Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps got married over the weekend to longtime girlfriend Nicole Johnson, and it was one of those hush-hush ceremonies on a Mexican beach, the kind of wedding that entertainment and news outlets breathlessly report on afterward. Tabloids love a secret wedding in a foreign locale, but for all intents and purposes, the intrigue factor at these nuptials was low, because the Phelpses had already started their lives together: The two are parents to a baby boy named Boomer, and during the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games over the summer, Nicole and Boomer sitting poolside next to Michael’s mom Debbie became a familiar sight to viewers.
Maybe it’s easy to look like a golden boy next to Phelps’ black swan, Ryan Lochte, but Phelps’ narrative during the Rio Games, his fourth Olympics, was that he had overcome his youthful indiscretions like drugs and DUIs and come into his own as a team leader and role model. That he now had a family in his corner was further evidence of this evolution. No one seemed to bat an eye at Nicole being Phelps’ fiancé rather than wife or tut-tut about Boomer being born out of wedlock, to use a hopelessly 20th-century phrase that is still better than using an even worse term, bastard. It was striking at the time—not because Phelps and Johnson’s choice to form a “nontraditional” family was worthy of criticism but because, not so long ago, it would have tarnished that “golden boy” image.
A new study out of the University of Buffalo shows us that the reaction, or lack thereof, to Phelps, Johnson, and baby Boomer, is pretty typical of our times: Pretty much no one cares anymore when unmarried famous people have babies. According to researcher Hanna Grol-Prokopszyk, celebrity news coverage may actually be normalizing and destigmatizing out-of-wedlock childbirth, making it more acceptable and less worthy of disapproval for noncelebrities. Grol-Prokopczyk came to this hypothesis after analyzing celebrity news juggernaut People’s coverage of celebrity pregnancies dating back to the magazine’s founding in the 1970s. According to a news release from the university, she chose People for its high circulation and reputation for publishing reputable (i.e., not “fictional” stories.) A more detailed version of the study is currently under peer review.
Grol-Prokopscyk’s analysis of People’s coverage is not presented alongside statistics about Americans’ views on children born out of wedlock and whether those attitudes have changed, but she points out that celebrities have typically been pretty influential in these matters. She cites the “Angelina effect” here, noting the huge impact of Angelina Jolie’s op-ed about preventative mastectomy.
Celebrities, what with being rich and bohemian and less subject to worrying about what the neighbors will think, are often at the forefront of changing notions of family. Think about how they’re always getting divorced or adopting or taking up with a Kardashian or whatever thing might not have always fit into the picture of a strictly defined nuclear family. This has been true at least since People’s very first celebrity pregnancy cover story, which featured an unmarried Goldie Hawn in 1976, with cover lines promising that both the baby and “a new hubby” were on the way. (She must have been pregnant with Oliver Hudson; thank you Oliver Hudson for leading the way as always.) “There aren’t many non-marital fertility stories in the 1970s, but when they do appear there’s almost always a promise that the parent will marry by the time the baby is born,” Grol-Prokopczyk said in the university news release about the study. “It’s like saying, ‘Don’t worry, readers. They’ll be married by the time the baby arrives.’ ”
This “don’t worry, a hubby’s on the way” attitude finally began to shift in the 1990s, so that by the mid-2000s, “non-marital births were almost without exception presented as happy, morally unproblematic events.” Though People was slow to acknowledge same-sex relationships, calling stars in same-sex relationships like Jodie Foster and Rosie O’Donnell “single mothers” through the early 2000s, Grol-Prokopczyk believes that overall celebrity media coverage can model social change.
It’s almost like we like celebrities and nothing bad happens when they have kids don’t get married, so we realize, hey, maybe it’s not so bad. Take that, Dan Quayle! As a vice-presidential candidate in 1992, Quayle famously criticized fictional character Murphy Brown for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” Though numbers for single motherhood and children born to unmarried parents have indeed grown since the 1950s or whenever America was last quote-unquote great, it’s important to remember that the causality here is probably not that normal people are getting pregnant out of wedlock because they see celebrities and TV characters doing it. Instead, celebrities and fictional characters are subject to the same societal trends as the rest of us, and when norms evolve to regard their lives as acceptable and worth celebrating, or at least not remarking upon, everyone can benefit from the scrutiny going away.
Maybe the scrutiny doesn’t entirely disappear, though. Strangely enough, after news of the Phelpses’ secret wedding broke, it came out that actually, the pair had been secretly married for months. They said “I do” before the Olympics but after Boomer was born, in June in Arizona, without publicizing it. So either subtract several months from the calculation you were making about what level of hell they belong in, or shrug and continue not caring.