They say in comedy that timing is everything. Certainly this summer’s blockbuster comedy hit, Knocked Up, about the aftermath of a disastrous one-night-stand between Alison (Katherine Heigl) and Ben (Seth Rogen), is uniquely a product of these times. The worst of these times, that is.
While Judd Apatow, the film’s creator, is pro-choice and insists he is not trying to make any kind of statement with the movie, Knocked Up is nothing less than an ideological sledgehammer chock-full of the hard-core anti-abortion, patriarchal, and traditional values that are on the rise today. That it is a skillful work of art told with the smug comedic sensibilities of a raunchy "post-feminist" generation–replete with awkward sex scenes, smart cultural references, disdainful jabs at the stereotypes of married life, and no allusions to religion–only makes its vicious underlying social conservatism more insidious. Even deadly.
Widely dubbed this generation’s signature movie, akin to The Graduate 40 years ago, this film should be taken as an urgent and frightening wake-up call.
This film portrays the decision of a young successful professional to carry to term an unplanned pregnancy and to marry the man involved, no matter how repulsive, as a path to fulfillment she didn’t even know she was missing.
Alison, the film’s obvious projection of its female ideal, combines the boring-as-cardboard stereotypes of knock-out blond beauty and girl-next-door goodness, but beyond that she is empty. She offers no witty banter, doesn’t get the male characters’ funny movie references, and patiently endures one insult after another. Despite being a rising on-camera entertainment interviewer, she utters stunning throw-backs like, "How do I know you can take care of me and my baby?"
In keeping with the recent Supreme Court ruling that elevated the health and "interests" of fetuses in relationship to the woman, the film shows more dynamism and development in its portrayal of its fetus–filling the screen first with cells dividing, then with a pulsing sonogram at 9 weeks, at 16 weeks, at 24 weeks, and at 28 weeks–than it shows in the development of Alison’s character.
Not only this, but abortion is never seriously considered. Those who even hint at it are portrayed as selfish and uncaring: Alison’s icy-cold mother tells her to "take care of it" while Ben’s friend wins laughs when he can’t bring himself to utter the word and instead suggests that "it rhymes with shmashmortion." As one reviewer–completely content to join the film in its post-abortion nightmare universe–put it, after discovering her pregnancy, "Alison is faced with a daunting choice: going it alone or getting to know the baby’s father."
So, who is this "father" that Alison "responsibly" gets to know? Ben lives with a tribe of jobless pot-smoking friends who spend their days documenting the exact second when women appear naked in movies. When Alison tells him she is pregnant, he yells at her in public, blaming her sexual over-eagerness for his failure to use a condom (somehow in this movie, as in Apatow’s40-Year-Old Virgin, putting on a condom is prohibitively difficult). He insists that she knew their sex was unprotected and says to her, "Was your vagina drunk, too?"
Coming 10 years after the word vagina was ushered into mainstream culture through generation-wide readings of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues at high schools and colleges and major stages around the world, this film seems on a mission to restore public contempt for this part of women’s bodies. Through more than half a dozen references, the film insists vaginas are ugly, disgusting, gross, and in need of reconstructive surgery after childbirth. At the height of the movie’s comedic build-up, three screen-wide vagina shots are successfully engineered to elicit "ews" from the audience. And of all the lines in the movie, it is a man being told "Don’t let the door hit you in the vagina on the way out" that gets repeated–and marveled at–by the film’s hero, Ben.
Much more than Alison, it is her sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), who undergoes transformation. And it is this transformation, together with Ben’s, that concentrates the morality of this movie.
Debbie begins as an embodiment of everything women supposedly become if men "subject" themselves to marriage; she is nagging, cold, annoying, controlling, obsessive, uninteresting, and superficial. She obsesses over her deteriorating attractiveness as a sexual commodity, lashing out at younger women. She even calls her children’s babysitter a "high school c**t." It is Debbie who drives her husband, who doesn’t even want an affair, to tell her lies just to escape long enough to play fantasy baseball.
The climactic scene of the movie is during childbirth. After disappearing for months Ben reemerges. He’s purchased a house, gotten a job, and finally read the baby books, but these are not the things that prove him ready for fatherhood. He also has not become sensitive to Alison’s needs and to the friendship and support shared between her and her sister, or developed any sort of remorse for his negligence (he admits freely that he never doubted she would take him back).
Instead, he proves himself by asserting absolute ownership over Alison and the soon-to-be child. When Debbie, who went through birth-training with Alison, arrives to help her sister, he takes her into the hall. Out of nowhere he starts yelling, "That’s MY room now! Back the fuck off!" He points to the waiting room and says, "That’s your area. You stay out of MY ROOM and go be in YOUR AREA!"
Debbie, publicly insulted and literally "put in her place," is speechless for the first time. She slumps into a chair next to her husband in the waiting room and sulks. Then something remarkable happens. She softens. "I like himHe’ll make a good father and he’ll take care of her," she says. Turns out, she was annoying and cold because there wasn’t a man in her life taking charge. In the absence of male domination, she wasn’t allowed to be feminine and submissive the way she becomes in this final scene. It truly is a Promise Keeper moment.
The underlying conservative currents are not lost on the Christian right. "While the film contains much vulgar and crass content," writes ChristianAnswers.net, "there are numerous excellent morals." The reviewer praises the film for shooting down any suggestion of abortion as well as its themes of fatherhood, parental responsibility, and marriage. He continues, "The scriptwriters probably made a mistake in including such vulgar content, as they have isolated a large portion of what would be their target audience. And this is disappointing, as the film hasnumerous unusually responsible themes."
But this movie wasn’t made for a conservative Christian audience. It was made for the 20-somethings who are smart and savvy and having one-night stands and embracing porn culture. It was made for those shaped by Sex in the City -style "feminism" where participating in the commodification of sex and women’s bodies is thought to be a form of "liberation." It is made for a generation that is technically pro-choice, but increasingly becoming convinced that abortion is "irresponsible," "tragic," and even "sinful."
But this is also a generation that is morally adrift, bumping up against the spiritual morass of a highly me-driven and hedonistic culture–much of it brilliantly caricatured in this movie. In the midst of this, it is no doubt refreshing to watch a story where, for once, the man doesn’t duck out immediately after sleeping with a woman. But this film’s romanticized view of "doing the right thing," marrying up, and keeping the baby is sheer fiction. Ask anyone who lived through the 1950s or earlier, when women who got pregnant were called "knocked up"–a pejorative that goes right along with enforced "shotgun marriages" and the view that sexually active women deserve to have their lives foreclosed and that women belong in the kitchen "barefoot and pregnant."
What’s needed is something new–a culture and ethos where women and men both get to be funny and smart and in charge of their life decisions. Where relationships are entered into voluntarily, based on mutual respect and equality. Where children are a joy to individuals or couples who plan to have them–but no one is guilt tripped or coerced into having a child they don’t want. Where certainly no one has a child under the cruelly propagated bullshit notion that only motherhood can bring unparallelled meaning to a woman’s life.
What is needed is many things–in relation to the culture and to women and to children and to humor. But what is certainly NOT needed is a return to the traditional patriarchal family NOR a free-fall into its use-or-be-used, self-indulgent patriarchal reincarnation. In reality, if not yet in the movies, these are not our only choices.