The Review: Knocked Up

Sophie Gilbert, Megan Garber, and Hannah Giorgis discuss Hollywood and the way it depicts abortion (or doesn’t).

A woman stares disbelieving at a positive pregnancy test
KNOCKED UP, Katherine Heigl, 2007 (Universal / Everett; The Atlantic)

Fifteen years on, what can we learn from how the movie Knocked Up treated abortion, pregnancy, and women’s bodily autonomy? And what does it say in the era of a leaked Supreme Court opinion that could overturn Roe v. Wade as we know it? Join The Review as Sophie Gilbert, Megan Garber, and Hannah Giorgis dissect Judd Apatow’s 2007 film.

Listen to the discussion here:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sophie Gilbert: This week on the show, we’re rewinding back to 2007 to talk about the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up. The film turns 15 on June 1, but this anniversary also arrives at a unique moment for the movie’s subject. The recent leak of a draft decision revealed that a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is willing to overturn Roe v. Wade. The final decision won’t arrive ’til June, but as it stands right now, it’s fair to expect that abortion rights around the country will be severely curtailed.

So we wanted to use this episode to explore how Hollywood shapes our conversations about pregnancy and abortion. And we thought Knocked Up in particular is an interesting way to look at this subject. It’s a massively successful movie about an unwanted pregnancy in which the word abortion never actually appears. Megan, you wrote an amazing piece about Knocked Up and its many flaws. Do you remember what you thought of it years ago compared with watching it again in 2022?

Megan Garber: It’s funny; I don’t remember seeing Knocked Up in 2007, whether it was in a theater or a Netflix DVD, but what I can definitely say is that I was very much struck in this viewing by its pernicious myths in the guise of comedy.

Hannah Giorgis: Yeah, very much the same. I have no distinct memories of it, and yet rewatching it, I had moments of déjà vu that made me wonder how I thought about it at the time.

Gilbert: Before we get into it, let’s do a brief rundown of the movie: Katherine Heigl plays Alison Scott, a producer on E! Television, who gets promoted to on-air talent. I should say that’s a hilarious scene with Kristen Wiig, and one of the highlights of the movie. If we’re going to be ruthless about Knocked Up, I should say I really love that scene.

Garber: So good.

Giorgis: And while celebrating out in a club one night with her sister, played by the director Judd Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann, she meets Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen. It makes no sense that they talk to each other, let alone have sex. But they do. And eight weeks later, Alison finds out that she is pregnant.

And, Megan, what I took away from your piece is the weird absence of Alison as a character with any desires, motivations, dreams, goals. She’s very passive. She lives in her sister’s pool house. She gets promoted by no apparent effort of her own. She gets pregnant, and there’s no real discussion of her thoughts about what to do. What do the two of you make of Alison? Is she just a foil for the men in this movie to have a cool, fun time around?

Garber: That is definitely how I saw it. I think that’s a pretty good summary. This movie is a rom-com, a buddy comedy, a raunch comedy. It’s a lot of things at once. And in the movie’s defense, these aren’t just characters; they are tropes. There’s a lot of turning these people into ideas, and I wouldn’t mind that so much if the terms weren’t so sort of unevenly split. To your point, Sophie, you might think in a movie about pregnancy, the character who is centered and elevated and celebrated would be Alison. And in fact, it is Ben. The movie’s empathy and gravity are aimed at him. He’s this sort of man-child slacker who’s very charming but kind of stuck in arrested development.

And the question in this movie—as in so many of Judd Apatow’s films—is about growing up. But the question is not: Will Alison grow up? The question is: Will Ben grow up? And I think one of the things that I found pretty pernicious in my viewing of the movie this time around is that Alison serves as a kind of a vessel, a means to help Ben grow up, to help Ben become an adult and a father. She is written out of so much because her role is fundamentally just to be an instrument for someone else’s development.

Giorgis: Yeah, it’s strange the extent to which the movie equates Ben growing up—and becoming a man because he is going to become a father—with Alison’s need to loosen up. They’re charted as two equally urgent needs, two equally urgent paths of growth. And if you step back for a second, it’s like: Hold on, something is not quite right here.

There’s a moment as the birth scene is imminent when Ben recites a fact that makes it become clear that he’s read a single thing about pregnancy and what’s happening to Alison’s body, which she—and the film by proxy—really celebrates. And I remember feeling like that seems a little bare minimum to me.

It is really striking that his growth arc is: learning some stuff about pregnancy and adulthood. And hers is: learning to congratulate him for learning some stuff about pregnancy and adulthood.

Gilbert: I went back to a profile of Judd Apatow that came out in 2007. And it was a very thoughtful profile. He seemed like a strikingly troubled man at the time for someone who was 39, the toast of Hollywood, and happily married with two gorgeous kids. Which is not to say that those things don’t allow you to have anxiety and to suffer with self-image issues, but the thing I really took away from the profile is the way he was talking about the fantasy involved in the kinds of films that he makes, the kinds of films that Knocked Up exemplified at the time.

