I Don’t Want No Baby: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Shmashmortions

June 11, 2007

I may be the only person in the country who cried in sadness during Knocked Up. I did: I shed a tear for Katherine Heigl’s Alison, when she’s weeping at the doctor’s office having just being told officially that she’s pregnant. That moment is so difficult, and not just for Seth Rogen’s awkward Ben who’s standing next to her unsure what to do. It felt painfully accessible–what young woman couldn’t imagine the terror and confusion Alison is experiencing?

Knocked Up is #3 at the box office right now. It’s a great movie, but there’s no doubt Judd Apatow’s strength is in capturing the male voice, as Dana Stevens notes on Slate. The film succeeded not just in the extended stoner scenes and bathroom jokes–which got a little tiresome if only by their length–but in the poignant conversations between the men, between Ben and his friends, his father and, especially Paul Rudd’s character, Pete. Stevens cites the moment between Pete and Ben, when, high on shrooms in a Las Vegas hotel room, they share their fears and disappointments in a scene that is “as revealing as it is hilarious.” Suddenly honest with one another, they express their feelings and, indeed, their love and respect for the women in their lives, the women who, earlier, had seemed like nothing so much as intrusions on good old masculine fun. A.O. Scott identifies a larger critique here, one that is cheerily embedded in jokes about bongs and getting laid:

“Mr. Apatow’s critique of contemporary mores is easy to miss — it is obscured as much by geniality as by profanity — but it is nonetheless severe and directed at the young men who make up the core of this film’s likely audience. The culture of sexual entitlement and compulsive consumption encourages men to remain boys, for whom women serve as bedmates and babysitters. Resistance requires the kind of quixotic heroism Steve Carell showed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or a life-changing accident, like Alison’s serendipitous pregnancy.”

Motherhood takes on this miraculous, sobering force, and the movie presents its women as moral and responsible, foils to the sloppy stumbling boys. This “serendipitous pregnancy” forces Ben to grow up and pushes him into the kind of giving, adult role he had always wished to embrace.

Pregnancy can do this; it wields its own magic. Inevitably in movies, giving birth turns out to be the right decision, indeed–the answer. No doubt motherhood is that luminous, defining experience, for tons of women. It’s something many young women look forward to like nothing else. In Knocked Up, pregnancy gets appropriated as a learning experience for the male characters, as Maureen Dowd noted in a recent column, but in other films like Waitress, a celebration of motherhood can be a real celebration of women. Jenna, played by Keri Russell, is trapped in an awful marriage, so sunk in her misery and thwarted at every attempt to escape, that she can hardly summon the energy to hope any more. In the last minutes of the film, she gives birth–it is experiencing that sudden happiness in another being that enables her to snap out of her depression and change her life. Waitress (#9 at the box office) is a sweet movie, in which having a baby instantaneously fixes all the main character’s problems.

Sounds lovely. And it probably rings a little true for many people–this sense of being called to motherhood. Still, even if we feel that way, it’s not wrong to want to do it right, when we’re ready, and for parenting to take its place alongside a number of other experiences. The risk of idealizing motherhood is that it makes having a baby seem like the peak, the meaning, of a woman’s life.

Before we get to this happy ending, though, Waitress offers rather a different view on pregnancy (which is perhaps what makes the ending feel sweet not sappy). Not only does Jenna despise her mean, abusive husband, but she finds out she’s pregnant just when she was finally forming a plan to escape him. The baby is nothing but a burden on her–she contemplates selling it, but not for a second does anyone suggest an abortion. My parents and I saw this movie one week after we saw Knocked Up. “Too many movies about pregnancy,” my dad complained as we walked out of the theatre. I was thinking something more along the lines of, “Too many movies about scary unwanted pregnancy and too few movies that offer abortion as an option.” I guess I wasn’t the only one thinking that; yesterday’s Sunday Styles included a piece by Mireya Navarro on these very two movies and the unsavory question of abortion in film.

Waitress is really honest about the unhappy side of pregnancy. Jenna makes bitter remarks about the baby she’s carrying and suggests that not every woman has to feel like a mother. Very true. Most of those women who wind up pregnant but don’t feel (yet, or ever) like mothers do choose to have abortions–almost two-thirds according to Navarro’s article.

Stevens points out in her review that, at the very least, allowing Alison to have a straightforward discussion of her options, including abortion, would simply develop her character a little more, making her more rounded and more believable. It’s one thing that Knocked Up and Waitress present us with women who feel all kinds of ambivalence, sadness, and hesitation about being pregnant. But when that initial reluctance is consistently transformed into feeling that a baby is the greatest blessing that could have come into their lives, women’s experiences get left out of the picture. The result of course is movies and shows that are palatable to a wider audience, what makes Gilmore Girls, for instance, so very family-friendly.

I recently watched Disappearing Acts again. In that movie, Sanaa Lathan’s character Zora gets pregnant while dating Franklin, played by Wesley Snipes. But they’re having trouble and it’s terrible timing, especially as her recording career is about to take off and Franklin is in and out of construction jobs. She doesn’t tell him about the baby and it seems that she’s planning on having an abortion, when he figures it out and drunkenly confronts her. “Please don’t kill my baby,” Franklin begs repeatedly, holding onto Zora’s belly. She doesn’t. Later, he gets mad because Zora, now very pregnant and still working as a teacher and recording, is too exhausted to have sex with him.

And that’s what bothers me so much, the way the female body gets co-opted in these optimistic stories about pregnancy. That’s why I cried for Alison, because her life and body were going to go through this strange scary thing that she hadn’t asked for, and because I knew an abortion would never be treated as a viable option, not in this world. In Waitress, there are a few jokey references to how Jenna must have gotten pregnant “that night Earl got me drunk”; once we meet the abusive Earl, it’s not really funny anymore. He has so thoroughly crushed Jenna’s spirit that this pregnancy feels like just one more violent way of commandeering her identity and imprisoning her in this miserable life.

Pregnancy does not always solve the problem, it does not always turn the wrong guy into the right one or fill you with the strength to embrace life. Sometimes pregnancy is the problem. It took me about one second of knowing Alison and Jenna to viscerally identify with their feelings of fear and frustration. That’s a fairly reasonable experience for women, even if it’s not one that studios, comedy writers, conservatives, or men want to acknowledge.

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One Response to “I Don’t Want No Baby: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Shmashmortions”

  1. mehass Says:

    great post! it would be interesting to see if/how a movie would be able to talk about abortion in a serious way and still be a popular success because, although it is generally accepted as a viable option (at least in many of my circles), it’s still generally taboo to talk about/represent it in pop culture. Though, I guess maybe we have to tackle the idea of unwanted pregnancy first, which both of these movies seem to do, if in very different ways.

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