In Friends With Kids, a new film by director Jennifer Westfeldt, best friends Jason and Julie look at the miseries that marriage and children bring on their friends (the bickering days, the sexless nights) and decide to have a baby together – but remain platonic. Sure, their biological clocks are ticking, but that doesn’t mean they want commitment.
“Being in your 30s and figuring it out,” says Jon Hamm, who is one of the film’s stars and producers, is “a topic that seems to be resonating a little deeper in our generation.”
The comedian Louis C.K. finds much of his material from the hardships of raising his girls: (including, infamously, his riff on marriage, delivered before he was divorced, “I can’t have sex with my wife because we have a baby ... I never used to get babies in the garbage before but now I understand it.”) As parents fret on message boards over whether smiling at that joke makes them bad parents, whether to be a Tiger Mom or to raise their kids the French way, movies and television shows are right there with them, alternately feeding and soothing their anxieties.
Family life has always been popular film fodder, but on screen as in life, it has never before been fraught with so much doubt and uncertainty. Yet regardless of how unconventional the fictional parenting arrangements are, in almost every case Hollywood eventually affirms very traditional ideas of what it means to be a parent and a family.
“You get relatively little [reality]portrayed in film, or at least in Hollywood,” says Stella Bruzzi, author of Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Post-war Hollywood. Even when pop culture shows signs of acknowledging the changing family, whether it’s the gay couple on Modern Family or the lesbian parents from The Kids Are All Right, it almost always makes sure to present alternative visions as very much like an archaic family.
“There’s a fear that the conventional family is becoming less and less dominant,” Bruzzi says. “But within films, or at least within mainstream films, family units are still relatively conventional.”
Hollywood has always had an eye on family life and each generation’s interpretation of what that term is supposed to mean. With many in this generation the children of divorce, their defining characteristic might just be the desire to be traditional parents coupled with a willingness to openly voice just how difficult that fantasy is to achieve.
“There are all of these norms and expectations and all of these things that are taboo to think, never mind say, around parenting,” says Adam Mansbach, author of Go The F... To Sleep.
The book’s popularity—it debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for advice books when it was published last summer—is an indication of how eager young parents are to break these taboos, with heaps of irony to buffer the blow, of course.
Marusya Bociurkiw, an associate professor of media theory at Ryerson University, points out that television and film has always dealt with the anxieties current in the wider culture, but always with “an element of fantasy involved.”
In other words, mainstream entertainment may acknowledge how rough raising kids can be at a time when the family is in flux, but in most, if not all, cases it will stop short of challenging the pieties of parenthood. The hardly promising relationship between Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl is resolved as they both decide to embrace adulthood in preparation for the unexpected baby in Knocked Up, while many of the laughs in the TV show Up all Night come from how just unconventional the series believes its stay-at-home dad storyline is, a conceit not dissimilar to the one in Suburgatory.
“We’re living in a culture that’s increasingly ideologically promoting conservative family values, and I think what’s happening in popular culture is that the alternative values and family structures that are becoming more widespread more often than not have to be contained within these increasingly conservative frameworks,” Bociurkiw says.
Every character in Friends With Kids is sorting through how to live their thirties, including the issue of settling down without any set framework to fall back on, says Westfeldt, who also wrote and stars in the film.
“We’re all sort of grappling with what it is we’re supposed to be at this age,” she says.
And not every couple in the movie enjoys a happy ending.
“Half of marriages end in divorce – half – so it doesn’t work out for everybody,” Westfeldt says.
But, spoiler alert here, don’t think Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) remain just friends.
Still, the film’s novel premise eventually takes audiences to familiar territory.
But perhaps it’s wrong to fault pop culture for not daring to truly challenge traditional notions of the family. Perhaps the many films being birthed in Hollywood’s delivery room these days say more about what audiences really want after another day of trolling mommy blogs for advice.
“Whatever our lives are,” Bruzzi says, “the fantasy of the traditional nuclear family is obviously one which is immensely attractive for those two hours, even if we all know it’s bonkers.”