Sunday, May 12, 2013

We Still Don’t Know How She Does It – And It Is Harder Than Ever

In honor of International Chick Lit Month, the ladies at CLC are talking about chick lit as movies. We're casting books, coming up with soundtracks, and comparing them to the film versions that actually do exist. Here's Jami's take on I Don't Know How She Does It as a book and movie. We wanted to share this on Mother's Day, as it explores a topic relevant to many mothers.

By Jami Deise

(Warning: Contains spoilers for the book and movie)

When I was a senior in college and interning in Washington, D.C., I ran into one of the women in the office at the metro station after work. She was married with children, and as we waited for the train, I asked her, with all the casual ignorance of your average 21-year-old, whether it was difficult juggling work and family. She thought about it for a second, and then answered that it wasn’t hard managing a job and a family, but a career and a family were a different story. Then the train came, which was good, because I had no idea what she was talking about. Wasn’t a job and a career the same thing?

By the time Allison Pearson’s groundbreaking novel, I Don’t Know How She Does It, came out in 2002, I knew the difference all too well – and I hadn’t had a career in four years. Even so, I gobbled up the book as soon as it was published, buying the hard cover and staying up all night to finish it. Featuring British investment banker/mom Kate Reddy, the book was the first to explore how hard it is for women to have a career and a family, and it got a lot of attention, with positive reviews from many major outlets.

The novel starts with Kate in the kitchen in the middle of the night, trying to make a store-bought mince pie look homemade for her daughter’s school Christmas party. She’s just returned from a business trip to America, but she’s giving up sleep in order to fool those who would judge her for submitting something store-bought. Kate is sleep-deprived and guilty over leaving her children – five year-old, Emily and two year-old, Ben. Her husband, Richard, is an architect who makes less money than Kate, but he never offers to help with household chores (she’s the one constantly making to-do lists in her head) and never corrects well-meaning relatives who think their life would be easier if Kate quit her job. And it probably would be, but then they’d be broke. Kate doesn’t just have a job, she has a career, a high-powered, competitive, stressful, all-encompassing career that demands first place in line. And she’s damn good at it – much better, in fact, than she is at managing her family. Her nanny is late nearly every morning, causing Kate to be late to work herself. Emily has become a master manipulator, punishing her mother for going out of town, working late or on the weekends. There’s always a birthday party, an issue with the house – something else domestic that needs to be added to Kate’s never-ending to-do list. But the biggest conflict Kate faces is internal – she genuinely loves her job, yet she’s wedded to the idea that certain tasks are a mother’s alone, and refuses to delegate any more than is absolutely necessary. Rather than basking in her high salary and important career, she lets herself be defined by her abilities – or lack thereof -- in the domestic arena.

As Kate’s home life gets even more frantic – lice, anyone? – her career takes off even more when she proposes a new fund, requiring many business trips to New York City and working closely with an attractive, male, American colleague. With business dinners and the ability to sleep through the night alone in a comfortable hotel bed, is it any wonder that Kate finds work less stressful than home life? Kate develops a crush on her colleague, and their project is successful. But Ben takes a tumble down stairs that Kate never got around to recarpeting. The guilt leads Kate into quitting her job and moving her family out to the country, where she takes a part-time job and lets Richard be the main breadwinner.

As much as I liked the book, I was disappointed in the ending. The message seemed to be, “You really can’t have it all.”

While the movie rights to the book were quickly sold, the film version of I Don’t Know How She Does It (see trailer) didn’t come out till last year. With State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter’s long-piece article in The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” exploding all over the internet, the timing seemed perfect for a movie that addressed women’s (it’s never men’s) work/life juggling act. Unfortunately, the film, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, was universally panned.

Frankly, the bad reviews were undeserved. While the producers made some choices I did not agree with – having several minor characters address the camera directly in order to “explain” Kate – overall the film was true to the book’s spirit. It even gave fans a much-improved ending, with Kate marching into her boss’ office and refusing to take any more last-minute business trips, and Richard putting together a to-do list of his own. Ironically, criticism toward the film – and please note that the majority of film critics are male – centered around the film’s sexism and “tired clichés about gender.” Is it sexist to point out sexism? We still live in a society where women struggle to juggle their careers and family while men are assumed to have a wife who handles domestic problems. Where a woman who leaves the office early for a sick child is considered uncommitted to her job, while a man who leaves early for a sick child is considered a hero. Where women make 3/4th of what a man does, thereby making it almost inevitable that the woman will be the one to leave her job when her husband’s career takes off. Where women are judged on their children’s success in school, on their housekeeping, and on their looks. We are expected to work full-time, cook healthy meals, go to the gym, supervise homework, attend every school event/field trip/game our children have, color our hair, have sex with our husbands, and produce wonderful Christmas/Passover holiday celebrations. Whereas men are expected to work fulltime, not beat their wives, and show up to an occasional children’s sports event. I Don’t Know How She Does It points all of this out, and the film itself is called sexist, rather than the society it reflects.

Ironically, another film that came out around the same time with similar plot points – Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 – actually was sexist, and yet, because Apatow’s boy club is worshipped around Hollywood, gained critical praise it must assuredly did not deserve.

Ten years after the book’s publication, I Don’t Know How She Does It is more relevant than ever. As working women are encouraged to lean in by one technology executive, another (female) technology executive is ending work-at-home arrangements and a former state department executive tells women to not even try. As America moves ever closer to a “winner take all” society, both men and women will have to confront workplaces that will only offer upper middle class wages to those willing to work 60 to 80 hours a week. Kate Reddy’s story, which at first seemed unique to those in professions like investment banking or law, will become more common in what were once less demanding professions.

Perhaps the most accurate complaint about the film version of I Don’t Know How She Does It is that the movie is a comedy. Because the issues the story raises – sexist workplaces, life-consuming jobs, and a parenting culture that leaves no room for error – are no laughing matters.


Anonymous said...

So true. Even though the book and film are considered Chick Lit, women's rights in the workplace are not fluff issues.

Unknown said...

Jamie this is an excellent review of both the book and the movie!!!! I read the book so long ago, that I'd honestly forgotten the plot when I finally saw the movie, which I DVRed, because I passed on the theater after such bad reviews. I really liked the movie. I agree - all very, very relevant today.

Great job!