Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.
Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)
First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:
- They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
- They were both released in 2007.
- They are both indie productions.
- They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
- They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.
As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:
- Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
- Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
- Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
- Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
- Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.
Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.
Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…
This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.
The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WAITRESS
Psychological Shortcoming: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”
Moral Shortcoming: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral shortcoming (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.
As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.
In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.
Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.
Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)
Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!
The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).
For Jenna, the big struggle is the birth. This leads to the anagnorisis. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil.
Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.
When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.