Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that, “in every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.” When Bridget Jones’s Diary was first published in 1996, there was a lot to criticize, from a feminist perspective: Bridget was obsessed with men and with her weight; the character was too unflaggingly “likable” to convey psychological depth or undergo much change. And yet … the charm of the novels and the movie adaptations that followed was that they said things that many women had thought or felt, but not articulated.
Were our thighs fat? Were we being charming? Or were we just drunk? Would we meet our true love someday? What if we lost five pounds? Would he still want to have sex if he saw us in control-top underwear? Bridget Jones made fun of the imperatives delivered by women’s magazines, while acknowledging the reality of the anxieties and desires they created. The effect was paradoxical: The books reinforced gender stereotypes while simultaneously encouraging readers to laugh at their absurdity.
This month, Bridget returned to cinemas in Bridget Jones’s Baby. The latest, and apparently last outing for the perennial “singleton” shifts its focus from men who break Bridget’s heart to men who get Bridget pregnant. Shortly after her 43rd birthday, Bridget has a one-night stand with Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), an American tech billionaire she meets at a music festival. A week later, she sleeps with her old flame, the barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). When she finds out she’s pregnant, she has no way of figuring out which one is the father. Terrified of needles and of the risk of miscarriage—the script repeatedly emphasizes that given her “geriatric” age, this is her one shot at motherhood—Bridget refuses to have the amniocentesis she would need for a genetic test.
The choice of subject matter is on trend.
It is a truth frequently acknowledged that the romantic comedy has passed its prime. In 2008, The New York Times’s A. O. Scott described the genre as cynical and exhausted. In 2013, in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr observed that modern rom-coms weren’t just bad, but they were also no longer making money. Later that year, Variety reported that Nancy Meyers couldn’t convince Sony to fund her new project. When the director of What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, and It’s Complicated can’t get a rom-com greenlit, it’s clear an era has ended.
But as studios attempted to rework the romantic comedy, a new genre emerged. Call it the Comedy of Unplanned Pregnancy. The Oops, I had a baby! movie. The momcom. Classic romcoms, and the screwball comedies that came before them, presented love as a battle of the sexes that was also a battle of wits. Men and women sparred verbally until they negotiated a kind of marriage contract they both could agree upon. The audience, meanwhile, got to participate vicariously in this public debate about how a relationship should be. In contemporary momcoms, though, love can only happen by chance. An independent career woman accidentally gets pregnant, which leads to the formation of a couple that would never have formed otherwise.
Momcoms both reflect and reinforce a rather depressing view of gender roles and relations. In them, women are too neurotic and career-obsessed to sustain romantic relationships, while men are too emotionally immature, professionally inept, or both. They don’t work through their differences through dialogue so much as get forced together by a gestational twist of fate. In some ways, Bridget Jones’s Baby epitomizes the momcom. In others, it shows how desperately women want to escape the double bind that the momcom places them in—of being forced to become both nurturers and providers, individuals who don’t need men for practical or emotional purposes but are still ultimately defined by their roles as wives and mothers.
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The contemporary momcom does have precedents. In 1944’s Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, a patriotic small town girl gets blackout drunk and “marries” a soldier who is departing the next day; the audience never sees him clearly, and she never sees him again. When it emerges that this one-night “marriage” has left her pregnant, the geeky boy next door who’s always loved her steps up. She gives birth to sextuplets, and they live happily ever after. In the 1987 Diane Keaton vehicle Baby Boom, a yuppie woman inherits a baby from a distant relative; after growing to love the child, she realizes that she hates her Wall Street career and moves to Vermont to pursue a passion project making artisanal baby food. In Look Who’s Talking (1989), a single mom played by Kirstie Alley gets together with the taxi driver (John Travolta) who happened to take her to the delivery room and was mistaken for the father.
There are plenty of others: 1993’s Made in America, 1994’s Junior, 1995’s Nine Months (1995). In each of these films, an accidental pregnancy or an accident involving pregnancy leads to the creation of a new couple. But the millennial momcom has produced a new set of gender stereotypes, more specific to the age of the unapologetic power woman—of Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton.
One of the first prominent Oops, I had a baby plots featured in the fourth season of Sex and the City. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a high-powered corporate lawyer, reconnects with her ex-boyfriend, Steve (David Eisenberg), a sweet bartender who broke up with her because he felt humiliated by how much she out-earned him. When Steve is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Miranda steps in to help him sort out his health insurance; after he has a testicle removed, she sleeps with him out of pity. Having recently been diagnosed with a “lazy ovary,” she assumes that she cannot become pregnant. When she does, she plans to have an abortion. But at the clinic, she realizes that she can’t go through with it. Miranda has the child, assures Steve that she will take care of it on her own, and a year or so after doing just that, realizes she still loves him. They marry and buy a brownstone in Brooklyn.
Miranda set a precedent that accidental pregnancy could domesticate the alpha woman. But it was Judd Apatow who turned this template into the archetype of mancession-era romance. In 2007, Knocked Up told a story similar to Miranda’s in a more misogynistic tone: Alison (Katherine Heigl) is a go-getting newscaster who gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a schlub played by Seth Rogen. For reasons that are never explained, Alison’s apparently secular and ambitious character doesn’t consider abortion. As she endures the goofy physical humiliations of pregnancy, she is humanized. She loosens up; he grows up. Audiences (and critics) loved it. That same year, Juno put an indie twist on the formula. The title character, a cynical high-school student played by Ellen Page, gets pregnant after she has sex with her best friend (Michael Cera). Like Miranda in Sex and the City, Juno goes to an abortion clinic, but gets cold feet. While she and Cera are too young to think about marriage, they do start dating after she gives their child up for adoption.
