Theory Teacher's Blog

“Choosing” to be a Single Mother

The topics for this week are “agency” and “representation,” and in our class we are exploring these two related topics by considering the issue of “single motherhood.” For this post, I’d like to discuss how recent movies have “represented” the “agency” of single mothers. Perhaps not since the movie Striptease (1996), starring Demi Moore as a woman struggling to make ends meet and fighting for custody of her child against her abusive, alcoholic, and criminal ex-husband, has Hollywood so strongly affirmed the rights of single mothers against social stigma and economic hardship. Many films, from North Country (2005) to The Perfect Holiday (2007) and TV series such as Gilmore Girls and Weeds are about the difficulty of working and raising children at the same time. But for the year 2007, Hollywood gave us not just one but three movies that explored the choices of an unwed woman who discovers herself to be pregnant: Knocked-Up, Waitress, and Juno.

The two questions that all three of these movies explicitly raise are (1) what choices are available to a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy, and (2) why choose to become a single mother. In addition, considering that we began this class with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), how might we re-read that classic novel in the context of twenty-first century feminist debates about single motherhood?

But before I start talking about the three movies, a little context. You may be too young to remember this, but back in the late 1980s, Vice President Dan Quayle famously railed against single mothers as a force of evil in American society, and a bit later, Bush and Clinton proceeded to pass laws — “reforms” — that made life more difficult for working single mothers. However, something has changed since then. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of single-parent families today is more than double what it was in 1970, and 32% of all births in 1998 were to unmarried women. As a result of this demographic shift, the representation of single mothers by popular media, politicians, and corporate advertising has also shifted from negative stigma to positive stigma as the business community (e.g., Wal-Mart) has begun to see single mothers not only as a large consumer niche but also as valued employees. Politicians likewise now see single mothers as a formidable constituency. However, although positive stigma is certainly better than negative, both popular representations and the legal system continue to favor heroic individuals and the nuclear family rather than the extended families and networks of support upon which most single parents — and many married parents — rely. These two different models of the family are precisely the topic of Jane Juffer’s book Single Mother. And although mainstream media appears more permissive about a woman’s sexual choices and about the possibility of raising a family without a father, the conservative Heritage Foundation last year published its “data” that single mothers and their children are less likely to succeed.

Back to the movies. I was trying to think of how to talk about all three, and here is what I came up with. All three of the movies this year are fairy-tale fantasies, and I don’t call them that to criticize or dismiss them. That’s what they are — self-consciously so — and that is what we enjoy about them. The logic behind all fairy-tale narratives is that they offer something like an escape-hatch that allows us to avoid dealing with the reality of difficult choices by indulging our fantasies. The question I want to ask is whether these narratological escape hatches merely side-step the dilemmas of single-motherhood, or whether they turn on themselves and force the audience to notice the difference between fantasy and reality, or whether the fantasy actually offers some kind of utopian ideal for how we might reform things. So, that’s my question . . . how to answer . . .

I’ll start with Knocked Up, since it came out first and since it is the most sexist of the three. (Even its own star Katherine Heigl has publicly said so.) Heigl plays Alison, a beautiful, charming, successful, ambitious journalist in the entertainment industry who finds herself pregnant after getting drunk and sleeping with the epitome of loserdom — an unattractive, unemployed, pot-smoking, illegal immigrant from Canada whose friends are creating a website devoted to when their favorite movie stars appear naked.

What’s “sexist” about this movie is how little time it spends on the difficult choices Alison can make. Inexplicably, Alison has not a single friend except for her sister with whom to discuss her options. The word “abortion” is never spoken, and only the joke “sounds like smashsmortion” made by one of Ben’s stoner friends draws attention to how her choices may be getting censored by a film industry fearful of the religious right. Instead, the movie shifts emphasis from the very serious issue of what to do about being pregnant to the far less serious issue of whether Alison and Ben can fall in love. This is, of course, not surprising since it is a “romantic comedy” and is supposed to celebrate the magic of romantic love against all odds, but in this case, the “romance” is perhaps even more absurdly improbable than the genre’s usual fair. There is no way Alison would fall in love with Ben, and who among the movie’s audience would want them to? The movie has tricked us. We walked into the theater thinking we were going to see a “chick flick” but instead we got a loser-geek-boy fantasy. It is this improbable romantic plot which is the “escape hatch” for the film makers, allowing them (and us) to avoid the difficult choices women face in the real world, but its absurdity turns on itself, exposing the plot’s artificiality and hence encouraging the audience to entertain themselves with other, more probable scenarios.

Waitress is about Jenna, played by Kerri Russel, who is a genius at making pies but is married to a controlling jerk of a husband who won’t even let her drive a car or manage the money she makes as a waitress. Both the nature of their marriage and the cutsie style of the movie remind us of the 1950s, except that Jenna’s gynecologist drives a Lexus. Since Jenna’s biggest challenge is her financial situation, she plans to win a pie contest and leave her husband, but like Alison in Knocked Up, she instead finds herself pregnant after one drunken evening with her husband.

