Judd Apatow’s 2007 film Knocked Up tells the story of the trials and tribulations that befall two young people who have an unexpected pregnancy (using comedy, of course.) It follows the characters of Alison and Ben (Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen, respectively) that, after they are both thoroughly intoxicated, end up having a one night stand. Realizing that they have nothing in common, Alison being an entertainment anchor at E! and Ben being a habitual marijuana smoker with aspirations of starting a website with his slacker roommates, they part ways until two months later when Alison realizes she is pregnant. However “radical” the film may present itself to be, Knocked Up, while different and modern, still reinforces compulsory heterosexuality, but recognizes that heteronormativity is circumstantial. We can see this with the help of Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, a series of characters’ contradictions, and a comparison to Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.
Simone de Beauvoir, in an excerpt from her 1949 book ‘The Second Sex’, notes that women are, “defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her.” (3) In an analysis on Knocked Up, perhaps this notion can be questioned.
Alison is not defined by her relationship to Ben, and, of anything, he is defined in regards to her. Perhaps whichever sex defines the other is a matter of power, not anatomy. In de Beauvoir’s time, and, though progress has been made, still today, it was men who defined women’s existence. In Knocked Up, we can see that Alison is a successful woman who did not depend on a man to achieve her success. She is also not looking for someone to be dependent on noting that, had she not gotten pregnant, she would not have wanted to have a baby (and presumably have gotten married) for at least another 10 years. While Ben is not looking for someone to be dependent upon either, he is the one, of the two, that does become dependent on the other. Apatow asserts that the, “key to the movie was that [Ben] loves her first.”
Where female characters in other films may feel that they have to settle for the person that has impregnated them for the sake of the baby, Alison does not want this baby to determine the rest of their lives, telling Ben that, “Me not wanting to do this alone is not enough of a reason to drag you into a relationship with me.” She acknowledges that she and Ben are not right for each other and that, if they were to pursue a relationship in an attempt to create a stable environment for their child, that it would be forced and that that would not be fair to either of them.
While the viewer can note that Alison may have a sense of loss about her failed relationship, Ben seems to be the one with an overwhelming sense of loss. Having invested so much in Alison and their unborn child, having changed everything about himself for her, becoming “defined in reference to her”, without her he no longer has a sense of self.
In Annie Hall, we see that as the relationship between Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen) blossoms they learn from each other, Annie perhaps in a more literal, academic way. Similar to Ben finding employment and doing fewer drugs in efforts to win Alison back, Annie betters herself by reading more and taking college courses in an attempt to “keep up” with Alvy. When Annie and Alvy’s relationship ends their break-up is civilized and mature, both characters acknowledge their mutual love and respect for one another but know that it is time to move on. It is not long afterward that Alvy realizes that he had become dependent on Annie’s presence, defining himself in relation to her, whereas Alvy’s presence in Annie’s life made her a more independent person.
de Beauvoir also argues that, “master and slave are united by a reciprocal need, in this case economic, which does not liberate the slave.”(5) As far as Alison and Ben’s relationship, though Alison has a job and Ben does not, neither of them are economically dependent on one another.
Alison’s sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), however, is a housewife and is economically dependent on her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd). He, with his elusive music-oriented job, is the family’s provider. Though Debbie is financially dependent on her husband, it does not give her less power in their marriage. When Pete is caught in a lie he told in order to have some alone time, an upset Debbie still asserts her authority and tells him that she does not want him at their house anymore. The “slave,” though still reliant on the “master” is liberated enough to assert said authority.
“To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal,” says de Beauvoir, “this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with their superior caste.”(5) The burden of being female is that, once she is with child, she has a biological obligation to forfeit her autonomy. Because she had to sacrifice her autonomy to rear her children, Debbie has earned the right to that amount of power in their relationship. She can decline to be the Other without renouncing her advantages because they each have separate but equal responsibilities in their marriage. Even though Pete is the reason they own a home in the high-rent district of Brentwood, California, they can call it even.
