Before We Knew Better: The working mom struggles of this ’80s rom-com are all too familiar in 2019

Image: AP Photo/Frankie Ziths
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This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

In this mini-series, we return to movies and TV we’ve loved to see how they depict gender. Does it hold up in 2019? Warning: contains spoilers.

When did it come out? 1987

How does it hold up? Depressingly well

For all its shoulder pads, power suits, and rolodexes, the1987 movie Baby Boom feels fresh, relevant even. In fact, the movie really only feels dated because of these trappings—the black leather furniture, business lady commuter uniform of panty hosed feet in low-top Reeboks, and conspicuous lack of cell phones and laptops.

As the voiceover intro tells us, J.C. Wiatt, played by Diane Keaton, is a high-powered executive who was top of her class at Yale, works five to nine, makes six figures, and lives in New York City with her investment banker boyfriend, whom she has no intention of marrying. We’re plunged for a day into J.C.’s life of popped collars, work lunches, and paperwork in bed. Then, a long-lost cousin dies, leaving J.C. with baby Elizabeth. Her boyfriend leaves; she loses a big account at work to a young man she had hired and mentored. Furious, she quits her job, buys a farmhouse in Vermont she had long dreamed of owning as a vacation home, and moves there. There, she goes a little nuts with loneliness, but over time, she builds a successful baby food company, falls in love with the local veterinarian, and generally thrives.

Keaton’s charm makes everything she’s in feel timeless, but still so much about Baby Boom feels a little too familiar for a 30-year-old comedy.

I concede, there are a few moments that are painfully dated. An executive from another company calls J.C. “young lady” during a meeting, and no one, her included, blinks an eye. When J.C.’s boss tells her he wants her to be a partner in the firm, he then interrogates her about her plans for marriage, saying of her boyfriend, “What if he expects a wife?” Her boyfriend, played with appropriate yuppie panache by Harold Ramis, simply disappears when J.C decides she wants to adopt Elizabeth, and there’s zero judgement of him for not at least supporting his partner through a challenging life transition. At no point in the movie does a man ever act as though being a dad involves more than buying the occasional teddy bear and showing up on time for dinner.

The way that J.C is treated once she decides to be a mom echoes what we know women experience in the workplace today. All her best projects get taken away by younger male colleagues who are “available seven days a week, 48 hours a day,” which she is no longer.  Colleagues call attention to her supposed lack of focus as she struggles to manage work, a toddler, and a nanny. The most resonant takeaways from the movie all illustrate concepts that we’re knee-deep in grappling with in homes and the workplace today—gaslighting, emotional labor, and work-life balance.

When her boss, Fritz (Sam Wanamaker), takes J.C. out for lunch to ask her to be partner at the company, he warns her against the fantasy of having it all. He is only able to have children and a social life because of his wife, he says. “I don’t know what the hell she does, but she takes care of things,” he says, invoking the specter of emotional labor, all of the invisible planning and organizing it takes to run a household. When J.C. gets forced out, supplanted by a young and extremely hatable James Spader, Fritz basically says I told you so, reminding her of this warning. “I don’t know how many grandchildren I have,” he brags, by way of outlining the demands of the job. He reiterates: “No one can have it all.”

One of the most surprising things watching Baby Boom today is how early on in American culture (or at least much parodied yuppie culture of the 1980s) the culture of helicopter parenting takes hold. When J.C. chats up some other moms at the playground, one proudly rubs her pregnant belly, and rattles off a list of pre-schools the baby inside is already on the list for. J.C. and Elizabeth, who looks to be somewhere around 14 months old, go to comically intense classes where she shows the baby flashcards with pictures of sushi, international flags, and the faces of world leaders to expand her brain.

In Vermont, J.C. loads up on sweaters and starts making baby applesauce from her 62-acres of apple trees, selling it to the general store. In the movie’s pivotal moment, two yuppie couples come in to the store (one of them a young Chris Noth), wearing bright ski gear and fur headbands. They declare the “gourmet baby food” a fresh concept and buy the store out of it as gifts, lecturing J.C. on the importance of packaging design. The local, artisanal applesauce that launches the next chapter in J.C.’s career could be straight out of a shop in Brooklyn, so much so that for a minute I wondered whether J.C. might suggest that the local cafe whip up some avocado toast to attract tourists.

The gourmet baby food business is so good that J.C.’s old company calls to schedule a meeting to buy it, and set her up as the CEO. She’s thrilled for a moment and then rejects the offer, telling her former boss and colleagues that there’s a crib in her office and a mobile above her desk and that’s the way she likes it. She doesn’t want a bonus or access to a corporate jet if it means losing the work-life balance she’s stumbled upon—not that she calls it that. “Do you realize what you’re giving up?” Fritz asks her, jaw agape. “Yup,” she replies with conviction.

More than 30 years later, even though Sheryl Sandberg famously had a crib in her office, corporate culture feels about the same. More women are in the C suite, and men spend more time parenting, but the conversations are eerily similar, albeit with a slightly more precise vocabulary.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here