathy, Lynne, and Dina attract condemnation for not fulfilling the ideal of postfeminist new-momism that figures the perfect mother as one who gives up her successful career for her children; rather they helped create careers for their children first and then made careers for themselves out of their children. Their failure is due, in part, to the new momism’s binary of working and motherhood, in which postfeminist women seem to be able to “have it all,” both the perfect job and the perfect family that the celebrity mom profile performs. Instead, Lynne and Dina have been both their daughters’ mothers and managers, or their “momagers,” as Dina proudly calls herself. By awkwardly splicing “mother” and “manager” together, the neo-logism “momager” exposes the “contradictory cultural riptides” of postfeminist new momism’s emphasis on the impossibility of having it all, both the perfect family and career (Douglas and Michaels, 15). Postfeminist new momism enforces the mutual exclusivity of motherhood and career for women, suggesting that when both are options for a woman, the former is the only natural choice. The “momager” troubles middle-class constructions of motherhood as outside any kind of economics of exchange by disregarding this supposed opposition. Underlying this demonization of the paid “momager” is postfeminism’s repression of feminist calls for wages for housework. In their chapter, “Revolt Against the MRS,” Douglas and Michaels give a brief, but clear, review of this movement in feminist politics which, “in the late 1960s and 1970s denounce[ed]… the fact that housewives and mothers were overworked, underpaid, and very much underappreciated” (Douglas and Michaels, 29). The new momism insists that mothers do all that they do because they are made for it, not because they are paid for it. Moreover, Douglas and Michaels show how the welfare mother, who supposedly has kids in order to get money she has not earned, has been situated as the villain of the narrative of new momism (Douglas and Michaels, 181). It seems to me that within the celebrity discourse outlined in this article that the “momager” functions in a similar way: she also appears to have kids only for her own financial gain.

“Papa Won’t Breach:” celebrity fathers and the narrative of bad motherhood.

Her dad is doing an amazing job showing her what being a good mom and person is all about. He should get a medal or something.
[HELLoise, June 17, 2008 – celebrity gossip blog user responding to the news that a court had granted James Spears, Britney Spears’s father, the right to sell his daughter’s Studio City home and the rumor that she might move to Louisiana.]

[22] On May 26, 2008, the E! Network aired the first episode of “Living Lohan,” showcasing Dina Lohan’s management of her youngest daughter Ali’s show business career from their Long Island home. In the first episode, a sign in the kitchen can be easily read. It says, “if it has tires or testicles, it’s going to give you trouble.” Dina and her daughter Ali dominate the weekly show as they try to create a demo of songs intended to propel Ali into pop music stardom. With Dina’s mother Nana often sitting at the kitchen table rolling her eyes at the regular antics, the house and the show is a highly feminized space. Cody, Dina’s youngest son, lives in the house, but confines himself to wrestling with his sister and shooting at a basketball hoop in the front driveway in between soccer games, while idolizing his older brother who is away at university. Conspicuous by his absence is Michael Lohan, Dina’s former husband and the father of the children. Michael was in jail for four years in the late 1980s (during Lindsay’s childhood), charged on securities fraud. He has been in and out of rehab, with his most recent stint coinciding with his daughter’s own stay in a different facility. As The New York Times article cited above notes, there has been no extended press analysis of his parenting skills or how his absence from his daughter’s pre-teen years might have affected her adulthood. TheTimes articles suggests that “celebrity-gawkers see him as a lost cause.” It appears that he also sees himself as a joke, as he reportedly offered to fight Kevin Federline for charity, stating that “[Federline is] a notorious celebrity dad and so am I” (“Fight”). Rick Hilton hardly registers in Paris’s celebrity story; his most notable moment in the celebrity press was his visit to see his daughter in jail, where he received her home-made Father’s Day card. The editor of Us Weekly says, “I think there’s a belief that mothers will do anything for their kids, while fathers come and go” (Jesella). This comment is a succinct summary of how the new momism and the narrative of bad celebrity motherhood elide the bad father. The insistence on the mother as the natural primary care-giver means that bad and/or absent fathers are of no consequence. In other words, the discourse suggests that if the mother had inhabited the appropriate maternal role then she would have had the power to override any negative influence from the father. However, the double standard of this part of the discourse is that the good father can be just as good as the good mother, if not better in times of need.

