Oh, Baby: “Baby Mama” Misses the Mark

Sarah Seltzer

In the new hit film "Baby Mama," Tina Fey and Amy Poehler break barriers but fail to bust stereotypes.

If Tina Fey had written Baby Mama instead of just starring in it, it probably would have been funnier. At the very least, there would have been more moments that capture the subtle ways women can hurt each other — like when a store clerk tells Fey's character, Kate, who is buying a heap of expecting-mommy books, "You must be having a girl — that's why your hair is dry," and Fey recoils. Kate's not pregnant — but she's just learned that everyone can tell that her hair is dry.

But beyond a vignette or two like this, there's little that's subtle in the movie, a surrogate-pregnancy caper that's about as challenging to the status quo as the Pussycat Dolls. Perhaps it's a good thing that two women stars are allowed a vehicle that pokes fun of current reproductive trends, is not clever or subversive, and still makes a pile of money and pleases a rabid fanbase. The ability to be stupid and still successful may mean that Fey and Poehler have vaulted into the comedy top tier along with Ferrell, Stiller et al. Send in the balloons!

But the other side of this triumph seems to be that now a few lucky women get to continue the tradition of insensitivity that dominates mainstream Hollywood. And so I think it's wrong for writers like Rebecca Traister to label this movie as feminist. It remains thrilling to see two female stars getting top billing for joking about their wombs, but Baby Mama's feminism stops there.

Yes, in the end Baby Mama has a redemptive message about friendship and not judging others based on their backgrounds, but along the way the movie sets up stereotypes about race, class, traditional family structure and even hair color, and only half-heartedly rejects these categorizations with a feel-good ending.

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This week, a discussion on Feministing.com centered around the film's title itself. A commenter called it a "blackface" title, because the humor comes from the concept of a bourgeois white woman finding herself in a so-called "ghetto" situation. The title is given its own little explanatory scene when Fey's amiable black doorman, played by the talented and underutilized Romany Malco, tells her that if another woman is having her child and she (Fey) is paying the bills, than that woman is her "baby mama." "Ask any black man in Philadelphia," he says.

Malco's character's unending font of wise and wacky advice throughout the film, and the way he exists in an undefined space between servant and friend without a life of his own, is an old-school archetype that reinforces rather than undermining the problems raised by the title. The film is a product of SNL inc, and there's a longstanding tradition of racial insensitivity in the SNL ranks (even as it has helped launch the careers of a few notable nonwhite comedians).

The film's relationship with class issues is also irritatingly one-sided. Amy Poehler's character, a proverbial "working girl," doesn't work, nor does she seem to have any kind of background or personality beyond crass immaturity. Her speech patterns range from hip-hop inflected, to country drawl, to surprisingly accent-less and articulate — all without explanation. She is culture-less. On the other hand, the film's send-up of Fey's yuppie culture is spot-on — Baby Mama nails everything from raw food veganism to the sanctimoniousness of the fertility and birthing industry, to pretentious baby names.

But maybe the most offensive thing about the film (warning, spoilers ahead here) is that it rejects its own premise. The trailers make it seem as though it's a buddy comedy about unconventional family structures, a movie celebrating the freedom to choose having a family and a career, in a sisterhood-affirming way. But in fact, both characters essentially get punished for their surrogacy choice, only to be redeemed by the magic formula of heterosexual boinking. Slate's Dana Stevens, who has written about the baby boom on screen better than any other critic, notes that, "For all the methods we've invented of making babies — in test-tubes, with turkey basters, in the wombs of other women or even trans-men — Hollywood still prefers its leading ladies to put a rock on their finger and push one out the old-fashioned way." And yes, the fact that one leading lady is a smart brunette, the other is a ditzy, wacky blonde, and there's a bitchy mother figure hovering in the distance, all seems a bit tired as well.

At the conclusion of this comedy-rife weekend, I preferred the casual sexism (of the gratuitous nudity variety) laced throughout stoner flick Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay to the race, class and gender clichés running through Baby Mama, female stars be damned. In Harold and Kumar, ethnic and regional stereotypes are placed forward, clearly rejected, half-shown to be true, and then proven to be false over and again, deliberately messing with viewers, and characters' preconceptions and prejudices. This is hardly a perfect formula, but the folks behind Baby Mama could have learned a lot from it.

During her interview with Traister, Amy Poehler says that her feminist creed "is to do what men do, which is you just assume power. You're not grateful for it." She makes an excellent point, and that's the heart of her deserved, success as a female comedian. But I for one would have liked to see Fey and Poehler seize their star power in a film that respected its audience, its premise, and even its leading ladies.

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