Let me start by saying that I hate the word “pregnant” and all of its derivatives. I apologize for the number of times I’m about to use it, along with “belly,” “stomach,” and similarly ugly terms related to the gestational state. I don’t know why we can’t find terms that feel better to say, or that can be said without undue emphasis. (I’ve made this point about the word “breasts” and “boobs”–there’s no way to say them without almost accidentally yelling them because of the effort involved.)
But I digress.
My full-term pregnancy, labor, and post-natal life were some of the most isolating and disorienting experiences I’ve known. At the time, I largely blamed society for failing to represent pregnancy and its aftermath honestly and for placing misinformed expectations on mothers to have certain feelings or experiences, leaving no room for individuality, and providing no guidance for those who fall outside of what has been presented as “normal.” To put it bluntly, I felt lied to, and then abandoned. No TV show, no class, no film captured the truth of my experience (“16 and Pregnant” came closest), and I dwelled on this, month after month, as my daughter grew. As I pondered portrayals of pregnancy on TV and in film, especially, and I noticed that pregnancy films fall into four(ish) categories: teen pregnancy, monster/alien pregnancy, pregnancy that forces a man to act responsibly and acknowledge some truth about life, and sad realistic pregnancy. It’s an oft-used driver of plot, clearly, and yet there are so few of these films I can point to that speak at all to my own experience.
Where the Heart Is (2000) – A pregnant girl is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Wal-Mart, where she later gives birth.
For Keeps (1988) – Molly Ringwald is pregnant. She and her boyfriend decide to keep it – and get married (to their parents’ dismay).
Juno (2007) – An acerbic teen girl is pregnant, and her father is as supportive as the father of a pregnant teen could be. She and her sort-of boyfriend decide on an open adoption, but during the process the would-be adoptive father leaves his wife.
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) – A working-class girl gets pregnant. She marries the baby’s father, but leads an unhappy life, struggling to bond with her son and dealing with her husband’s heroin addiction. She asks her husband to leave, and works hard to ensure her son has every opportunity she missed out on because she was a teen mom. She writes a novel about her experience.
This is actually a relatively small category, although teen pregnancy is a ready-made plot. There’s naturally conflict, with a built-in resolution (the birth of the baby or the termination of the pregnancy). The movies that do tackle this issue do so fairly honestly (take Juno, for instance). My only complaint is that typically everything turns out OK–the baby is adopted by a loving family, someone takes in the pregnant mother when her family or baby’s father abandon her, and the mother is able to go on to a normal and happy life. Take a look at “Teen Mom” for evidence that this is so often not the case. Even when a baby is expected, planned, hoped for–even then, there’s no return to normal. There is no longer any “normal.” Riding in Cars with Boys is an exception to this; although the teen mom, Bev, eventually overcomes the difficulties caused by teenage motherhood, she does struggle, and her success is due to her own personal growth and not the help of a stranger or the support of her family. Of course, that one is based on a true story, and heavily influenced by its author…
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – The elderly couple next door drug Rosemary and impregnate her with the spawn of Satan. Naturally, she’s upset.
The Fly II (1989) – A woman dies giving birth to a child she conceived with a man whose DNA was merged with that of a housefly. The child seems relatively normal, if unusually bright… until…
Grace (2009) – A woman’s dead fetus miraculously survives… and has a taste for flesh.
Devil’s Due (2014) – A woman is impregnated by a Satanic cult.
Inseminoid (1981) – A woman is impregnated by an alien, and goes berserk due to the overwhelming maternal instinct to protect her child.
At first, I was offended by the large number of films in this group, and how easy it was to find my representative sample, but over time I realized that films in this category are, in a way, portraying more truth than any of the others. Hear me out: pregnancy (ugh, that word again) comes with all sorts of mixed feelings. Joy was somewhere toward the bottom of the list, for me, falling behind mild to severe discomfort, fear, a sense of impotence (ironically), and alienation from my own body. These horror movies account for those emotions. When you feel a fetus move inside of you, and see your abdomen bulge and warp with its movement, and you sense the inexorable march of time taking you toward your due date, you can’t help but feel that this alien being has taken over your body, and you’re just along for the ride. And when it’s born, what if that birth is violent or painful? And what if the baby is malformed? What if it’s not mine?
These movies even address the heartbreak that so often comes with pregnancy. Grace, in particular, capitalizes on that hope you feel, when you’re told your baby no longer has a heartbeat, that maybe by some miracle it’s not true, and your little one will survive.