In Annie Hall, Annie becomes financially dependent on her Alvy. Annie, new to New York City, probably one of the worst places you could be alone in, clings to Alvy. Though Annie has her own place, when she and Alvy decide to move in together he pays for her recently vacated apartment for her so they can use it as a, “free-floating life raft.” When the two can both feel that their relationship has come to an end, Annie, recognizing Alvy’s potential dependence on her, is hesitant to say anything so as not to hurt his feelings. Alvy feels the same way and acknowledges that his relationship with Annie is a “dead shark,” but he says that he would feel guilty asking Annie to move out. There is room to interpret that he feels she has some sort of economic dependence on him.
The quality is terrible, but it's the audio that is important.
The master-slave dynamic that de Beauvoir mentions appears earlier in the film when Annie feels guilty that, as result of the progress she has made in the therapy sessions that Alvy is paying for, she comes to the realization that she does not want to sleep with him.
Though Knocked Up is not an example of de Beauvoir’s theory that women are supplements to men, it does not mean that they are completely dependent from the identities of “woman” and “man.” Judith Butler’s “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” argues that there is no true gender, that all gender is an imitation of itself. Knocked Up contributes to the perpetuation of gender norms and gender imitation.
“…if repetition is the way in which power works to construct the illusion of a seamless heterosexual identity, if heterosexuality is compelled to repeat itself in order to establish the illusion of its own uniformity and identity,”(725) says Butler, “then this is an identity permanently at risk, for what if it fails to repeat?” In Knocked Up we see a disintegration (or perhaps an evolution) of the heteronormative gender identity. We can see it just in the difference between Debbie’s performance as a heterosexual woman compared to Alison’s interpretation of the performance and we can say that it is threatened. Debbie is a housewife that stays at home and watches her children while her husband, whose machismo has left him emotionally detached from his family, works to provide for them. They each fulfill their duties as their gender roles, but each vary from what has come to be known as the original. Debbie is not the same house wife that June Cleaver was, yet they imitate the same gender role.
Alison is performing the role of the working woman. While it may be “tradition” for men to go to work and make money, her performance can still be considered “feminine.” We can also define Ben’s performance by his relationship to Alison. He is the one that proposes to her. He is the one that is criticized for not having a job to support Alison and the baby (if it were the other way around, Alison would receive significantly less ridicule). They also still end up together at the end of the movie. The question is whether or not they are meant for one another or whether they have fallen to the compulsory heterosexuality by, despite how happy they may seem at the end of the film, forcing themselves to be together in order to make performing their new roles as mother and father easier.
When it comes to gender performativity, Woody Allen, as someone who usually calls attention to how un-masculine he is, still acts as the man in his relationship. In the beginning of his relationship with Annie, for instance, Alvy is always the one talking. Whether he is conscious of it or not, he is always trying to make Annie more of an intellectual, he is always the one telling jokes, and he is always the one insisting that she is attractive as though it were his duty to reassure her. During a good portion of this time Annie stays silent. Do not be fooled by her androgynous sense of style; she still acts like the long-idealized woman.
Annie does not get nearly enough credit for how much she changes from the beginning to the end of the movie. She becomes very independent and strong, the attributes typically associated with men. After his break up with Annie, Alvy realizes that he needed someone to need him, someone for him to nurture, which is typically seen as a maternal instinct. These changes are variations on heteronormative gender roles. But just because the way the players perform changes, it is not to say that they are performing different roles.
In repeating this compulsory heterosexuality, the labels of “man” and “woman” are still used interchangeably with “male” and “female.” Though Annie and Alvy essentially switch genders, the heterosexual identity is perpetuated because terms used to describe gender are used to describe sex. The performance, the imitation of gender, may fracture or fluctuate over time, but the “seamless heterosexual identity” will still exist because it is still performed under the terms “man” and “woman,” regardless of sex. As long as there is a linguistic distinction there will be a performative one.
This performativity of gender has a strong reliance on the performer’s use of language. Throughout Knocked Up, several characters say one thing and then later on say something else. This is not necessarily an example of how they are fickle or bigoted, but perhaps proof that heteronormative gender roles are always in flux.
For example, when Ben tells Debbie and Pete’s daughters that he and Alison are going to have a baby together, Debbie assures her eldest daughter that, although Ben and Alison are not married, that they should be because, “they love each other. And people who love each other get married and have a baby.” Later, Debbie tells Alison, after she rejects Ben’s proposal, that she cannot marry him because, even though she is pregnant with his child, she does not know him.
