Abortion in Film: Knocked Up

Released in 2007, Knocked Up was a bona fide hit, and received a lot of good reviews. The predictable story centers around a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and a relationship, and purports to be a no-holds-barred examination of sex, relationships, and slackerhood. Instead, what director Judd Apatow and his mostly-talented cast have tossed on the screen is 132 minutes of shrill, one-dimensional characters screaming at each other, fuming about their lives, and making decisions that seemed to make absolutely no damn sense, given the little character development that does occur.

In the three years since its release, Knocked Up has gotten a lot of ink following star Katherine Heigl’s comments that the film is a bit on the sexist side. As Meghan O’Rourke notes in a great piece for Slate, such criticism could be leveled at a whole generation of films. “[T]here was a time when romantic comedies … were more egalitarian in their assignment of playfulness,” O’Rourke writes, adding that the conventional wisdom of both films and culture does neither men nor women any favors, relegating both genders to narrowly-defined constructs that don’t allow for individuality or happiness. In this sense, Knocked Up is deeply traditional, despite its ample of dick jokes, drug use, and a truly disgusting lesson in how pink-eye can be transmitted: Ben, the amiable slacker, can only achieve truly respectability by moving out of the house he shares with his friends, getting a steady job, and reading a whole mess of baby books; Alison, the curiously isolated go-getter, must … wait, what exactly does Alison have to do? Besides deciding to reconcile with Ben after a particularly vicious argument, very little changes for the mother-to-be, which would be more noteworthy if the character were not completely devoid of personality or even a spark of an inner life.

Given all this, it almost feels incidental to complain about the portrayal of abortion as a realistic option. But I still found it surprising that the very word wasn’t even mentioned – really, is “abortion” more shocking than “cunt”? Yet “the A word,” “take care of it,” and of course, “smashmortion” are all stand-ins for the actual word. I understand that if there were no pregnancy, there would be no plot – but really, it seems a sad commentary on the creativity of Apatow, et al, that they were unable to include a conversation about why a young, career-oriented woman who had no discernible desire for children at that point in her life decided to continue with the pregnancy that resulted from a one-night stand with a man she didn’t even seem to like that much. Or, for that matter, why a young, ambitionless man with no discernible desire for children at that point in his life decided to blithely accept fatherhood without seeming to appreciate the massive changes he would have to make.

In the end, then, Knocked Up is nothing more than a conservative’s wet dream: a traditional comedy espousing traditional values, gender roles, and character arcs, scared of human emotion and devoid of soul.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.


  1. freewomyn says:

    You summed it up nicely – where is the discussion of Heigl’s decision to keep the baby? It’s a legit option, but I want to know the pros and the cons.

  2. Great article, however, this is the antithesis of timeliness.

    Thanks for sharing, though. Knocked Up is fictional from the beginning until the ending. I wonder what the film would have been like if Heigl’s character wasn’t successful and her boyfriend told her to go fuck herself or he’ll pay for her abortion?!

    Many “real life” reactions could have made their way into the movie, while keeping the fairytale ending in tact. But that’s why they call it entertainment, I guess.

    No way Katherine’s character with her great career would go for this unemployed pothead, alcohol involved or not, she would have been surrounded by men on her level and she would have fucked one of them.

  3. Hi Joy, as my delay in responding to your comment shows, I’m not the most timely person! I know the movie came out a while ago, and I did consider not writing about it because of that. But I think it’s worthwhile to look at how abortion has been portrayed in pop culture over the longer-term – movies like “Knocked Up” influence how future movies will deal with abortion. I should have made that clearer, and will in future pieces about representations of abortion in film and TV.

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