Baby Boom: The Epitome of the 80s Working Woman

Nancy Meyers’ fourth film, Baby Boom, released in 1987, epitomized one of the pinnacles of “the businesswoman” struggling to balance her working life with her personal life. Although at the outset, J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is a career-oriented person referred to (more than somewhat sexistly) as the Tiger Lady, and would never dream of destroying her foothold in Sloane & Curtis Co. Management Consultants, her world is turned on its ear by the handing off of a baby named Elizabeth, an inheritance she received from her cousin, who got in a fatal accident with his wife.

Because she is informed of her inheritance via an overseas phone call from England, she is unaware that when she goes to the airport it is a baby she is collecting. Flummoxed by the tailspin Elizabeth is throwing her life into, she takes the baby to her lunch meeting with an important client, Hughes Larrabee (Pat Hingle), the head of The Food Chain, a major account her company wants to poach. Throughout the entire lunch, Elizabeth can be heard crying while in the care of the coat check girl, who J.C. bribes to watch over her by offering, “I’ll give you my Visa.” When the girl can’t take it anymore, she brings Elizabeth over in front of Hughes and says, “Your baby just barfed all over my boss.” With that, she places Elizabeth in J.C.’s arms, forcing her to go on with her sales pitch to Hughes, and, surprisingly, ends up landing the account.

Next on J.C.’s list of people to contend with over Elizabeth’s sudden presence in her life is Steven (Harold Ramis), her live-in boyfriend. Although they are largely together out of convenience, being that they’re both married to their jobs–but occasionally need someone to have sex with–J.C. is still concerned over his reaction to what he calls her “biological clock ticking.” When Steven reads over the fine print of her “inheritance,” he relieves her by letting her know that there’s an out clause that would allow her to give the baby to adoptive parents should she find herself unable to take on the responsibility. Eager to get rid of Elizabeth so she can move on with her career and secure her position as a partner at the company, she heads to the adoption agency right away. When the adoption agent gets back to her with the parents she has in mind to take Elizabeth off her hands, J.C. can’t bear the idea of letting her go to “a woman who calls her husband ‘sir.'”

Assertively retaking hold of Elizabeth back on the streets of New York, she says, “Just don’t expect too much, okay?” Now determined to prove she can wear her pant suits and avoid baby vomit on them too, J.C. risks her reputation by bringing Elizabeth to the office while meeting with both the partners in the company, Everett Sloane (George Petrie) and Fritz Curtis (Sam Wanamaker). Neither are amused by Elizabeth’s cameo, putting none too fine a point on the issues working women of the 1980s were forced to contend with: while their male co-workers and superiors wanted them to stifle that part of themselves innately connected to motherhood, they also didn’t like it if they showed too much toughness–presenting the ultimate paradox in how a woman should comport herself in the workplace.

Regardless of J.C.’s knowledgeability of the account, Fritz isn’t convinced she can “have it all” and give the focus required to handle being a partner or a client as big as the The Food Chain. Thus, he passes it off to her underling, Ken Arrenberg (James Spader, in one of his many quintessential 80s sleazoid roles). With her pride wounded by this underhanded blow, she chooses to leave the company rather than go back to handling small potatoes like the Ferber Dog Chow account.

It is this rock and hard place that so many business-minded women of the decade were forced into, told they had to be one thing or the other: a career junkie or a mother. Never were they allowed the balance. In many ways, Baby Boom was a stepping stone toward women getting the personal and professional harmony they needed. When J.C. delivers her moving speech at the end, she insists, “I’m not the Tiger Lady anymore. I have a crib in my office and there’s a mobile over my desk. And I really like that. Fritz, do you remember that night when you told me about the things I was gonna have to give up and the sacrifices I would to make? I don’t wanna make those sacrifices, and the bottom line is, nobody should have to.”

It is, at least in part, because of the path J.C. Wiatt forged that women of the 90s were able to get even just a modicum more of understanding from the workplaces they made great.