Back in June, this viewer laughed until she cried at Judd Apatow's goofy comedy Knocked Up, but she also left the theater feeling … disconcerted. An informal poll of female friends revealed the same: They went, they laughed, they felt squeamish. So it came as only a small surprise that sunny Katherine Heigl recently told Vanity Fair that Knocked Up is"a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?" The media seized on Heigl's comments, and—perhaps sensing a Salem bitch hunt in the making—on Dec. 7 the actress issued a clarification to People. While she stands by her original statement, the movie, she stressed, was the "best filming experience of my career."
At the time Knocked Up was released, it was hard to express discontent without feeling like a killjoy yourself. After all, the film—a hilarious exploration of the difficulties of family life in the post-feminist age—is in some ways quite uxorious, as Slate's Dana Stevens observed. Its plot follows a schlubby slacker guy, Ben (played by Seth Rogen), learning to shape up and become a good domestic partner to the pregnant Alison (played by Heigl). Stylistically, though, the film treated women and men very differently. Knocked Up made time for men to explore their choices on-screen in almost existential ways; they ask themselves whom they want to be, they joke around, they assume the right to experiment. Women, by contrast, are entirely concerned with pragmatic issues. We never see Alison or her older sister, Debbie, pursue or express her own creative impulses, sense of humor, independent interests; their rather instrumental concerns lie squarely in managing to balance the domestic with the professional. It's as if women's inner worlds are entirely functional rather than playful and open. Knocked Up was, as David Denby put it in The New Yorker, the culminating artifact in what had become "the dominant romantic-comedy trend of the past several years—the slovenly hipster and the female straight arrow."
To be sure, Apatow is sensitive to how romantic expectations ultimately make some women unhappy in marriage. The film deftly shows how squabbling over the distribution of power in a relationship can make love fade as quickly as the new linens. This is precisely the point of juxtaposing Alison and Ben's awkward attempts to create lasting intimacy out of a one-night stand with the acrimonious bickering of Alison's older sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd): Must domestic partnerships end up in alienated jockeying? In one scene, we watch Debbie and Pete quarrel about who is going to bring their daughters to school as Alison looks on with discomfort and some superiority—as if assuming she'll never find herself embroiled in such disputes. Apatow seems genuinely to want to know how so many end up in Debbie and Pete's shoes.
Yet Apatow frames the female anxieties in this film in a limited way. Consider two key cross-cutting scenes at the heart of the movie, in which Ben and Pete and Alison and Debbie deal separately with their anxieties about being parents and partners. Each couple has just split up—Debbie has left Pete because she discovers he's been sneaking off to go to the movies or play fantasy baseball with his pals while pretending he's working; Alison gets frustrated when Ben takes Pete's side in the matter and it dawns on her that he might not prove a reliable partner when the baby arrives. The guys go to Las Vegas, where they take shrooms, get lap dances, and pay a visit to Cirque du Soleil. In the dark hours of the night, stoned out of their minds, they riff hilariously about the chairs in their hotel room. This exchange is one of the best sections of the movie—an example of strange linguistic inventiveness and comic energy. Then, suddenly, Pete opens up to Ben, confessing that all Debbie wants to give him is love—something everyone should want, yet something he, to his confusion, doesn't know how to receive. Why would he reject such a thing? he wonders. In a seemingly disconnected gesture, he tries to shove his fist down his throat. It "tastes like a rainbow," he says.
It is hard not to read his statement as a metaphor for the film's ambivalent view of the message "women" are trying to render unto "men": that a caring, sharing domestic life is a "rainbow" men are crazy not to accept wholesale. Poor Pete's dilemma, the tension he is trying to drive at, is that he can't swallow the rainbow (so to speak) however much he tries—and has made his wife into a disappointed micromanager in the process. He wants to be a good partner, but he also really, really wants to be able to go play rotisserie baseball and watch Spider-Man 3 by himself and riff pointlessly about chair-personalities, without anyone telling him he needs to drop his child off at school. Not only that—he doesn't want to have to ask to do these things; he takes his right to autonomy as a given. What the film's men don't think they should have to give up, even after they become fathers, is the freedom to be playfully immature, distracted, and irresponsible.
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.