“Today, Hollywood need not bother with marriage. Rather, sex, baby, love—often in that order—are the contemporary triple threat.”—Kelly Oliver
In her book Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films, Kelly Oliver discusses the genre of the “MomCom,” in which pregnancy is the means by which a man and a woman become romantically involved rather than the other way around.
In this excerpt, Oliver discusses such films as Knocked Up, Look Who’s Talking, Fools Rush In, and Juno to explore the ways in which pregnancy is depicted as a way to “soften” the controlling woman and make the man grow up.
Today, Hollywood need not bother with marriage. Rather, sex, baby, love—often in that order—are the contemporary triple threat. While we are used to seeing sex without love in contemporary Hollywood films, we are not used to seeing babies without sex. As we will see, uncoupling sex and reproduction causes so much anxiety that, often in the most contrived ways, these films manage to bring them back together. And the transformations that take place through pregnancy, particularly to the control-freak career woman, not only recouple sex and reproduction but also bring love and romance into the mix.
In Knocked Up, pregnancy is the softening agent that eventually makes the career girl more likable and tolerant and makes the slacker nerd grow up. Of course pregnancy also becomes the reason why our heroine worries about keeping her high-powered television job. Not quite Doris Day’s characters before her (who gives up career for family), Alison (Heigl) wonders how she can balance her high-powered career and a baby. And like Doris Day’s character in Lover Come Back, she is pregnant as a result of a one-night stand. Unlike Doris’s characters, however, Alison is not in love with the father of her child. In fact, she doesn’t even know him. Rather than pregnancy following from courtship, romance, and marriage, we get the reverse trajectory in recent pregnancy romcoms where pregnancy becomes the vehicle for courtship, romance, and heterocoupling, if not also marriage….
It wasn’t until the 1990s (after Demi Moore’s controversial appearance, heavily pregnant and nude on the cover of Vanity Fair) that Hollywood warmed up to pregnancy, particularly in romantic comedies. Indeed, with films such as Look Who’s Talking (1989) and Look Who’s Talking Too (1990), Junior (1994), Nine Months (1995), Fools Rush In (1997), Home Fries (1998), and Where the Heart Is (2000), the subgenre of pregnant romance was born. In these films, pregnancy brings the couple together through a series of comic turns that revolve around a pregnant body and its various quirks. For example, in Look Who’s Talking, the couple bonds over the birth and infancy of a baby who begins talking as a fetus. Here, an otherwise macho cab driver, James, played by sex symbol John Travolta, becomes tender and loving with the baby, who in some scenes acts as his alter ego, ogling women’s breasts and making comments about Mollie’s (Kirstie Alley) body. In addition, the baby acts as a bridge between social classes since his mother is a professional.
Fools Rush In, like Knocked Up later, features a one-night stand between strangers that leads to pregnancy first and then romance, and in this case, true love and marriage; here the comedy is not only the effect of the pregnant body with its cravings and out-of-control hormones but also cultural differences between the uptight white businessman and the colorful Latina artist. In Hollywood, the uptight versus “screwy” was usually white man versus white woman and then woman of color or ethnic woman, where femaleness and ethnicity/race contribute to emotional, irrational, even crazy, out-of-control behavior. Now, with the trope of the controlling career woman, we have a combination of uptight and out-of-control (especially when pregnant) in the figure of a successful white woman, who needs to be counterbalanced, if not controlled, by a more laid-back and reasonable white man….
The runaway indie hit Juno (2007) is one of the first comedies about a pregnant teenager. Like Trudy in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek over fifty years earlier, Juno (Ellen Paige) is a spunky teen. Unlike Trudy, she is also a witty smart aleck who takes her pregnancy in stride. In contrast to Miracle, in Juno the girl’s parents accept the news that she is pregnant calmly and her stepmother immediately takes over prenatal care. Although Juno gives up her son for adoption and does not marry the child’s father, by the end of the film through the course of the pregnancy, birth, and adoption, the cute teen couple is united; the film ends with them singing an upbeat duet that declares their love for one another. Even the tough smart-mouthed Juno is softened up by her pregnancy and through it becomes a fitting partner for easygoing, laid-back, sensitive Pollie (Michael Cera).
Recall that in Knocked Up, successful career woman Alison (Katherine Heigl) has sex with slacker Ben (Seth Rogan) and gets pregnant. In some ways this is a classic opposites-attract film where ambition meets lazy and pregnancy is the means of bringing them together and balancing them out. Ambitious becomes more laid-back and less controlling, and lazy becomes more responsible and mature. In fact, pregnancy is the perfect counterbalance or alter ego for control-freak Alison (also epitomized by the character of her sister, who controls her husband to the point that he lies about meeting a bunch of guys to play games). Pregnant Alison is presented as out of control or controlled by her hormones. In one scene, Ben tells a raging Alison that her hormones are talking and not her, suggesting that she is possessed by an alien force that is making her do things against her will. Through her pregnancy, Alison’s body becomes out of her control and she has to cede her will to her growing belly, overwhelming emotions, and the changes to her life and career that result. As her body becomes rounder and softer, so does her personality. She starts to watch videos with Ben and participate in his slacker activities with real interest. Through her pregnancy and Ben’s reactions to it, she begins to care for him.
Ben likewise is transformed by the pregnancy, which creates a bond between him and his father in a scene where his father tells him how much his son means to him and that he too can be a good father. As Ben matures into a suitable father, he also becomes an appropriate mate for Alison. In the process, the film follows the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl-and-eventually-gets-her-back pattern of the romantic comedy genre. Only, in this case, the losing and the getting her back is the result of his relationship to her pregnancy. When he doesn’t show the proper involvement or interest, Alison tells him to get lost. But when he proves himself by reading all of the baby books and helping her through the birth, he wins her back. Because he becomes more responsible and she becomes less controlling, they can form a couple at the end. More importantly, they form a family. And in these romcoms as momcoms it is because they are a family that they can be a couple. Like Nine Months where Sam (Hugh Grant) wins back his girlfriend by proving that he can be a good father—symbolized by trading in his sports car for a family-friendly SUV—Ben wins back Alison by becoming a responsible father. In both cases, through impending fatherhood the men mature into responsible partners: their acceptance of their role in the family is a sign that they can be proper mates.