[23] As noted above, Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, was made her co-conservator after she was released from hospital in January of 2008. That Britney had publicly given her mother a letter telling her to stay away from her grandchildren less than a year before gave the impression that her father was deemed a more suitable guardian (“Letters”). However, although news reports noted that Jamie petitioned for the role and Lynne did not, most did not report that the courts prefer the conservator to be a resident of California. Lynne is not a resident, making it unlikely that her petition would have been granted (“Conservator”). Since Jamie’s successful petition, candid photos of Britney have been less frequent in the celebrity press. She has not attended high profile celebrity events like the 2008 Grammy Awards. Instead, the few paparazzi photos of her have been what appear to be carefully orchestrated events to show her in a positive light, such as the news that she taught dance classes for five year olds in North Hollywood and attended the birth of her niece (“Dance Class”). As the epigraph to this section makes clear, Jamie has been understood to be the reason for the lowering of his daughter’s scandalous profile and the main reason why she has been granted visitation rights to spend time with her children (“Visitation Rights”). He seems to be filling the role that Heidi Klum offered to fill in Britney’s life: the mother-figure who would “set her straight.” The highest achievement of new momism is to raise a daughter who also becomes a good mother, and Jamie is constructed as doing that in a way that Lynne never could; as the post above says, he is “showing her what being a goodmom and person is all about.” He performs the role of the good mother for his daughter while teaching her about this role—his powers of transformation reinforced by the apparent fact that he is fixing Lynne’s mistakes. On September 4, 2008, the ivillage gossip site posted an entry titled “Britney Spears on Her Savior.” It quotes Britney speaking about her father and the exceptional role he has played in her life since her hospitalization: “My father saved my life…I’ve not always been a good daughter…I owe him my life” (“Savior”). In Spring 2008, in the Guardian Lisa Appignanesi asked the question implied by my critique of the patriarchal savior’s role in the discourse of celebrity bad motherhood and femininity: “Is it likely that a father would have dared proceed in the same way with an adult son and received such ready acquiescence from the courts and a good part of the media?” (Appignanesi).

[24] In March of 2008 it was reported that Jamie Spears quit his job as a personal chef and would be compensated for being Britney’s co-conservator at $2,500 a week. TMZ reported it as follows:

Court docs just released today prove he’s working hard for the money. He’s her full-time bitch — running errands, buying groceries, paying her bills, managing her medical care and “cooking supper on a regular basis.” In addition to all these mundane little things, he spends his days and nights as his daughter’s pal — to “ensure her comfort and well-being” (“Hard Work”).

Despite calling Jamie “her full-time bitch” there is little indication of irony in this report, no suggestion that Jamie ought to be taking care of his daughter out of the goodness of his heart. In fact, the evocation of Donna Summer’s famous song in the description of him “working hard for the money” may suggest that he has been afflicted with the burden of being feminized. It is not difficult to imagine that the sentiment would be different if Lynne were getting paid to be conservator. In response to the same news, the ivillage gossip blog video report, entitled “Britney’s Papa Won’t Breach,” (sic) criticizes Jamie for taking the money (“Papa”). Emily Stone lists his domestic duties such as washing clothes and dishes, buying groceries and cooking, sarcastically suggesting that “Daddy Spears’s” main job is to make sure that “his baby BJ gets her latte skim, no whip.” Other users who have commented on the various stories on the blog related to Kathy, Lynne, and Dina and their daughters have attempted to defend them against the attacks that dominate the comments. One user wrote the following:

It sounds as if everyone in this blog is very negative about MOMs. Please don’t forget who help these actresses and actors to get where they want. These Mothers help each one of these girls from day one of their live, now that they are famous, they want their mothers to hide. What a shame, hope this doesn’t happen to anyone here…… hurts (sic). (“Mothers Day”).

Another added:

Also, it is quite likely that when they were young they had far less opportunity than their famous daughters (and son), who most likely owe at least some part of their success to the women who you have so eagerly ripped apart in your rant (“Mothers Day”).

