Five Ways “Obvious Child” Rewrites Hollywood's Backward Stance on Abortion

Jenny Slate stands on a stage, holding a microphone looking down

If you’ve already seen the new, Sundance-anointed comedy Obvious Child, you’ll likely agree that it’s the romantic comedy many feminists have long waited for—talky, sweet, and fearless; entirely relatable; offering humanity and fart jokes with equal aplomb. The film centers on the dating trials and travails of Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate), a Jewish Brooklynite and stand-up comedian. There’s no reason to think of it—as many of us do with rom-coms—as a “guilty pleasure.” It’s just a pleasure, full stop, and one that has the potential to finally clue Hollywood in to what female moviegoers want to see onscreen. Here are five ways Hollywood can take a clue from the film and stop dodging what, for many women, is simply one of the occasionally necessary parts of women’s lives.

1. Accept that women are more than ready to see a regular, mistake-making woman as a main character.
The topic of why women and not men shoulder the burden of creating “likable” characters has been a hot one in the past few years, and Obvious Child is a great example of how rewarding it is to put a relatable character front and center. Had Obvious Child been a big Hollywood production rather than a scrappy, low-budget film that started out as a celebrated short, it would likely have gotten lots of notes from producers about upping Donna’s likeability. Why’s she so whiny? Why isn’t her hair, you know, styled? Does she have to talk about farting so much? Inevitably, star Jenny Slate would have been relegated to Gaby Hoffmann’s best-friend role, and Natalie Portman would have replaced her as Donna. (Hey, at least she’s Jewish.) As the creation of three women (director Gillian Robespierre and co-writers Anna Bean and Karen Maine), Donna is imperfect, needy, self-absorbed, and she’s a compelling character because of—not in spite of—that fact.

2. Realize that becoming pregnant does not magically make women ready to be mothers.
The bane of feminist pro-choice moviegoers has long been the idea that pregnancy is a switch that causes otherwise sturdy-minded women to not only reject abortion as a choice, but to not even consider it as one. This is especially true in comedies: From Parenthood and Look Who’s Talking to Father of the Bride 2  and Nine Months, abortion is either not considered at all, or mentioned and dispensed with in the space of one or two lines of dialogue—the message is that once women even flirt with the idea of being mothers, they can’t turn away from that instinctual pull.

Knocked Up and This is 40, two Judd Apatow movies in which the main characters find themselves unintentionally pregnant, are instructive. The women’s  circumstances are quite different—one’s a single striver who’s just scored her dream job, one’s a mother of two in a struggling marriage—but neither entertains the idea of anything but carrying to term. (They’re sisters, so maybe there’s a family thing happening?) But despite a wealth of negative circumstances, both are suddenly, uncannily sure that a baby will make everything okay.

Both Knocked Up and This is 40 were released in the past decade—as were Juno, Waitress, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and MTV’s Teen Mom juggernaut—as opposed to, say, during the era of the Hays Code, which decreed in 1956 abortion “shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned.” These current films’ refusal to fully engage seriously with abortion as an option simply defies logic in a time when abortion isn’t some whispered-about mystery but a procedure that millions of women undergo each year. When critic Katha Pollitt recently baited Apatow on Twitter, his response was suitably defensive.

twitter exchange between Katha Pollitt and Judd Apatow
3. Don’t bother validating the protestors—at the clinic, or at the theater. 
Among the most gratifying things about Obvious Child is that it’s largely been received by critics with a hearty round of applause rather than the hand-wringing that one might expect when the film in question revolves around a controversial act. From mainstream sources like Time and MSNBC to reproductive-justice organizations like RH Reality Check, the critical reception has been uniformly positive—not just of the story itself, but of its success in balancing the serious and the irreverent. One of the few negative reviews in wide circulation, from The Daily Caller, is ridiculously overblown, with the author referring to Donna’s charming, puppeteer father as her “presumed father” and later citing another news outlet’s straightforward reporting of film dialogue as an “unmasking”—which, if nothing else, confirms that the Caller reporter didn’t bother to see the film at all.

