When we think of classic feminist stories there are a few themes that come to mind: A woman ready to kick ass- either literally or verbally through some savage takedown. Sticking it to a sexist system. Becoming an unstoppable whirlwind of determination and strength until she gets what she wants. All of these are valid narratives, yet they aren’t the only ways to tell a feminist story. A lot of the time they’re a form of wish fulfillment— like imagining yourself delivering some devastatingly harsh speech to someone who did you wrong… in the shower hours after the argument has already ended. And there’s nothing wrong with wish fulfillment! It’s a wonderful form of expression in media that allows us to convey our frustrations. But amidst all of this, sometimes there’s a yearning for something a bit more genuine- where the story works out in the end and the female protagonist overcomes her share of hardships yet is also something more grounded in reality.
With this, I personally feel that Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film Waitress should be a more widely acknowledged feminist movie in the same way that movies like Legally Blonde are praised. You might know the film’s musical adaptation of the same name (created by the wonderful Sara Bairelles), but the movie itself is its own little treasure. Told with quirky cinematography, great bits of comedy, gut-wrenching scenes, and tender moments of intimacy, Waitress is a heartfelt and memorable movie.
The film centers around Jenna (played by Keri Russel), a waitress working in a small-town diner in a small town in the South. She is trapped in a loveless marriage with her husband Earl, and as the movie opens Jenna finds out she’s pregnant. Amidst all the unhappiness in her life, her passion is pies– throughout the film, she is constantly creating new pie recipes based on the situations she finds herself in.
Deciding to keep to go through with the pregnancy, Jenna goes to her physician, only to find that her regular physician has been replaced with the young and charming Dr. Pomatter (played by Nathan Fillion). One thing leads to another and Jenna finds herself in a heated affair with him– and it’s from there that things become a recipe for confusion and passion between her affair, marriage, pregnancy and the lives of her friends.
As someone who avoids spoilers for things like the plague, I’ll try to spare spoiling the ending of this wonderful movie, but I will go into the reasons why I love this movie and how it qualifies as a good feminist flick.
1. Nobody’s Perfect
To quote Hannah Montana: Nobody’s Perfect. You may be saying “Well duh”, but often times there are certain limits to how imperfect a character is allowed to be. Jenna, while certainly a victim of abuse and a bad situation, is allowed to be imperfect. Even though her affair is emotionally fulfilling and passionate, the relationship is called out- specifically when Jenna is critical of her friend Becky’s affair. Dr. Pomatter himself is married, which further cements how this relationship isn’t like the half-cheating romances you see on Hallmark. To quote the musical, Jenna is “imperfect but she’s kind”. This imperfection is something that’s sometimes lacking with female protagonists in media in comparison to male protagonists.
And with that, Jenna’s friends Becky and Dawn really establish the theme of “nobody’s perfect” and the realism in the story. Their arcs; Becky having an affair with her manager and Dawn searching for love, don’t have neat storybook conclusions. There’s just something about that which is sad but also very real that you don’t really see that often.
2. You Don’t Have to Be Wonder Woman to Be Brave
Jenna is brave. For most of Waitress, she isn’t particularly daring or outspoken to the antagonists in her life, but she is resilient. Oftentimes we look at characters like Cinderella and then say that they aren’t good role models because, in theory, they were saved or received help from a man. Yet comments like that ignore one major thing: Victims of abuse don’t always have the luxury of being able to independently escape their situations or their abusers. There is no debate as to whether or not Jenna’s husband is abusive: he takes Jenna’s earnings, is emotionally abusive and manipulative, and acts violently. And with that, Jenna does what she can to survive in that situation, including stashing away money in hopes of escaping and starting a new life with the baby, as well as planning to enter a pie contest and winning the grand prize.
Again, not to give much away, but Jenna isn’t fully dependent on others like Dr. Pomatter or the owner of the diner. Sure, they help her in various ways, but ultimately she is the one growing as a person and gaining independence. So between that and her being able to survive an abusive situation, she is undeniably brave, even if it’s not in the way we generally see in most feminist media.
3. You Have Value As a Person
Through Jenna’s messy affair with Dr. Pomatter, begins to learn how to love herself. And with things like depression and anxiety becoming more and more common, it’s all too easy to think that you’re not important or that you don’t matter, which is what makes the message of this movie so important, especially. The writing in this movie overall is top-notch, however, this is one of the most beautiful and moving lines in the film:
“Dear Baby, I hope someday somebody wants to hold you for 20 minutes straight and that’s all they do. They don’t pull away. They don’t look at your face. They don’t try to kiss you. All they do is wrap you up in their arms and hold on tight, without an ounce of selfishness to it. “
The themes of self-worth throughout this movie alone make this a feminist movie in my eyes. There’s no need to be something or to act a certain way. Being yourself is enough. This message is especially important to women of all ages out there, especially in this world where there are old societally-engrained expectations for women mixing with new aspects of modern culture that also negatively affect the self-image of women. Waitress preaches that you should just be you. Live the life that makes you happy and that will be good enough. And hey, if that life involves making pies, that’s just another reason to check out this wonderful and underrated movie.
Consider donating to the Adrienne Shelly Foundation today. Shelly directed, wrote, and co-starred in Waitress before she was tragically killed before the film’s release. The Adrienne Shelly Foundation works to support women in filmmaking and honor Shelly’s legacy.