Olivia Wilde.Credit:Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
There may be no official charge for it – like, say, for drink-driving – but women around the world have been put on notice: no being sexual, while also being a mother.
This latest put-it-in-your-pants smack down began earlier this month, when photos surfaced of actor and director Olivia Wilde, 36, holding hands with pop singer Harry Styles, 26, at the Californian wedding of Styles’ manager.
Immediately, hordes of people on social media piled on, throwing down vomit face emojis – and the prose equivalent – all because Wilde, the actor best known for starring in House, is not only 10 years older than the Watermelon Sugar singer but, most crucially, a single mother-of- two. (This is based on a presumption of the two being romantically attached. Though Wilde is currently directing Styles in her latest film, the thriller Don’t Worry Darling, and further photos of him with his arm her waist have surfaced, neither has confirmed a relationship.)
“If she has two kids at home, but is out running around with a dude 10 years younger during a pandemic, she belongs to the streets,” tweeted one person, echoing the sentiment of countless others.
Wilde, wrote another, “should be taking care of her two kids instead of dating one”. (“Did Olivia Cheat?” Us Weekly magazine chimed in on its cover, referring presumably to her former fiance, actor Jason Sudeikis, from whom Wilde split last year.)
How can we still be here? The Bible might not have looked kindly upon women who dared to be in a relationship with anyone other than the father of their children, but in every decade since then in the modern era there have been tinder-keg backlashes against the double standard that has seen men praised for their sexual prowess, and women condemned for it (especially if, God forbid, they have children).
In 1968, in the midst of worldwide fights for women’s rights – which would later culminate in Australia in the 1984 federal Sex Discrimination Act – the Grammy Award-winning hit, Harper Valley PTA (later made famous by Dolly Parton), celebrated the miniskirt-wearing single mother of a teenage daughter, scorned in town for “running around with men and goin’ wild”, for hitting back by pointing out the hypocrisies of those condemning her. (The song, later voted one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Country Songs Of All Time”, written by Tom T. Hall, was based on an incident he witnessed in his hometown in Kentucky in the mid-1940s.)
In 1975, Australian activist Anne Summers’ seminal feminist work Damned Whores and God’s Police became a surprise bestseller. It argued the absence of a culture that embraced women as being anything other than either virtuous mothers or “bad girls” was the “major impediment to female rebellion, and that which keeps women physically and psychologically bound to their family-centred roles”. (It has sold more than 100,000 copies.)
On and on it went until, five years ago, when mother of four Kim Kardashian was condemned for appearing naked on the cover of Paper magazine – “I normally don’t. But … you’re someone’s mother,” wrote actor Naya Rivera – and Rachel Khona, of the popular parenting blog Scary Mommy hit back, writing, “Are moms supposed to suddenly metamorphosis after they have a child? … Maybe we should respect women’s sexuality [the] same way we do men’s.”
This didn’t help a woman in Byron Bay I know, who, last month, was shamed by a female colleague for having a sex life while under the influence of an XX chromosome (and with three children to her name).
“I happened to complain about the fact that I was meant to be meeting somebody [for a date], they cancelled, and I made a joke, ‘Maybe I’ll just find somebody else,’ ” she says.
“She said, ‘Maybe you should be spending some time with your children.’ I was like, ‘Oooooh’. I just said, ‘Ah, they’re spending quality time with their dad.’ ”
It’s infuriating. As this mother went on to say: “You’re expected to be quite self-sacrificing and any needs [you have] outside of your children is considered to be a betrayal of the role that you’ve chosen.”
Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen, a specialist in gender and sexual studies at the Australian National University isn’t surprised that mothers are still facing this censorship and prejudice.
“You’d only be surprised if you didn’t think that Australia was still sexist, and I think that it is,” she says. (She points, as one example, to the long-time media and parliamentary treatment of former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s “love child”, the result of an affair he had while he was married – as a “private matter” – in contrast to how the sexual lives of his female counterparts, such as former prime minister Julia Gillard, and former Australian Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot, were treated. That is to say with scrutiny and condemnation under the guise of public interest.)
This is why it’s so important, she says, to interrogate the comments flying in the wake of Wilde and Styles’ purported relationship.
“They’re part of important conversations about sexuality and consent, and the capacity of women to be able to do what they want with their body, and also have sexual lives that are not reproductive.”
While she doesn’t see the taboo of mothers who are sexual going away any time soon, or at all – “I think that in the same way that we continue to have racism, we’ll continue to have sexism; it’s part of the currency of our society, and we’re not going to wake up and either of these are going to have vanished” – she does see steps forward, in the shape of more realistic representations of women in popular culture.
She points to the portrayal of the “highly sexualised” mother in the new TV show, Bump – about a teenage mother and her own mother, played by Claudia Karvan, who is romantically interested in one of her colleagues – as “quite radical”. “That’s really just trying to push us around those boundaries, around mothers’ sexuality,” Rasmussen says of the show, which airs on Stan, owned by Nine, the publisher of this masthead.
Bump creator Kelsey Munro says this wasn’t her intention, when she first wrote the show’s script, and then developed it further with producers Karvan and John Edwards.
“It was just, they’re people and people like sex, and have sex,” says Munro, 44, a mother-of-two. “We were just trying to make, you know, interesting characters that were sort of naturalistic and reflected our collective life experience in the writing room.”
She is flabbergasted when told about the backlash Wilde has received.
“I can’t believe that people in 2021 are criticising single mothers for having sex. Are you f—ing kidding me? It just seems so sort of Victorian, or something … If Olivia Wilde is dating Harry Styles, shit, he’s hot, that’s awesome. Good on her.”
Munro pauses, before getting to the most crucial point. “Didn’t she make that Booksmart movie?” she asks of Wilde, referring to the 2019 coming of age comedy, about two rule-breaking high school girls. (She did.) “That’s a great movie.”
Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.