The success of Knocked Up and Juno inspired more variations: Baby Mama (2008) (which features Sigourney Weaver, who played the unexpecting mother to end all mothers in Alien, as a surrogacy-agency director), Labor Pains (2009), The Backup Plan (2010), The Switch (2011), Friends with Kids (2011). Subversions of the formula followed, from the campy Gayby (2012) to the wonderful Obvious Child (2014). Even in China, when the director Xue Xiaolu set out to remake Sleepless in Seattle, she made the protagonist pregnant. In 2013’s Beijing yushang Xiyatu (or Beijing Meets Seattle), the star Tang Wei shows up in America, pregnant by her married boyfriend, and ends up falling for the Chinese taxi driver who picks her up from the airport.
To borrow Heigl’s famous criticism of Knocked Up, many momcoms can feel “kinda sexist.” The women are joyless shrews; their out-of-control bodies become the butts of raunchy jokes. When Rogen’s character sees Heigl’s the morning after having sex with her, all he can say is, “You’re prettier than me.” By the end, his friend who walks in on her in labor is disgusted. “Get out!” Heigl growls, as if this were The Exorcist. The friend shudders, “I wish I hadn’t seen that.” The message is: Women are ridiculous, women are monsters, and pregnancy can put the prettiest back in her place. It was no accident that Heigl’s career collapsed after the “kinda sexist” comment. It was as if she hadn’t learned her character’s lesson; she dared to remain the uppity kind of woman Alison was at the beginning, rather than the chill woman she becomes.
These movies also take abortion off the table. They have to: The romance of the alpha woman and the man-child isn’t plausible without the baby ex machina. Kelly Oliver, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt and author of Knock Me Up, Knock Me Down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Films, coined the term “momcom.” Oliver argues that films that fit this formula coopt the language of reproductive rights and distort it. “Films in the mom genres redeploy the language of choice in service of family values, reinforcing the old-fashioned idea that no matter how successful a woman is, her true desire is to have a baby,” Oliver says. In Bridget Jones’s Baby, the “big decision” is not whether or not to have a baby, but who Bridget should choose to be the father. “Once again,” Oliver says, “the language of pro-choice is displaced onto another choice, this one more acceptable, namely the standard Hollywood love triangle.”
It’s worth adding that the momcom doesn’t push women back into the “traditional” role of stay-at-home mother. In these films, to be a career woman and to be a mother is not an either/or, but a both/and. In addition to the raunchy misogyny of Knocked Up, the genre sustains more subtle forms of sexism. The new feminine ideal is the woman who “has it all,” and by “has it all,” I mean does everything. The ideal expressed by the momcom exploits women, while claiming to empower them.
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Some critics have hypothesized that the decline of the romcom started when it became socially acceptable for anyone to fall in love with anyone. In a new millennium without disapproving parents or class hierarchies, there were no more obstacles for characters to overcome. But American marriage is the most class-stratified it has been since the 1930s, and American communities are rapidly resegregating.
The momcom depicts a world where some rules have changed. Premarital sex, for instance, is permissible. But others persist. The casts of these films are middle-class and up and blindingly white. (If Bridget Jones were a poor woman of color who had unprotected sex with two men within one ovulation window, then got pregnant, one imagines that Hollywood would give her story different treatment.) The momcom may look liberated, but it normalizes new patterns of labor and leisure, work and consumption that are supposed to recreate the world in a white, middle-class image. It says women should be willing to both provide for and nurture their babies—and often their boyfriends. Indeed, it suggests that they should like doing so.
Bridget Jones’s Baby conforms to many momcom stereotypes. But its appeal lies in how it inverts the demand to be superwoman. A steely OB/GYN, played by Emma Thompson keeps telling Bridget that she can be a single mom (“I did it”). But Bridget has both of her prospective partners constantly at her side. For 90 minutes, two rich, handsome men fall over themselves to help her. Firth is actually upset when Dempsey beats him to taking Bridget to the hospital after she eats too many anchovies and BBQ Pringles and gets a case of “wind.” The film even hints that both might stick around indefinitely. Bridget’s Lamaze coach thinks that the two men are a couple and Bridget is their surrogate; Dempsey plays along, calling Firth “teacup.” For as long as the men tolerate each other, viewers can imagine that alternatives to the “traditional” nuclear family might be possible—that women have not only gained the right to raise children alone, if they want to, but might also be able to live in more extensive networks of care.
The climax of Bridget Jones Baby takes a sharp turn back toward anti-feminism. When Bridget goes into labor, her race to the hospital is interrupted by a “women’s rights” march, led by a group of Russian punk rockers modeled on Pussy Riot. With their car blocked, Firth and Dempsey’s characters must carry Bridget, howling, through the fray. What the marchers want is never specified; feminism has become an occasion for slapstick, a literal obstacle to be overcome. When Bridget’s mother shows up, too late for the delivery, because she also got stuck in traffic caused by the march, she blurts out with exasperation: “Women’s rights! Don’t we have enough rights already?” Then, sure enough, a DNA test briskly determines that the “real” father of Bridget’s baby is the man she was hoping to end up with, and a wedding reaffirms the institutions of marriage and paternity.
After the rushed conclusion, Bridget’s mother’s line stuck with me. “Don’t we have enough rights already?” The exhaustion that the line expresses seems real: It left me wondering whether there wasn’t something a bit utopian about Bridget Jones Baby. The formulaic ending lies sprung, ready to define the heroine by marriage and motherhood. But a desire for love that could be more flexible—and a division of reproductive labor that would be more equitable—hovers above it.
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