Why Do We Selectively Hate Hollywood Moms?

Hayden Panettiere and Wladimir Klitschko visit Milan (www.perezhilton.com).

Hayden Panettiere and Wladimir Klitschko visit Milan (www.perezhilton.com).

Why do journalists and fans react so differently to various actresses’ comments about motherhood? Recent feedback to four stars offers a study in contrasts: Hayden Panettiere versus Kirsten Dunst, and Emma Thompson versus Felicity Huffman.

Take Hayden Panettiere, for starters. The 24-year-old Nashville star foreshadowed her recent pregnancy news in a May 2013 Glamour magazine interview, by remarking:

I’ve lived a very big life, and I don’t feel my age, and I feel like I was born to be a mother. Sometimes people speak about [having kids] like, “Your life ends—you’re never going to be able to do anything again!” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” Motherhood is the most beautiful, exciting thing, and there’s nothing that I feel like I can’t accomplish while having children in my life. I would sacrifice having more years of being wherever I want whenever I want for years with my kids.

That is one of the most positive public statements any celebrity has recently made about parenting. Yet after the public thrashing Kirsten Dunst endured for praising motherhood this spring, it’s surprising that Panettiere’s pregnancy announcement inspired positive to merely neutral reactions.

The cheekiest comments have simply referenced the huge height difference between the petite Panettiere and her hulking fiancé, professional boxer Wladimir Klitschko. Gawker labeled them an “alarming family,” which is notably mild, given the site’s trademark snark.

On the other end of the age and experience spectrum are two 50-something mothers, actresses Emma Thompson and Felicity Huffman. Emma Thompson was recently criticized for advocating that parents spend more time with their kids, if they can afford it. She told Britain’s Daily Mail:

You can’t be a great mum and keep working all the time. I wanted to spend more time with my family. . . . Sometimes in life you’ll have some things, at other times you will have other things. You don’t need it all at once, it’s not good for you. Motherhood is a full-time job. The only way I could have continued working would have been by delegating the running of the home to other people. I never wanted to do this as I find motherhood profoundly enjoyable.

Rather than being praised as family-minded — a Hollywood rarity — Thompson has been derided as “elitest and classist” and demeaning to working mothers. Of course, it didn’t help that the New York Post’s Page Six titled their interview coverage, “Working women can’t be great moms: Emma Thompson,” or that the Today show tweeted the same distorted summary.

The whole controversy feels manufactured. Leaving aside that caring for young children is, in fact, a full-time job, Emma Thompson is a long-time working mother. Thompson previously told Working Mother magazine that “she would be ‘terribly bored’ if she couldn’t work.” In the same interview, she said she prefers writing; it enables her to “’be entirely available’” to her family. “Acting is a more difficult job for a mother, she adds. The days are long and not your own.”

That last part recalls Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent comments about acting, but Thompson isn’t complaining. She’s simply expressing a preference for flexibility, something many moms tell pollsters they favor.

Meanwhile, actress Felicity Huffman has benefited from a more generous public spirit since acknowledging in a recent Good Morning America/Yahoo! News interview that she initially found motherhood “bewildering, lonely, impossible and infuriating and depressing” and that “there were times when I hated being a mother, and there were times when I hated my children.”

Huffman is likeable in the interview, though her children may disagree. The non-response to Huffman’s remarks is what’s striking. By contrast, Thompson has gushed, “’I will always feel this terrible irreversible and overwhelming love for [my children].’”

Do many parents relate better to actresses who emphasize the frustrations of parenting, or is schadenfreude at work, comforting us with the knowledge that the rich and famous don’t have uniquely fabulous lives? Either way, it seems the riskiest, or potentially gutsiest, thing an actress can do is opine about motherhood. There’s simply no knowing whether she’ll be embraced or jeered by the public. Hayden Panettiere, take note.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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