Personal choice vs. politics in Waitress

Personal choice vs. politics in Waitress

In the year of Roe v Wade and a global childcare crisis, Carys Crossen writes on the personal and political of Adrienne Shelly's Waitress.

There’s a quote from Mississippi Burning (1988) that adroitly sums up the backstory of the heroine of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film Waitress. “You know what these small towns are like. A girl spends all her time in high school lookin’ for the guy she’s gonna marry, and spends the rest of her life wondering why.” 

When the film opens on Jenna (Keri Russell), making one of her famous pies in the kitchen of the diner where she works, she’s been wondering why since she cut the wedding cake (or more likely, wedding pie). Her husband, Earl, is an irredeemable arsehole. Jenna is desperate to escape but doesn’t have enough money, as Earl appropriates most of her wages. She’s staking her hopes on a pie-making contest where the first prize is $25,000. But then her pregnancy test comes up positive, and suddenly leaving her husband becomes a lot harder.

Waitress was written and directed by Shelly and was her final film before she was murdered. The story follows Jenna as her life changes dramatically, not just because of her unwanted pregnancy. Although there are numerous plot strands – including Jenna’s affair with her married gynaecologist Dr Pomatter, and the romantic tribulations of Jenna’s fellow waitresses – the film’s main storyline sees Jenna grow in confidence until she finds the strength to tell Earl she doesn’t love him, and to demand a divorce. Something that, significantly, happens straight after Jenna gives birth to a baby girl and falls in love with her. 

I first watched Waitress on DVD a few months after its initial release, then again soon after I had my daughter, and most recently after the repeal of Roe Vs. Wade in the US. Each time, the film spoke to me in different ways. During my first viewing I was unmarried, childless, impressed by the foregrounding of female friendships and feminine experience. Jenna’s most important and cherished relationships are with her best friends and fellow waitresses, Becky and Dawn. There’s none of the bitchiness and jealousy that pop culture is so fond of assigning to female friendship groups. These women love one another and want the best for each other.

This was an unusual take during the Noughties when pop culture (and, indeed, wider culture) treated women with unadulterated contempt. Women who caught the public’s attention were pilloried like suspected witches in the Middle Ages. We gossiped about Britney Spears’s much-publicised crises. We mocked Paris Hilton’s leaked sex tape. We sniggered at ‘Fat Monica’ on Friends. Yet Waitress refuses to laugh at its women, taking their lives and concerns seriously and celebrating their bonds with one other. And it goes further. In a subversive twist, Jenna also ends her affair with Dr Pomatter before it sours and people get hurt. Having realised that she doesn’t need a man to be happy, the film concludes with Jenna as a single parent, both she and her daughter thriving.

Watching Waitress again soon after the birth of my own daughter, I was struck by how the film paralleled my own experience of motherhood. Not all of it: I didn’t have an affair with my gynaecologist, my own pregnancy was planned, and I’m happily married (my husband is too. Or he said he was, when I asked him just now). 

But Jenna’s ambiguity about parenthood was uncannily like my own. My biological clock was missing its batteries; I never felt an overwhelming urge to be a mother. Getting pregnant was, for me, an intellectual decision, and I was deeply nervous about what would happen when my baby was born. But now, I couldn’t imagine life without my little girl. I love her madly, even when she’s tipping her cereal on the carpet or refusing to nap, just as Jenna loves her daughter unreservedly despite her earlier foreboding.

In contrast, my third viewing highlighted how, for reasons never stated, Jenna decides to continue with her pregnancy. True, there wouldn’t have been much of a film if Jenna had had a termination. Yet unlike in other films about unplanned pregnancies such as 2006’s  Juno, abortion is never even considered by the protagonist. Living in the UK, where abortion is obtainable up to 24 weeks (but still hasn’t been decriminalised) I was struck by the film’s skating over reproductive rights – especially when there are significant roadblocks to Jenna obtaining a potential termination. The film is set in the Deep South, a geographic area extremely hostile towards abortion (as Dr Pomatter mumbles nervously, they don’t provide terminations at the local clinic). This means that Jenna would have to find the money to travel, for the procedure and for accommodation. Then there’s her controlling rat of a husband. No way would Earl let her leave town, even if she lied about why. 

Yet the film frames Jenna’s decision as a personal rather than practical one, thus making her unenviable situation entirely the result of her poor choices. And by divorcing the personal from the political, Waitress intentionally or otherwise absolves society from responsibility towards women who are facing unwanted pregnancies, trapped in abusive relationships, or struggling financially.

It's an omission that is even more glaring now that Roe Vs. Wade has been repealed, and reproductive rights in the US are under their most sustained and dangerous attack in a generation. Waitress depicts a scenario that hundreds, if not thousands of women will soon find themselves in. An unplanned pregnancy, an abusive relationship, no money. It’s highly unlikely that all these stories will end as happily as Waitress does. Jenna does escape Earl: we never see him again after she demands her divorce. But her doing so isn’t representative of most women leaving their abusers, where it’s nearly always a prolonged, painful, and sometimes dangerous ordeal that often requires outside intervention. Waitress accepts the unspoken post-feminist assumption of the Noughties: women had achieved equality, so if they were unhappy or poor or exploited, it must be their own fault and they would have to sort out their own problems. 

Now we know that’s far from the case. Movements like #MeToo, the crisis in childcare and the ongoing attacks on legislation that empowers women have highlighted just how far we still must go. Women are sorting out their own problems, but they can’t do it alone, and it's grossly unfair to expect them to. In conclusion, I wish Waitress had been a little bolder in confronting the obstacles facing Jenna and hadn’t reduced them to problems of her own making. Women have been taking the blame for things since Pandora thought, “I wonder what’s in this box I’m carrying about?” 

But Waitress is still a very funny film that respects its female characters and finds much to celebrate even in their very ordinary lives. Unlike Jenna’s pies, it’s not perfect. But it’s a definite step in the right direction which deserves wider recognition. Now, who’s up for some Bad Baby Pie?

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