To quote Gloria Feldt, “Media portrayals, real or fictional, don’t merely inform us — they form us.” In this series, I will be examining five films – classic, mainstream, independent, foreign, and pre-Roe – and five television shows – daytime soap, drama, pre-Roe, critically lauded, and teen-oriented – that address unexpected pregnancy, to examine how past portrayals can influence and reflect society’s view of abortion.
Oh, I so wanted to like Waitress. I have a soft spot for independent films, a long-standing affection for Keri Russell, a love of pie, and a Southern heritage. So really, all the elements were in place for me to love this movie.
Instead, I became so frustrated with how the lives of three small-town waitresses were depicted that I turned the movie off halfway through and only finished watching because I kept hoping that at some point, Russell would turn to the screen, wink, and say, “Just kidding!” Because really, how else to account for a film in which the main character staunchly continues a pregnancy after flatly and repeatedly stating that it will ruin her life, and one of her friends not only falls in love with an almost-cartoonishly creepy man who promises to stalk her until she will marry him – but does, indeed, marry him?
Writer/director/actress Adrienne Shelley has spoken movingly about how Waitress is not just a “love letter” to her young daughter but also about the fears of motherhood and her desire to give those fears a voice. Those fears are indeed explored, with a brutal honesty that is refreshing to see in a culture that romanticizes babies and parenthood – especially motherhood – to a disturbing degree. Recognizing how much parenthood changes one’s life, and not always in positive ways, should not seem like a subversive act, but when demi-celebrities land magazine covers for losing weight post-partum and the mainstream media inundates readers with tips on how to “have it all,” Shelley’s depiction of reluctant parenthood seems almost groundbreaking. Yet that honesty does not extend to any sort of recognition that for Russell’s character, a talented baker named Jenna, motherhood might be even more complicated than already expressed. Jenna has been planning to leave her jealous, petulant husband, a man who insists on her subservience and is as perceptive as a rock. Jenna’s friends are fully aware of the situation, and incredibly supportive of her. But when Jenna realizes she is pregnant, she instantly announces that while she doesn’t want the child, she will have it.
I don’t doubt that women have all sorts of conflicted feelings about motherhood and pregnancy, and that being in an abusive marriage – even with understanding friends to turn to – makes the situation infinitely more difficult. But Jenna’s other options were never mentioned, not even when she tells her doctor she does not want her child. Given how outspoken Jenna, and the other characters, are about relationships, jobs, money, and a whole host of other thorny issues, this oversight diminishes the characters’ believability, leaving an unbridgeable plausibility gap. In her determination to craft a valentine to motherhood, Shelley buys into the prevailing cultural sentiment that having a child, no matter the expectant mother’s reluctance or outright disdain, is not just a choice – it is the only choice.
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.