I don't know how she does it

This Hollywood blockbuster's heroine is a high-flying finance executive, but Diane Shipley argues that women across classes and careers share parts of her predicament and can applaud her small victories over a lazy husband and an over-demanding boss

Diane Shipley, 2 October 2011

Allison Pearson's 2002 novel I Don't Know How She Does It asked the question: "Can women have it all?" and came to the conclusion: "Probably not."

The recent film adaptation of the book has moved the action from London to Boston, but the question remains. "Having it all" is, of course, the hackneyed phrase summing up marriage, children and a successful career, all of which (it is assumed) is every woman's destiny.


I found myself flinching with frustration throughout the opening scenes which showed Sarah Jessica Parker (as our heroine, Kate Reddy) getting home after a business trip and going straight to the local deli, where she bought a pie for the bake sale at her daughter's school, which she then attempted to make look home-made so that none of the teachers or stay-at-home mothers would judge her.

She then lay awake, making lists in her head of all the things she had to take care of: her daughter's birthday party, year-end reports for work, getting the car serviced... Although "of course", her voiceover informed us with a jocular tone, the latter should really be her husband's job. We get the message -- she's busy, and she believes in stereotypical gender roles. But as the camera panned to her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear), sleeping soundly next to her, I wanted to scream: "Why are you taking on all the responsibility for the kids and the chores without question?"

The underlying assumption of most of the film is that everything family-related is automatically a woman's responsibility

That's what annoyed me the most about this film, the fact that the status quo was so rarely challenged by any of the characters. In one scene, Kate's mother-in-law Marla, played by Jane Curtin (how heart-breaking to see one of my 1980s icons reduced to the trope of a bitchy mother-in-law) commented that things were easier in the past when men and women had more clearly defined roles. My soul was crying out for Kate to talk about equality or mention the word "feminism", but she just shrugged and winced, saying: "It's more complicated now."

kids.jpg The fact that Kate is very successful at work yet still chooses to have children apparently rubs people up the wrong way off-screen, too. In David Cox's appalling Guardian review, he goes so far as to call her a "scumbag" for, among other crimes, being too tired to have sex with her "kindly" husband on one occasion. (Women's jobs: just a ruse to stop men getting sex! Finally, it can be said.) While suggesting that women with careers may have to sacrifice motherhood, he doesn't bother to argue that men with full-time jobs might make bad fathers.

When Kate's youngest son has a minor accident on a loose piece of stair carpet, Richard is the one who has to take him to hospital and then turns on Kate, asking her why she didn't get it fixed. This leads to a long-overdue conversation about the fact that Richard isn't pulling his weight around the house. And here's the crux of the matter: rather than thinking "I don't know how she does it", I kept thinking, "If she and her husband just shared these tasks and she asked her boss for a tiny bit of slack, her life would be totally manageable."

I dont know how she does it.jpgAlthough Kate is undeniably busy and stressed, the film didn't manage to capture the rushed feeling of the book, and I never got the impression that what she does is that remarkable, especially considering her financial means. Plus, while she has a lot expected of her, her life doesn't runs smoothly. Her husband resents them hardly spending time together and her daughter is increasingly sullen about seeing so little of her mother. Nor is Kate entirely on top of things at work: while her reports are well respected, she turns up late, with her blouse un-tucked and pancake batter decorating her lapel. Later, she is so irritated by head lice that she scratches wildly at her hair during an important business meeting, where she also discovers she accidentally sent a blow job joke to a senior member of staff instead of to her closest friend.

The goal all this serves is to undermine Kate: to suggest that it's impossible for women to be good mothers and professional employees at the same time. Perhaps the film is trying to show Kate as an everywoman, exemplifying the struggle all working mothers have. But if that's the intention, why is the storyline intercut with clips of her friend and colleagues talking to camera about how great Kate is and repeating: "I don't know how she does it"? What is it that she does, exactly -- struggle to stay on top of everything? This seems to be what everyone else is trying to do, albeit hers are circumstances more privileged than these of 99% of the world...

