Dubiously self-styled “pro-life” activists’ ceaseless barnyard braying about the rights of the unborn drowns out an important qualifying detail in abortion debates: To be pro-choice isn’t to be pro-abortion. This isn’t a mistake. It’s a strategy. Muddy the reasons one has for favoring choice, and you can easily paint those who do support options as baby killers. To be anti-choice, on the other hand, is to be almost comically inflexible and willfully callous to the suffering people experience when they’re actually out in the world.
There’s no nuance to anti-choice ideology, only rigid dogma, and rigid dogma rewards total nimrods watching Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up for their politics. Here is a movie about a career-focused woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. She decides to continue the pregnancy rather than let the air in. Good for you, working woman, choosing to let the cells keep forming instead of opting for dilating rods and suction!
On conservative first glace, Knocked Up protagonist L.A. entertainment reporter Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a model of “pro-life” rectitude; she shoulders the consequences of her actions with what looks like dignity, her actions being “having a one-night stand with a schlubby stranger,” and the consequences being “accidental child.” If you’re going to smash randos you pick up while clubbing, it’s only right that you accept responsibility for smashing without protection and raise the spawn produced by your wanton lust.
For the democratic response to this kind of patriarchal oinking, consider the rest of the movie. If Knocked Up kept Alison’s determination to take her pregnancy to term devoid of context, then yes, one could reasonably claim that Apatow wrapped an anti-choice argument in a loosey-goosey dick-and-fart-jokes frat dude picture about the letdowns of growing up. There are problems with this argument, though. One: Nothing about the “loosey-goosey dick-and-fart-jokes” pitch connects to “ideologically right-wing.” Two: Knocked Up makes an intentional point to frame Alison’s choice as a choice. Her own mother (Joanna Kerns) brings up abortion as an option, eloquently attempting to persuade her down that path. Alison settles the debate by plowing ahead with the pregnancy.
Again: Good for her. That’s her right. And, yes, again, one of those voters overjoyed by the prospect of seeing Roe v. Wade overturned in 2022 could interpret what Alison does as proof of Knocked Up’s right-leaning politics. But as soon as Apatow gets the audience to the dialogue between Alison and her mom, he injects the element of choice–bald and unignorable choice–into his narrative, he also eliminates any opportunity to declare the film for the anti-choice movement. In a “pro-life” movie, choice wouldn’t be a thought. There is nothing dramatic about art where a choice made is not a choice at all, and in the Bizarro World cut of Knocked Up, choice wouldn’t be given genuine consideration; if it received mention at all, the subject would likely be broached by cartoonish characters parading as pro-abortionists, and Alison would likely be styled as a noble pariah.
Knocked Up is many things. It’s Apatow’s best movie, for starters, and one of the best comedies of its decade. It is also the last movie most people would choose as a delegate from movies dealing with abortion, a’la Obvious Child, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Dirty Dancing, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, Vera Drake, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Saint Frances, and most recently, Happening. Abortion is often a serious matter. Knocked Up is a constitutionally unserious movie. The mechanics by which one contracts pink eye make up one running gag, and the idea that a woman who looks like Alison could ever be with a man who looks like Ben (Seth Rogen), her Canadian slacker baby daddy, makes up another.
Even at its most dramatic, the movie can’t help cracking wise. “I love you,” Ben’s dad, Harris (the late, beloved Harold Ramis), tells him, capping off the moment when Ben tells him about Alison and the baby. “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” “I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you?” Ben replies with naked incredulity. “Now I’m starting to feel a little sorry for you.” Like the baby itself, in Harris’ words, this kind of writing is a good thing: Knocked Up is a comedy, and if it isn’t making us laugh, or at least breaking a sweat trying, then it doesn’t have much reason to exist. Humor is core to its humanity, and with the humor being in such high quantity and of such high caliber, its humanity is immense.
So while Knocked Up isn’t about ideology–be it “pro-life” or pro-choice–in the same way so many choice-centered films are, it should nonetheless remain in conversations about how cinema presents abortion, and choice, explicitly because it adds necessary complication to the culture wars we’re still somehow fighting over women’s bodily autonomy today. (Meanwhile, the world is slowly going up in smoke during one pandemic on the cusp of another possible pandemic a week after an armed madman murdered 19 children. We have bigger fish to fry.) Knocked Up isn’t concerned about anything other than the difficulties of making the choice Alison makes, but because Apatow enshrines her choice in his script, the film can only ever be pro-choice.
Think about the stakes. Think about drama. Alison has a belt full of tools to support her decision: Her family—both her mom and her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann)—lives close by, she works a solid job that compensates her well, and her employers are fully behind her on the journey to motherhood. Admittedly, the last of these requires an asterisk. Alison is scared to death she’ll get canned if her boss, Jack (Alan Tudyk), finds out that she has a bun in the oven; to his credit, he doesn’t fire her, but he does insist that she interview pregnant celebrities and also tactlessly requests she “tighten” her body back up after the baby comes. Nobody’s perfect, but we take what we can get.
Despite having resources, Alison finds that being pregnant is fucking hard. The U.S. loves fetuses but not the people who carry them, and that love is conditional on them staying in utero. (Knocked Up doesn’t get around to this particular point, but it is nonetheless true.) The world treats Alison differently when she’s pregnant. There is, of course, her boss Jack, but there’s also the doorman (Craig Robinson) who denies her and Debbie entry to a nightclub, though not unkindly; there’s Steve Carrell, playing himself, having a painfully awkward encounter with Alison on the red carpet while she’s visibly showing; there’s Ben, who would probably be over the moon if Alison’s interest in him wasn’t due to his genetic potency. She ceases to be Alison to everyone else and becomes a receptacle for all their hang-ups instead, a porcelain doll, a time bomb, an inconvenience.
Having a baby changes you and changes your life. Money helps offset the change. Alison does have, and come from, money, but money doesn’t make the actual physical burden of carrying a child easier; it doesn’t prevent people from altering their behavior around you; it doesn’t make nine months go by any faster. This is a critical truth. It’s why Knocked Up’s structure cements it as pro-choice, because being pro-choice is so much more than merely being pro-abortion; it’s pro-autonomy, it’s pro-healthcare, it’s pro-social safety nets, and ultimately it’s pro-baby, because when people have the resources they need to make the right choice for themselves, they and their babies–should they choose to have them–fare better. What the “pro-choice” appellation embodies is much broader in scope than “pro-life,” which fixates only on what’s in the womb and not what happens outside of it.
This is a lot of weight to put on Knocked Up. Apatow probably didn’t have much, if any, of this in mind when he made the movie. It seems reasonable to assume that he originally just wanted to make a movie about a woman who bangs a loser and then decides to have the loser’s child. However, this summary does Knocked Up, a film primarily about the ways men let themselves stay children forever until they run out of tricks for ducking adulthood and must embrace it, little justice, particularly given the validating effect of the film’s approach to choice. Not every woman is Alison, and thus not every woman can afford to make her choices. As a hyper-partisan extremist Supreme Court readies to rob every American woman of any choice, Knocked Up, with its goofball aesthetic and swell of dick-and-fart jokes, is more relevant than ever.