I’d read conflicting accounts of What to Expect When You’re Expecting: While Bitch’s own Andi and Kelsey previously pointed out many of its flaws, Bitchflicks called it an “unexpected gem”. Having watched it, I understand the conflicting feminist opinions: the movie’s so tonally inconsistent and stuffed full of characters, it’s open to a range of interpretations. There’s a lot to hate about it, from its heteronormativity (gay people and single people have babies too!) to its racial troping (a minor character calls Latino couple Holly and Alex “spicy”; Vic (Chris Rock) and his wife have more children than everyone else, and they’re all named after professional athletes…). A subplot pitting Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) against her younger, more glamorous stepmother Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), who is also pregnant, also felt hackneyed: why not subvert the idea that women are all jealous of models by having them support each other, instead?
But the film has some surprisingly realistic moments, especially compared to traditional romantic comedies where pregnancy and labor are portrayed as a breeze. After Rosie (Anna Kendrick) becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she and Marco (Chace Crawford), who she’s barely started dating, become a cozy couple. But then she miscarries and sinks into depression, and their too-much-too-soon relationship falls apart; all of which felt surprising and pretty revolutionary for a big-budget (alleged) comedy.
One of the couples, Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) are adopting a baby because they can’t conceive. It might have been better had adoption not been shown to be a consolation prize and more realistic if it had taken a little longer than a few months, but the movie at least showed some insight into the process, and included the adoption ceremony, which was treated with as much reverence as the birth scenes — which again, felt like something I hadn’t seen in a mainstream movie before.
At the start of the film, Wendy is an OTT twee archetype: a “natural” birth advocate who runs a baby boutique called The Breast Choice and wrote a book about breast-feeding called Milk It!. She speaks in a soft voice and wears florals and is as type A about conceiving as she is everything else in her life. But after her husband Gary finally puts a bun in her oven, she realizes that the standards to which she’s been holding other women are unattainable. When she eventually gives birth, not only does she ask for an epidural, but she ends up needing a cesarean and loses a lot of blood, which puts her life in danger — a rare Hollywood admittance of the potential reality of labor.
The movie might have seemed more cohesive if the couples having babies all knew each other (perhaps via a prenatal group) rather than some of their lives intersecting occasionally. Few of the women come together and share their experiences, which is a wasted opportunity. In preparation for his impending fatherhood, however, Alex joins a separate “Dudes’ Group”, for men who take an active role in their children’s care.
There’s a lot to dislike about this group: The men are obsessed with seeming stereotypically masculine and inform Alex that they have secrets from their wives (like that one kid was found eating a cigarette) and entertain small rebellions (one of the men is calling his son Henri “Henry”, in defiance of his wife’s insistence on the French pronunciation). Vic says, “Women pretty much control the baby universe. Here, we’re free.” So far, so gender essentialist. But towards the end of the film, when Alex is scared about the responsibility he’s taking on, especially as these men seem so bummed out and tied down by their kids, the Dudes put him straight.
Sure, the concept that you don’t know true happiness until you have kids is unoriginal and alienates anyone unable or unwilling to become a parent. But it still feels positive and progressive to see Chris Rock say, “You don’t get it. We love being dads.” Fatherhood is too often presented as “emasculating”, in real life and in pop culture (including this film, at times), so any challenge to that is welcome.
Kelsey previously pointed out that Rock’s character is a “Magical Negro” trope, blessed with special knowledge but lacking any storyline of his own; there merely to serve the other, mostly white characters. The problematic nature of his character could have been solved had the dudes in the group been coupled with the women who were having babies, rather than being a weird, tacked-on extra. However, showing an African-American man as an engaged and capable father, and positioning him as powerful precisely because he knows so much about children struck me as fresh and envelope-pushing, even if that’s a sad reflection on the lack of diversity we normally see in pop culture.
Although the film’s very flawed and frequently paints men as immature, I like that it furthers the message that parenting is a joint responsibility (Alex and Holly even have a rockin’ joint baby shower) and something men can find fulfilling. It also doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of pregnancy and of adjusting to becoming a parent. If it had stopped wasting time on slapstick moments like some weird hybrid of Love, Actually and Bridesmaids-with-bellies, it might actually have painted a vivid and perceptive portrait of parenthood.