The Back-up Plan, starring Jennifer Lopez and some dude with killer blue eyes who you’ve never heard of, is about Zoe, a woman in her mid-thirties – I’m assuming, because her age is never specified – who, finding herself without a significant other and determined not to miss her chance to have a baby, decides to be artificially inseminated and raise the child alone. However, mere moments after said insemination takes place, she meets a gorgeous man who runs a goat cheese farm (seriously, cheese? Why didn’t they just make him a chocolatier? Or a purveyor of fine [insert other thing all women supposedly love]?). Stan, the cheese farmer, and Zoe, the former internet start-up employee who now owns a pet shop, keep running into each other all over town, and finally, they go on a date, fall for each other, and Zoe reveals to Stan that she is pregnant. He does not take it well, and then he comes to his senses and realizes that actually, he does want to raise children (oh yes, she’s pregnant with twins) with a woman he’s only been on two dates with. They prepare for the baby together, she pigs out, he freaks out, they break up, they make up, the babies arrive, the end. Add in a cute dog, a grandma with a potty mouth, some mocking of homebirth and some talk about how awful and/or awesome parenthood is, and you’ve got yourself a romantic comedy.
The movie does not start strong. The opening credits are a cartoon in which a very white version of Jennifer Lopez runs around New York City seeing babies everywhere. The “walk/don’t walk” sign says “crawl/don’t crawl.” The hot dog vendor is selling his goods from a stroller. Lily-white cartoon Zoe checks out her reflection in a shop window and her reflection has a baby bump.
But despite my initial dread that the movie would be all about Zoe’s baby-mania, it’s really not. The central dilemma of the film is that immediately after getting pregnant, she meets a great guy with whom she can see herself having a future, and that her pregnancy will obviously make it difficult for their relationship to progress on a normal trajectory. There’s the usual pregnancy stuff that’s played for laughs: Cravings, weight gain, mood swings and shopping for strollers and baby clothes, but refreshingly, Zoe’s world isn’t depicted as revolving around her pregnancy for nine whole months. She continues to have a life, and a love life, even though she’s pregnant.
It’s incredibly rare to see pregnant women depicted as objects of lust in popular culture. Once you’re pregnant, it seems, your days as a sex goddess are over, and once you’ve had kids, well, forget about it. To quote Saturday Night Live‘s famed Mom Jeans commercial, once you’ve had the kid, “you’re not a woman anymore; you’re a mom.” So it’s nice to see a discussion of the fact that, actually, being pregnant makes most women very horny, and to see Zoe acting on that arousal, even if Stan doesn’t yet understand why she’s able to have an orgasm merely from making out and grinding up against him.
Aside from the unusual speed with which their relationship has progressed, Stan and Zoe have other problems, namely, Stan is terrified of the cost and responsibility of parenting twins, and Zoe doesn’t really believe that he’ll stick around to help raise them. There are some interesting class issues at play here; Stan, who never finished college and is in night school in addition to running the farm, is intimidated by Zoe’s professional success, a feeling that probably isn’t helped by her predictably unrealistic apartment and her ability to buy a $400 dress just for one date. Luckily, Stan has a wise Black man to help him sort through these issues: Upon learning that Zoe is having twins, he freaks out and flees into the park, where he winds up at a playground and asks a random stranger for advice. That random stranger turns out to be a father of three, who, despite having no name (he is credited as “Playground Dad”), serves as Stan’s main source of parenting and relationship advice. “It’s awful, awful, awful,” he says when asked what fatherhood is like, “and then something incredible happens. I feel like I’m drowning, gasping to get my own life back, and then there’s some life-affirming moment that makes it all worthwhile.” Thank goodness for the wise Black father, who we see twice and never hear from again!
It’s not all bad. Zoe’s grandmother, who lives in an assisted living facility, has been engaged for twenty-two years, and when she finally ties the knot, there isn’t a single old-people-sex joke made. Hallelujah! There’s also an amusing scene in which Zoe’s male obstetrician says the word “vagina” over and over again in an attempt to make Stan more comfortable with it (he fails).
Most interestingly, there’s an emphasis on socially-conscious careers. One of the things that interests me most about romantic comedies is the jobs that it’s acceptable for women to have. They’re generally divided into two categories: you have your cool jobs (party planner, journalist, shop owner) that allow the woman to be creative and do all sorts of glamorous things, and the authority jobs (executive vice president of somethingorother, producer) that almost guarantees that you’re watching a movie in which the leading woman is controlling and has had no time for relationships and needs a man to bring out her soft side and teach her how to love. So it’s interesting to note that in The Back-up Plan, as in the rom com it most resembles, Baby Mama, the leading lady has a socially-conscious job. Zoe bought the pet store she owns after she discovered that it was selling inbred puppies from puppy mills, and took it over, determined to only sell healthy animals. What’s even more interesting is that social-conscious careers aren’t gendered in this movie: Stan sells his cheese at farmers’ markets, and dreams of opening a gourmet food store in which all the products are sourced from local farms.
Despite its refreshing depiction of a pregnant woman who’s capable of thinking about something other than pregnancy, the movie does fall back on some fairly predictable rom com tropes. Firstly, there’s the depiction of single mothers as kooky and odd and hostile to men. Zoe joins a support group called Single Mothers and Proud, but they very nearly kick her out when she reveals that she’s dating someone. Then there’s the depiction of homebirth as weird and disgusting: Zoe is invited to come to one of the SMAP members’ home water birth, where we get a vagina shot (thanks for breaking that barrier, Judd Apatow!) and are reminded that birth is, like, totally painful and gross. Finally, there’s the typical casting of borderline-stalker behavior as romantic and charming, as well as a rather uncomfortable Nice Guy™ moment from Stan: When Zoe initially refuses his offer for a date, he says, “you’re not interested in me? Why not? I’m very interesting.”
The Back-up Plan passes the Bechdel test, making it the first movie I’ve reviewed in this series to do so. Am I surprised that a movie starring Jennifer Lopez, she of The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan is the first rom com of 2010 to pass the test? I am; I had my money on the one starring Tina Fey. Am I disappointed that, when Zoe talks to other female characters about something other than men, most of those conversations are about hating their post-pregnancy bodies or even hating their children? Sure. But it could have been worse. It could have been The Bounty Hunter.