Study: Pop-culture news helped destigmatize out-of-wedlock childbirth

October 28, 2016 by Bert Gambini, University at Buffalo
Credit: University at Buffalo

Celebrity news reports over the past four decades appear to have contributed to the changing makeup of the traditional American family by helping to destigmatize out-of-wedlock childbirths in the United States, according to a study by a University at Buffalo sociologist.

"Celebrities typically did not apologize for getting pregnant outside of marriage," says Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, an assistant professor of sociology. "But the family model also changed over time. The early model dictated that you should marry by the time the baby is born. By the mid-2000s that had changed, and it became widely acceptable in the celebrity world to have a child without marrying first."

With People magazine as her proxy for popular culture news coverage, Grol-Prokopczyk analyzed nearly 400 cover stories dating from People's 1974 premier issue to the present to learn when the interest in celebrity pregnancies started and how the magazine's presentation of family norms changed over time.

She presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. A more detailed study, including calculations of celebrity non-marital birth rates, is currently under peer-review.

"I used People magazine because it's reputable in the sense that it doesn't publish fictional stories; it has been in continuous circulation for over 40 years; and it remains one of the most widely circulating magazines in the country," says Grol-Prokopczyk. "It also has a strong online presence, with as many as 72 million unique views in a given month."Grol-Prokopczyk's curiosity about the media's fascination with celebrity baby news began when she was pregnant with her first child. She signed up for news alerts, expecting to get medical and nutrition stories relevant to expectant mothers, but instead received mostly news reports about celebrity pregnancies.

"Academics often scoff at celebrity news, but in fact there's evidence that celebrity culture is enormously influential in changing norms and has a very wide reach," she says. "For example, after Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed after having her preventative mastectomy, a survey conducted weeks later found that 74 percent of Americans knew about her surgery and the decision."

This became known as the Angelina Effect, and research on its impact was published in the journal Genetics in Medicine. "That attests to the fact that decisions celebrities make reach us and affect our thinking," says Grol-Prokopczyk.

Her research further illustrates that point.

The first People magazine cover that showed a celebrity pregnancy was in May 1976. Goldie Hawn was pictured and the text makes it clear that she's pregnant and unmarried, but the caption reads, "She's laughing with a baby and a new hubby on the way."

"There aren't many non-marital fertility stories in the 1970s, but when they do appear there's almost always a promise that the parent will marry by the time the baby is born," says Grol-Prokopczyk. "It's like saying, 'Don't worry, readers. They'll be married by the time the baby arrives.'"

The model was still the same when People magazine announced Melanie Griffith's pregnancy in 1989, with a caption that said she and Don Johnson were "thinking about an April wedding."

Beginning in the 1990s, the normative model began to change, and by the mid-2000s, People magazine regularly showed celebrity couples who didn't marry by the time the baby was born, according to Grol-Prokopczyk. These non-marital births were almost without exception presented as happy, morally unproblematic events.

"This includes women who were partnered but didn't plan to marry the partner, but it also includes so-called 'single mothers' who we now know were in committed same-sex relationships, in particular Jodie Foster and Rosie O'Donnell," she says.

Seven covers about Foster and O'Donnell appeared between 1996 and 2002. None of them acknowledge that the women were in same-sex relationships, and two of them directly referred to the women as "single mothers."

"Based on biographies of them now, we know they were in long-term, committed relationships at the time," says Grol-Prokopczyk.

"People magazine was slow to show acceptance of same-sex parents, preferring to present them as single parents. This example shows that while celebrity media coverage can serve as an agent for social change—by de-stigmatizing non-marital childbearing or transgenderism, for instance—it does not always do so," she says.

Explore further: Celebrity baby bumps found to affect pre-natal attachment

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3 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2016
"That attests to the fact that decisions celebrities make reach us and affect our thinking," says Grol-Prokopczyk

This is true only if we let it affect our thinking. If you are trying to get moral and ethical values out of pop culture, you are definitely looking in the wrong place. I'm surprised this research didn't look into how well adjusted these children are, and how they compare to the conventional family unit wisdom.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 28, 2016
Dan Quayle was ridiculed when he commented that the Murphy Brown show contributed to the acceptance of out of wedlock births that contribute to increasing societal problems. I suppose to liberals abortion is the alternative choice rather than stable marriages. In hindsight, Quayle foresaw the problem.
5 / 5 (4) Oct 28, 2016
Just part of 'it takes a village' narrative. Replace fathers with big government nanny and you'll have a much more compliant populace.... well that's the theory. In reality you end up with a much higher percentage of dysfunctional kids growing up to be dysfunctional adults to the detriment of our society.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2016
Single mothers have been raised to the status of goddesses. Men are not expected to support a family any more and as a result are becoming less educated. This is all part of the decay of society that the One World Government types are using as a tool to attain their goal.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 31, 2016
The bible sermon is pop culture news. It was used to grow populations when the world needed filling up, and todays pop culture news is being used to reduce growth now that the world is full.

Demographics is a Holy Mandate, the science of human husbandry.
not rated yet Nov 01, 2016
Well I have a couple of questions. Are single parent, by choice, families something that should be encouraged? We all know the ill effects of this. Also, how do 2 same sex parents affect the mental health of the children? No one really knows at this point.

These are not exclusively religious questions as they apply to the entire society.

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