Celebrity culture likely contributed to destigmatizing out-of-wedlock childbirth
BUFFALO, N.Y. – In 1992, former Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the sitcom character Murphy Brown's decision to have a child out of wedlock. His comments soon expanded to include "the cultural elite in Hollywood," who were accused of undermining traditional family values.
Quayle's comments ignited discussions that dominated the day's news cycle and continue today about how celebrities might be contributing to the demise of the nuclear family, yet 40 years of data from one reputable celebrity news source suggests that celebrities in fact have fewer out-of-wedlock childbirths compared to the rest of the U.S. population.
But that's just part of the answer.
"Responding to the question of whether celebrities have more children out of wedlock depends on exactly who you're comparing them to," says Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Sociology and author of a new study that considers how media depictions of celebrity childbearing might contribute to destigmatizing having children outside of marriage.
Grol-Prokopczyk's study, published this month in the journal Demographic Research, analyses media presentations of celebrities' childbearing both qualitatively and quantitatively to understand how celebrity news might influence larger society.
Between 1940 and 2009, the number of U.S. births to unmarried women increased from about 4 percent to nearly 41 percent.
Most research trying to account for this increase has focused on economic and cultural factors, but Grol-Prokopczyk wondered how celebrities might be affecting that 10-fold rise.
"No one has actually tested whether celebrities in fact engage in more out-of-wedlock childbearing than the general public," she says. "This is an important question to address because the power of celebrity culture to shape all kinds of decisions, including childbearing-related decisions, is often under-acknowledged."
Grol-Prokopczyk's interest in the possibility that celebrities might shape how we think about the nature of the family and the right environment in which to have children led her to test this idea.
With People magazine as her yardstick for reports of celebrity pregnancy, Grol-Prokopczyk analyzed each cover that showed a celebrity pregnancy or baby and coded that cover – beginning with the debut issue in 1974 through the end of 2014 — noting the parent's relationship status at the time of the pregnancy announcement and the time of the child's birth.
For Grol-Prokopczyk, People magazine served as a reliable source of data for exploring this issue.
First and most generally, celebrity news travels quickly and pervasively.
One national survey found that 74 percent of U.S. adults knew about Angelina Jolie's decision to have a preventative double mastectomy just weeks after her op-ed appeared in the New York Times in May of 2013.
Second, People magazine is one the most widely read magazines in the United States, and has for at least most of the last 10 years been the country's most popular weekly, reaching as many as 40 million readers with each issue.
People's website is also a heavily trafficked companion to its print edition with over 70 million unique monthly visitors.
And third, People has maintained over the course of its publication history a reputation for providing trustworthy coverage by avoiding fictional stories or reporting gossip as news.
Although Grol-Prokopczyk's findings suggest that celebrities have fewer babies out of wedlock than the full population, she says comparing those two groups might not be entirely fair.
"If you compare celebrities to just white Americans – which could make sense given that until recently People magazine has disproportionally depicted white celebrity parents on its covers – you find that celebrities have the same rates of non-marital fertility," she says.
The findings, however, curiously return to Quayle's comments from the early '90s when comparing white celebrities with non-celebrities who have at least some college education.
In this case, celebrities have had higher rates of non-marital childbearing.
"If you think about Dan Quayle's social milieu, he was probably most worried about the nuclear family being threatened among the white middle class. Quayle's remarks about Murphy Brown included his observation that the character 'epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman,'" says Grol-Prokopczyk.
And the findings indicate that celebrities were having more babies out of wedlock when compared to white women with college education.
Grol-Prokopczyk also found that most celebrities featured on People magazine's covers who got pregnant while unmarried did not marry before the child's birth. Since the mid-2000s, many have declared themselves, "engaged."
Instead of "shotgun weddings," Grol-Prokopczyk sees this as modeling what she calls "shotgun engagements," which if imitated in the general population could have contributed to a substantial rise of non-marital fertility in the U.S.
"Especially since the 2000s, when news about celebrity pregnancies became much more common, it seems very possible that celebrity culture has helped to destigmatize non-marital fertility, especially among white, middle-class women."