Daddy Issues: The Unexpected Parenting Insights of What to Expect When You’re Expecting

Movie poster featuring Elizabeth Banks, Brooklyn Decker, and Cameron Diaz clutching their pregnant bellies, while JLo hugs a copy of the book What To Expect... When You're Expecting.(Contains spoilers.)

I'd read conflicting accounts of What to Expect When You're Expecting: While Bitch's own Andi and Kelsey previously pointed out many of its flaws, Bitchflicks called it an "unexpected gem". Having watched it, I understand the conflicting feminist opinions: the movie's so tonally inconsistent and stuffed full of characters, it's open to a range of interpretations. There's a lot to hate about it, from its heteronormativity (gay people and single people have babies too!) to its racial troping (a minor character calls Latino couple Holly and Alex "spicy"; Vic (Chris Rock) and his wife have more children than everyone else, and they're all named after professional athletes...). A subplot pitting Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) against her younger, more glamorous stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), who is also pregnant, also felt hackneyed: why not subvert the idea that women are all jealous of models by having them support each other, instead?

But the film has some surprisingly realistic moments, especially compared to traditional romantic comedies where pregnancy and labor are portrayed as a breeze. After Rosie (Anna Kendrick) becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she and Marco (Chace Crawford), who she's barely started dating, become a cozy couple. But then she miscarries and sinks into depression, and their too-much-too-soon relationship falls apart; all of which felt surprising and pretty revolutionary for a big-budget (alleged) comedy.

One of the couples, Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) are adopting a baby because they can't conceive. It might have been better had adoption not been shown to be a consolation prize and more realistic if it had taken a little longer than a few months, but the movie at least showed some insight into the process, and included the adoption ceremony, which was treated with as much reverence as the birth scenes — which again, felt like something I hadn't seen in a mainstream movie before.

At the start of the film, Wendy is an OTT twee archetype: a "natural" birth advocate who runs a baby boutique called The Breast Choice and wrote a book about breast-feeding called Milk It!. She speaks in a soft voice and wears florals and is as type A about conceiving as she is everything else in her life. But after her husband Gary finally puts a bun in her oven, she realizes that the standards to which she's been holding other women are unattainable. When she eventually gives birth, not only does she ask for an epidural, but she ends up needing a cesarean and loses a lot of blood, which puts her life in danger — a rare Hollywood admittance of the potential reality of labor.

The movie might have seemed more cohesive if the couples having babies all knew each other (perhaps via a prenatal group) rather than some of their lives intersecting occasionally. Few of the women come together and share their experiences, which is a wasted opportunity. In preparation for his impending fatherhood, however, Alex joins a separate "Dudes' Group", for men who take an active role in their children's care.

There's a lot to dislike about this group: The men are obsessed with seeming stereotypically masculine and inform Alex that they have secrets from their wives (like that one kid was found eating a cigarette) and entertain small rebellions (one of the men is calling his son Henri "Henry", in defiance of his wife's insistence on the French pronunciation). Vic says, "Women pretty much control the baby universe. Here, we're free." So far, so gender essentialist. But towards the end of the film, when Alex is scared about the responsibility he's taking on, especially as these men seem so bummed out and tied down by their kids, the Dudes put him straight. 

Sure, the concept that you don't know true happiness until you have kids is unoriginal and alienates anyone unable or unwilling to become a parent. But it still feels positive and progressive to see Chris Rock say, "You don't get it. We love being dads." Fatherhood is too often presented as "emasculating", in real life and in pop culture (including this film, at times), so any challenge to that is welcome.

Kelsey previously pointed out that Rock's character is a "Magical Negro" trope, blessed with special knowledge but lacking any storyline of his own; there merely to serve the other, mostly white characters. The problematic nature of his character could have been solved had the dudes in the group been coupled with the women who were having babies, rather than being a weird, tacked-on extra. However, showing an African-American man as an engaged and capable father, and positioning him as powerful precisely because he knows so much about children struck me as fresh and envelope-pushing, even if that's a sad reflection on the lack of diversity we normally see in pop culture.

Although the film's very flawed and frequently paints men as immature, I like that it furthers the message that parenting is a joint responsibility (Alex and Holly even have a rockin' joint baby shower) and something men can find fulfilling. It also doesn't gloss over the difficulties of pregnancy and of adjusting to becoming a parent. If it had stopped wasting time on slapstick moments like some weird hybrid of Love, Actually and Bridesmaids-with-bellies, it might actually have painted a vivid and perceptive portrait of parenthood.

Previously: What Happens When Stay-at-Home-Dads Have Had Enough?; The New Normal, the Same Old Bigotry.

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Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Interesting. I haven't seen

Interesting. I haven't seen the movie, so I'm probably not in the best position to comment, but I would probably tend to see Wendy's birth narrative less as a positive take on the realistic dangers of birth, and more as a problematic trope of "woman who thinks she wants natural birth gets her comeuppance."

Hollywood seems to love nothing more than scolding its strong, type-A female characters for daring to expect to have any sort of control over their own birth experiences. I still remember the birth episode of Up All Night when Christina Applegate's character has written a birth plan and gets laughed all the way to the operating table for her c-section. Now, is this realistic in a country where more than 30 percent of births are c-sections? Sure. But is it feminist? On Up All Night, certainly not. And I haven't seen the movie, but I kind of doubt it.

Of course I support any individual woman's right to have an epidural if she wants one, even if she never thought she would -- and one of the great truths of any birth is that at some point you realize it's not something you could have ever quite planned or prepared for. I came within inches of an emergency section myself (my daughter was born with the cord around her body). But just once, I would love to see an actual natural birth in a Hollywood movie or TV show -- a woman who's not screaming her head off, who's not afraid, who's an active participant, not the subject of a doctor's will. From this description, it doesn't sound like that was something portrayed in this movie.

Yes, there's definitely an

Yes, there's definitely an aspect of comeuppance in Wendy's story, not just in the birth scenes but in general. But there's also a lot of emphasis on how the media presents pregnancy as this wonderful, glowing experience and the fact that it's often really not like that, which I felt counteracted that to some degree.

Cameron Diaz's character has a more typical birth scene, with lots of grunting and wailing, but it is pretty positive, and Brooklyn Decker has a very easy birth. All experiences are in a medicalized setting, though, and there's no varying from the hospital or from the same position, which is probably realistic, but it might have been nice to see at least one safe healthy home birth or water birth, or something.

Having said that, I felt like Andi and Kelsey had already effectively skewered the more problematic aspects of the film, so I wanted to take a different angle and see if there was anything positive to extract from it about fatherhood and parenting in general. I'd never call it an explicitly feminist movie, but I do think it's worth spotting and celebrating progressive moments in mainstream pop culture.

I didn't go into the birth stories here too much as that's not the focus of the series, but there have been past Bitch blog series exploring pop culture portrayals of pregnancy and labor in more depth, and the post on Up All Night's C-section (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/bringing-up-baby-reagans-cesarean-on-up-al...) definitely generated some strong debate...