What the writer-director and actors all claim is “special” about this movie in the “special features” of the DVD is that it actually shows us a married woman who is depressed about being pregnant. (This is apparently the movie’s “truth value.”) As with Knocked Up, we are wondering why the movie can’t even say the word abortion, considering that Jenna clearly does not want to have a baby, but this is a romantic comedy, so the plot has to move on. And so it does; she soon begins a love-affair with her married gynecologist, and the fairy-tale style of the movie teases us with the possibility that he could be the knight on the white horse. But no. After she gives birth and leaves her husband, she then discovers that her sympathetic and aging boss has given her a check for an enormous sum of money right before he slipped into a coma — all of this happening on one day.

The sudden appearance of this money is the deus ex machina of the fairy-tale, the escape hatch for the movie, since it enables Jenna to buy the café where she works, become a self-sufficient single mother, and live happily ever after in more brightly colored clothes. The check stands in for the financial assistance that the vast majority of single mothers do not ever receive though perhaps justly deserve considering the important affective labor they perform. And here, the check symbolizes the “exchange value” of Jenna’s affective labor, since the reason her boss gives it to her is because Jenna has a special, ineffable quality (so he says), a quality symbolized by her pies which always seem to embody her mood. In other words, she makes the old guy happy because of this special, un-namable quality, and hence, it’s hard for the audience not to understand this quality in terms of Kerri Russel’s good looks and impending motherhood.

Finally, Juno, which ought to win the Academy Award for best screenplay, is about a 16-year old girl, named after the Greek goddess of mothers, who gets pregnant after experimenting with her lovably geeky friend. Unlike the other two movies, Juno actually plans to go to a clinic and have the abortion. Inexplicably, she goes to the clinic alone, and so, without the moral support of her friend, she has a moral panic attack and decides instead to find a “cool couple” who can adopt it. She finds the perfect, beautiful and financially well-off couple. And both to Juno and to the audience for most of the movie, the husband seems cool — an ex-indie-rocker — whereas the wife seems to epitomize the uncool, bourgois woman. But the movie has deliberately deceived us. Suddenly, when Juno is eight months pregnant, the husband confesses he wants to leave his wife, almost makes a play for Juno, and lo and behold, his man-boy nature is revealed. A distraught Juno finds solidarity with the wife, leaving her the note “if you’re still in, I’m still in.” And so, in a twenty-first century plot-twist, Juno gives her baby to a woman who has become (over the course of the 9 months of the story) a single mother.

What is the escape hatch in Juno? There are two. The obvious one is that the single mother is the almost impossibly perfect woman — wealthy, smart, beautiful, and terrific with children. She’s played by Jennifer Garner, an apt casting choice, because she is, after all, a superhero (in Elektra and Daredevil), and we in the audience naturally feel comfortable with a superhero single mother, especially one who seems also to have a social life (unlike Alison in Knocked Up) and has a demonstrated a genuine love and talent for raising children. The less obvious escape hatch is not so much narratological as it is stylistic — Juno’s improbable wit. Many have criticized the movie for being unrealistic in that regard, but criticizing Juno for being unrealistically witty for a 16-year old is like criticizing Shakespeare’s characters for being unrealistically eloquent, and Juno’s wit is what we love about the movie. It is also the escape-hatch that allow us to avoid the dilemmas. For instance, when the lawyer offers to explain to Juno her legal rights as the biological mother, Juno brushes her off with the line, “Can’t we just kick this old school?” And then she adds, like Moses . . .  . Now, does anyone really want our society to go back to the time of Moses? Unlike the escape hatches for Knocked Up and Waitress, those in Juno do not turn on themselves to reveal their absurdity. Instead, we leave the theater giddy and happy and wanting to see the film again. We don’t care that this movie is anything but realistic.

In terms of the politics of single motherhood, Waitress and Juno are obviously progressive (despite complaints from the pro-choice position) and Knocked Up obviously conservative. But beyond the all too obvious politics of these movies, there is the fairy-tale escape hatch that offers us something not only more fun but also more dynamic and full of possibility. In terms of questions about “agency” and “representation,” movies are complex and — in my view — can not be pinned down by terms such as “conservative” or “progressive.” Instead, we notice how the fairy-tale excape hatches do two contradtictory things at the same time: avoid reality and critique reality.


March 28, 2008 - Posted by | feminism, movies

1 Comment »

  1. I like your analysis of these three movies. I’ve seen Juno twice and want to see it more times because it is AWESOME.
    However, I think that you need to give mroe credit to Juno’s “moral panic attack”. It is something that seems to be brought up in the movie more than just once. I’m not trying to argue that Juno is this huge pro-life movie–I think it’s addressing much more than that decision for a teenage pregnancy. However, it’s really interesting how Juno catches on to “fingernails.” After the girl from school protesting outside the clinic “all babies want to get borned” tells Juno that her baby has fingernails, Juno turns her back on the clinic expressing her curiousity. Inside the clinic Juno can’t stop seeing the fingernails—tapping on desks, scratching arms etcetera. Then, everytime she explains her decision to others she doesn’t say that she freaked out everytime—she brings up the fact that the baby has fingernails. It seems as though this and the moment with the ultrasound are the only times when she shows some emotional connection with the baby inside of her. I just think it’s a bigger deal than a mere “moral panic attack”. But I get all of your bigger points and I know I’m biased…

    Comment by Joan | April 21, 2008 | Reply

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