The ’80s and early ’90s were the heyday of “career women” enthusiasm. Feminist demands for economic equality and justice were subsumed by the mainstream. In 1993, I proudly accompanied my mom to work for the first annual Take Our Daughters To Work Day. Meanwhile, amidst the façade of economic growth, the dollar was overvalued, consumerism increased, the service and financial sectors expanded, the gap between rich and poor widened, and the economic divide between single working moms and working women without children became a chasm. Today, feminists talk about “choice feminism” and “opting out.” We talk about the socioeconomic and racial privileging of the “opting out” conversation. We talk about the Mommy Wars.
But let’s forget all that for a moment. Let’s go back to 1987, when the mommy wars were first being waged. In that year, Diane Keaton starred as J.C. Wiatt in Baby Boom, a film co-produced and co-written by Nancy Meyers, one of the only big-name female producers in Hollywood. (This remains true fourteen years later.) The voice-over at the beginning of Baby Boom tells you everything you need to know:
53% of the American workforce is female. As little girls, they were told to grow up and marry doctors and lawyers. Instead, they grew up and became doctors and lawyers. They moved out of the pink ghetto and into the executive suite. Take J.C. Wiatt, for example. Graduated first in her class at Yale, got her MBA at Harvard. Has a corner office at the corner of 58th and Park …. married to her job, she lives with an investment banker married to his… one would take it for granted that a woman like this has it all. One must never take anything for granted.
And thus, within thirty seconds the film’s theme is firmly established: Career vs. personal life. When J.C.’s cousin dies in a car accident, she’s left as guardian of his baby. She decides to keep the baby, and within a few weeks, her boss demotes her. Pissed off, J.C. quits the job and moves to a house in Vermont. She develops a homemade applesauce food brand and quickly expands the business. Her ex-colleagues want to buy J.C.’s new company, so they invite her to a meeting in New York and offer her a cushy, lucrative deal. She turns it down. In front of a board room full of men, J.C. makes this speech:
I was very excited about this offer, but I don’t think I really thought about what it meant. You see, I’m not the Tiger Lady any more. I have a crib in my office, and there’s a mobile over my desk, and I really like that. Fritz, do you remember that night when you told me about the things I was going to have to give up, and the sacrifices I was going to have to make? Well, I don’t want to make those sacrifices, and the bottom line is, nobody should have to. I just think the rat race is going to have to survive with one less rat.
J.C. goes on to say that she can be successful without their buy-out. When I watched this film as a girl, probably around twelve years old, these were new thoughts for me. Nobody had told me about the work/life balance. I didn’t realize that the decision to raise a child was related to one’s career. I was dismayed at J.C.’s struggles, but relieved when she fought back.
J.C.’s a control freak, which fits the “career woman” stereotype, but otherwise her character is rather specific. She’s a little kooky. She giggles a lot. She isn’t bitter about her job; she loves work. She holds no grudges against moms. In Vermont, J.C. begins a relationship with the town veterinarian. She’s a little self-conscious, but seems confident with her sexuality, and isn’t de-sexualized as “career women” so often are.
Fast-forward to 2010. In Life as We Know It, Katherine Heigl plays Holly Berensen, perennially loveless owner of a boutique restaurant and bakery. When her best friend dies in a car accident, she and Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel) are appointed joint guardians of their friends’ baby daughter. Eric is a philandering, immature dude who rides a motorcylce and constantly ridicules Holly for being unattractive and nonsexual, apparently due to her status as a single business ower. The two hate one another, yet move in together to raise the baby.
When Holly realizes she doesn’t have the time or money to expand her business as planned, she’s willing to “choose” the baby over the expansion, but Eric saves the day and loans her money. Soon thereafter, they have sex and fall in love. Eric receives a job promotion in Phoenix and admits to Holly that he’s overwhelmed by their sudden family situation. She tells him to take the job and leave them, which he does. It’s clear that Eric needs to “prove” his commitment by deciding to come back to Holly plus baby. And he does come back. The End.
Eric and Holly are two-dimensional characters. The constant references in dialogue to Holly’s uptightness and Eric’s philandering are awkward, because Eric seems sweet, not insensitive, and Holly seems boring, not uptight. The forced and unrealistic typecasting of the two leads ruined the film; mainstream romantic comedies are so unable to divorce themselves from the philandering male/uptight career women tropes that they’ll cling to them even when it destroys everything else.
Uptight and insecure (or so they keep saying), Holly is a “career woman” who secretly desires a family, she’s indistinct from other Heigl roles. At the beginning of the film, Holly is annoyed by moms and pregnant women. Once she has her own baby, she’s happy, but becomes convinced that she won’t find a man. Holly to a friend: “How will I ever meet someone like this? I have no control!” Friend to Holly: “Look, your circumstances have changed. But you haven’t. You’re still hot.”
What would a twelve-year-old girl learn from this movie? She’d learn that you lose your career when you have a baby, but keep working in a less satisfying job. She’d learn that you shouldn’t fight against the inequalities that force this situation. Why? Because career women are lonely. When they finally get a man and baby (their secret wish!), they’re so relieved that they’re willing to make sacrifices. Other key lessons: Women without babies dislike pregnant women. Women with babies will only find love if they’re still “hot.” Emotional manipulation of men is the way to get them to “stay.” When men give you money, you give them sex. Women and men both work, but men hold the economic power. Women seem smarter and better educated, but men still hold the economic power.
Welcome to the twenty-first century. Are either of these films accurate or comprehensive portrayals of their time? Not even remotely. But they reflect cultural attitudes surrounding women, motherhood, and work, and the putrefied trope of Heigl’s character didn’t exist in 1987. Heigl and Keaton’s characters are analogous as white-controlling-educated-women-who-have-careers-plus-family, and the evolution of this character is telling. Where Baby Boom gave hope, Life as We Know It brings despair.
I suspect that I Don’t Know How She Does It, Sarah Jessica Parker’s recent film about a financial executive/mom, doesn’t bring hope, either. (I simply couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Any survivors with reports?) Can anyone think of a recent film with a more nuanced, more positive message about very successful career women with children?