May 16, 2008

The “fertility film”: a conservative trend in Hollywood?

There was a moment in the tumultuous wake of Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up when it looked like the abortion movie was going to become a genre. Fortunately, it seems that Hollywood’s interest in pregnancy has expanded, and we are now in the season of the “fertility film” (Baby Mama, Smart People, Then She Found Me).  This is good news for the conservative movie-goer for whom the question “Should I carry my baby to term?” is far less interesting than “What happens to my world when I do?”

If conservatives are happy, there’s money to be won betting that someone at Mother Jones isn’t, and in this case it’s Alissa Quart, who wonders if such an unequivocally rosy view of motherhood is good for women:

. . . the truth is that these films are rather conservative at heart; their entanglements all end far more neatly than their real life counterparts. Teen Juno’s existence fractures into ironic shards with her surrogacy, true, but then Juno gives her infant to an elegant single mom for adoption and all is well. In her fertility film, Helen Hunt’s later life motherhood may have led to uncomfortable issues about biological kinship, but these disruptions are then corrected by motherhood. Same goes for Parker in hers, where her strange romance is relieved of its indie-film angst by the birth of twins. […] All of these films end with a love object, a baby that is superior in the eyes of many women than a man would be. In these films, the baby represents eternity and the possibility of absolute devotion. It’s a relationship that, unlike romantic love or marriage, female viewers are thought to believe in without sarcasm.

I’m not sure why Quart is unhappy about the move towards seeing mother- and fatherhood as redemptive, given that it moves us away from trying to charge romantic relationships with the burden of making overgrown adolescents man up (which was always a bad bet on our part).  Movies are full of men who start out juvenile, sullen, self-absorbed, or humorless, only to fall into relationships with women who offer a promise of salvation.  I’m not sure why; confrontation with the responsibilities of fatherhood seems to have more raw valence than “love of a good woman.”

Take Smart People, one of Quart’s “fertility flicks”: when Dennis Quaid finally decides that he’s ready to grow up, he signals his maturity by asking Sarah Jessica Parker to take him back.  In an uncharitable reading, he’s now saddled her with the responsibility of building a romantic relationship magical enough to save his soul.  At best, she’s the merit badge he gets for his redemption.

This is why the rise of the “fertility flick” is a good thing.  No matter how much of a long shot it was, getting the girl isn’t miraculous enough to redeem anyone.  Is Hollywood beginning to recognize that participating in the creation of a new life might be?

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