Even a little ambiguity in how Hollywood represents reproductive choices feels like progress

The fact that the Reddys are extremely lucky and clearly wealthy is never mentioned or even alluded to. Their version of hardship is an upper-class, able-bodied one, and they apparently live in an exclusively white, heterosexual, cisgendered world cut off from the financial and social issues many people are struggling with (which got criticised among others by another Guardian reviewer).

Yet I think the experiences of Kate in the film and women like her in the real world still matter: as women we're all under some degree of pressure to conform to traditional gender expectations. And in fact, in some small ways, this film is revolutionary.

Kate Reddy isn't the typical Hollywood heroine. She's in her early 40s and hasn't had enough sleep, and that's exactly how she looks. I'm not saying this to be critical; it's refreshing to see a woman with a few lines on her face slobbing about in a cardigan and little make-up, the way most frazzled mothers look in the morning. It might seem superficial to focus on this, but the fact that we rarely see people on screen who look somewhat imperfect reinforces the idea that Hollywood's increasingly oppressive beauty standards are normal. Any attempt to turn that tide is welcome.
pierce.jpg

It also felt fresh to see a woman with an impressive career and her own assistant who unabashedly loves her work, being neither an incompetent kook nor one of the über-bitchy bosses powerful women in movies are so often portrayed as (Cf. The Devil Wears Prada, The Proposal and Working Girl.) Unfortunately, there's little else about her work that's portrayed in a novel manner: at one point she even drags out that hoary old line about how business travellers only ever see airports and hotel rooms, and the mild flirtation with her new male colleague feels predictable and unthreatening, even if he happens to be Pierce Brosnan.

SPOILER ALERT: What follows reveals a major subplot as well as how the film ends.

Just as predictable is that when Kate's assistant Momo (Olivia Munn) has an unwanted pregnancy, Kate babbles on about how having children is the most fulfilling thing ever (an opinion Alison Pearson apparently shares, telling every woman she meets to have babies instead of a career). Of course, Momo eventually decides to see the pregnancy through, meaning that there wasn't one woman in the film who wasn't fulfilled by having or caring for children. While this is retrograde to say the least, I was pleased to see that Kate didn't appear to disapprove of abortions on principle or assume Momo should make the same choices she had, even as she told her that having kids is wonderful. It's not much, but even a little ambiguity in how Hollywood represents reproductive choices feels like progress.
Towards the end of the film, I was expecting everything to wrap up in the same way the book had, an expectation enforced by a breathtaking example of gender essentialism from Kate's friend Alison, whose final to-camera wisdom about how hard-working mothers have it is: "Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman".
But then the film spun on its head right at the end, and somehow turned into the story I'd been hoping for. Reaching the end of her tether after yet another confrontation with her daughter, when her boss commands Kate to go to Atlanta for the weekend, she refuses, instead demanding weekends off so she can see her family.

I'm disappointed that the film is more post-feminist than feminist in its outlook: it assumes that all struggles are personal


Reluctant to lose her brilliant work to a competitor, her boss agrees. Meanwhile, Richard finally realises how much stress his wife's been under, and independently decides to pull his weight -- even making an epic to-do list of his own so that they can share chores and childcare. (I'm still not clear on why they couldn't have talked about this sooner, but I guess then there wouldn't have been a movie. Although that would have been OK.)
I'm disappointed that the film is more post-feminist than feminist in its outlook: first of all, it assumes that all struggles are personal. Showing how women generally get stuck with the lion's share of work around the home, it never actually confronts the idea that this is a problem endemic in a society and hence constructed and not only the result of biological differences or individual choices. I would have also liked the idea that working and stay-at-home mothers have to be in constant battle to have been challenged, instead of using silly stereotypes to represent both groups.
I still found it gratifying that the film was more feminist than the book in its conclusions: that different situations work for different families, that when housework and childcare is shared, women can work outside the home when their kids are small and that a career can be fulfilling for anyone, regardless of gender. And I was ecstatic to hear Kate's voiceover tell us that from now on she would be buying all her pies, not caring who would find out about it.

