Celine Dion stares at us from the front page of People this week. ‘My Private Hell’ the headline shouts, without a hint of irony. There’s nothing private about Celine Dion’s IVF treatments in pursuit of a second child. ‘Daily injections, painful tests’ - we can know it all, if we want to. Looking at this cover, I wonder, ‘How does this make women going through IVF treatment themselves feel?’ I know how it makes me feel, and that’s scared. Scared that when I hit my mid to late thirties I am going to be overcome with the unstoppable, uncontrollable, overwhelming ‘maternal instinct’ that will make me need to get pregnant with my own baby at whatever cost.
People magazine makes out like Celine Dion is suffering from a terminal illness – the illness being infertility. On first take, it could be thought that such celebrity confessions make us all more aware of the ordeal infertile women must go through to become pregnant, and that through this awareness they will inspire our compassion and understanding of the situation. Yet, in the vein of sociologist Foucault’s estimation of sex in culture, the endless chatter about infertility only reinforces the social importance of fertility, and as such vilifies infertile women (or women who choose not to reproduce regardless of their fertility) whilst appearing to be empathizing.
Dion has stated she feels that by being ‘an open book’ on her experience she is ‘bonding’ with other women who are going through the same treatments. Regardless of how Dion truly feels, as soundbites and five minute morning television slots and well-edited cover lines her attitude appears selfish and bordering on pathological. She told Good Morning America - ‘I have - I have - to try.’ A survey of the comments on the People website shows many women undergoing infertility treatment who are, at best, irritated that, despite already having a son and all the money she can possibly need to keep trying, Dion suggests she is connecting with them through publicly discussing her experience.
The message put out by celebrity magazines is often that famous women – powerful, successful, ostensibly happy women – are unable to find fulfillment until they have been pregnant and become a mother. The depiction of celebrity pregnancy and celebrity motherhood often serves to undermine the achievements of the women previous to or apart from their motherhood. It’s no wonder a famous woman like Dion would feel encouraged to share her story of infertility – at least we know she’s trying.
The Celine Dion story not only equates fertility with female worth and the social value of women, it also presents the desire to have a child, or the maternal instinct, as a kind of mania. Many a time have I been told that some day, I too, will want a baby - not as though I will make conscious decision to have a child, but that I will be overcome by my womanly instincts and be unable to resist this impulse. This is comparable to the social attitude towards the male sex drive – an instinct it is often suggested they have little conscious control over. The mania of the maternal instinct suggests women are controlled by, and victim to, their ‘hormones’ - the same source of judgment for PMS, or any behaviors to do with menstruation and pregnancy. Dion is shown here to be driven to a kind of masochism by this primal need. The story bears reflections of the diagnosis and treatment by Victorian doctors of ‘hysterical’ women.
Celine Dion is making a choice, however informed by her funds, to keep trying for a second child. But the media interpretation of her experience suggests women are incapable of choosing when it comes to children and must, like Dion, pursue pregnancy and motherhood at all costs.