Director Robespierre told Amy Goodman in an interview earlier this year that she made a deliberate choice not to show protestors at the clinic where Donna gets her procedure, in part to further the idea that not every abortion is something that involves  frenzied soul-searching and self-flagellation—or, for that matter, a pride in exercising a choice that women haven’t always had. Sometimes an abortion is just an abortion, in other words, and there’s no need to pump up the egos of clinic protestors by including them in the narrative. And, indeed, it’s worth arguing that this may be true when it comes to protests of the movie itself—at press time, there haven’t been any.
4. Be real about what abortion looks like.
Nobody has ever argued that abortion is a trip to the beach, but it doesn’t have to be a house of horrors, either, and movies take on responsibility when portraying it, from the clinic atmosphere to the staffing to the procedure itself. As RH Reality Check noted in 2007, Juno’s portrayal of a rinky-dink clinic staffed by a dopey, oversharing goth teenager and given the name “Women’s Choice” may have been intended to be edgy (after all, its portrayal of the lone protestor is just as exaggerated), but sent a message that many people reasonably interpreted as strongly anti-choice. (Contrast this with the the 1992 indie Just Another Girl on the IRT, in which high-schooler Chantel also gets pregnant and decides against an abortion; the film embraces scenes of education, rather than making them objects of ridicule.)

Though abortions had a brief era of acceptance in pop culture—recall the no-big-deal procedures portrayed or referred to in The Godfather Part II, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin, and Degrassi High, among others—a belated hangover from the Hays Code is that abortions in film and TV are overwhelmingly portrayed as negative experiences. If you don’t die in a fiery car crash post-procedure (Jack & Bobby), you can be sure you’ll be dogged by depression and infertility (Days of Our Lives)—both of which dovetail nicely with antichoice finger-wagging about post-abortion depression and moral punishment. Indeed, the ongoing study “Abortion Onscreen” recently confirmed what many of us have long suspected—that pop culture’s portrayals of abortion, positive and negative, have actual effects on how women approach (or avoid) the procedure.

For the clinic scenes in Obvious Child, Robespierre secured the tacit endorsement of Planned Parenthood and worked with PP consultants to portray an environment that puts the lie to anti-choice scenarios of knife-wielding doctors thirsty for babies and cash. “We wanted to make sure it was an authentic experience for movie-goers and we wanted to make sure all the lines were correct in the health center,” she noted at a recent screening and Q&A. The neutral environs are crucial to the story, and to the honest characterization of Donna. She’ll still be the same person she was after the abortion; in other words, she’ll still be kind of a mess. But it won’t be because she made the choice to terminate her pregnancy.

5. Recognize that there’s more then one kind of abortion patient
The Guttmacher institute calculates that three in 10 women will have an abortion by age 45. That’s a lot of ladies, so it’s worth thinking about why the stories we see are most often those of one particular patient—namely, the unmarried, white, educated adolescent or postadolescent with no previous children, who wants kids “someday,” just not right now. For a long time this was indeed the typical profile, but today, according to Guttmacher, things look very different. In 1974, women under 20 accounted for a third of all abortions performed; these days, they account for 18 percent. And though, as the American Prospect notes, the race of patients wasn’t tracked until the 1980s, today the “typical” abortion patient is an economically disadvantaged “twentysomething single mother of color” for whom an abortion can make the difference between living in poverty and not.

Considering that such a woman is rarely represented in movies and TV at all, centering an abortion narrative around her seems like an unfathomable reach. But there are other ways to change the narrative—and in the process create more movies that, like Obvious Child, explore a common-yet-stigmatized experience and, unlike it, add more layers to the circumstances around it. The fact that the film has been embraced with such open arms is a triumph. But here’s hoping that, as the subject begins to shed its cinematic stigma, there will be even more to embrace.

Related Reading: The Radical Working-Class Roots of Improv Comedy.

Andi Zeisler is Bitch’s editorial and creative director. 

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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