While it is reasonable to assume that she would give her 8-year-old daughter and her 20-something sister different advice, the difference in advice shows that Debbie understands that this heteronormativity is circumstantial. She encourages her daughter to get married before she has a baby because she knows that it will more than likely be easier for her to raise a child in a stable environment, something that she has personal experience with as well. Since Alison is not doing things in this hegemonic order, it does not make sense for her to become the wife of someone she barely knows.
Ben, after Alison tells him that she is keeping the baby, says that he knows that, “his job is to just support her in everything she does.” This can be interpreted as it is his job as a responsible man to support her in whatever decision she made regarding her pregnancy, something that affects both of their lives. When they have an argument in Alison’s car later over whether Pete lying to his wife in order to play fantasy baseball was justified, she says to Ben, “you should just support me…support everything I say.” Ben responds by saying, “so if you’re wrong I have to support it? I can’t tell you you’re acting like a lunatic?” which eventually results in his expulsion from her car.
Ben, at the beginning and again at the end of the film, understands the effect that pregnancy has on the female body. While they are in the car though, it is hard to say whether or not he was doing the right thing by arguing with Alison. She should not get a free pass because she is pregnant, she is still a human being that should be held accountable for her actions, but he should understand that her hormones are speaking for her (instead of sarcastically responding, “you are a crazy bitch, hormones! Not Alison, hormones!”) Instead of arguing with her, he should remember that it is his job as the baby’s father to support her. “Because,” as Alison puts it, “at this juncture in my life, I’m allowed to be wrong.”
During their second date, Ben refers to the pregnancy as Alison’s situation. She is quick to correct him and let him know that it is their situation. That same night, they agree to give their relationship a real shot because it will be what is best for the baby. After they have attempted to have a relationship, we can recall that Alison tells Ben that it is not fair of her to drag him into a relationship because she does not want to raise the child alone, effectively making it her situation. Perhaps this is a realization that, while the laws of hegemony say that a child should have two parents (and the heteronormative bi-law specifies that they be a mother and father) that not only does it not always work that way, but it is not always the right way. Alison’s recognition that she does not need Ben to raise a child lends to the film’s radicalism.
That radicalism is short-lived. Alison changes her convictions yet again right before she is about to go into labor and, after the baby is born, the three of them live happily ever after. Though the montage leading up to this scene will show you that Ben and Alison miss each other, Alison takes him back at what will probably be the most vulnerable moment in her life, begging the question, are they really meant to be together?
In Annie Hall, Alvy encourages Annie to take college courses because they are intellectually stimulating. Alvy was supportive at first, but he then denounces adult education once he feels threatened by Annie’s relationship with one of her professors. He becomes jealous and feels the need to assert his dominance, the insecurity ultimately leading to their first break-up, and his gender role fluxing from an encouraging partner to an overbearing, paranoid one.
All of the momentum that Knocked Up needs in order to become a radical romance is there: it goes against de Beauvoir’s argument of women’s dependence on men, it does perpetuate heteronormativity (but subtly) and its characters, through their own contradictions, are realistic. However, it is still an alternative romance masquerading as a radical one. The radicalism of the film, and the reason we can call Annie Hall radical, hinges on whether or not the main characters end up together in the end. In Knocked Up, like so many other romantic comedies, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Despite the circumstance of an unplanned pregnancy and the slew of colorful language, the formula is the same. In Annie Hall, the formula reads more like, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl stays lost.” This is more radical, and perhaps more believable. While Knocked Up has all of the potential to be a radical romance, its fairy tale ending is what keeps it in the category of unconventional.
Allen, Woody and Diane Keaton, perf. Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. MGM, 1977. Film.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell, 1998. 722-29. Print.
de Beauvoir, Simone. "The Second Sex." marxists.org. Penguin, 2005. Web. Sept. 2010.
Heigl, Katherine and Leslie Mann, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, perf. Knocked Up. Dir. Judd Apatow. Universal Pictures, 2007. Film.