Hollywood and the Unwed Mother

Comedy is a Window on Our Social Mores

Magazine Issue
May/June 2008
Hollywood and the Unwed Mother

Back in the ’40s, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland taught me everything I thought I needed to know about sex. Perched in a convertible driven by a charming visiting soldier boy, these black-and-white, monophonic beauties would ride off into the fade-out, and show up a little bit pregnant the next morning. We innocent children in the audience would learn that, while the joys of sex are overpowering enough to risk everything for, unwelcome babies are the inevitable consequence. At the same time these films got us all excited about sex, they threw icy water on us to cool us down. In the Hollywood of that era, no unwed young woman ever had sex without having a baby follow close behind, and once the men who’d donated the sperm had gotten their pants back on, they always seemed to disappear into the smoke and fire of war, or down into the uncharted Amazon, never to be seen again.

In those days, Hollywood decreed that illicit sex had to be punished one way or another. Pregnant single women in films invariably faced poverty and social disgrace. Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas in 1937 or Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce in 1945 had rough times raising their babies, and got damned little appreciation from their spoiled daughters afterward. Single women who gave up their babies to friends or relatives and tried to keep it secret fared no better, facing lives of eternal self-reproach, self-flagellation, and regret. Bette Davis as The Old Maid in 1939 gave up her baby to her cousin Miriam Hopkins, and they hated each other ever after. In To Each His Own in 1946, Olivia de Havilland left her baby on a neighbor’s doorstep and spent the rest of her life trying to get him back without letting him know who she was or what she was up to.

Occasionally women who were unmarried and pregnant, like Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952, shamed a man into “doing the right thing.” But while Burt Lancaster dutifully crawled to the altar, he lived resentfully ever after, and Booth never felt quite “chosen” for marriage. Still, having a child “illegitimately” was considered more shameful than marrying someone you ­didn’t know and didn’t like.

Then in the 1960s, Hollywood began to envision a new romantic possibility that offered a graceful way out of both the disgrace of illegitimate pregnancy and the bitterness of a mismatched marriage. The accidental couple could get to know each other and magically “fall in love,” so they could get together without just caving in to societal pressures. In Love with the Proper Stranger in 1963, Natalie Wood gets drunk and “knocked up” by Steve McQueen, meets him again sober, and then spends the next two hours falling in love with him.

Two of the most successful films of last year borrowed variations of that relatively new Hollywood twist on what had once been the certainty of shame, regret, and ruined lives. Along the way, they reached a larger audience than Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck could have dreamed. Knocked Up, written and directed by Judd Apatow, the guy who brought us The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Juno, directed by Jason Reitman, who gave us Thank You for Smoking, were both gentle comedies about unexpectedly pregnant young women in a world full of inept, childlike men. In both films, the young heroines are faced with the familiar decisions about abortion, adoption, leaving reed baskets on doorsteps, living lives of shame, or changing diapers rather than going to law school. Spunky and resourceful, the women in these films are far more appealing to us than the hapless sperm donors who are initially unwilling to sacrifice their mindless pleasures and adolescent ego pursuits for the life-changing joys of parenting. The popularity of these films may result in part from the fact that, despite the lack of responsibility evidenced by the man in her life, the pregnant young woman isn’t going it alone as did the unfortunate heroines of my youth. These modern-day unwed mothers have a village—parents, friends, siblings, neighbors, maybe even a therapist or two—who want to be part of the blessed, and maybe ever-so-slightly- naughty, event.

Knocked Up is centered around a pair of pretty sisters who work at attracting guys and then delight in holding the young men’s quivering egos in their unsteady hands, and getting the sense of power that comes from determining whether to drop that sensitive organ. While the guys are preoccupied with inducing the girls to go to bed with them, the young women are so insecure that no matter how much they’re admired, they only feel rejection, suspicion, and distrust. Despite how desperately the horny males pursue them, the women never feel attractive enough or pursued with sufficient vigor. Everyone goes home unfulfilled.

Katherine (27 Dresses) Heigl has a job standing around smiling photogenically and emptyheadedly at a local TV station. She lives with her sister, Leslie (George of the Jungle) Mann, her sister’s rich and contemptuous husband (Paul Rudd), and their kids. Rudd avoids his perfectionistic wife as much as he can, while the sisters go to bars seeking reassurance that they’re “hot.” Heigl drinks too much during one escapade and wakes up in bed with Seth Rogen, a scruffy, John Belushi clone with an unwashed body and a hairy butt.

Rogen is a member of a pack of stoned slackers—illegal aliens from Canada—who, although well past puberty, are unwilling to take the next step toward work and adulthood. Their primary vocational passion is creating a website for quickly viewing naked moments in the filmography of movie stars. These guys are still devoting most of their energy to trying to get laid (mostly unsuccessfully), as they ridicule one another for their various repulsive features of body and soul. When Heigl enters their circle, she’s repulsed and disapproving, much as Snow White probably felt when she took up with the Seven Dwarfs.

