I've not seen Knocked Up yet, but the estimable Chris Orr has a fine riposte to those horrified by the film's reluctance to kow-tow to some imagined notion of what liberal orthodoxy ought to be:
As a liberal who writes about film, there are few things that I find more irritating than the tendency of other liberal film writers to treat the 95 percent of Hollywood films that push (explicitly or implicitly) liberal ideas as if they were utterly apolitical and commonsensical, and then react with shock and despair on those rare occasions when a movie with conservative themes makes its way to theatres.
Yes, in two recent films, Waitress and Knocked Up, a woman whom we might otherwise expect to consider abortion instead opts to have the baby. (Isn't it supposed to take three examples to establish a trend?) And yes, of course, Hollywood would prefer not to talk about abortion at all, as it's a subject generally not known for its entertainment value.
the virtual nonexistence of abortion as a real option for Katherine Heigl's character Alison Scott, in the film.
Ezra Klein's friends had a similar reaction:
Some in my group seemed genuinely distressed that the main character didn't choose an abortion, and were ready to write off the film for that initial bit of betrayal.
I should note that Ezra himself found that attitude "baffling." So do I. (And since the movie is largely about the struggles that follow the decision to have the child, aborting the fetus would rather ruin the point of the movie. But hey, if you'd rather have The Great Escape without the, er, escape bit then that's fine by me.)
Remarkably Ms Stevens, in her review of Knocked Up and her subsequent attempted rebuttal of some of Ross Douthat's observations failed to make any reference to Apatow's previous move, the wondrous The 40 year Old Virgin. This is strange since Knocked Up is something of a companion piece to its predecessor and, taken together, the two movies would seem to present a picture that is rather more complicated than the standard narrative that Apatow is an unfashionably (or disturbingly?) conservative film-maker.
The 40 Year Old Virgin was only the most subversive mainstream movie in years. In a year in which the dismal Crash could win the Best Picture Oscar it was, in my view, regrettable that The 40 Year Old Virgin wasn't even nominated in that category and verging on scandalous that Apatow didn't receive a screenwriting nomination either.
Yes, social conservatives were surprised by The 40 Year Old Virgin, pleased to see a movie in which abstinence was rewarded and which was prepared to satirise, even condemn, the pubescence of much of popular culture (though one might also pause to remember that the movie also endorses liberal sex education: witness the oddly touching scene at the family planning clinic). But viewed from just a slightly different angle, that's also what made The 40 Year Old Virgin such a feminist movie. I seem to recall that feminists object, or used to at any rate, to the relentless sexualisation and objectification of women in the media and throughout popular culture; so does The 40 year old Virgin.
Steve Carell's character is not heroic because he remains a virgin for so long, but because he proves capable of seeing a woman as a woman, rather than as a member of a mysterious, dangerous, unfathomable species. Not coincidentally, he is the only character who isn't actually afraid of women (shy around them, yes, but not in this deeper sense, afraid). His misadventures with his colleagues from the electronics store are funny because we know this is not who Andy really is and because, deep down, we know their behaviour is insulting, degrading and childish. The men of the world are the real children; Andy, supposedly the naive loser surrounded by his Superhero toys, the actual adult.
Apatow shows that the sort of desperate objectification of women he satirises has a boomerang effect: treating women as pieces of meat is bad for women, of course, but it also degrades the objectifiers, leaving them half-formed and damaged. It's only when the boys realise they could in fact learn from Andy that they have any shot at redemption themselves. In this respect, then, you can reasonably say that The 40 Year Old Virgin is not just conservative and feminist, but also, and more importantly, humanistic and egalitarian.
I'd be very surprised if Knocked Up didn't follow that pattern. In fact it seems it does: Amanda Marcotte (with whom I'm not generally predisposed to agree, even if her Katyusha rocket style can be entertaining) has an interesting take on Knocked Up too and one that seems pretty persuasive to me. Apatow, she writes, shows:
Alison's struggle to make the choice to have the baby, not backing off of the word “abortion”, nor pretending people fling it around easily (preferring a euphemism I’ve heard, “take care of it”). He doesn’t condescend to her choice to have the baby, either, respecting that it’s hard to pin down the “why” with these things to one corny moment, and instead letting Alison have her ambiguous motivations that come across very believably on-screen.
In a recent New York Times Magazine profile Apatow said:
I believe in those guys. There's something honorable about...not breaking up for the sake of the baby. I see people get divorced, and there is a part of me that thinks, I wonder how hard they tried?''
You can call that "conservative" or "moralising" if you like,you may even say it's not a realistic scenario given the characters we see in Knocked Up. But it's also the case that Apatow is making a movie that, though a comedy, seems to be rooted in real-life in one important respect: how do people overcome serious obstacles and challenges in their lives? How do you do your best in imperfect circumstances? Within the limitations of a Hollywood comedy Apatow is intent on showing that this stuff is hard. That's a more grown-up message than you'll find in most Hollywood comedies.
