Can Women Have It All On And Off The Big Screen?

The film Baby Boom (1987), starring Diane Keaton as the success-obsessed Wall Street banker, J.C. Wiatt, was ahead of its time. Keaton’s character has a hard handshake, a nervous twitch when she is about to slay her opponent, and an unexpected inheritance coming her way — a baby girl. The inheritance triggers a downward spin: no prestigious partnership with her firm, subsequent job loss, and the loss of an equally ambitious and unappealing boyfriend. She retreats into the wild hills of Vermont, where she has a hilarious but wrenching meltdown but manages to pull herself together, nurture her new ward, and create a popular baby food brand, “Country Baby.” J.C. regains her throne by reinventing herself while at the same time remaining true to her ambitious nature and her innate talent for business. With a child securely on her hip she has not only overcome defeat but managed to create a phenomenally successful baby food company and marches off to a triumphant return to Wall Street. She doesn’t stay, but the point is made.

Baby Boom was a boon for other pro-women films and continues to the debate on whether women can have it all, and what that statement even means. Although it’s a comedy, carried brilliantly by Keaton’s idiosyncratic charm, it manages to weave together a variety of themes about women in the workplace versus women staying at home and having children, and challenges what it means to be “powerful.” Where does power reside for women? Is it having a six-figure income and working in a man’s world? Or is it a matter of fortitude and an ability to endure a situation or a major life setback and make do? If so, J.C. exhibits both, we applaud her for her grit and her easy success.

Now the goals and behavior of women whether they are mothers, professionals, or working mothers is evolving, and also being reevaluated. Breaking the glass ceiling is no longer the ultimate goal. Rather, it’s the freedom to choose whether one wants to break the glass ceiling that is the higher goal. Can women still be highly successful while also being nurturing mothers, and possibly the rulers of their own sexuality instead of being its subjects? And does the freedom to choose make women more powerful than their predecessors whose choices were limited to working or mothering. Have attitudes shifted again to the extent that the word ‘powerful’ means something different to young women and men today? Or is the same?

Former US government official and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter made a tough choice when she left her prestigious position as the Policy Director of the State Department in 2012 because her 14-year old son was getting into trouble at school back in Princeton. She was working long hours, commuting to and from DC, and eventually quit because she needed to be home. Slaughter’s experience made her question the notion that women can have it all. She later wrote about it for the Atlantic arguing that the idea was illogical and extremely damaging for women who seek a career, but also find joy in their domestic lives and care deeply for their children. The article caused a firestorm of debate and stirred up mostly negative criticism from feminists who saw her resignation as an unnecessary compromise imposed by a male-dominated workplace.

Slaughter had been a rising star, an important and well known player working alongside the most powerful woman in American politics, but walked away, not in retreat, but assertively and unapologetically — making a choice that was entirely her own. Did Slaughter, by doing this, change the thinking for many women — does her choice raise the debate beyond the usual dichotomy of career versus motherhood?

Slaughter’s decision to re-visit the question of whether women can have it all may have opened up a new and broader perspective that finds value in a whole host of activities and accomplishments including family, work, personal fulfillment, faithfulness to friends and family, and so on. The choice should not be between, but among the many different ways to achieve happiness and success. For highly accomplished women, such as Slaughter it was expected that she would choose career over family and the fact that she didn’t was seen as a defeat, not as a choice. The view that a promising career and its material rewards and its prestige should outweigh family life and the well-being of offspring seems not only unfair, but absurdly unrealistic and damaging.

Women such as Slaughter admit they are privileged — and these privileges give them options that less successful and economically stable women do not have. What is needed, according to Slaughter, is a new approach that embraces the issues common to all women, regardless of their ethnic and socioeconomic status.

Baby Boom’s J.C. was also privileged. She goes from the polished Wall Street hotshot to the hot mess fleeing to Vermont. The scene is set, and we as viewers assume she is headed for failure. Alas, her hard handshake and Ivy League pedigree were not enough. A baby — due to an unforeseen family tragedy — has compromised her dreams of professional success. But it is the choice that J.C. makes to keep her new ward and forgo a prestigious and lucrative partnership that eventually empowers her. She not only survives her ouster from the boardroom, she emerges strengthened — almost purified — and with a million-dollar company to boot. Was J.C.’s choice easy? No. Was Slaughter’s? Definitely no. But there was value in both of the decisions each woman made — a value that allowed them to find power independently and set the terms for their life as they saw it not as society or others see it.