Pregnancy That Forces a Man to Act Responsibly and Acknowledge Some Truth About Life
Knocked Up (2007) – After a one night stand, a pretty blonde E! news anchor learns she is pregnant by a man who never grew out of his stoner phase.
Nine Months (1995) – Hugh Grant is shocked by his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy, and Hugh Grant spends an entire film freaking out about how the pregnancy will affect Hugh Grant.
Father of the Bride Part II (1995) – Steve Martin’s daughter got married, and he coped. Now, she’s pregnant! And now his wife is pregnant! How does all of this affect poor Steve Martin? Watch to find out.
She’s Having a Baby (1988) – A man discovers that doing what is expected – getting married, moving to the suburbs, and having a baby – is really boring. He misses single life, blah blah… his wife wants a baby, blah blah… and when the baby is born, he has an epiphany.
Junior (1994) – Arnold Schwarzenegger is pregnant.
Since the dawn of time… or at least since the penning of Genesis… men have been trying to take pregnancy and the act of giving birth away from women. This category of movie is truly insulting – unlike the “monster pregnancy” category – in that it shifts the emotional focus of the pregnancy away from the woman, bearer of life, giver of birth, endurer of great discomfort and pain, martyr to the continuation of our species… Sorry, what was I talking about?
If there’s one perspective on pregnancy that we do not need, it is an outsider’s, and if there’s one story women should own, it’s childbearing. I mean, we should own all the other stories, too (duh), but this one is so definitely ours that I am surprised it’s still mostly told from a guy’s point of view.
“But what about Knocked Up?” you say. “What’s-her-name from that doctor show is a career woman! She’s afraid her pregnancy will hurt her, professionally, but it ends up helping her!” I’m sorry. You’re right. Knocked Up really gets at the issues pregnant women in the workforce face today. It’s totally realistic that a professional, unmarried woman who gets pregnant will briefly worry about her job but then be able to turn her pregnancy into a professional advantage. That happens every day. I’m sure most working pregnant women and mothers would agree. *rolls eyes*
I know these movies are comedies, and therefore not necessarily meant to show Truth, but come on. There are so many funny moments during pregnancy, birth, and infancy that writers have yet to take advantage of, and which are more honest than “huffing and puffing as we speed to the hospital” or “man feeling awkward in lamaze class.” What about “husband spills cup of ice water into birth tub during a contraction,” or “boss routinely comments on the food his pregnant employee brings for lunch,” or “learning to use the sitz bath,” or “woman paints her nipples purple in order to treat thrush” (too honest? Because that was hilarious…)
So who’s providing an inside look?
Depressing Realistic Pregnancy
Away We Go (2009) – A broke young couple, not terribly successful, but not miserable, try to decide where and how they’ll raise their unborn child.
Waitress (2007) – A pregnant woman in an abusive relationship hopes to leave her husband and start a pie shop. She learns, over the course of the movie, to rely on herself, and to accept help where it is given.
This is a small category, but both films in my representative sample are stand-outs when it comes to portraying pregnancy in a realistic way that does not take focus away from the pregnant woman’s feelings or flatten them so that the women are two-dimensional vehicles for a man’s neuroses (additional kudos to Away We Go for featuring a man who’s not an imbecile). They perhaps don’t portray as much of the “joy” part of pregnancy, nor do they address life immediately after birth (which is a shocker, not in the “I have to wake up at all hours of the night” kind of way but the “Holy crap I feel like I got hit by a truck and then dragged on the pavement, and yet I’m supposed to be feeling maternal” kind of way), but the months leading up to birth are quite enough to cover in one film, I think, and birth is a nice bow with which to tie off the end of a story. Away We Go, in particular, really gets at the “We’re in this together and we’re going to do it our way” pacts that parents make before their child is born, and demonstrates that parenthood is at once a shared experience and an individual experience. Nobody, not even another parent, can really understand your experience with your child – or with your pregnancy. Waitress, on the other hand, touches on the strength and vulnerability of the pregnant woman, who must rely on the help of others for some things, but who must also go through it all alone.
So, let’s give the pregnancy story back to women, and try to make movies actually about the women. I believe there could be a pregnancy movie, a la Bridesmaids, that is heartfelt, hilarious, and new all at once. It doesn’t have to be a teen pregnancy – the parents don’t have to be struggling – in order for it to be real and sincere. Pregnancy is a plot in itself. At the same time, we should not expect that any movie about pregnancy – even (or especially) a documentary – will show The Truth, because The Truth is so individual, and so personal, that the only way to understand it is to live it.