Pregnancy and Patriarchy: Rihanna’s Belly
Pregnancy and motherhood have been held as the pinnacle of womanhood, despite the life long unpaid labour that comes along with mothering. This blatant disregard is coupled with child rearing being positioned as necessary for the function of society when really it is a construct that serves to maintain gender normativity. It is so clear that patriarchy’s insistence on keeping the woman at home and ‘in her place’ is a metaphor for its’ conquering and destructive force. Society depicts women as being unfulfilled until becoming mothers, in the same way that babies are born and actualised from their mothers. Childbirth is not only a physical act of creation, it is also a symbolical birthing of her new ‘true’ identity, a mother.
Closely related to this is the framing of pregnant women as angelic, matronly and modest. Pregnancy has been placed in a deeply misogynistic and sexist context, and the labour associated with childbirth and childcare is dismissed as natural; a necessary part of the female experience. To be pregnant is to practice respectability, to shroud yourself and your unborn child in order to present as an ideal woman.
Rihanna’s pregnancy has been creating controversy – her decision to ‘expose’ her pregnant belly has created conversations on social media about nudity, respectability and femininity. Rihanna’s conscious decision to stay away from maternity wear is a valid attempt to deconstruct one dimensional representations of femininity. Actively shedding maternity wear and motherly behaviour by extension is a way of reclaiming and re-establishing meaning behind pregnancy and the female body. Womanhood and motherhood have been deeply intertwined with sacredness and holiness, and the shame that the public would like to impose on Rihanna stems from their discomfort from seeing nude pregnant women. Women inhabit the world as objectified, we are gazed at. The internalization of mainstream femininity, which is tied to perceiving the self as an object of the male gaze, solidifies this shame. Part of this permanent gendered shame involves failing to fulfill the standards of beauty that patriarchal society imposed on women. Beauty politics, as always, ties these things together as it dictates when it is appropriate for the body to be shown and also what type of body gets to be seen and desired.
I think that gendered shame in pregnancy stems from several experiences. Women are deprived of subjectivity throughout their lives, they are consistently positioned as wives, mothers and caregivers. Cohen says that these experiences involve being permanently objectified and being rendered voiceless. Shame takes root out of fear of scrutiny and judgement. Rihanna’s purposeful decision to discard modesty is also a decision to reject being perceived by others. Pregnancy has been connected with the inability to inhabit ourselves as individuals with subjectivity and agency. Another closely related experience is one that involves the impossible attempt to be the right object, as Dolezal says, one that is beautiful, self controlled and feminine. Here, we can begin to unpack how cis heteronormativity has meant that the right object is fixed within the confines of femininity. Mainstream + choice feminism make leaps in assuming that women being able to work is a form of freedom. These theories fail to realise that patriarchal systems of oppression mean that the excess labour of childbirth and raising children is unpaid labour. From Rihanna, we can learn to purposefully do away with restrictive sexist preconceived ideas of pregnancy and childbirth, but we must also be wary to recognise her privilege as a global star, with wealth and comfort readily available. This just isn’t the case for the average woman preparing to be a parent.
This pregnancy has shown the public that Rihanna’s rebellious branding has been consistent for her entire career and motherhood will do nothing to change this. Fourth wave feminists speak about the selfie as a form of resistance and body reclaiming. Rihanna’s modern pregnancy is quickly becoming a pathway to understanding the ways women of all stages can express and rework the perceptions and feelings around their ever changing bodies.