Aren’t You Curious About This “Narcissistic,” “Self-Indulgent” HBO Documentary?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
July 29 2013 1:15 PM

Vanity, Thy Name Is Filmmaker

The response to the HBO documentary First Comes Love underlines our bias against “narcissistic” single mothers.

First Comes Love, by Nina Davenport.
A still from First Comes Love

Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films

I was initially drawn to Nina Davenport’s documentary First Comes Love (premiering July 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO) because of a tersely disapproving, suspiciously snide notice in the New York Times. The review seemed to contain just the blend of tight-lipped moral disapprobrium, of simmering resentment toward the artist that usually signals something intriguing or alive. The reviewer said that the filmmaker, whom I had known very distantly in college, was on “her favorite subject—herself.” The review implied that in this vivid documentary account of having a child on her own, with a sperm donor friend, Davenport came across as somehow shallow or vain. 

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

The documentary has attracted admiring notices, as well, but other reviewers were equally condemning or vehement. Slant writes, “Davenport doesn’t seem interested in taming her unwieldy vanity, and thus her documentary reads as a match.com profile recontextualized as cinema narcissismo.” Time Out writes that Davenport “approaches a hot button issue from the most suffocatingly narcissistic perspective imaginable.” And Variety calls First Comes Love “irritatingly self indulgent.” Doesn’t this intrigue you, so far? Aren’t you curious about what this terrible, narcissistic, self-indulgent person has done?

Part of what Davenport has done is make a difficult, rich film about her own experience. (How dare she? What vanity! What narcissism!) And part of it, I am quite sure, is that she has gone ahead and had a child on her own. The logic here is revealing: There is something about single motherhood that people see as selfish, or self-indulgent, or narcissistic, in a way that they don’t see the urge for a child in a married woman. It is as if a single woman were somehow going against nature, daring to ask of the world some fulfillment not due to her because she does not have a man behind a newspaper at a kitchen table. This manifests in precisely the sort of slightly uncontrolled moralism on display in the reviews.

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This suspicion of the single mother’s motives, the sense that she has some untoward reason for acting as she does, and is not thinking generously of the child in the way mothers are supposed to, takes very weird forms. The New York Times reviewer, for instance, said that she “rather liked” Davenport’s father in the film. The reason she “rather likes” him is that “he’s the kind of parent who thinks caring for children means more than just cheerleading.” Of course, he also calls his daughter a “dilettante” for pursuing an unlucrative career in the arts, without a husband to take care of her. He also comments, when she says she wants to have a child, “You are a single mother having a fatherless child. Sounds like the ghetto.” Definitely not a “cheerleading” parent, in other words. His own wife observes that he is enjoying hurting Davenport’s feelings. But what the New York Times reviewer is telling us is that this man seems more sensible, more likeable to her, than Davenport, who is romantically, bravely, unsensibly, pursuing what she wants.  What we see, barely cloaked, is the distaste for the hubris, the “narcissism” of thinking that you can raise a happy child on your own.

Many people in the film tell Davenport that she shouldn’t have a child because of her financial insecurity, and yet many reviews chastise her for apparent “privilege,” for her “casually affluent family.” (Though they don’t seem casually affluent to me. They seem very deliberately self-consciously affluent.) So, in fact, the single mother is, as usual, attacked for being poor and for being rich, for not supporting a child and for being able to support the child. Is there any position a single mother could make a movie from that would be acceptable to the critics, both in her life, and in the world? The answer is probably no.

The idea that Davenport is vain is particularly absurd, as this film, if anything, goes almost too far in showing her in an unflattering light, both physically and otherwise. Davenport is not afraid of showing herself, for instance, at the breast pump, one of the least attractive stances of a woman of all time, not to mention getting fertility shots, giving birth, being fat, bloated, and also in various states of emotional vulnerability or need or unappealingness. She is fearless in this respect, and rather than calling her “vain” or “narcissistic,” we could see this, alternatively, as a brave artistic choice. Further, like Lena Dunham, another filmmaker who critiques her own exhibitionism with humor, but is nonetheless attacked for it regularly, Davenport mocks her own need for attention. During labor, surrounded by an unusual number of family members and friends, she jokes, “I’ll never get this much attention again.”

One of the many fascinating things about the film is that once the baby is born, the universe begins to reshuffle around him. The radiant child creates his own world, he summons people, brings them to him, humbles them. Even Davenport’s father, who had coolly suggested when Davenport announced her pregnancy that she “have an abortion,” is seen awkwardly holding the child, admitting that his grandson is wonderful. (He actually gives the months-old infant a lecture on how even poor kids can succeed in life. The baby could go to “night law school,” he tells him.) There is a great scene in the film where her single best friend, her very reluctant and cagey sperm donor gay friend, and her new boyfriend are all hanging around her crazy, chaotic, warm domestic scene drawn to the baby. In the end, it’s a film that both celebrates and challenges our ideas of family; it is romantic, critical, tender, confused. If this is narcissism, in other words, we need more of it.