By Rebecca Feasey
Infertility is a common experience among women within and beyond the UK, and this experience ‘is not usually discussed publicly, at least in detail’ (Striff, 2005: 189). Although a woman’s infertility story is generally only witnessed by the medical profession, there has been a recent trend in the women’s tabloid and gossip sector whereby celebrities share their infertility stories with a willing public. With this in mind I hope to briefly outline the codes and conventions of the celebrity infertility narrative in order to consider the ways in which these confessional discourses might be considered as an extension of the informative public health campaign or, alternatively, as a more stigmatising discourse.
Although there is no single definition of infertility, it routinely refers to a couple that cannot conceive despite having regular unprotected sex (NHS 2014a). Women who are able to become pregnant, but then have repeated miscarriages, are also considered infertile (CDC 2014). In order to fully understand the commonality of this experience, it is worth noting that one in six couples in Britain may have difficulty conceiving while an estimated 25 per cent of all women and their partners will experience an episode of infertility during their lifetime in the United States. And, according to the World Health Organisation, these rates have remained stable for several decades (Warren-Gash, 2013).
Age-Defying Physiques and Fashions
The fashion industry, marketers and media environment have started to tell audiences that ‘40 is the new 30’ (Michault, 2005), or that ‘40 is the new 20’ (Cosmopolitan, 2014) due to the ways in which fashion-forward celebrities are seemingly defying the aging process in terms of both their physical appearance and sartorial choices. Likewise, the cosmetics industry seems committed to making mature skin more radiant than ever before, and the ‘latest statistics from the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons show demand for anti-aging procedures soared in the past year – even despite the recession’ (Peacock, 2013).
40 may well be the new 30, or indeed, the new 20 in terms of physical appearance and surface attractiveness, however, it is worth remembering that even though 95 per cent of couples who have regular unprotected sex will conceive naturally within two years of trying, ‘the chances of becoming pregnant are much lower in older women’ (NHS, 2014a), however age-defying their appearances.
Age-Defying Physiques and Infertility
Indeed, many of the 40-something women who the mass media applaud for their youthful physiques, on trend fashions and smooth visages are those self-same celebrities who have struggled with infertility. While stars such as Courtney Cox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Cross, Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman are championed in the beauty and fashion sector for looking ‘youthful […] despite having passed the dreaded “middle-age” milestone’ (Daily Mail, 2013), it is worth thinking about the ways in which these women might be understood as both fashion and fertility role models.
After all, if one considers the ways in which celebrities in general, and female celebrities in particular, have been formally and informally positioned as public health campaigners for diseases such as breast and cervical cancer (Ashton and Feasey, 2013), then it is possible to extend this argument and consider the ways in which women such as Sarah Jessica Parker might be understood in this self-same way as an unofficial spokesperson for infertility.
Championing the Celebrity Infertility Story
After all, although a celebrity’s willingness to share their diagnosis and treatment with the public might be understood as a calculated self-exposure exercise, such candid confessional discourses about infertility can bring this topic into the public consciousness, and in this sense be beneficial for other infertile women and as a broader public service regarding age-related infertility.
Indeed, an exhaustive number of contributions to newspaper blogs and postings congratulate these women for speaking publicly about their infertility. This outpouring of appreciation is understandable and indeed to be expected if one considers where and how this information is available. Celebrity infertility stories are routinely found in the women’s gossip and tabloid sector, alongside a range of blogs and celebdocs, and these media forms have historically relied on the celebrity confessional. My point here then is that while celebrities have long been relaying intimate stories of romance, family and heartache, they have more recently begun to share their most candid infertility narratives. Rather than deride these women for trivializing their infertility stories for financial or fame reward, it is worth noting that these stories are of significance to those women who too are struggling with infertility, more so in fact than more factual or news based accounts of disease or affliction (Ashton and Feasey, 2013). Time and again, blogs thank performers for being open and seemingly candid about their infertility stories (Yuppy Mom, 2010; BustedKate, 2013; Wertman, 2013; Gorenstein, 2014).
