You wouldn't know this from its cheery posters, but the new film What to Expect When You're Expecting is based on a book that, despite having sold more than 40 million copies since its original publication in 1984, is considered by many to be just about the worst for expectant parents. Full of warnings and admonishments about things like killer hiccups and oral-sex embolisms, and overwhelmingly rigid with respect to food (the book recommends the judgmentally titled "Best Odds Diet"—what, do you want to gamble with your kid's life and health?), What to Expect has actually been blacklisted by more than a few clinicians and birth centers.
Turning a notoriously fearmongering book into a sunny ensemble comedy starring the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, and Dennis Quaid is kind of a perfect example of Hollywood turning a lemon into lemonade (which may not be on the Best Odds acceptable-foods list, but whatever). Indeed, it's a ready-made opportunity for mainstream movies to do what they do best when it comes to pregnancy and gender narratives: namely, make them as obvious and lacking in nuance as possible.
Andi and I saw this movie on Friday so that you wouldn't have to, but if you do decide to go, besides the obvious product placement—copies of the book pop up nearly everywhere but in sonograms—here's our list of 10 things you can expect from What to Expect When You're Expecting:
1. Heteronormativity. I know, you're shocked. But really: Five couples living in two major cities (four in Atlanta, one in Los Angeles), stressing and expecting, and not a gay in sight? For a movie that does strive for some demographic diversity—a Latino couple here, black and South Asian dads there—it's a notably underachieving move, not to mention one that squanders a lot of comic potential. A set of neurotic Jewish lesbians—just spitballing here—would really have elevated the film. Or at least made it a bit more brunette.
2. Stereotypical, essentialist characterizations of men and women. There are the baby-crazy women struggling with infertility, who we know are baby-crazy because they work in kidcentric professions—Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) owns a baby store; Holly (J.Lo) is a photographer who specializes in portraits of children, often with dolphins. Both feel like their failed attempts at conception make them less womanly than their Fertile-Myrtle counterparts; Holly laments that she "can't even do the one thing that a woman is meant to do." Both feel that they won't be complete without the experience of motherhood.
Even more prominent is the pack of fathers, led by Chris Rock, who serve as the film's Greek chorus of What to Expect, Dude Edition. Holly's husband, shaken by the reality of an impending adoption, joins the group of dads who spend Saturdays in the park, toting diaper bags and Baby Bjorns, and gets a crash course in both baby care (diapers will occasionally get put on backwards, by mistake) and wife management (if said diaper does get put on backwards, the wife must NEVER FIND OUT). The fathers' group, just FYI, meets every Saturday—but less explored is the fact that it meets only on Saturdays. In other words, for the rest of the week, the mothers are the ones doing the parenting, which, because it's the status quo, is not a reality as ripe for comic exploration in the film.
3. An attempt to acknowledge the different experiences and outcomes of pregnancy, albeit with very little plot significance attached to them. Banks's Wendy is positioned as the emotional center of the film. Devoted to all things mommy (her first book is a paean to breastfeeding called Breast is Best), she has struggled with infertility and gets pregnant only when she and her husband, Gary (Ben Falcone, the air marshal from Bridesmaids and real-life husband of Melissa McCarthy), relax and have sex in some bushes in a park. Though Wendy is arguably the most de facto prepared to be a mother, she's also the most compromised by it physically: She desperately wants "the glow" that pregnant mothers are promised, but instead ends up with cankles, flatulence, and constant exhaustion, all of which are portrayed as hilarious, for the audience at least. And, as you might expect, she's also the lady who shows up at the hospital with a typed birth plan that ends up being scrapped by complications leading to an emergency C-section.
