What Knocked Up gets wrong about women.
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My first thought on walking out of Knocked Up (Universal Pictures) was, I can't wait to get home and see my baby. Which led to a second thought: Good Lord, if this raunchy, guy-centric summer comedy is also able to inspire pangs of maternal longing, it's going to do absolutely gonzo box office. Knocked Up is a crossover movie both in gender and in age. You could see it on a first date (though, as one of my viewing companions pointed out, the dinner conversation after might get a little awkward: "So, what if you got me pregnant tonight? Er … heh.") You could see it with your parents, if you don't mind squirming through a few semi-explicit sex scenes. You could even show it to a fairly hip grandmother—mine would have found it hilarious, God rest her soul. It's one of those zeitgeist-tapping romantic comedies that feels like a generational marker, a Tootsie or The Graduate for the 21st century.
Still, there was something about Knocked Up that bugged me—only intermittently during the movie, because I was too busy laughing at writer-director Judd Apatow's zingy dialogue—but more insistently afterward. I think what it boils down to is this: Apatow writes men with far more insight and acuity than he writes women. As a result, his portrait of contemporary gender relations is unbalanced: Crude and hilarious in Guyville, he seizes up when he gets to Ladyland and allows himself to take refuge in comfortable clichés. It's not that Knocked Up is misogynistic—if anything, Apatow is uxorious to a fault, scrupulously respectful of chicks and the chick stuff they do. He just doesn't seem to get exactly what that stuff is.
What motivates Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy), a successful, self-possessed, and officially hot reporter for the E! network, to have drunken sex with Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), an unemployed schlub who lives in the Valley with four Neanderthal buddies (Martin Starr, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, and Jonah Hill)? Don't get me wrong, I love funny Jewish guys with curly hair and low self-esteem (hi, sweetie!), but this is not a sociologically credible hookup. Without knowing a little more about Alison's romantic past or preferences, it's impossible not to take this mismatch as a sheer plot contrivance, a male fantasy a la According to Jim. It's not clear, either, why Alison—who must be earning a decent salary at E!—lives with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and brother-in-law Pete (Paul Rudd). The real answer: so the bickering couple can provide a grim counterpoint to Alison's shotgun courtship with Ben, while their children (Apatow's real-life daughters, charmingly unrehearsed) serve as a constant reminder of the new life Alison and Ben have unwittingly set in motion.
On their second date, Alison tells Ben she's eight weeks pregnant, and, this being a mainstream movie in which the word abortion literally cannot be uttered—when Ben's pal Jonah briefly invokes the procedure, he says it "rhymes with 'shmashmortion' "—she needs to know whether Ben's onboard for the whole fatherhood thing.
Allow me to briefly divagate here on the nonexistence of abortion as an option in Knocked Up. This omission smells of the focus group, and it's a disappointment in a movie that otherwise prides itself on its unsentimental honesty about the realities of unplanned parenthood. It's just not believable that, in Alison and Ben's upper-middle-class, secular L.A. milieu, abortion would not be matter-of-factly discussed as a possibility in the case of a pregnancy this accidental. If she doesn't want one, great—obviously, there'd be no movie if she did—but let's hear about why not. Otherwise, her character becomes a cipher, a foil for Ben's epiphanies about growing up, without being allowed any epiphanies of her own. The biggest unanswered question about Heigl's character is one the movie never tiptoes near—why does she decide to keep the baby?
Paradoxically, the tenderest, most emotionally intimate scenes in Knocked Up aren't the romantic ones between Alison and Ben, but those involving Ben and his profane posse and his growing relationship with the developmentally stunted Pete. When Pete and Ben do mushrooms together during a just-the-boys getaway in Las Vegas, the resulting bull session is as revealing as it is hilarious. Near tears, Pete confesses that his wife's desire to be in his company actually frightens him: "I don't think I can accept pure love." Then he crams his entire fist into his mouth, observing, "This tastes like a rainbow!"
Later in that same scene, Ben pleads with Pete to recognize his wife's stellar qualities: She's gorgeous, funny, a good mother, etc. But Debbie isn't funny, at least not intentionally—she's a tense, strident harridan, a WASP supermom in the mold of Téa Leoni's character in Spanglish. Leslie Mann (Apatow's real-life wife) is extraordinary in the role, wringing laughs from Debbie's humorless reactions to Pete's incessant jokes. Her character never cracks a joke herself, though.
No discussion of the representation of women in Knocked Up would be complete without mentioning the very literal presentation of a woman's netherparts, complete with crowning baby head, that appear in the climactic birthing scene. The preview audience I was watching with let out a collective shriek of surprise and, let's be honest, disgust when that stunt vagina made its appearance, not once but three times in a row. The almost clinical frankness of this shot was particularly jolting given the relative modesty of the rest of the film: Katherine Heigl has sex with her bra on, and we get only a brief (and unflattering) glimpse of Seth Rogen's bare butt. The crotch-with-baby-head shots are nowhere near as gross as they could be, but they still feel weirdly out of place, as if lifted from some Discovery Channel documentary and spliced into the comic mayhem. (They also must have caused some serious debate at MPAA headquarters, but the movie nonetheless garnered an R rating.) I can only read this moment as Judd Apatow's tribute to the awe of childbirth and the cult of the eternal feminine. It's a lovely impulse, but in his next film, maybe he could honor women by striving to create female characters with the depth of humor and humanity he gives to men.