Comments From You

Alexandra // Posted 03 October 2011 at 15:53

It makes me flinch when the traditional 'mother comes to work dressed in food stained / baby sick adorned clothes' scene is included. it's just code for 'no matter how hard you try, you'll always be responsible for the housework'. Yet it's painted as being reassuring to women that no-one is perfect - appallingly insidious.

Actually, I look perfectly freakin' appropriate at work, thank you very much*. Yes, while weaning my daughter I had some banana-spattered trackie bums, but I didn't wear those out of the house, and certainly not to my job. It might sometimes be stressful or exhausting, but I somehow managed not to lose any of the professionalism I had before simply by pushing a miniature person out of my nether regions.

Bah. I think this film will make me throw things. Definitely one to miss.

*If there are any food stains on me, you can guarantee I put them there.

[Moderator's note: this comment has been edited]

Alicia Izharuddin // Posted 03 October 2011 at 17:05

Because I had low expectations of the film (no thanks to the misogynistic review by David Cox and the many disappointments Hollywood has to offer), I was pleasantly surprised by it, from start to finish. In fact, I would go as far as saying that I quite like this film. There hasn't been a film recently that tackles the career/family balance quite so centrally as IDKHSDI which makes it quite a remarkable film.

Can I also say that it's important that Kate's husband starts off as uncooperative and domesticity-phobic? Because many working fathers are and that working mothers continue to shoulder much of the childcare, cooking, cleaning, and other domestic issues. I saw my own control-freak mother in Kate Reddy's character (although she was a single working mother, and we saw too little of Christina Hendricks' character - BOO!) And it's watching glimpses of change in Kate's husband work/parenting outlook that I found refreshing. Because we don't see a lot of that in film.

In the end, what reaches mainstream screens is a kind of triumph, because the politics of financing and visionary compromises get in the way of producing the final product. I am just glad that a glimmer of feminism made it to the final cut.

Diane S // Posted 08 October 2011 at 16:28

Yep, I admit I groaned at that bit, Alex. But it did illustrate the unrealistic expectations Kate had for herself: she was trying to do all the chores, working from early morning to late evening, and just scraping by. There could have been more original ways to express this; but it's not a very original film. I think you might how it ends, but it was a bit too little too late.

Alicia, I agree that it was better than it's been given credit for, and the reviews, mostly by men, have often been apallingly sexist. What they don't seem to realise is the work/life balance debate affects us all, not just mothers and not just women. You might be right that it was a good idea to show Richard as unhelpful and oblivious at first, but I'm not sure why Kate never said anything to him about it, and had internalised that it should all be her responsibility. For me it was a little too hesitant and softly-softly in its politics, but you're right that any feminist message feels like a triumph. I'm just hungry for more, I guess.

And yes, Christina Hendricks was criminally underused!

ashleec // Posted 10 October 2011 at 17:09

Re: "Yet I think the experiences of Kate in the film and women like her in the real world still matter: as women we're all under some degree of pressure to conform to traditional gender expectations."
I find it disappointing that at this stage of feminism's development the author in one paragraph pays lip service to the specificity of the gender portrayal in the film, yet in the next hearkens back to a theoretically unsound gender universalism. As 'women', we are NOT all under pressure to conform to the same/'traditional' gender expectations. There have never been universal gender expectations - dominant ideas of femininity have always been specifically racialised, specific to one's class, etc. The 'traditional' dominant expectations for working class white women have not funnily enough been success in marriage, family and career. The dominant traditional expectations of black women in white supremacist countries have been to be financially vulnerable to and sexually available to white men. In fact for both of these groups of women, success in marriage family career has at times led to social castigation, not approval, as that success has been counter to hegemonic gendered expectations of them.

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About the author

Diane Shipley

Diane Shipley is a freelance journalist who has contributed to The Guardian, The LA Times, Mental Health Today and more

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