What we talk about when we talk about abortion

The other night I finally had the chance to catch Obvious Child, the new film starring Jenny Slate. It's been a while since I've seen a movie in the theater but I wanted to make sure I saw this one on the big screen--not for aesthetic reasons but for political ones. I want my money to register as part of its box office take.

Obvious Child is the story of Donna, a young, struggling stand-up comedian who after getting dumped by her boyfriend has a bit of a meltdown that results in a drunken hot mess of a stand-up set followed by a drunken hot mess of a hook-up with a guy who happens to be at the club that night (but, perhaps thankfully, didn't catch her shitstorm set).

What happens next is both routine (routine, that is,  if you're a 20 or 30something female) and surprising. A few weeks later she finds out she's pregnant. Donna is shocked, horrified even, but even as she leans on her best friend for support, she's also remarkably calm about what will happen next: She'll get an abortion.

And that's when hook-up guy re-enters the picture. I'll stop my plot synopsis here. What takes place during the next 100 or so minutes of the film unfolds like some of my favorite films of late--specifically Young Adult and Frances Ha--with enough messy mistakes to make me feel as though the screenwriters had taken a page from my own life.

Which brings me back to the topic at hand: Abortion.

At its heart, Obvious Child is a modern romantic comedy, a coming of age story ripe with bodily fluid/bodily function jokes and the realization that growing up is really goddamned difficult.

But of course the reason this film, which stars two relatively not-very-famous actors, has received widespread attention because of this particular plot line. And even though it's not this film's end-all, be-all reason for being (really, it isn't), I'm glad it comprises such a prominent part of the storyline because it does so in a way that doesn't sensationalize or stigmatize it.

Rather, it just is.

Here, this act is simply part of a young woman's life--her experience--and watching the film, it's very clear that it's an act that will neither define her nor drastically change her. That's not to say that she's not extremely affected by it--she is--but it's hardly going to ruin her.

It's about time a movie like this existed. Hell, it's about time the topic was broached at all. In the 70s and early 80s the entertainment industry wasn't so afraid to tackle it (see: Maude, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, et al.)

In recent years, however, abortion's become such an openly divisive topic, politically speaking, that it seems to have all but vanished from the modern pop culture canon. Even in a movie like Knocked Up, it was reduced to the comically dreadful concept of  "smashmortion".

Are we really such cowards?

Yes, apparently we are. NBC refused to air an ad for Obvious Child; the network's head Bob Greenblatt explained during a Television Critics Association Panel held this past Sunday that his network did not have an "ironclad policy" on the use of the word "abortion". Still, according to the Hollywood Reporter, he admitted that the decision came about out of a fear of controversy.

"The sales group chose the path of least resistance," Greenblatt told the group. "They chose the ad that did not have [the word abortion] in it."

In TV and film--where depictions of murder, rape, mayhem and other forms of violence and assault are rampant--the subject of abortion has become more taboo than it was three decades ago. It's more taboo than it was four decades ago.

In June, Feministing published a smart piece on the subject: "How pop culture reinforces abortion stigma--and can help end it." (The piece is part of a joint reporting project on reproductive rights in pop culture that includes work from Feministing, Bitch Media and Making Contact).

The writer, who uses the release of Obvious Child as a jumping off point ("Obvious Child" ... has been variously called “honest,” “realistic,” “unapologetic,” and “positive.” My own preferred adjective is “normal”), points out the disconnect between pop culture's depiction of abortion and reality:

The ways that pop culture has reinforced abortion stigma extend beyond just the visibility—or lack thereof—of the choice. A recent census by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco—the first comprehensive, quantitative look at abortion storylines in TV and film—tallied over 300 plot lines in which a character considered an abortion between 1916 and 2013, including 87 on primetime network television. Given how common the procedure is in real life—not to mention how frequently totally uncommon things happen in Hollywood—that’s a small number, but it’s not nothing.

Which brings us back to Maude and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In 1972, the TV character Maude (portrayed by Bea Arthur), finds herself pregnant at age 47. Abortion wasn't legal on in the U.S. as a whole in 1972 but it was legal in New York (in 1973 Roe v. Wade struck down all remaining state laws banning abortion) and eventually Maude decided with her partner to terminate the pregnancy.

Ten years later the film Fast Times at Ridgement High depicted a 15-year-old character, Stacy, (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who decides to get an abortion after having sex with an older man.

Both of these are examples of pop culture representations that do not shame, stigmatize or even make a victim of the women who makes the decision. Sure, Stacy doesn't want to tell her parents--which in and of itself suggests a personal stigmatization. Or not. It also suggests being 15 and trying to find your way in the world even as you clash with your parents (who alternately can be your closest allies and worst enemies).

Abortion is something that make for such a range of emotions--I know, because I've had one. And it's something I didn't want to talk about or admit for a long, long time. Not so much because I was ashamed. And not necessarily because I worried about the shame or stigma it might invite (although, certainly knowing how devisive of a topic it is, that was part of it). No, largely it was because that range of emotions is so complex. It's intense. It's extremely personal. You don't necessarily want to invite people to prod and probe at your body and your decisions and personal reasonings.

In recent years however as certain states have worked very, very hard to strip women of their basic reproductive rights, I've realized how important it is for me to step outside of my personal comfort zone of information and speak up.

Women get abortions--it's a fundamental necessity. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control reported 784,507 abortions (the last year for which numbers are available). In contrast, I've seen many conflicting numbers on closures, but one number shows that between 2010-2013, it's been reported that 52 abortion clinics shut down across the United States, largely in Southern states.

Clearly, now is the time to talk about abortion. It is time to talk about it in candid terms that are inclusive of women in all states and across all ethnicities and economic groups (Obvious Child addresses the latter--Donna initially doesn't have the $500 to pay for the procedure).

Clearly now is the time to continue talking about reproductive rights, and loudly. After all, the Supreme Court recently ruled that "closely held" companies such as Hobby Lobby have the right to decline coverage for birth control rights if it conflicts with the company's collective (and, I guess, closely held) religious beliefs.

Obvious Child isn't a perfect film (I wish it had been longer and thus developed a few of the storylines more concretely) but it's perfect for these times and this conversation: It's a pro-choice, feminist film that includes abortion as part of its storyline in a smart, clear-eyed, non-hysterical manner.

Pop culture could use more such representation.


Thank you for this eloquent post. I completely agree with the need to discuss reproductive choices and have them represented *without* stigma or judgment.

Thank you Rachel for being so bold and spreading the word about a film, and a topic that for many reasons is taboo in a society when almost nothing is off the table. Maybe it is the very personal nature of the looming decision, the pros and cons and lifelong impacts, the religion(s) (if you believe, or practice one), the family and friend support or lack thereof, the possible career implications, and/or the politics? It is very interesting that the topic of abortion is where it is.

Thank you for such a thoughtful write-up!
Reproductive rights are so very basic and they are so very threatened right now!

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