Judd Apatow’s 2007 film about a shlumpy guy and a high maintenance woman accidentally having a baby together was surprisingly one of the best reviewed comedies of that year. While Judd Apatow has done well and Seth Rogan’s career has soared to greater success since the film, Catherine Heigl’s career as a film star seemed to have fizzled out just a few years after the film was released. (After spending a few years out of the limelight she is returning to her television roots with 2017’s Doubt.)
In the decade since its release Knocked Up has certainly not been forgotten due to a some exchanges (through the press) Heigl and Rogen about the negative gender portrayals of the film. Ten years after its release, Knocked Up still boasts a 90% certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and appears to be fairly well regarded as one of Apatow’s and Rogen’s best films, but does it still hold up today in light of this cast commentary?
The film’s representations of gender roles and relationships are very flawed and in some ways can be seen as derogatory to both men and women, with Catherine Heigl even admitting that she felt parts of it were sexist. In 2008, Heigl stated that the film:
…paints the women as shrews, humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun loving guys… I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women?”
While this is how women ultimately come off in the film, it does not seem like it was necessarily intentional, just a byproduct of how men are portrayed, as irresponsible and child-like. If the man is unreliable in the relationship then the woman has to pick up the slack and becomes the overstressed partner that has to juggle her career, taking care of children, and taking care of her husband who is too immature to take care of himself. This dynamic is best illustrated in the film by Leslie Mann’s shrewish character, Debbie.
These are certainly not the representations of gender roles or sexism that most imagine when they hear those words. In fact, the film seems to have taken the gender roles of old and completely flipped them by taking the responsibility away from the man and giving it to the woman. This seeming worship of the woman puts her on a pedestal of responsibility while leaving the man free to do as he pleases. This may be different from more overt sexism of bygone eras, but it is still certainly not equality. In this reversal of gender roles women are still held to a standard that they can’t deviate from or they are seen as failures, as shown by the girlfriends of Ben’s roommates. On the other hand, taking on this standard also causes them to become irritable and shrewish which society doesn’t like either, basically causing women to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Allison’s attempts to adhere to these gender roles causes her to come across as a bitch that doesn’t know how to have any fun because she has the duty of being responsible and of trying to get Ben to grow up and act like a mature adult. We have to admit Heigl’s statements about the film have some validity.
As for the men of the film, none of them are examples of responsible healthy men; Ben and all of the guys that live with him are jobless and don’t know how to take care of themselves, while Debbie’s husband Pete (Paul Rudd) also reflects this irresponsibility and desire to do nothing and let his wife take care of all of the “serious” stuff. When compared to the jobless goofy guys of the film, Pete is not really all that different and even expresses the desire to be able to live like them and not have to listen to his wife. This reflects the idea that men cannot make something of themselves unless they have a woman to push them to do so, and even when they are married they are often unable to appreciate their wife and view her more as a parent than a partner.
Allison, who fits the film’s standards for beauty and success for a woman, is able to take Ben and raise him into a somewhat successful man. In contrast, the girlfriends of some of Ben’s roommates do not meet these standards of beauty and seem just as immature and irresponsible as the guys, and because of this their boyfriends have not been able to have any kind of success either. This seemingly implies that success can only come to women because of their beauty and/or because of their adherence to gender roles, while success can only come to men as a result of the work of a woman who has accepted her gender role.
While the film does perpetuate these ideas, it does also try to push back against them a little bit. Allison disagrees with Debbie’s relationship advice that “you criticize them so much, they get down on themselves, and they’re forced to change,” stating that instead she would prefer to just love Ben for who he is. Similarly when Allison goes into labor and Debbie tries to send Ben out of the room and alleviate him of any responsibility, he vehemently refuses and sends her out of the room instead. Even though Debbie and her marriage is suffering under the weight of these gender roles, in these two situations she perpetuates them by trying to push them onto Allison and Ben’s relationship. The fact that Ben and Allison both push back against these ideas shows that maybe they won’t fall into these gender roles and that they will be able to achieve a happy and stable married life.
Rogen’s responses to Heigl’s comments seem to have just perpetuated the gender stereotypes set by the film with him making statements such as “I thought she hated us…and it didn’t seem like she had a good experience making [Knocked Up]” and “She didn’t feel the product was as she thought she should be portrayed. When that happens, as someone who is an egomaniac, I just get hurt by that…”.
The fact that he is taking these overall critiques of the film so personally makes Heigl seem like she was taking the film too seriously and sucking the fun out of it, which is oddly reminiscent of how Rogen’s character Ben felt that Heigl’s character Allison was acting throughout the film, painting Heigl as exactly the kind of woman she was complaining about being portrayed as.
Rogen’s 2016 statement that he was upset about not having received an apology phone call from Heigl seems odd, given that her criticisms weren’t directed at him individually. That Rogen ignored the gender critique that Heigl has pointed out without even considering it and has instead took the comments personally, ironically makes one wonder how ingrained these gender roles really are in society.
Despite the critique of gender roles and media “feuds” in the decade between, ten years later Knocked Up is still a funny and enjoyable film. It certainly gets some quality points for being bearable in an era of films such as Blades of Glory, Epic Movie, and The Hangover, and for still remaining one of the better comedy films when compared to many that have been released in the decade since. Despite some of the childish “dude” humor, Ben and his roommates have a sense of family that ultimately makes them endearing. Along with this, the hope that Allison and Ben may be able to find happiness together with their daughter and watching as they both mature and (kind of) find compromise in their relationship is an encouraging ending to a film that at times makes marital relationships seem unbearable. Ultimately the film is fun and heartwarming despite its flaws, and it remains one of the highlights of Apatow’s, Rogen’s, and (yes) Heigl’s careers.