In our heart of hearts, we all love a bit of celebrity news. I’m no stranger to it; though now a vastly dimmed habit, I still occasionally scan gossip sites of a morning to tut and coo over my favourites and, bless them, they can say some truly brain-scoopingly stupid things.
Part of the reason we love gossip is the chance to assert our values and morals and bring those pesky wastrels into line. It’s also our reaction to gossip – the comments we share with others as we pass on the information – that speaks volumes about our values.
Think that overstates the importance of gossip? In The Adapted Mind, an influential text on evolutionary psychology, Jerome Barkow argues that gossip is a tool to enforce compliance to social rules. Break away from the pack and expect to be reprimanded as an example for others.
So what can we learn about the latest gossipy reaction that award-winning actress Kate Winslet is pregnant for the third time – and that each child has a different dad?
Over at the Daily Mail, one commenter said “third husband and she’s only 37? She's really getting about”, while another pondered “I’m already wondering who will be baby-daddy No. 4”. Over at gossip site Just Jared, someone wondered why “OLD” ladies were getting pregnant (note: Winslet is 37), while another fretted over how so many fathers would impact family events like holidays and birthdays. One was able to console themselves that “at least Kate was married [not just living in sin] 3 times”.
In the eyes of today’s internet commenters, whose keys nip like overly moral sheepdogs, Winslet’s unforgivable sin is to be a thrice-married woman with children from each relationship. In addition to this, Winslet is guilty of being 37, which is not only “OLD” but also ranks her as an unreasonably fertile Methuselah.
This is all part and parcel of the expectations society places on women, particularly mothers. Mothers are held to a particular moral code: don’t take on too many partners, don’t have children to too many different men, and – this point is very important – be sexy, because it’s nice to look at so we can put our ideas on you, but don’t be sexual, because then it looks like you have a choice. Oh, and then go build a massive career so we can trot out that you ‘can have it all’; even then, we won’t refer to your career accomplishments, just that you’re a ‘supermum’.
It seems women are held to a different, more difficult standard when it comes to assessing moral behaviour, because we assume women are more involved in parenting and have a greater influence with guiding and shaping children.It’s women who run the greater risk of gossip because we assume their children are watching. We never assume children are also watching their fathers.
What’s remarkable is that we don’t hold the same fiery opprobrium for famous fathers. Where is the sanctimony and snark for male celebs with kids to different mothers? Kevin Costner has recently welcomed his seventh child across three partners, Mick Jagger has welcomed his fourth grandchild to one of his seven children by four women, and I’ve lost count of how many children Rod Stewart, Wu Tang Clan's Old Dirty Bastard and Clint Eastwood have to different partners. Let’s not forget how some of these men fathered children at ages much older than Winslet.
Here lies the nasty twisting idea at play when people deride Winslet’s fertility, benignly ignoring the fertility and relationship choices of men: we believe it’s natural for men to spread their seed amongst many, but not for women.
There is a misunderstood biological theory which says that men can take on multiple women and then leave them to look after the kids so they can find someone new to impregnate. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at the University of California (Davis), disagrees with the idea, arguing that not only does it not fit behaviour amongst humans and other species, but it’s possibly a notion cursed with bad timing. Basically it’s a fabrication and prop used to support morals.
At a 2010 keynote speech for the Radcliffe Institute’s Gender and Inquiry symposium, Hrdy noted that Darwin’s beliefs about women being monogamous and men being promiscuous was based more on Victorian beliefs than actual scientific observation. Imagine the difference if Darwin had been around a few hundred years earlier, when women were considered more lusty and desirous of sex than their apparently more virtuously minded male counterparts.
When people get upset about Winslet’s pregnancy announcement, they really aren’t worried about the welfare of her children. They’re upset that she’s straying against the scripted rules we have for women, rules that have little basis in science.
The rules we have for women demand sexual restraint while expecting a high level of sexually attractive presentation. Look really sexy … but don’t be sexual. Forget finding the cure for the common cold, can we locate a woman who meets all of the Daily Mail’s moral requirements?
For Kate Winslet, it’s been an interesting series of gossip brouhahas. She’s been criticised for being thin, or not thin enough, for letting fashion magazines airbrush her, for wearing a Stella McCartney dress style for too long, for getting married, for having boyfriends, for ending relationships and now for being pregnant.
Obviously, the gossipy vitriol about Winslet isn’t based on anything remotely accurate – more and more women are giving birth in their late 30s, both men and women run through a succession of relationships, children can and do thrive in blended, uninterrupted or single families where there are committed parents who provide continual, responsible care.
What is accurate is that through gossip, we are trying to enforce culturally and scientifically outdated beliefs to make others behave the way we believe is appropriate.
So the next time you gossip, think about what information you’re really passing on.