by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D
Published at ToTheSource.org January 28, 2009.
Let us state it at once: Revolutionary Road is a bad movie, despite the awards it garnered from its Hollywood peers. The story is Hollywood’s fantasy of the stultifying life in the 1950′s suburbs. Unbelievable storyline, unsympathetic characters, and a socially irresponsible message: evidently these are the requirements for Hollywood awards.
The storyline: April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are living meaningless, hopeless lives in the suburbs. He goes to a pointless job he hates. She raises two children whom we don’t see enough of to care about. She proposes that they sell their house and move to Paris. She will support the family by working in a government secretarial pool and he will do something meaningful and find himself. He agrees. Then he gets a promotion he wants and she gets pregnant. He backs out of the plan to go to Europe. She gives herself an abortion and dies. Why? Don’t ask me. There is no particular reason for any of these characters to do any of the things they do.
The characters are not only unbelievable, but completely unsympathetic. Leonardo DiCaprio has an affair with a brainless girl in the secretarial pool. Kate Winslet has sex in the car with a neighbor. When the main characters quarrel, we can’t figure out whom to root for: they are both self-absorbed and narcissistic. Throughout, the one and only consistent motivation for these characters is their desire to feel “special” and that they are somehow not like everyone else.
We are supposed to believe that abortion should be legal so that women like April are not so desperate that they kill themselves through self-induced abortion. The scene in which she plans her abortion is so overwrought, I couldn’t bring myself to care about her. I considered abandoning my disapproval of euthanasia: please, put this character out of her misery so we can end this movie.
But what makes this movie so bad is not just the hackneyed storyline, but the socially irresponsible message the movie conveys. I am talking about the thinly veiled hostility to children, combined with the nauseating narcissism of the adults. In an era of demographic decline, the message that children are the problem and abortion is the solution is grotesque. And the story itself doesn’t even accurately portray what it seems to portray.
There are no real children in this movie, even though the protagonists have children. The children are mere props in the story. There are no bicycles in the driveway, no swing sets in the backyard, no screen doors slamming, no children careening through the house with a half dozen other kids from the neighborhood.
The aborted child bears the full weight of the adults’ disappointments. April blames the child for her frustration that the family is not moving to Paris after all. But the child is not really to blame: Frank would have refused to go to Europe even if his wife weren’t pregnant. The abortion solves none of her problems. She still is living with a husband she doesn’t like very much. Her husband wants his promotion. She is still living in the suburbs. And above all, she is still normal. There is nothing special about her.
In the meantime, society has moved on since the Dreaded Fifties. Hollywood may not have noticed, but the birth rate among college educated white women, like the characters in Revolutionary Road, is down around 1.7 babies per woman. The modern problem is not too many children, but too few. The modern problem is not that society forces women to stay home in the suburbs to raise children, but that society makes it almost impossible for them to do so. Between financial pressures, career goals, social attitudes and government policy, many women have fewer children than they want, and spend less time at home with them than they want.
In contrast to this glitzy Hollywood production, Demographic Winter is an independently produced film describing the consequences of the population collapse of industrialized countries. The film argues that falling population will mean a diminished quality of life for the aging generation and for future generations. For instance, pensions, both private and public, have to be paid for. When the retired population is too high relative to the working population, paying the promised pensions becomes an enormous burden. Either the young pay crushing taxes, or the elderly will not get what they expected, or both.
Consumer spending keeps the economy humming and the stock market climbing. When population shrinks, the demand for goods and services of all kinds shrinks. I have been thinking about demographic decline while I drive through my San Diego neighborhood. Out of forty-two homes, we have four foreclosures. Yes, the housing prices ballooned up and people took on mortgages they couldn’t pay. But there is more to the story than the credit crunch: there simply are not enough people at the right age, with enough income, to afford these houses. Because the Baby Boomers didn’t replace themselves, there are not enough people to buy their homes. Falling demand translates into falling home prices.
The Chattering Classes can not bring themselves to take the Demographic Winter thesis seriously. The Left dismisses it as a hysterical racist rant. The Libertarian Right wants to talk about how the modern world has given men and women more choices, which is a good thing. And Hollywood keeps dishing up a very thin fantasy of Life in the Fifties, dreamed up out of a screen writer’s hallucinations of Betty Friedan’s version of hell.
Yet demography really will be destiny. We are placing our children in a bind, from which they may not be able to extricate themselves.