Pregnant With Meaning? Alas, We Were Expecting More.

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen as an ill-matched couple ill-prepared for impending parenthood in
Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen as an ill-matched couple ill-prepared for impending parenthood in "Knocked Up." (By Suzanne Hanover -- Universal Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

At first glance, "Waitress" and "Knocked Up" seem to have little in common, aside from proving to be chug-along successes this summer. The former, a Southern-fried, sweet-natured chick flick, stars Keri Russell as a gutsy young woman who yearns to break free of her stultifying life by baking pies; the latter, a ribald, testosterone-fueled sex comedy from Judd Apatow, offers a decidedly ruder take on love, relationships and commitment.

But at their hearts, both deal -- or, rather, choose not to deal -- with a subject that dare not speak its name: abortion. Both films are predicated on unplanned pregnancies and both confect, through all manner of narrative conceits and messy logic, reasons for their female protagonists to carry their unwanted babies to term (and, in the case of "Knocked Up," wind up with so the wrong guy).

Russell, as "Waitress's" tart-tongued heroine Jenna, is the grumpiest mom-to-be. Informed that she is with child, she furrows her brow and snaps at the doctor who congratulates her. When he observes her unhappiness and awkwardly informs her that his clinic "doesn't perform . . .," she cuts him off, brushing the implied option aside as brusquely as she received the news of her pregnancy. Later, Jenna considers "selling" her baby through a high-powered lawyer, indicating that the film's late writer-director, Adrienne Shelly, was as uncomfortable with the word "adoption" as she was with "abortion."

In "Knocked Up," an up-and-coming entertainment journalist played by Katherine Heigl gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a slacker played by Seth Rogen. Then, in a sequence declared universally preposterous in an anecdotal poll, she actually takes the guy with her to her OB-GYN appointment, where they both see an ultrasound of the fetus, an image that effectively eliminates the abortion option. In a particularly distasteful episode, Heigl's character's mother urges her to "have it taken care of" (Apatow's term of art for ending a pregnancy), adding that an acquaintance did the same thing and later had "a real baby."

Clearly, both women have their reasons for choosing to continue their pregnancies, and both "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" end on optimistic notes, with their formerly ambivalent moms basking in the glow of maternal devotion (also known as hormones). But in neither movie is the choice portrayed as just that, an explicit choice. Rather, Russell's and Heigl's characters approach impending motherhood with the sort of grim resignation that suggests they have no other options. It's a setup that has some viewers, especially women who came of age in a post- Roe v. Wade America, wondering just what world these movies are living in.

"I think it's shocking that the subject of abortion as a choice has been so eliminated from the discussion," says New York Press film writer Jennifer Merin, who is also president of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. "It's not even on the table." The omission, she adds, "undermines anyone's claim that Hollywood has a liberal agenda."

For Merin, the contradiction can be explained by one word: marketing. "They're always afraid of anything deemed too controversial," she says of movie companies. "They think that if they talk about abortion, these women will not be liked by the people they perceive as being the majority." (That, and the fact that without pregnant heroines in "Waitress" or "Knocked Up," there would be no movie.)

Indeed, it's passing strange that both films go to extreme lengths to avoid offending viewers who find abortion repugnant, but apparently think those same viewers won't be put off by Russell's character having an affair with a married man or, in "Knocked Up," protagonists who have sex outside marriage, regularly get high and use nearly every swear word in the book, from the garden-variety kind beginning with "f" to a noxious epithet for a woman's genitalia -- not to mention its male corollary, uttered by an 8-year-old.

If moral hypocrisy in Hollywood isn't necessarily breaking news, it's instructive to cast one's memory back about 20 years. As Dana Stevens recently observed in the online journal Slate, in at least two classic 1980s movies, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Dirty Dancing," the filmmakers featured abortion as a serious plot point "without fainting in horror at the notion."

Or consider a film that came out of Sundance a decade later that now looks positively fearless in its treatment of abortion. Alexander Payne, who went on to make "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways," made his promising debut with "Citizen Ruth," a scathingly funny satire about abortion politics starring Laura Dern. With pointed, sophisticated humor, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor skewered the most appalling extremes of the abortion debate, with Dern's character -- a pregnant glue-sniffer named Ruth Stoops -- fought over as a mascot by both sides. "I'm gonna stay here," Ruth says at one point, "and I'm gonna have that abortion like I wanted. 'Cause I'm a citizen and . . . and I got my rights to, um, pick!"

In today's climate of culture wars and self-censoring, it seems impossible that a movie could be so explicit about an issue that, while undoubtedly contested, has enjoyed roughly steady levels of support over the years. As they did in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, a majority of Americans support a woman's right to choose an abortion: Fifty-three percent describe themselves as "pro-choice," according to the most recent Gallup Poll (compared with 42 percent who call themselves "pro-life"). Then again, the same poll reveals that 51 percent consider abortion "morally wrong."

Well, we're nothing if not inconsistent. While "Waitress" and "Knocked Up" choose to skirt what for most people is a vexingly complex personal and political issue, it's ironic -- if maybe fitting -- that we can look to Hollywood's own recent past for a film that had the courage to acknowledge our collective cognitive dissonance.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company