His quote was: “I think there is a nerd’s fantasy involved in many of these films. We all wish that somebody would take the time to get to know us, and love us, warts and all.” And I thought that was really telling. Because the message in this movie is not that Ben needs to change, necessarily. He does grow up in the end. He embraces fatherhood, gets an apartment, and gets a job to have the capacity to pay for things with money. He is fairly bad at life in the beginning of the film. But the message of the movie is not that men like this need to change. It’s that women need to take the time to excavate the diamonds that they can be from underneath the mess of marijuana haze and arrested development.

The other thing that struck me watching the movie again is that there’s no single woman in this film that you would want to hang out with in real life. Alison’s fine. She’s not super chill or funny. She’s not really given anything entertaining or charming to do in the movie. Her sister is incredibly uptight. And the contrast in the scenes between when Alison is having lunch with her mother to discuss the pregnancy, and her mother is like, “Honey, just get rid of it. Your step-sister did and then she had a real baby.” And then contrast that with Ben talking to his dad, played by the beloved Harold Ramis, who’s just like, “I’m going to be a grandfather!” It just exemplifies the contrast in the movie: The men in it are adorable. And the women are pretty bad all around.

Garber: That contrasting pair of scenes also gives Ben the line: “I had a vision for how my life would go, and this definitely is not it.” That’s a very powerful line in talking about this impending pregnancy, and it’s very striking that the line was given to Ben and not to Alison. The film presents those conversations between parents and children as part of a sequence that tumbles over the aftermath of Alison’s realization that she is pregnant. We never get the scene where Alison actually decides to keep the baby. That’s just completely edited out.

That scene with Alison and her mom also starts something that this movie does, which is to metabolize Alison’s anxieties about the pregnancy through discussions of weight. Again and again in the movie, Alison doesn’t say “I’m fearful about this process” or “I’m nervous about what this is going to mean for my life.” Any of the things she might be feeling about becoming a parent is processed as “Oh no, I’m going to get fat.”

And it was fascinating to see the movie do that, not just in the scene between Alison and her mother but throughout the film. It’s a very male gaze-y way of processing fears about parenthood.

Giorgis: And it could have worked and said something insightful about the nature of her work as on-air talent. There’s a world in which it could have served something, and yet it just extends so far. Even her big apology to Ben toward the end includes her saying, “And my ass got so fat.” And it’s like that made her behave in this way that we’re supposed to believe is irrational because she was distraught and angry about, of all things, her ass getting fat.

Looking back at this after 15 years, after the way that the body and self-image trends have shifted, it feels particularly ridiculous to hear. Of all the things she’s listing as reasons she might have been under duress in this incredibly complicated, difficult time in her life, the thing she lands on is that this changed her weight. It’s not about her child but her desirability and the way she’s supposed to look as a woman. And particularly as a white woman.

Gilbert: Right, she’s not worried about money. She’s not like, How am I going to pay for this? Who’s going to be the nanny? Where am I going to live? Where will the baby sleep? All these practical things that you completely lose your mind over. It’s purely through the lens of weight.

The other thing that really struck me rewatching is that when she finds out she’s pregnant, the first thing she does is go to the doctor and the doctor immediately does a sonogram, which is a very emotional thing. It’s something that lots of states compel women who are seeking abortions to do, precisely because it’s so emotional. It is different to consider a pregnancy once you have seen and heard a heartbeat.The film is shifting into what I want to say is a culturally conservative gear, where it’s like: But look, there’s a baby. There’s a heartbeat. There’s a tiny thing right there. And that fact precedes any discussion from Alison about what she’s going to do. It’s just so strange to me now. And it’s also after that crazy pregnancy-test montage. One test isn’t enough! We have to buy 700 because that’s what women do!

Giorgis: And that’s one of those things where, if that were in the context of a character who otherwise has interesting thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams and ambitions, it could have just been a weird stunt. It’s a comedy. It could have just been one montage that gives way to some quasi-serious treatment of this big thing that’s happening to her. And instead it’s just a way of establishing how weird and strange this thing happening is without giving us any insight into what she might want or think about it.

Gilbert: There are so many warning signs that are like: Run away! He doesn’t have a phone! He doesn’t have a job! When she calls him to tell him that she wants to see him again, every one of his friends makes porn noises and pretends to hump each other.

I just want to briefly address the ludicrousness of this setup. There’s just no world in which this would happen. There’s no world in which these two people meet at a club … I mean, maybe there’s a world in which they go home together, but there is no world in which every step of this movie plays out exactly the way it does. Like you wrote, Megan, it’s an inverted fairy tale. It’s fantasy from a male point of view.

Garber: Well, and I was just remembering back to what is my least favorite scene in this movie. It doesn’t just sort of present Ben as a slacker. It also presents him as just a thoroughly, almost aggressively good guy. And I think goes out of its way to almost acrobatically justify and rationalize everything he does. And the scene I’m thinking of is the one where the pregnancy actually happens.

