Reclaiming Femininity in 'Waitress'
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Since I first began experiencing depression as a preteen, I’ve dreadfully anticipated the annual slump I experience during the first few months of every year. These slumps have ranged in severity, from a significant darkening of my thoughts due to the weather to terrifying intrusive thoughts, suicidal ideation, and disordered eating. Halfway through February of this year, in the thick of my worst beginning-of-the-year-slump to date, I watched Adrienne Shelley’s 2007 indie hit, Waitress, for the first time.
Waitress was a film I had spent the last several years hesitating to watch. It follows the life of Jenna Hunterson, a small-town girl caught in an abusive relationship who yearns for the freedom to practice her craft in peace. Jenna’s plan to escape is foiled, and she’s forced to fall back on her plan B. I held out on watching it for so long because I knew it was a kind, loving film and that there would be a time when I would need it more. That time came in early 2021, during a period of unbelievably grueling and intense mental health problems. At that time, I couldn’t imagine the pain growing much worse. The unprecedented level of hurt I was experiencing grew for many months. During that period, there was very little that could (even briefly) lift the weight off my chest. When every part of me felt frigid, an exception I found was the time I spent thinking about the warmth of Waitress.
In retrospect, it’s quite clear why the film became a personal anchor for me. Although Waitress is fictional, it’s a testament to the spirit of patience, respect, and generosity that Shelley and her collaborators were so committed to communicating. The world can’t be so bad if people dedicate themselves to stories this warmhearted, can it? It’s a film to bask in, and bask in it I did.
Perhaps most importantly, I found a slice of personal liberation in Waitress. I was given a vocabulary to discuss an element of womanhood I found so frustrating. Keri Russell’s Jenna Hunterson was a character I could point to while explaining my own relationship with performing certain aspects of traditional femininity.
When we first meet Jenna, she’s practicing her craft: pie-making. Jenna engaging in her passion is framed as a transcendent experience. A dreamy, simple tune plays over impeccably framed shots of pies in various states of preparation. Jenna’s time spent baking provides her with a heavenly level of contentment. What makes Jenna’s hobby so magical is that she does it for herself and absolutely no one else. She doesn’t make pies for the men in her life. Jenna tells stories and expresses pent-up emotions with the food she makes.
As a woman (specifically a young one), it’s nearly impossible to practice what most would consider to be traditional femininity without others assuming it’s for men. This is a struggle I’ve run into as I’ve grown to love makeup artistry. For me, doing my makeup has become a way to worship a face I’ve loathed since I could make it out. My hot pink eyeshadow and sparkly lips are for me. It’s a personal cathartic process for me. Similar to Jenna’s piemaking, I utilize the process of doing my makeup to express my emotions and personality. It is for no one but me. My makeup time is a rare part of my daily routine that is reserved for myself solely.
Another moment of the film I found myself mentally falling back on when things got tough in my life was Jenna’s ultimate act of self-emancipation. The final act of Waitress follows Jenna as she goes into labor, has a baby, and finds personal success in her pie-making. The film ends in triumph for its main character, but before her personal victory, she must vocalize her true desires in order to be free of the oppressive environment she’s spent so long trapped by. After a magical moment with her newborn baby that’s portrayed similarly to her dream-like pie-making, Jenna plainly states that she doesn’t love her husband and wants a divorce.
That scene is particularly gratifying for the viewer, as we’ve witnessed all the pain and trauma Jenna has experienced at the hands of her husband. The scene is more than simply gratifying, it’s liberation itself. Before Jenna even names her new baby, she takes a hold of her future. For the first time in years, she’s in ownership of her own life and decisions. Such a memorable scene left an impact on me. Because of this simple declaration of want, I felt empowered to take charge of my own life. I rarely ask for what I want or need, but witnessing a woman, even fictional, making such a powerful life decision all on her own has given me the confidence to strive for the life I want for myself, no matter how difficult it may seem.
Prior to seeing Waitress, I had never seen this aspect of womanhood portrayed in any piece of media: women owning their feminism. Feeling so uniquely understood by a dear piece of media provides a great sense of relief. My connection with Waitress has helped me to feel not only seen but comforted in times when I needed it desperately.