Her experience is contrasted with that of Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) the sparkly trophy wife of Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), Gary's ex–racecar driver father. Skyler floats through pregnancy—with twins, no less—on six-inch heels, literally sneezing out one of her babies after the mellowest of labors. And then there's Jules (Cameron Diaz), a type-A fitness guru who hosts a Biggest Loser–type TV show. Refusing to compromise her grueling schedule, she ends up being put on bed rest, a thousand miles from home, in her last trimester. And, in a nod to the spectrum of pregnancy outcomes, the film also includes a miscarriage. Which leads us to…
4. No inkling that a thing called "abortion" exists. Of the storylines in the film, only one has to do with an unintended pregnancy. But that one—which involves flirtatiously warring food-truck owners Rosie and Marco (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford)—would really have benefited from some development that explained how two twentysomethings went from a night of sex on the hood of a car (do people in Atlanta have sex indoors, ever?) to oopsie pregnancy to sudden domestic semi-bliss. There's literally no discussion that occurs between Rosie being like,"Um, guess what?" and Marco, several months later, admiring her growing belly in a moonlit bedroom. Then again, there's also no explanation of why, a few scenes later when she miscarries, Atlanta is blanketed in snow, despite the rest of the movie's eternal summer. Convenient miscarriages just demand the poignancy of inclement weather, maybe?
5. The depiction of parenthood as punishment. That's right, dudes. You WILL sell your awesome two-door car that has no room for a car seat. You WILL walk around—on Saturdays, at least—like a pack mule, weighted down with pacifiers, wipes, sun hats, and multicolored plastic teething thingamajigs. You WILL be depicted doing such things against a musical backdrop of Notorious B.I.G., because only "Big Poppa" can truly underscore what an uncool, emasculated joke it is when men parent. And you, buff shirtless guy played by Joe Mangianello? Yeah, all the Saturday dads high-five you simply for living a life full of free weights and single sex, but when you get the news that your far-flung fling is moving to Atlanta—and bringing your squalling love child with her—those guys are thrilled that you'll be on their level now.
6. Money? Not a problem. Health care might be an issue for the rest of the country, but it's not on the mind of anyone in this movie—not even the freelance photographer or the food truck chef (jobs that likely don't include a benefits package). Not only that, no one in the film save Holly even mentions money as a factor when deciding whether or not to have kids. Must be nice, right? Maybe that's why...
7. Everyone wants to be a parent. And I mean EVERYONE. From the married couple who's been trying for years, to the relative strangers who make a baby on accident, to the May-December couple who already has a thirtysomething (step)son, all of the characters in this movie want to have a baby. Yes this is a movie about having babies, but where are the single friends? The reality checks? The discussions about what a life without kids might be like? Yeah, they're in a different movie.
8. Chris Rock is a Magical Negro of fatherhood. The "Dudes Group" scenes in this movie are obviously meant to get the most laughs (and in our theater, they did) but they're also filled with the most exposition. Narrating that exposition, and guiding his group of hapless dad friends around the park, is Chris Rock. He's there to provide guidance, reassurance, and permission to the other dudes—and not much else. In true Magical Negro fashion, we never learn his backstory and he's the only black person in the group unless you could his three kids (all of whom are named after professional athletes, for what it's worth, and one of whom is constantly getting hit in the head with stuff. See aforementioned laughs). If you have a question about fatherhood—even one you haven't asked out loud yet—Chris Rock will answer it, wisely.
9. Pregnant women in the US are getting older, and so are the actors in this movie. Considering that a generation ago, a woman who got pregnant after 30 was considered a risk taker, it's worth noting that the three leads in this film are either pushing 40 or pulling it behind them. Though clearly a nod to pregnancy demographics, this casting is also a likely nod to audience demographics (according to the CDC, women are still most likely to have their first child between the ages of 25 and 29). The producers of this film figured that their core demographic was 40ish women who are either pregnant or want to get pregnant (or want to watch Cameron Diaz get pregnant). They're probably right, but it still means a lot of pregnancy experiences got left out.
10. If you're honest about the darker side of pregnancy, everyone will lose their shit. At one point in Expecting, Wendy breaks down at a baby convention and says she's calling bullshit because "pregnancy sucks." When this happens, all of the moms-to-be in the audience are as shocked as if she'd asked them to reach their bare hands into their vaginas and pull their babies out right there on the spot. The next day, people line up around the block to meet Wendy and a video of her talk gets millions of hits on YouTube. Seriously folks, have you never heard of a mommy blog? Admitting that pregnancy blows sometimes is de rigeur these days and nothing to freak out about. There's nothing to see here, people. Come to think of it, "nothing to see here" could work as an alternate tagline to this movie, too.