Katherine Heigl's Knocked Up
The demise of the female slacker.
On the other hand, Alison and Debbie get dressed up in their sexiest clothes to go out on the town but can't manage to have any fun. They try to get into a trendy club and are rejected by the bouncer, because one is "old" and the other is "pregnant." Instead of dancing, they sit on a curb and have a heart to heart. Debbie confesses that she feels embittered because Pete gets "better looking" as he ages, while she grows less attractive. She is aging faster than she wants to (in part, we understand, because she is not enjoying her marriage). Meanwhile, Alison worries that Ben will always put his own concerns (i.e., having fun) before anyone else's. It's a moving scene, because Apatow doesn't rush to paper over the truth, or to imply that what Debbie says isn't the case. It also captures something sad about a marriage gone wrong: One person feels she offered a really good deal that the other shrugged off, choosing his needs over her help. But the scene has none of the zany ingenuity of Pete and Ben's scene and lacks the verbal dexterity that peppers women's dialogue in screwball comedies. The result is dissonance. If Apatow tries, in Knocked Up, to suggest that guys need to grow up a bit to meet women's high expectations, he, like his own characters, doesn't seem to get that maybe there's a lot more to women than these expectations. You might say his critique is muddied by its own joyful enactment of male high jinks, and the corresponding absence of anything similar on the part of the women. So when Debbie tells Pete that she, too, might want time to watch movies by herself, it seems utterly unconvincing: She seems too focused on the mechanics of family life to do anything that … pointless and solitary.
This disparity is on display in a whole series of recent comedies, from School of Rockto High Fidelity. It's also powerfully familiar to anyone who follows the so-called Mommy Wars. In that proliferating literature of family friction, women's lives seem to shrink to a series of pragmatic decisions about achieving balance, while men are concerned with domestic stuff only to the degree that they choose to be. In this regard, Knocked Up is in keeping with the zeitgeist: If, as Heigl delicately put it, the movieis a "little sexist," that is because it is the natural product of a culture evidently sold on the notion that women are so focused on domestic mechanics that they simply don't know how to allow themselves the playful inner lives men do, whether they're free-associating brilliantly with their friends, or lazily absorbed in video games. (The trope cuts both ways, of course: It allows men to be comedic geniuses, but it also means that husbands get portrayed right and left as childish dopes.) Just glance at a book like The Bitch in the House, where female essayists portray their male partners as slouches who don't get the job done until they're given a to-do list.
Stories about boys who have more fun than girls go back to Wendy and Peter Pan. But there was a time when romantic comedies, as Denby points out, were more egalitarian in their assignment of playfulness. These days, romantic comedies routinely depict a loss of some essential autonomy for the man, and a lesson in "balance" for the woman. A culture that assigns all that weight to what "men" and "women" want only makes it more difficult for couples to establish their own fruitful ratio of intimacy to privacy. The best moments in Knocked Up are those that suggest the world doesn't have to be this way—that of course women can possess playful inner lives too. There aren't quite enough of them. You leave feeling that what poor Debbie—and Alison—really wants is not a husband who knows to bring home pink cupcakes for a birthday party, but a culture that grants them the same indulgent latitude their partners get: the luxury of not having to be relentlessly responsible. Slacker, starring a woman. Barring that, of course, there's Juno, the story of a knocked-up girl from her own irreverent perspective—written, as it happens, by a female scriptwriter—now playing in a theater near you.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of Katherine Heigl by Kevin Winter/Getty Images. Still from Knocked Up on the Slate home page courtesyUniversal Pictures. All rights reserved.