They are together at Alison’s pool house. Ben is fumbling with the condom, and Alison has one of her first moments of utterly illogical shrewishness that just kind of flips all of the sudden into her character. She says “Just do it already,” very impatiently. And he says “Okay” and throws the condom away. She had clearly meant: “Please just hurry up with the condom.” And this is the elemental misunderstanding that informs the rest of the plot.

And the fact that the movie puts all of the consequences and moral weight of that scene on Alison being impatient and a little bit of a shrew is very revealing about what it’s up to, particularly when it comes to Ben. She clearly did not mean “Throw away the condom.” That is a massive violation. And yet the film presents it as just another joke. And it has to happen for the plot to play out, but it also has to happen for the film to preserve the idea that Ben is fundamentally a good guy. He’s just doing what she asked and being accommodating, like he will be throughout the rest of the movie. And it’s interesting to me how much it had to contort to rationalize Ben and keep him in the sort of good-guy frame of things.

Gilbert: Yeah, and when Ben tells Alison what happened, his reaction is very angry. It’s very hostile. “Could you not tell there wasn’t a condom?” “Why didn’t you stop me once we started?”

Gilbert: It’s really hostile. We’re still expected to root for this guy who essentially just [didn’t use a condom without consent] and is now angry at [his partner] for having become pregnant?

Giorgis: Yeah, and essentially called her “stupid,” right? He’s weirdly graphic and hostile, as you’re saying, Sophie. It felt gross to watch. And I was thinking about that in contrast with Catastrophe, the British series that also starts off with an unintended pregnancy that brings two very different people together. And Catastrophe would not work as a premise if Rob were even 10 percent less good a guy. I don’t think the show paints him as being good in a way that’s unfair or overly virtuous. But it’s really remarkable to think about how differently he behaves as opposed to Ben. And granted, they’re in very different positions in life. But also, that should factor into the plot! And into how the women in these works respond to these men.

Gilbert: I did want to talk about the two movies from that year that treat abortion as a kind of non-option, and about the film industry’s treatment of pregnancy and abortion around that time. Because later in 2007 came Juno, Diablo Cody’s movie about a pregnant teenager played by Elliot Page, who ultimately decides to go through with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption to a very nice lady played by Jennifer Garner.

It was debated at the moment that both these movies made specific choices. And it really wasn’t until seven years later that Jenny Slate made the movie Obvious Child, which presented, shall we say, a different choice. Hannah, I know you rewatched that movie recently. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Giorgis: Yeah. In Obvious Child, Jenny Slate plays an aspiring stand-up comedian who is recently dumped by her long term boyfriend and in the fallout of that meets a stranger. It’s a similar setup to Knocked Up: What starts as a short-term encounter turns into a pregnancy. And we spend a decent amount of the movie talking through the potential ways forward, and then navigating the logistics of it. And ultimately, the film ends with her having the abortion. It’s not a big, dramatic thing. And after, she and the man who got her pregnant end up watching television together.

It ends with them just as people at home together as she’s recovering from a medical procedure that she’d had earlier in the day. There’s not a big to-do about it all. And she has a conversation about what this would have looked like if this had happened to her 40 or 50 years ago. But even that isn’t super heavy-handed. It’s just like: Here’s a woman who obviously is not prepared in any number of ways to be a mother at this exact moment. And so she makes the decision that makes sense for her at that time.

Gilbert: I wanted to talk about the “shma-shmortion” scene. I don’t really know how to bring it up. It’s so telling that this is a movie in which abortion is like Voldemort. People can’t even say it out loud. It’s a Very Common Medical Procedure That Shall Not Be Named.

Garber: I mean, it very much might be just marketing and generally capitalistic concerns, but to take the movie on its own terms, this is a really conservative film. The upshot is: Family is wonderful. Anything that gets you to family is good. And you could say: This is just a comedy. Why are you paying so much attention to just a comedy? It doesn’t matter.

But I think it’s really revealing that in this comedy that is so self-consciously a comedy, Judd Apatow’s daughters are actors in this movie. His wife is an actor in the movie. Its end credits show family photos of cast and crew, either as children or with their own children. The final scene of the movie proper shows Alison and Ben with their daughter as treacly music plays and shows family photos. The notion is: Everything worked out because there is now a new baby in the world. And I think that’s the fundamental message of this film.

And so, if that tracks to both of you, then you can’t mention abortion aloud in that context. If your assumption is Baby equals good, and that is the beginning and end of the discussion, you can’t really allow or entertain anything that would get in the way of that message.

There’s also, of course, just cultural notions of shame that are still part of the abortion conversation, despite all the progress that’s been made in mass culture. The way abortion is talked about always gets a little bit of a caveat, a little bit of a euphemism invoked. And so I think there’s a lot happening with the absence of the word, but I think the movie is structured in a way that wouldn’t allow it to talk about abortion as a legitimate or simply medical option.