Courtney Cox and her then husband David Arquette struggled with infertility because although Cox managed to get pregnant, immunity problems meant that she struggled to stay pregnant. After suffering several miscarriages, Cox turned to IVF and at the age of 41 had a healthy baby girl. After the birth of her daughter Cox spoke publicly about her use of IVF and made it clear that ‘in vitro is a wonderful thing that people can do in this day and age’ (nobabyonboard, 2014). Likewise, after suffering from secondary infertility, Sarah Jessica Parker, then 43, and husband Matthew Broderick spoke about their use of a gestational surrogate to carry their twin girls after exploring a variety of ways of expanding their family’ (Knight, 2010).
IVF and Surrogacy are viable fertility options, with obvious success stories, and in one sense then the ways in which stars such as Cox and Parker share their birth stories is helpful in terms of educating women about their fertility options.
The Partiality of the Celebrity Infertility Story: The Healthy Newborn
That said it is of course worth mentioning several concerns that are pertinent to these and a myriad of other celebrity infertility narratives. Firstly, these women tend only to announce their infertility struggles once they are holding their healthy newborn, which in itself sends out a rather misleading finale to the infertility narrative. Erin Striff makes this point when she tells us that:
[P]ublic fertility stories are often structured as a “near-miss,” in that we know of a celebrity’s previous failed rounds of IVF only when they may at the same time perform their successful achievement of pregnancy … the struggle with infertility only becomes acceptable to discuss in the public eye if it has been overcome in some way, reiterating the feeling that infertility is something to be ashamed of (Striff, 2005: 195).
In short, celebrity infertility has become, to some degree, accepted, but only on the back of a successful fertility story. Even though Sharon Begley of Newsweek reported that ‘getting a baby’ through assisted procreative technologies was almost as easy as getting a tattoo (cited in Sterling, 2013: 124), the truth is that these procedures fail more often than they succeed, and this reality is rarely spoken of as part of the celebrity infertility story.
The success of IVF depends on the age of the woman undergoing treatment, with 32.2 per cent success rate for women under 35, a 20.8 per cent success rate for women aged 38-39, a 5 per cent success rate for women aged 43-44 and a 1.9 per cent success rate for women over 44 (NHS, 2014b). Therefore, even though there have been numerous technical advances relating to assisted conception in recent years, ‘IVF remains, at best, a hopeful art driven by the best of intentions and less than complete knowledge’ (Hall, 2005: 71). The overwhelming majority of these personal stories have a happy ending which ‘minimize[s] the infertility experience perhaps making those who actually experienced the harsh realities [of] infertility feel even more isolated and stigmatized’ (Sterling, 2013: 99).
The Partiality of the Celebrity Infertility Story: The Cost of Treatment
Secondly, IVF is expensive, and even though the NHS does offer 3 rounds of IVF for women under 40 and one round of IVF for women over 40 there are specific criteria that these women must reach. And if these women are not eligible then private treatment costs approximately £5000 depending on treatment needed per cycle (NHS, 2014b). And in terms of surrogacy in the UK, although the law states that ‘no surrogate may receive any form of payment during or after a surrogacy agreement’, intended parents must pay for reasonable ‘expenses incurred by the surrogate’ ranging from about £7,000-£15,000 (Surrogacy UK, 2014) on the back of the costs incurred if a woman is ‘planning to use the services of an IVF clinic’ (ibid). Therefore, although one might refer to infertility as just a ‘90s affliction’ that could be overcome with fertility treatments (Sterling, 2013: 124), the reality is that these techniques are unavailable to the average woman. Gorenstein says it best when she tells us that money can’t buy you the ‘ability to conceive a child on your own. Though it can certainly help you get the best treatment’ (Gorenstein 2014).
However even though success rates and financial constraints are given scant attention in the successful celebrity infertility narrative, my third point here is that links between aging and infertility for women, and the role of egg donation are notable in their absence.
