Ahead of September's "I Don't Know How She Does It" -- a movie based on Allison Pearson's best-selling novel about the realities of life as a working mother, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker as the harried "She" in question -- this Sunday's New York Times Magazine ran a story about the film's screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, whose other credits include "The Devil Wears Prada," "Morning Glory," and "27 Dresses." "27 Dresses" aside, McKenna's films represent a new guard. As writer Susan Dominus puts it,
McKenna makes romantic comedies in which the romance is not so much between a woman and the perfect man but a woman and the perfect career.
... McKenna's solution to romantic-comedy fatigue is not to ironize the genre or make fun of its characters' (and therefore its audience's) quests for fulfillment, but to give them what they want: a great guy and a great job, a happy family and professional success.
... McKenna plays out, in a frothy, mass-market format, the fantasies promised by '70s feminism: that you can have a big career without sacrificing a personal life.
Which begs the question: To what extent is the idea of having it all a fantasy? And, in the same way fairy tales are demonized for conditioning little girls to expect some Prince Charming to appear and "rescue" them, can a frothy portrayal of a woman charmingly overcoming the struggles associated with having both a great job and a happy family cause us to expect that sort of juggling act to be easier than it really is? Does it prompt us to pile more onto our plates, to toss more balls into the air, to beat ourselves up more, when our job or our family isn't the stuff of a summer blockbuster and we still have trouble managing it all?
Interestingly, in the book "I Don't Know How She Does It," the protagonist ultimately gives up her high-powered job in favor of a part-time gig that allows her more time with her kids. But McKenna opted to change that:
She decides instead to test the boundaries and carve out a better personal life while keeping her full-time job. (Another fantasy: Work-life balance, with no professional cost.)
A fantasy as dreamy as any Prince Charming. On the other hand, do such tales represent a step forward? After all, an ambitious -- if naive -- journalist's attempts to succeed at "the job a million girls would kill for," or the story of the daily struggles that comprise a working woman's life -- well, they're infinitely more relatable than, say, Cinderella. Women today were raised with big dreams. Why should we -- or our big-screen counterparts -- give them up?
The thing is, though, in chasing them down, I'd venture to say most of us have found ourselves juggling. Most of us have likely found that juggle a little crazy-making, too. Most of us have probably worried that we could do better, more. Most of us have likely wondered if we're measuring up.
And most of us have likely found that there's no such thing as having it all. So maybe the happiest ending is to be found in a contented acceptance of that. Maybe the new-new happily ever after looks more like happily chucking that ideal, once and for all.
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