If you’re a regular Origami Elephants listener, then you know that I recently had a baby with my partner, Peter. If you’re a regular Norville Rogers reader, then you know that writers around here often turn to film to discuss themes theological, philosophical and cultural. So why not a look at pregnancy in movies? Turns out, there’s plenty of good reason why not. In taking a look at what’s available, it rapidly emerges that culturally we have a very narrow view of pregnant women.
If you start with the lists — “25 Movies You Need to Watch During Pregnancy” or “10 Movies to Watch While You’re Expecting” — a couple of things become immediately obvious. First of all, there aren’t many films with pregnant protagonists out there. Which is strange if you compare to the abundance of superhero movies, considering how many women actually get pregnant versus how many superheroes actually foil plots for world destruction.* The official lists are full of movies that are ten and twenty years old. Nothing against the 80s and 90s (that’s my era after all); it’s just an indication that the lists have to dig back awfully deep in order to get up to a respectful number of picks. I’m hoping that the relatively few number of films also accounts for the almost universal inclusion of Junior, a movie-long gag in which Arnold Schwarzenegger carries a baby to term and beyond all credibility. On the other hand, I fully support the fact that Rosemary’s Baby also shows up here and there. Not only is it a good film, but the depiction of the isolation of pregnancy is realistic, despite the demonic character of the pregnancy.
Secondly, most of these movies are comedies. Considering how touchy our society is about women’s reproductive rights and female sexuality, it’s kinda weird that Hollywood also seems to insist that pregnancy is yuk-yuk hilarious. Most of the films focus on the absurdity of pregnancy symptoms are and the uncomfortable reactions they elicit from male partners. However, slapstick level comedy is not central to most women’s experience of pregnancy. And while we’re talking about it, what’s with everyone’s water breaking in embarrassing places?! Only 10-15% of women have their water breaking prior to labor and only a portion of those happen in public. So let’s agree to take a break (ba-dum-bum) from that joke already.
I would also like to point out that many of these movies center around unintended pregnancies. As almost half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, this at least rings true to the statistics. Sometimes the surprise is treated as the opening laugh line, but considering the very real physical and mental health consequences of mistimed and unwanted pregnancies, the subject, like pregnancy in general, seems hardly suitable for comedic treatment. Dramas that develop their stories around an unintended pregnancy often feature teenagers whose main mistake seems to be the decision to have sex in the first place. I remember being subjected to For Keeps? in high school as part of a campaign to scare me and my classmates celibate. What these films don’t address is the same thing that abstinence-only sex education ignores; there are some very safe and effective means of birth control out there. But then again, how often does a cinematic sex scene of any description included the couple either asking about or practicing safe sex?
Another thing the “crazy kids” story line misses is that there are marked and significant disparities in unintended pregnancy rates in disenfranchised demographic groups, such as poor and minority communities. With numbers like these, unintended pregnancy should not be understood or portrayed simply as a judgment lapse, but as related to restricted access to education and medical care which needs to be addressed at a policy level.**
Lastly, “pregnancy” movies are about pregnant women, as opposed to women who are pregnant. Let me break that down a little. What I mean to point out is that, almost across the board, the plots of these movies are all driven by the pregnancy primarily while the woman’s talents, career, and passions are sent to the sidelines. The pregnancy isn’t portrayed as a part of her life as much as her life is reshaped around her pregnancy. Now I’m not saying that pregnancy can’t be disruptive or isn’t life changing. But movies, and TV shows and ads, indicate how extreme our cultural expectations are. Consider commercials for a moment. You won’t see an ad for a copier or a weed wacker featuring a woman who is pregnant, although pregnant women definitely use these products. In fact, you won’t even see a pregnant woman selling typical feminine products like shampoo or makeup. Pregnant women are typically depicted only with specific reference to their pregnancy. In this way, “pregnancy” is not just a medical condition, but a cultural condition that indicates very narrow parameters of interest, activity and gender expression. As a result, you’ll almost never see an ad or a movie in which a woman just happens to be pregnant.
Which is why Fargo is my favorite “pregnancy” movie. In light of the fact that I rank The Mothman Prophecies among my favorite Christmas movies, this shouldn’t be too surprising. And yes, I know Fargo was made in the 90s. And Fargo *is* a kind of comedy, albeit a super dark kind of comedy. But here, the jokes have nothing to do with the fact that the movie’s hero, Chief of Police Marge Gunderson is pregnant. Instead, her pregnancy is treated as color, a facet of her character that brings interest and informs, rather than defines. Within Fargo, there are no tissue-paper stuffed baby shower scenes, there are no acrimonious discussions about quirky family names, no panic attacks in front of the mirror about changing body shape. Marge is depicted going about her normal life: her job, her marriage. As the police chief, Marge is an authority figure. She is a problem solver and a brave officer. The movie only references her pregnancy twice: once when Marge almost gets sick at a crime scene and once when Marge herself mentions her “condition” in order to disarm a suspect. The movie even allows Marge to struggle with an attraction to an old flame which challenges the idea that her sexuality is nullified by her pregnancy and allows us to see her as a person who is married in the same way we see her as a woman who is pregnant.
When it’s all said in done, I’m not making a case for more pregnancy movies. Rather, I’d be happier seeing more pregnant female characters populating other types of films (of course, that would mean we’d need better, stronger female characters in movies overall HINT HINT). More importantly, I think we need to start pushing back on the underlying cultural commitments that limit our picture of what being pregnant means.