Kylie Jenner’s pregnancy film and the public performance of privacy

It might seem a contradiction to release a short film about a supposedly private pregnancy, but it’s a savvy way to walk a treacherous tightrope.

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The celebrity gossip world had assumed that 20-year-old Kylie Jenner, the youngest daughter of Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner, was pregnant for quite some time. She has, after all, been conspicuously absent from all Kardashian content for the last nine months. But there was no confirmation until 4 February, when Jenner released a statement announcing the birth of her daughter. “I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark,” she wrote to her fans. “My pregnancy was one I chose not to do in front of the world.”

She also released an 11-minute long video documenting the entire process from bump to birth. Called “To Our Daughter”, it poses as an intimate family film with an audience of one, with Jenner’s friends and family talking to the new child. Of course, this is pretence. The video is really intended for the much wider audience of a Kardashian-interested public: over 20 million people had watched the film just 12 hours after it was uploaded to YouTube. The video brands Jenner’s motherhood for the public, atones for her recent absence from the spotlight, and serves as a trailer for upcoming episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which document Jenner’s pregnancy in a more traditional reality TV format.

You may hate the Kardashians with the fire of a thousand Kimoji-branded lighters, but regardless: the video is a vivid example of the most in-vogue strategies of celebrity brand management. It professes intimacy both verbally and in its lo-fi, analogue aesthetics, using a Nineties home video style to draw parallels between Jenner’s pregnancy and videos of her own birth in 1997. It toes a fine line between aspirational and relatable: showing off Jenner’s impossibly glamorous baby shower one minute, broadcasting self-deprecating asides about her enormous appetite and weight gain the next. It sits on the fence of social conservatism: Jenner is a 20-year-old, unmarried, millionaire businesswoman, but the video suggests her ultimate purpose in life is motherhood.

It also tells us something about the way celebrity pregnancies function in 2018. In her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Anne Helen Petersen writes that Kim Kardashian West’s “very public pregnancy” in 2013 with her first child, North West, was ground-breaking – challenging the age-old assumption that to be anything other than skinny and smiling with a perfectly spherical bump is somehow “unsophisticated, trashy, unbecoming, obscene”. For Petersen, it seemed obvious that this pregnancy would reshape many other celebrity pregnancies for a long time. She writes, “It will take years for the cultural influence [of Kardashian West’s pregnancy] to become clear.”

But Kardashian West’s first pregnancy would remain her most public. As Petersen observes in detail, she did not enjoy the extreme level of scrutiny she received while pregnant with North: tabloids sneered at her “fat feet”, compared her to a killer whale, and judged her for the bodycon dresses she still wore, emphasising every curve of her pregnant form. Kardashian West confessed on KUWTK, “To say that all the scrutiny doesn’t get to me, I would be lying.” Her next pregnancy was mostly revealed to the public via the show – while she was still papped, she made fewer public appearances. Her third, via a surrogate, was confirmed latest of all her pregnancies, four months before birth. At the same time her sisters, Khloe Kardashian as well as Jenner, were also experiencing “secret” pregnancies. “I know we’ve been keeping this quiet, but we wanted to enjoy this between our family and close friends as long as we could privately,” Khloe wrote on Instagram when announcing her first pregnancy.

Perhaps the anxiety and shame Kim Kardashian West felt during her first pregnancy caused this shift. Perhaps it was a strategy to deal with the fact that Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which remains the family’s flagship product, is a few months out of sync with their lives – post too much on social media immediately, and the show loses its impact. But there’s another key event: after Kardashian West was robbed in Paris in 2016, the family deliberately shied away from updating their lives and locations in real-time on social media. Kim didn’t appear in public or post on social media until 2017. When she did return to the internet, her posts had changed: there was a clear shift away from immediacy and the glamour of celebrity to domesticity, nostalgia, and privacy.

The Kardashian brand has always been about family. It’s a huge, noisy, chaotic, openly sexual family, but one that espouses traditional values at its core. KUWTK’s success depended upon the family’s balancing act between being outrageous (a world of sex tapes, divorces and arrests) and still remaining essentially safe and conservative. The Kardashian women are sexually expressive, financially independent career women for whom marriage and motherhood are still sacred.

Just as those updates from Kim Kardashian West – family photos with a grainy, analogue aesthetic – were a deliberate performance of private motherhood, so too is Jenner’s pregnancy film and its accompanying statement. She emphasises that hiding her pregnancy from the spotlight was a conscious decision made not as a marketing strategy, but to benefit her unborn child: “There was no gotcha moment, no big paid reveal I had planned. I knew my baby would feel every stress and every emotion, so I chose to do it this way”. Her friends and family emphasise that Jenner was “born to be a mom”. It conforms to the “family first” Kardashian brand.

“If you were born after 1991, you’ve never known a time when pregnancy wasn’t performed in public,” Petersen observes. For Jenner, a truly private pregnancy, at her level of fame, must have been almost unimaginable. It might seem like a contradiction to release a short film broadcasting a supposedly controversially private pregnancy, but as the celebrity-interested public both craves and disapproves of family sagas played out in the spotlight, it’s a savvy way to walk a treacherous tightrope.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.