Comedian and former “SNL” cast member Jenny Slate stars in “Obvious Child” as a woman who has an abortion after getting pregnant accidentally. The movie, which just premiered at Sundance Film Festival, takes a departure from the usual cinematic story line that includes abortion. It subverts the trope that the procedure is tragic, something to be ashamed of or painful, and does something we rarely see on screen: makes it OK.
Director and screenwriter Gillian Robespierre wanted to tell a story about unplanned pregnancy differently from movies such as “Juno” or “Knocked Up,” in which unplanned pregnancies end up being carried to term. Robespierre told Salon she “wanted to write a story about how abortion doesn’t have to change a woman’s life forever.”
The film started as a short, and after seeing success at film festivals and online, Robespierre took to Kickstarter to raise the funds needed to make it into a feature-length movie. “We were frustrated by the limited representations of young women’s experience with pregnancy, let alone growing up. We were waiting to see a more honest film, or at least, a story that was closer to many of the stories we knew,” the Kickstarter page explains.
Slate’s character struggles with how to tell the nice guy who got her pregnant about her plans to get an abortion. She decides that it is what’s best for her. And though she isn’t thrilled at the prospect of getting one, it doesn’t ruin her life. She is able, like many women who have an abortion, to walk away unscarred.
Right now, abortion access is at a crisis point, in reality and on screen.
Wednesday marks the 41st anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and every year the landmark case feels a little more threatened. More laws were enacted to restrict abortion access in 2011-13 than in the entire previous decade. And currently, the Supreme Court is considering a case about the constitutionality of “buffer zones” at abortion clinic entrances that create space between protesters and clinic patients in Massachusetts.
The battles for reproductive health and abortion access are waged on many fronts, from policy to pop culture. Unfortunately, anti-choice activists have dominated the narrative about abortion, making people think that the choice is always fraught with pain. This notion, which for many is untrue, damns women who have an abortion into shameful silence. Taking down this overwhelmingly persistent narrative, by including stories like the one told in “Obvious Child,” can help change the way the public thinks about the procedure. And perhaps it may even help us broaden abortion access.
On-screen depictions of abortion have been overwhelmingly negative. A recent study in the reproductive health journal Contraception analyzes how abortion is portrayed in American movies and television in 310 plot lines, and the results are stark. The study shows that while abortion has grown more common in plot lines, characters who have or consider an abortion are more likely to be killed off either from an abortion or by other means. Questions of safety as they are presented on screen create a false sense of danger around the procedure. In reality, a report published last year shows that legal abortion is actually safer than giving birth, and that the actual risk of death is less than 1 in 100,000 procedures.
This is not to underplay the very personal, complicated and sometimes difficult inner dialogs women have when deciding to have an abortion versus carry to term and keep the baby or give it up. However, for many women the decision to have an abortion is not as complicated or tragic as popular narratives would have us believe, so why not diversify the range of depictions to include all experiences?
What if a woman who chooses to have an abortion does so and then moves on with her life unscarred? We need to rethink how movies and television portray a procedure that touches many women’s lives, and what impact those portrayals have. One of the ways we can do it is by being honest about how complex having an abortion can be for an individual — and that it’s not all bad. Telling stories of all kinds can be a powerful political act, especially when it comes to something as politically charged as abortion. A story like the one told in “Obvious Child” is a step in the right direction.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.Copyright © 2015, RedEye