Funny But Flawed

I Just Rewatched Knocked Up — & I’m Madder Than Ever Over Movies’ Portrayals Of Birth

Terrifying pregnant people everywhere (and their partners) since 2007.

Written by Alexandra Frost
Originally Published: 
Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl play expectant parents in the 2007 movie 'Knocked Up.'
Universal Pictures

It's an iconic film when it comes to pregnancy movies, and one that birthing parents today no doubt watched as they formed their own views of what childbearing, birthing, and even crowning might be like. But here's the problem: The 2007 romantic comedy Knocked Up is straight terrifying to new parents and their partners, especially vulnerable ones wondering just what this whole birth process is all about. I discovered as much upon rewatching it as a mother.

Producer Judd Apatow said in a 2007 interview that he was looking for reality. "I just wanted to show what is real," he says. "I show a crowning shot because if I don't show that, then I am just doing an episode of Friends. I am trying to make you feel the pain of that experience because it is the most intense moment in people's lives, and I had to do something that hadn't been done before." Well, mission accomplished, Apatow, but at what expense? Anne Hathaway reportedly turned down the role before Heigl took it due to the graphic childbirth scene. She explained in a 2012 Allure interview that, having not experienced childbirth herself, she didn't know how she'd feel about it on the other side of giving birth. I doubt she'd feel good about it now that she's a mom. As a mom of soon-to-be five, I know I feel weird looking back on how hilarious I thought it was.

Studies show that half of pregnant people in the US are already scared of childbirth. One in 10 describe that fear as "crippling," in fact. Researchers explain that irrational fear around birth can affect the whole pregnancy, complicating labor, leading to difficulties bonding with the baby, and even increasing the risk of postpartum depression. So, Knocked Up and other portrayals of birth need to keep this in mind when creating birth scenes — it's not just an easy place to get a laugh from audiences.

Here's why Knocked Up's portrayal of birth is a little more messed up than we remember it the first time.

An Idealistic Beginning

In the earliest labor scenes, Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen) rushes back to find mom-in-labor Allison Scott (played by Katherine Heigl) in the bubble bath, with candles and music playing softly. Scott is actively trying to calm herself down and recommends her partner do the same, skipping over a fight he wants to "reconcile" and asking him to call her doctor instead.

This part of the birth is all of our ideal early labor plans and wishes, and any partner who has had to call the doctor in labor probably chuckled through Stone's relatable reaction to finding out the doctor was out of town. "Hey Doc Howard, Ben Stone calling. Guess what the f*ck is up? Allison's going into labor, and you are not f*cking here. No, where are you right now? You're at a f*cking bar mitzvah in San Francisco!" he goes on to basically threaten the doc's life. Hyperbolic, sure, but relatable — why are our docs always out of town?!

This part isn't really the issue, though we all know it's highly unlikely that our partner not only read "all the baby books" he did and started asking her super detailed questions about her bloody show (even if somewhat inaccurate), how far apart contractions were, and more. But we'll give Apatow a pass on this scene — he tried.

The Unsupportive, Verbally Abusive Doctor

Arguably one of the most comical characters in the movie, Ken Jeong places Dr. Kuni, the exceptionally inconvenienced on-call OBGYN who shows up livid to be there at Scott's birth. While the show is hyperbolizing the doctor's patronizing, unsupportive, and straight verbally abusive demeanor, it hits a nerve for anyone who has given birth. First, she can't access her own doctor. Then, she's stuck with someone she doesn't know or trust, who gets in not-so-subtle digs meant to hurt her feelings along the way.

This dynamic shows the partner that instead of having a trusted provider leading the way, they too might have to take the doctor into the hall and tell them off, as Rogen eventually does. Hilarious, of course, except that people learning about the birth process might already have a serious distrust of doctors, an essential aspect of making labor doable and safe.

A Gallup poll revealed that only 15% of people report having a "great deal" of confidence in the medical system. With this number so low already, the last thing we need is more portrayal of doctors who are far from on their patient's side, especially during childbirth. This also points to the shift in normalizing midwifery care for delivery, as women are three times more likely to be satisfied with midwife care than OB-led care, one study shows. Portraying doctors as the enemy exacerbates an already severe problem in the birthing system.

The Straight Terrifying Birth Itself

She screams. She begs for an epidural but can't get one. She sweats and pants and groans and clenches the bed like a rabid animal. She chews out anyone who comes to check on her, screaming, "Get out!" (OK, that's relatable). But the portrayal of a birth that's out of control, happening to you, damages all the potential for achieving the opposite type of birth. All the hypnobirthing podcasts in the world aren't going to undo that image or wipe it from young people's heads, who will carry it into birth with them years later.

The unwanted visitor comes out to meet the friends in the waiting room, and we get hit with another harmful stereotype — "Try getting a boner now," one of the friends says. The idea that the birthing woman is no longer sexy after she's been through birth feeds into fear further. Instead of propagating these fears for women already enduring changing bodies and body images, let's look at the facts. For example, two-thirds of men find their partner even sexier after having a baby, one UK study showed. In the first six months post-childbirth, moms already face a barrage of sexual and intimacy challenges, from physical pain to exhaustion to increased need for affection and understanding, research confirms. The last thing they need is movies joking about how much less sexy they'll be.

Ultimately, we could say it's just a movie. Just a comedy. One that has remained exceptionally entertaining for decades, and will remain so. But it's also part of a narrative around childbirth that isn't good enough for moms, their birthing partners, and future generations of those who will become "Knocked Up."

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