In that NYT profile Apatow also admitted:
''Throughout my life I have used work as an emotional crutch...I used to always feel inadequate in every area except my ability to work hard enough to succeed in comedy. Then you're blessed with wonderful children and an amazing wife, but still you find yourself sitting on the floor playing Care Bears, and you are thinking about a problem with a script or an executive you are fighting with. It's not fair to them.''
Again, you can, if you must, call this knee-jerk family values conservatism, but it's also a plea for men to become more involved with their families, taking on more responsibility and living up to their emotional rather than merely financial obligations. And, again, I rather thought that was something many feminists wanted to see happen too. Once more: Apatow is saying that the failure to be properly invested in domestic life isn't just unfair on your wife and kids, it leaves you unfulfilled too. So there's a 1990s "New Man" thing at work here too.
All this escapes Ms Stevens. For her, the failure to do more than "tiptoe" around the abortion issue might be nothing more than a "marketing decision". Furthermore:
Apatow's reticence on the subject seems to spring less from personal conviction than from the fear of offending his audience's sensibilities. This kind of Trojan horse moralism is maddeningly common in pop-culture representations of abortion, which seem muzzled, invisibly policed, by either the pro-life lobby or the fear of it.
OK then... Though, as Amanda Marcotte among others pointed out, High Fidelity, to take but one example, is a movie in which Laura (played by the lovely Iben Hjelje) and Rob (John Cusack) put their lives back together after she has a) dumped him and b) had an abortion - a decision Laura made with regret rather than zeal admittedly but which is not shown to ruin either her life or her prospects. And as Chris Orr says:
I seem to recall two recent films, The Cider House Rules...and Vera Drake... that netted Academy Award nominations (and one victory) for actors playing heroic abortion providers.
But back to Ms Stevens:
As the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, I think I can say that if she turned up pregnant in her early 20s under exactly Alison's circumstances—single, barely acquainted with the father, financially dependent (she lives with her married sister), weeping miserably at her first sonogram—I would encourage her to at least consider the possibility of abortion, without in any way impugning the "realness" of the child should she decide to keep it. In that same hypothetical conversation... I would certainly tell my beloved girl that, like most of my close female friends... I had an abortion myself around that age, and while it was far from the high point of the decade, it's a decision I look back on now with neither anguish nor regret.
One may disagree on the extent of any "impugning" of the "'realness of the child" in this scenario but many of us will know women who have made that same kind of decision (with varying degrees of anguish) themselves; but we also know people who chose to have children in difficult or at least less than ideal circumstances (such as, for instance, being pregnant while an undergraduate only to find oneself deserted by the father of the child who makes it clear that, sorry love, you're on your own here). For myself, I don't necessarily think less of women who have an abortion in these circumstances, but I do think more of those that choose to have the child.
But the more remarkable line is "like most of my close female friends...I had an abortion." Now, sure, there's a body of opinion that an abortion ought never to be a matter of regret and that to say it's a serious, weighty decision rather more important than deciding what to wear tonight is to give credence to the "pro-life" point of view. That's not a view I share, but it's one I can understand.
How far does this go however? Is there a limit to what even the most ardent pro-choice activist would consider morally acceptable behaviour? While one can sympathise with a woman in desperate straits who chooses to have an abortion once, does that sympathy deserve to be extended to her if she has a second termination? At what point does individual responsibility kick-in? According to this Ramesh Ponnuru article the respected Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that no less than 48% of abortion procedures are performed upon women who have already had at least one abortion.
If I were involved in the pro-choice movement I'd want to do everything I could to reduce that number since it's hard to imagine many more potent recruiting tools for the pro-life position than the idea that abortion has become as routine as a regular check-up for some women (even if this is, in the scheme of things, a relatively small number of women).
Clearly there's a class element to this too: the poor mother in the ghetto, perhaps already burdened by trying to raise five kids on her own, is in a different category from the upper middle-class, wealthy, educated woman in Los Angeles or New York City for whom kids are an inconvenience etc etc. The former hypothetical is tragic, the latter vile even if one recognises (as I in fact do, albeit without much enthusiasm) that it is preferable that abortion be legal. (Yes, I approve of the Clintonian formulation, "Safe, Legal and Rare".)
Indeed, if I wanted to make a zealously pro-life movie I'd feature a group of wealthy, beautiful, successful but essentially self-indulgent hipsters, all of whom become pregnant at least once, fitting their terminations in between shopping in Soho and dinner at Nobu. It would be a movie in which the idea of actually having the child would be raised only so it could be dismissed as a transparently absurd notion. I mean, come on, people don't really want to be tied down by these baby things do they? How extraordinary. It scarcely needs to be said that this is not the "propaganda" movie Judd Apatow has made.
Finally, since this post has probably gone on long enough, of course we all bring our own experiences and beliefs with us to the cinema and of course these colour or inform our responses to what we see. But this tendency to judge a movie's excellence, importance or relevance by the extent to which it confirms or confronts our own prejudices is a depressing trend. In this particular instance most of the small-mindedness is being exhibited by liberals, but one would not, of course, have to search very hard to find numerous instances of conservatives demonstrating the same failing.