Posts such as these are an indication that not all celebrity gossip readers automatically reiterate the narrative of bad motherhood, and some sincerely (as far as the tone in these posts is detectable) wish to reject it, even in the celebrity gossip sphere. There are, however, far fewer supportive posts than critical ones. Moreover, as I have noted the general tone of the ivillage gossip blog is one of irony and “fun,” as evidenced by the epigraph at the beginning of this article comparing Dina to Michael Vick. This is most clear in Stone’s video report on Jamie’s payment for being conservator for his daughter. The joke in the report hinges on Emily Stone concluding with the sarcastic comment, “my momma does all that for free!” Although the report seems to take a shot at Jamie for getting paid for what is a list of “parental duties” the punch line does not make the joke by saying that Stone’s dad does all that for free. According to the new momism, it is only mothers who do everything for their children for free. In the end, the ironic critique suggests that Jamie is doing a job he is not meant to be doing—mothering—so the joke seems to imply that as a father who is appropriately and successfully, although unnaturally, acting as the mother, he probablyshould be getting paid.

“Bad Karma”: patriarchal anxiety and bad celebrity motherhood

[25] As 2008 has progressed, the media narratives of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris have transformed from “girls gone wild” to stories of them as young women transformed. What is at stake in the narratives of their “wildness” and subsequent transformations is the transgression and restoration of white, middle-class femininity, as rescued from a vampiric, aging, white-trash matriarchal femininity. Kathy, Lynne, and Dina rarely benefit from their daughters’ transformation narratives; Britney, Paris, and Lindsay, have, respectively, a father, a boyfriend, and a best girl friend who have been given some credit for their “good” behavior (there is not space here to comment on the rumored lesbianism of Lindsay). Still, their mothers maintain a media presence. In the summer of 2008, two media events involving Kathy Hilton, Dina Lohan and their daughters featured briefly in the mainstream news. The first was John McCain’s presidential campaign ad comparing Barack Obama’s celebrity status to Paris’s and Britney’s, thus associating Obama with the public image of the young female celebrities as vacuous and immature. The second was the CNN reporter Anderson Cooper’s comment regarding Living Lohanwhile filling in on the Live with Regis and Kelly morning talk show. Chagrined at his inability to stop watching the series, Cooper said, “I can’t believe I’m wasting my life watching these horrific people.” He went on to say, “Then there’s this seemingly nice 14-year-old girl, who looks to be about 60. She allegedly wants to be a singer, and/or actress slash performer of some sort, strip tease person, I don’t know. I say that with love and concern (sic)” (“Cooper/Lohan”). Paris made her own comic video retort to the McCain ad that has been largely applauded, but which I will not spend time on here. What I want to note is that both Kathy and Dina responded succinctly and publicly to McCain and Cooper. Kathy responded with a post on The Huffington Blog,calling the ad a “frivolous waste of money” (Hilton). Dina responded to Cooper saying, “People are just cruel!…This is bad karma for him” (Lohan). I would argue that the McCain ad and Cooper’s comments are expressions (by two representatives of white, middle-class patriarchy), of the cultural anxiety over the availability of individual success within capitalism to “inappropriate” members of American society. McCain’s ad is the most pernicious with its further racist implications that Obama’s image of black success is also inappropriate. Cooper’s comments and his apparent “obsession” with Living Lohan exhibit the contradictory impulses in the anxiety over who rightfully has access to privilege in America (contradictions which are not insignificantly exemplified by Cooper’s own celebrity heritage as the son of Gloria Vanderbilt). Unsurprisingly, several blog user comments on Kathy’s and Dina’s responses suggested that their daughters were only getting what they deserve from more “respectable” members of the public. These comments show that mothers like Kathy, Dina, and Lynne will be closely scrutinized for using their daughters to promote themselves, but that when white men with political and cultural authority use these young women for their own self-promotion, a strong critique of their actions is not forthcoming within the media, except by the mothers of the female celebrities. For contemporary white, middle-class patriarchal society, the value of the discourse of bad celebrity motherhood is the ways in which it works as a distraction from the class prejudice, racism, and sexism that circumscribe the American promotion of capitalist individualism.


Thank you to Diane Negra, Su Holmes, and Neil Ewen for their advice and encouragement.

Works Cited