My wife and I love kids—we just don't want to have any of our own. That shouldn't be a big deal, but sometimes other people sure act like it is. There have been a few too many instances when my wife and I have been around other folks' babies and the inevitable question comes up: "When are you two going to have a baby?" We mention that we weren't planning on having kids and you can just see this ... look come over their face. To my knowledge, I've never responded to that question with: "Are you kidding? I hate kids. I hate humanity. In fact, I hate your child most of all." But from the look I get in return, I guess I might as well have. Choosing to be childless is not an easy decision, especially when you're surrounded by friends and family who have such adorable kids, but I find that our decision is sometimes met with disbelief and confusion. It's like not being on Facebook or owning a smartphone: You're supposed to want to have kids. What the hell's wrong with me?
This wasn't the main reason why I utterly despised What to Expect When You're Expecting, but it's probably in the top three. Sure, it's just a silly, stupid Hollywood chick-flick, but the movie's attitude is so repugnant that it deserves its own special warning: This movie may cause you to seek an immediate vasectomy.
In case you don't know, the film is "inspired by the book" What to Expect When You're Expecting, which was written in 1984 by Heidi Murkoff. It's an advice book without any narrative, so one had to be invented for the film. Unfortunately, that means we have a Robert Altman-style ensemble comedy in which a bunch of different guys and gals are about to have a baby, either because they're pregnant or because they're looking to adopt. This runs the gamut from reality-TV stars (Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison) who have only been dating a few months to a married couple (Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone) who have been trying to have a child for quite some time. Separately, there's also a bunch of dads (including Chris Rock and Tom Lennon) who hang out together in the park with their young kids and commiserate about how much their lives blow now that they're dads. I have no doubt all of these types exist in the real world. I just hope to hell none of these people are as insipid as the characters in this movie.
A movie like What to Expect works under the same principle as Valentine's Day: There's an assumption that everybody watching the movie feels the same way about the central topic. In Valentine's Day, the message is that it's vitally important that you find your special someone. If by some weird fluke you're happier being single, well, you're wrong. Likewise, What to Expect begins from the assumption that everybody wants to have kids. And I mean everybody. Even if you're Anna Kendrick and you've been knocked up by one-night-fling Chace Crawford, you want to have that baby. Even if you're Rodrigo Santoro and your wife Jennifer Lopez lied to you about losing her job but still wants to adopt an overseas baby even if you can't really afford it, you want to have that baby. Even if you're Chris Rock and his buddies bitching about their wives and kids, you want to have that baby. Why? Because you're a terrible person if you don't want a baby.
Like several notable recent films involving childbirth—Juno being the most popular—What to Expect presents pregnancy as this ridiculously challenging, emotionally devastating period in your life that you must go though, no matter what. This isn't even questioned—this is simply taken as a given. For example, abortion is never an acceptable option in What to Expect. (In fact, the word isn't even mentioned in the Kendrick storyline.) For all the grief Hollywood gets for its supposed corrupting of American values, it's actually quite pro-life. As a result, movie characters who do end their pregnancies usually are Horribly Scarred because of it. (As a rule now, if a movie features a female character who seems to be hiding some terrible secret, I immediately put my money down on "abortion." It's shocking how often I'm right.) Movies like What to Expect tell us that babies are always wonderful, and even if they don't immediately seem like a wonderful thing, eventually they will be. (And in those rare cases when it really really isn't a good thing, the character will usually luck out and have a miscarriage, which is Hollywood's get-out-of-jail card to avoid bringing up the dreaded A-word.)
Movies such as What to Expect act as if child-rearing were divinely ordained. There's no alternative on screen to all the insane baby fever. And I do mean insane: There is hardly a shred of believable human behavior in this film. Granted, I haven't hung out with a pregnant woman for nine months straight, but Banks's and Diaz's inanely hyperbolic performances sure do feel like the sort of caricatures that exist only in a Hollywood type's head. (By the way, it goes without saying that just about everybody in this movie is well-off enough that a baby will present no great financial burden to them. Too bad if you're sitting in the audience and can't afford a child—you're probably not worthy to be a parent anyway.) But the movie's shrill, hysterical women and emasculated, browbeaten men are explained away because that's what you gotta live with when you're having a baby. Even the husbands' lone single buddy eventually realizes that having a baby is in his future, too. And guess what? He's cool with it! Not only are babies inevitable in our lives, it's very important that we understand how great they are. Otherwise, the film argues, you're not a grownup and you're not a part of adult society. You're not one of us.
Even just expressing these sentiments makes me feel like an awful person. That's how thick and oppressive the prevailing cultural baby ethos is. I can hear the response now: "What do you have against babies? Why do you hate kids so much?" For the record, I have nothing against babies, and I love kids. My wife and I realize that we're closing the door on a major life experience and that we may ultimately regret that decision. Believe me, a lot of careful thought went into this choice. But I resent the notion that kids are the thing that will make you happy—and that choosing not to have kids means you're doomed to misery. Sure, Hollywood movies advocate all sorts of dumb things, like that true love conquers all. But at least if you live your life following the rules of romantic comedies, at worst you're stuck with a bad partner. But What to Expect preaches the conventional argument that no matter how many doubts you harbor about having kids, trust us, you'll be glad you had them. By comparison, a great movie like We Need to Talk About Kevin, which pits Tilda Swinton against the son she cannot stand, is considered extreme, radical: C'mon, nobody really hates her kid, right? Yeah, it happens all the time, but it's not talked about because we as a society want to keep up the pretense that everybody loves babies. As shiny and goofy as What to Expect is, it's actually sorta bullying and presumptuous. If you don't find the characters' sitcom-level stupidity charming, you just haven't experienced what it's like to be a parent. Having a child isn't about nurturing a new generation; it's a status symbol to hold over your friends.
Three years ago, a popular 30-something Hollywood actress spoke out against the societal pressure, especially on women, to have children. "I think women are afraid to say that they don't want children because they're going to get shunned," she said. "But I think that's changing too now. I have more girlfriends who don't have kids than those that do. And honestly? We don't need any more kids. We have plenty of people on this planet." She didn't rule out the possibility that she might have kids someday, but she didn't want it imposed on her as a certainty. The actress was Cameron Diaz, who in April insisted that she never said she wasn't going to have kids but acknowledged that "society definitely puts pressure on women to make them think their lives should go a certain way." She's absolutely right—and starring in What to Expect does zero to help alleviate that pressure on women, as well as men. Movies like What to Expect can make me feel like some hopeless eccentric who simply isn't connected with my own species. But then I see the idiots up there on the screen, and all I can think is that I'm glad I'm not one of them.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.