Unlike so many of her screen predecessors, Heigl isn’t ashamed of her pregnancy: her chagrin is mostly the inconvenience of it. Both she and Rogen look to their parents for advice, but we’re shown that the older generation has had minimal success with marriage, leaving the younger generation with little in the way of models for their own lives. Heigl’s mother (Joanna Kerns) still thinks like a budding socialite, mostly concerned with the surface appearance of things and the proper timing of well-ordered lives. She finds her daughter’s pregnancy messy and out of order, rather than a potential tragedy. Rogen’s father (Harold Ramis) has been married and divorced three times, and wisely points out to his son that he doesn’t consider himself especially qualified to dole out marital advice.

Heigl is initially appalled at the prospect of hooking up with Rogen, but then the pregnant couple slowly and hesitantly begins to talk to each other, and to build a relationship. Heigl learns to ask for what she wants and Rogen learns to take her wishes less as assaults on his masculinity than as guidelines on how to conduct a grown-up marriage.

With a real child in the offing, even Rogen’s guy-pals begin to act like godparents, cleaning themselves up and gaining maturity. The movie is an examination of how, under the influence of a forthcoming baby, all of these dozen or so immature people start thinking like parents, and thus like adults.

Despite its vulgarity and raunchiness, Knocked Up is among the more marriage-friendly, family-focused films on the screen in years. It approaches marriage without cynicism, conveying the message that, when facing the responsibilities of parenthood, everyone can grow up enough to live happily ever after.

Juno was the only Oscar-nominated movie to attract a large and enthusiastic audience, becoming probably the best-loved film of 2007. Its central character is 16-year-old Juno (played by the brilliant Ellen Page), a child of divorce, with a long-gone hippie mother, an unassuming heating and air-conditioning installer father, J. K. (Ladykillers) Simmons, and a sharp-tongued manicurist stepmom, Allison (The West Wing) Janney. Like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News, Juno always considers herself to be the smartest person in the room—and with good reason. She blows off the prom kings and invites her boneless, beardless best friend Paulie (Michael Cera) to join her in an overstuffed chair for sexual experimentation. When she ends up pregnant, she’s repulsed by the local abortion clinic and turns for support to her accepting and supportive parents. They’re alternately critical, amused, and above all unashamed. Paulie, a sweet and geeky runner with the longest, whitest legs in movie history, offers comfort without control. He’s just a child, as are all of us guys until we let a girl teach us how to love a woman.

Juno decides to give up the baby to a handsome, young, infertile couple in the tony suburbs. The adoptive mother Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) has everything she wants in life except a baby, and is determined to be a mother. Her lackadaisical husband, smarmy Mark (Jason Bateman), a Kurt Cobain wannabe, disdains the money he makes composing advertising jingles. He’s an obedient, albeit restless, husband to his precise wife, who vexingly tries to beautify everything around her, including her adolescent mate. Desperate for a baby to raise, she moves her husband’s toys and dreams into a closet while she prepares the color-coordinated nursery.

Juno begins to hang out with Mark, making music and watching the slasher films of his youth with him. He makes no passes at Juno; in fact, he becomes the child in the play group, and soon decides he doesn’t want to be a grown-up at all. He clumsily, insensitively runs out on Juno, her unborn baby, and Vanessa, finding his slasher films far less disturbing than women who want him to be a man.

The movie, written by tattooed, in-your-face, ex-stripper Diablo Cody, rarely stops being sharp and witty, and then only at just the right moments for a few tears and reflections on how raising babies can turn children into adults. Juno calls the abortion clinic and announces, “I want to procure a hasty abortion.” She pokes out her “bump,” parting the crowd of students on either side, as she strides unbowed down the center of the high school hallway, defiantly ignoring all who stare.

Cera’s Paulie is an up-to-date model of egoless masculinity awaiting female instruction. The movie is primarily about the difference between him, who even as a kid can love a woman and let her teach him how to treat her, and Mark, the aging adolescent who can seduce and delight a woman, but can only love himself.

In their amiable way, both Knocked Up and Juno ask us to consider some serious issues, but they present them through the soft-focus lens of comedy rather than in the harsh light of tragedy. How much of our life should a woman—or a man—invest in our offspring? Are fetuses really human beings? Are they more sacrosanct than their mothers? Or fathers? Instead of inducing tears and dwelling on our suffering and isolation, these films turn the previously tragic subject of mistimed babies into a laughing matter of fun and games.

Using the yellow-warning light of humiliation, comedy makes us see social attitudes with a detachment and clarity that tragedy can’t reach. It takes us outside ourselves, sometimes making us laugh at things we didn’t previously know were funny. But comedy is also careful not to push us too far, and, according to these two commercially successful comedies, abortion—even the mention of the word—is too far to go, given today’s polarizing social debates. As a culture, we’re still a long way from being at peace with this sometimes necessary yet always traumatic act, which generates varying proportions of heartbreak and relief. Whether or not we condone abortion, one thing is clear: it is no laughing matter.


Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.