What to Expect When You’re Expecting takes the title of a best-selling non-fiction primer on pregnancy and slaps it on to a generic movie about making babies. Like many of the ensemble cast films such as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, the hope is that by crowding the screen with a wide assortment of relatable types, everyone will find connection with at least one character. The result – in terms of audience response and box office reception – has been tepid.
It is superfluous to call the film “unrealistic” – this is Hollywood, after all. And What to Expect When You’re Expecting does have a number of positives going for it: babies are celebrated, pregnancy is a good goal rather than a plague to be avoided at all costs, adoption is affirmed, and miscarriages are grieved. But the film also poses dangers by positively spinning some common mythologies about out-of-wedlock births, and portrays men as petulant, whiney onlookers.
What to Expect
Ever since the advent of AIDS, sex in films is almost always connected with overt displays of condom packages or direct discussions of other forms of birth control. The message is: sex is for fun, not procreation. So imagine a film in which most of the couples are ecstatic to find that they are pregnant. The idea alone is refreshing.
Ultrasound images used in the film visually demonstrate the truth that life begins at conception. A particularly detailed 3-D ultrasound, proudly displayed by Ramsey to his adult son Gary (the two are having a bit of a pregnancy competition), destroys the oft-repeated myth that what’s in a woman’s body after conception is nothing but a “lump of tissue.” It is nice to see children celebrated, and pregnancy sought rather than avoided.
While the film does stoop to all of the pregnancy clichés moviegoers have come to expect – complaints by both the women and the men over the uncomfortable body changes, jokes about the water breaking, and the diabolically transformative power of a labor contraction – much of the film treats pregnancy with respect. Other aspects of fertility are addressed as well. One couple, Holly and Alex, are infertile and choose to adopt an Ethiopian child. One character suffers a miscarriage, and the loss is treated by director Kirk Jones as the grave tragedy that millions of women know it to be. In the film, as in life, not all aspects of fertility can be dealt with easily, or end happily.
Breaking With Reality
Where the film does its viewers a disservice is to treat pregnancies that occur within the bonds of marriage in the same way as those that occur outside it. Evoking Pretty Woman (the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere tale that managed to make prostitution appear romantic), in every instance in this film where unmarried people become pregnant, the outcome is at least a marriage proposal from the man. Even the town stud, Davis, the unattached globe-trotting six-packed object of envy for every man in the Dudes’ Club (a stroller-patrol of new dads), accepts his paternal obligation once the existence of his own daughter becomes known to him.
While portraying the men as willing to marry is laudable, the facts in such instances don’t bear out this fiction. Prior to the 1970s, most unmarried couples who found themselves pregnant would marry. But a 1996 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics argues that since the advent of legalized abortion, fewer and fewer men view unintended children as their responsibility. And a 1995 study in the Journal of Family Issues notes that only 1 in 5 single men saw marriage as the preferable solution to an unintended pregnancy. Even mothers who are cohabiting with the male at the time of conception experience a breakup within 2 years of the birth, and only a third get married, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. All of this would be corroborated by any counselor at any pregnancy counseling center. When unplanned babies arrive, men tend to look for the exits – not for the wedding aisle.
The Continuing Portrait of the Adolescent Man
That men “do the right thing” by the women they impregnate is undermined by the portrayal of the man’s life after marrying. In every instance, the men follow; they never lead. Even Ramsey and Gary don’t lead as much as compete for bragging rights, but Gary’s wife – a childless breast-feeding advocate – is in charge, all the way down to her ovulation alarm. Jules, the media exercise guru, marginalizes her baby-daddy boyfriend. And the men in the Dudes' Club openly proclaim that their group “is where happiness goes to die.” And it is no wonder, as their wives use sex as a weapon to reward or punish them. The men moan about mortgages and minivans, all orchestrated by the women in their lives – transformations the men apparently do not want but are impotent to stop. All of the pat “but I love being a dad” can’t overcome the perception that being single and desirable to younger women – like their idol Davis – would suit them just fine. They might love being a dad, but it doesn’t appear that any of them love being a husband. It is easy to see why a young man contemplating doing the honorable thing after an unintended pregnancy – as do the young men in the film – would run for the hills after seeing this film’s end in store for him if he does.
It is often hard to know whether the media reflects or initiates behavior, or even if it is some mix of the two. But there is little doubt that Hollywood film celebrates singleness, and stresses that unmarried sex represents the romantic ideal. Marriage and kids kill romance, according to Hollywood, so it is unsurprising to see that attitude appear on the screen, even in a film about pregnancy. By contrast, in their book The Case for Marriage, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher report that married people have a more satisfying sex lives than either single people or cohabiting couples. But viewers rarely see that depicted.
Men should revolt at the constant portrayal of themselves as stupid, henpecked, marginalized, perpetually adolescent partners. Men can be romantic and noble, nurturing and protective, faithful and supportive. And into that mix you can add godly and spiritual leaders – something else viewers won’t often see. Men should not be satisfied being depicted in film as merely tolerated recipients of female (dare I say “maternal”) largess.
I am not longing for the days when daring men and ditzy blonde females filled the screen. I would simply like to see Hollywood grow up a bit and portray complex relationships between mature people where both sides have a chance to evince character.
Instead of waiting on Hollywood to provide more compelling and attractive examples of adulthood (it would be a long wait), the church needs to stress the formation of maturity and godliness in both its young men and women. An emphasis on preparing for marriage and family would be helpful also. In that way, the Church could act as a living antidote to the watered-down version of family that pervades our multi-plexes in films such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.