A new book by Kelly Oliver, the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, called Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films, examines the various ways pregnancy is portrayed on film. What might sound like a simple undertaking becomes a monumental task when you consider how we’ve only recently allowed pregnancy to be acknowledged.
If you’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire this season (and you should be, because it’s getting really good), you’ll know that Margaret Thompson’s efforts to establish a women’s clinic in the hospital she funds were met with a great deal of suspicion. While working on the curriculum for a class on women’s anatomy and reproduction, Margaret had to have the text approved by one of the hospital nuns, who objected to the words “vagina” and especially “pregnant.” I can’t even begin to think of how to approach a class on reproduction without being able to utter either of those terms, but it illustrates Oliver’s point that pregnancy used to be a shameful or embarrassing state, even for married women, and the “delicate condition” was to be hidden from the public as much as possible.
Now, we are a culture obsessed with pregnancy. Too much pregnancy, too little pregnancy. Pregnancy and being too old, pregnancy and being too young. Pregnancy and being too skinny, pregnancy and being too fat. Pregnancy and working, pregnancy and staying at home. When you take these two extremes together, it seems like being pregnant has never been something that women just do without input from absolutely everyone else around them. At least, not since we’ve been able to communicate or put together a judgmental look.
Movies reflect our current attitudes, and rightly so since writing a movie that is essentially, “One day I had sex and got pregnant and had a baby and then the sun came up the next day and oh, well,” wouldn’t really be something I would hand over money to watch. Oliver acknowledges that the shift away from pregnancy as a shameful state is certainly a good one, but has been replaced by this demand upon women to have the “perfect pregnancy,” which has as many definitions as there are words in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Whereas 100 years ago, no one wanted to know about your uterus, now everyone does. As much as having a baby is just a part of life, I don’t think societal attitudes ever will be laissez-faire about it. For women, I don’t think it can ever be a simple thing, as it is a huge decision that should never be taken lightly. If things ever get to that point, then maybe we’ll make movies about something other than what pregnant women owe us.