The Partiality of the Celebrity Infertility Story: Egg Donation and Age as a Contributing Factor
Fertility declines with age, indeed, a growing number of fertility clinics refuse to admit 45-year-old women for treatment (Gatrell, 2008: 48). And yet, since 2000, the tabloid and women’s magazine sector has routinely covered stories and presented photo-shoots with a growing number of older celebrity figures from the film, literary and political arena delivering healthy babies, with no mention of egg donation. To name but a few: Marcia Cross (44) Cherie Blair (45), Mimi Rodgers (45), Marcia Gay Harden (45), Iman (45), Susan Sarandon (46), Halle Berry (46), Arlene Phillips (47), Angela Bassett (47), Kelly Preston (47), Holly Hunter (47), Geena Davis (48), Wendy Wasserstein (48), Helen Fielding (48), Elizabeth Edwards (48) and (50) and Beverly D’Angelo (49).
Schlosberg tells us that Marcia Cross is unique on the celebrity motherhood circuit for openly discussing the use of donor eggs. That said, ‘even then she only says it’s common knowledge how difficult it is for women in their forties to get pregnant with their own eggs. She always stops short of admitting to using them herself’ (Schlosberg, 2011).
Doctors have been heard commentating that ‘the probability of conceiving and delivering a child with a woman’s own eggs at forty-five is virtually zero (Sterling, 2013: 99), and as such older mothers who themselves struggled with fertility lambast ‘nameless celebrities for not sharing the truth about infertility and for making mature motherhood seem so effortless (Cited in Sterling, 2013: 67). In this same way, blog posts echo this point when they ask ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if just one celebrity would come forward, be vulnerable and say: “I am a mother via egg donation and I am proud”’ (Global IVF, 2013).
I am not of course suggesting that these women have used assisted reproductive techniques, indeed, most have not admitted reproductive help of any kind, I am merely pointing out the exceptional nature of their celebrity birth stories that might mislead a generation of women as to the reality of their own fertility options. My concern is simply that the successful celebrity infertility narrative masks statistical facts relating to fertility, pregnancy and new motherhood. And although there is a growing trend towards delaying motherhood, as women are seen to have children in their late 30s and beyond, it is worth noting the rise in what is understood as ‘reproductive complacency’ (Global IVF, 2013). After all, a ‘survey of educated young professional women found that 90 per cent thought that they could wait until age 45 to start having their own biological children, even though next to none over 44 are able to, despite advanced technology’ (Bonifazi 2003 cited in Feasey, 2013: 146). After all, the ‘live birth rate for women using assistive reproductive technology … with fresh, non-donor eggs or embryos is 15% at age 40, 5% at 43, and 2% after 43’ (ibid, 146).
To conclude then, the average age of a first time mother in the UK is growing (ONS, 2014); more women than ever before are having children in the late 30s and early 40s and beyond (ibid); Assisted Reproduction Technologies are advancing; the number of women taking advantage of such techniques is increasing and more celebrities than ever before are presenting their infertility stories in the women’s tabloid and gossip sector.
Although one might suggest that the celebrity infertility confessional can offer hope through identification with the celebrity revelation by defying the privacy of infertility treatment, the partial account on offer here could perhaps lead to reproductive complacency, false hope or go further to reinforce the sense of stigma and failure that many infertile women are said to be experiencing (Woollett, 1994: 54), none of which can be understood as helpful to individuals or beneficial to society.
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Rebecca Feasey is Senior Lecturer in Film and Media Communications at Bath Spa University. She has published a range of work on celebrity culture, contemporary Hollywood stardom and the representation of gender in popular media culture. She has published in journals such as the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, the Journal of Popular Film and Television, the Journal of Gender Studies, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. She has written book length studies on masculinity and popular television (EUP, 2008) and motherhood on the small screen (Anthem, 2012). She is currently writing a research monograph on the ways in which women respond to representations of motherhood on television (Pater Lang, 2015: http://motherhoodandtelevision.wordpress.com/).