Last week, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and their newborn twins appeared on the cover of People magazine in a carefully staged portrait of domestic bliss: mom in a demure nightgown, a baby nestled in each arm, dad gazing lovingly over her shoulder. Inside, a nineteen-page “family album,” features various combinations of Pitt, Jolie and their six children in seemingly spontaneous poses. People–along with a UK tabloid, Hello!— reportedly paid a combined $14 million for exclusive rights to the pictures, the most ever paid for celebrity photos.
This eclipses the previous record of a reported $4.1 million paid for the first images of Jolie and Pitt’s other biological child, Shiloh, born in 2006. Although the pair donates all the proceeds from these sales to charity, it seems absurd that in the intervening two years, as the real estate market has collapsed, the price of oil has skyrocketed and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, the apparent value of a few baby pictures would appreciate so wildly–especially when the price was already obscene.
And the Jolie-Pitts are not alone. While most of us can barely feign interest in pictures of a co-worker’s baby, B-lister Matthew McConaughey, his unfamous girlfriend and their baby boy were on the cover of last week’s OK!. Their pictures reportedly went for $3 million. A few months before that, Nicole Richie sold her baby pictures for a reported $1 million. At just a few weeks of age, these babies have already earned more than many Americans will make in a lifetime. Talk about consolidation of wealth.
Meanwhile, one of the key “beats”–if you can call it that–of the celebrity weeklies is the “bump watch,” a chronicle of every aspect of a starlet’s pregnancy and the corresponding weight gain. The very moment she appears looking slightly heavier than usual, the pregnancy rumors swirl. If it turns out that the given celebrity is not just over-indulging at lunch, the reporting continues unabated until the “bump” is actually born. Soon after, the inevitable first pictures arrive (either courtesy of paparazzi or through more respectable channels.) Finally, the mother’s baby weight miraculously disappears, spawning yet another news item. A cursory glance at any of the celebrity weeklies would suggest that the American public has a boundless appetite for “bump” news. Consider the following recent headlines: “Hollywood Baby Horoscopes,” “Real-Life Hollywood Moms,” “Bodies Bounce Back After Baby,” “Summer Bumps” and, yes, even “Baby Bumps for Obama,” chronicling pregnant celebs at a political fundraiser.
Baby fever is spilling over into other forms of media. The most talked-about mainstream comedies of the past two years were Juno and Knocked Up, films that irreverently addressed the issue of unexpected pregnancy to great financial and critical success.
On the small screen, the baby trend is also gaining steam, although within a much more conservative framework. The most popular show on cable this summer is ABC Family Channel’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a drama chronicling the unexpected pregnancy of a 15-year-old “good girl”–like Juno, but without any of the spark or wit. The show’s creator, Brenda Hampton, is also responsible for the insipid 7th Heaven, a drama about a minister and his family. Meanwhile, on the reality front, there’s also a cottage industry of cable TV reality shows following the lives of extremely large families. TLC has John and Kate Plus 8, about a family with a set of twins and a septuplets; while Discovery Health has a crop of specials based on the ever-expanding Duggar family, including The Duggar’s Big Family Album and On the Road with 16 Children. Although the producers strain to depict the Duggars as a relatively average American family, they are in fact right-wing Christian extremists, part of an expansionist movement Kathryn Joyce has chronicled in The Nation and other publications.
The Duggars’ family website includes links to Focus on the Family and to WallBuilders, a group committed to “develop[ing] public policies which reflect Biblical values.” But there’s no mention of this anywhere on their Discovery Health website. With an eighteenth child due in January, the Duggars will surely have another special on the way soon, which means more money in the bank. It’s fascinating how two families with so little in common–the Jolie-Pitts and the Duggars–both feel compelled to use their expanding broods as capital.
The Jolie-Pitts (and to a lesser extent, the Duggars) would be nowhere if it weren’t for a public willing to buy these magazines and watch these shows. This baby fever is even more perplexing when you consider that having children is just about the least novel thing in the world. (In the United States last year, a record 4.3 million live births were recorded.) So why the fuss over these particular babies?
The speculative market in Hollywood baby pictures is a direct result of the boom in celebrity weeklies, which are some of the only thriving print brands. In 2000, People (which is owned by Time Warner) was virtually the only celebrity glossy on newsstands. That year, Wenner Media re-launched Us, transforming it from a stale monthly magazine that covered entertainment news into a bright, trashy weekly filled with candid shots of celebrities grocery shopping or getting their nails done. It was a dumbed-down People–with more pictures, fewer words and none of the supposedly redeeming human-interest stories. The magazine’s success spawned copycats like In Touch in 2002 and Life & Style in 2004. With magazines scrambling to fill space every week, the need for content–in this case, celebrity photos–ballooned, prices skyrocketed and standards dipped lower. Despite the increase in competition, People has the corporate backing to drop tens of millions on pictures that they don’t even use.
As celebrity journalism has proliferated, much of print media is in sharp decline. Advertisers are fleeing print for the Internet; costs of paper and postage are soaring; and the ranks of newspaper and magazine journalists are thinning, due to cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts, as the industry struggles to find a viable business plan.
Oddly enough, the Jolie-Pitt twins were born July 12, only a day after the so-called “worst day ever” for newspaper stocks, in which the price of shares in seven publicly held companies plunged to record lows. While obviously a coincidence, the timing is apt. With revenues in such sharp decline, and media ownership concentrated in the hands of a few big players, it’s inevitable that fewer points of view will make it into mainstream media coverage, and that more profitable celeb-obsessed stories and publications will dominate.
Of course, escapism is inevitable and perhaps even essential in wartime, and the Jolie-Pitt clan, with its ability to be both wholesome and rebellious, multicultural and yet uniquely American, makes it enticing fodder. But just since last August, the American public’s awareness of fatalities in the Iraq war has sharply declined, with only 28 percent of the public able to correctly say that over 4,000 troops have died. It’s no surprise that network news shows are now devoting one-third the time to covering Iraq as they did just a year ago. Yet Americans themselves believe that celebrities get far too much attention in the news. Let’s hope that the mainstream media starts to listen.