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PERSPECTIVES ON WOMEN : Pornography, or Pregnant Art? : Vanity Fair’s cover is a ‘90s totem of narcissism, exploitation and lust-- : Playboy for the politically correct.

Every society gets the pornography it deserves.

Such is my considered opinion after a long time spent pondering that photo of actress Demi Moore on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. To tell you the truth, this was not my first reaction. My initial, transfixed thought was, “Oh, come on! No pregnant woman ever looked like that!”

Sure, you couldn’t miss the big belly in the cover photo. But in the photographs inside, the expectant mother’s hips and legs, clad in black underwear and high heels, were slim and sleek. Her hair was in perfect disarray, her eyes come-hither, her lips luscious, her body without blemish. No swollen ankles. No ungainly posture. No expression of weariness at the weight being lugged around.

In fact, it looked as if that huge stomach had simply been grafted onto the body of some Playboy centerfold. This impression, fellow social critics, was no accident.

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Getting people to buy magazines, or anything else, is a difficult business. Sex is one of the most reliable selling techniques in a merchant’s tool kit, and in modern times it has been deployed with ever more skill and verve. Not only Playboy but its raunchier imitators have come out from under the counter onto the general magazine racks. The success of Cosmopolitan, with the bimbo of the month on the cover of every issue, has demonstrated that these images appeal to women as well as men. More and more private matters have been declared fit for public consumption.

The women’s movement cut its teeth on objections to the popular culture’s portraying females as something akin to meat hanging in a butcher shop window. Men loved women as sexual lamb chops. But when it came to sharing other aspects of a woman’s existence, from housework to pregnancy, childbirth and mothering, the same men averted their eyes. They did not want to see women in these roles.

People who consider themselves humane and up-to-date have had a change of heart in these matters. In one result of this shift, the traditional and obvious pictures of women as sex objects have become declasse. Just as important, men have taken an ever-larger share of the “woman’s work” of childbearing and nurturing. They attend the birth of their children and are expected to pitch in with the diaper-changing and baby-sitting. The question of parental leave for fathers has taken its place on the political agenda. Babies are hot. Pregnancy is in.

Take Ms. Moore, for instance. In the magazine article accompanying the pictures of her, she reports that when her first child was born, her husband, actor Bruce Willis, was with her through the entire 15-hour labor (except for once when he had to go to the bathroom; when Demi Moore bares all, she bares all). Three video cameras recorded the event, and today the proud parents show the tape to visiting friends.

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This is a pair that should name its next baby Narcissus. Still, such behavior is very much in line with today’s progressive thinking. Why shouldn’t Moore recount every detail of her birthing experience? Why shouldn’t the video be shown to dinner guests? After all, isn’t the experience of birth wonderful? And if it is, why not let everyone look at it and acknowledge its beauty?

The editor of Vanity Fair, Tina Brown, explains that she shares this view. This month’s cover, she explains, “breaks the mold of every stereotype of celebrity glamour.” Responding to the magazine controversy, she says, “There is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child.”

Brown is surely right. Yet the public is not responding to these pictures with reverence; instead, we are reacting to them as a piece of sensationalism. Outside New York City, the magazine cover is wrapped in plain white paper. Even so, in Washington, some of the local supermarkets won’t carry the magazine, because children have easy access to the display racks. But the magazine’s distributor is confident that other stores, impressed with the cover’s scandalous appeal, will scarf up the leftover copies.

All this offended and salacious attention does not come about because the pictures of Ms. Moore are simply “glorious,” a marvelous affirmation of an ideal of feminine pulchritude transcending the squalid limits of Playboy. On the contrary, the magazine has had its impact because the photographs have shocked people in the same old way that pictures of naked women used to shock--by making public what people think is deeply private and by sexualizing acts, situations and individuals that we want to regard as standing fundamentally apart from sex, at least from its realities of passion, hunger, risibility and ugliness.

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In producing this sense of shock, the Demi Moore cover has shown itself as the product of a characteristically modern American genius. The cultural fashion industry has plumbed our soul, taken the measure of our current psyche and created for us a type of sexual titillation that is . . . politically correct! They have invented PC-13! The satin negligee and the celebration of family! The velvety skin and the paean to breast-feeding! We can stare to our hearts’ content now, confident that these photographs are socially constructive and free of the taint of old-style male chauvinist exploitation. What a relief!


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