Keira Knightley has penned a frank, uncompromising essay about the bloody, crusty, torn-vagina reality of giving birth—and the societal pressures to cover up that reality. But you wouldn’t know it from the ensuing media coverage, which has cast her as a MEAN ANGRY FEMINIST MOMMY criticizing PERFECT MOM Kate Middleton.
The essay appears in the new collection, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies), and begins by addressing Knightley’s daughter: “My vagina split. You came out with your eyes open,” she writes. “They put you on to me, covered in blood, vernix, your head misshapen from the birth canal.” She writes of “the shit, the vomit, the blood, the stitches.”
Then she goes on to recall how she gave birth shortly before Middleton, whose quick emergence from the hospital was feverishly documented. “We stand and watch the TV screen,” Knightley writes. “She was out of hospital seven hours later with her face made up and high heels on. The face the world wants to see.” She continues:
Hide. Hide our pain, our bodies splitting, our breasts leaking, our hormones raging. Look beautiful. Look stylish, don’t show your battleground, Kate. Seven hours after your fight with life and death, seven hours after your body breaks open, and bloody, screaming life comes out. Don’t show. Don’t tell. Stand there with your girl and be shot by a pack of male photographers.
You know what word came to mind when I read that? It’s a word I rarely use, because its meaning has been overshot into corniness: sisterhood. In fact, it’s a word I couldn’t say with any degree of earnestness until right after I gave birth myself and sat in a room full of women—a “mom group”—and listened to stories of prior miscarriages and emergency C-sections and epidurals that didn’t take and episiotomy and cracked nipples and mastitis.
What I thought reading Knightley’s essay was: Here is a woman witnessing, and critiquing, the unreasonable expectations projected upon another woman in the hours after her “fight with life and death.” She was, from her own visceral experience, empathizing with a real woman—with a real body that had just gone through one of the most extreme processes a body can go through—pressured into pretending for “a pack of male photographers.”
The “s—t-heads,” plural, are not Middleton, singular. Knightley’s critique could be read as aimed at any number of shitheads: paparazzi, royal decorum, the sexist, woman-hating public. It is not aimed at Middleton by any honest interpretation of the essay. And yet, the vast majority of the ensuing coverage has ginned it up as a mom fight. A tiny sampling of headlines: “Keira Knightley Slammed Kate Middleton For Her Perfect Post Birth Appearance,” “Kiera Knightley disapproves of Kate Middleton’s post-hospital appearance,” and “Keira Knightley unimpressed by Kate’s perfect post-birth appearances.”
There were a rare few nuanced headlines: ELLE.com went with “Keira Knightley Criticises Unrealistic Standards Put On Kate Middleton Post-Childbirth.” Jezebel landed somewhere in the middle: “Keira Knightley Would Like the Royals to Acknowledge Birth in All of Its Excruciating Shit-Covered Gore.” But most fell at the far mom-fight extreme.
Thus a critique of the unrealistic societal expectations thrust upon women postpartum—and the dishonest, misleading narrative that emerges as a result—is magically transformed into a middle-school girl fight. An essay begging for attention to be paid to the corporeal realities of birth and motherhood—of torn vaginas and bit nipples and baby feces—is turned into petty female rivalry. In the process, the real critique is neutralized and circumvented.
Now we’re talking about warring women instead of the cultural dynamics—oh, say, the intense fear of women’s reproductive powers, and the attendant unease with the messy, untamed realities of women’s bodies—that pressure many us into performing a sanitized post-birth charade.
There is a similar sleight-of-hand on display in so many media-fueled motherhood rifts—breast feeding versus formula, stay-at-home versus working moms, cry-it-out versus attachment, daycare versus nanny. Even in cases that might be labeled “mommy shaming” without such effortful misreading, the critique rarely rises above one of mom-on-mom crime. It’s one kind of mother critiquing another kind of mother.
The finger is pointed at mean, judgmental, neurotic motherhood, as opposed to a culture that calls mothers, not fathers, to answer for parenting decisions. (Knightley implicitly acknowledges this point when she writes of exhaustedly going to a movie set after being up all night with her baby and facing male colleagues—some with kids they don’t see—who are held to a different standard.) Rarely is it said: Of fucking course we’re fighting each other.
Then again, sometimes, often times—perhaps most of the god damn time—we’re not.