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No matter what they say, everyone — yes, everyone — enjoys the love story, breakup, happy ending story arc. But what if part of that story line included an abortion? Would you still be allowed to have that warm and fuzzy feeling? Gillian Robespierre's debut romcom Obvious Child says yes.
Obvious Child stars Jenny Slate as Donna, a 20-something aspiring comedian whose lovable, self-deprecating humor makes her the girl you want to befriend, cheer on and date. She loses the guy, has a one-night stand, gets pregnant, has an abortion, then gets the (new, better, adorable) guy, Max, played by Jake Lacy. One reviewer said, "It's a small, modest film that doesn't act like it's groundbreaking. But it is."
The good old days
The groundbreaking part is that Obvious Child portrays abortion as one life event of many, not the crushing, life-defining moment that it's traditionally shown to be in movies. Dirty Dancing's Penny, Sex and the City's Miranda and Juno's namesake have all followed Hollywood's spoken decree of two choices when it comes to abortion: either a complete 180 where the woman changes her mind about having an abortion or, if it is portrayed, it's going to be big, bad and ugly.
Following the (set-in-stone) rules
In an article in Slate magazine, Amanda Hess explained that until 1968, movies followed The Motion Picture Production Code, a set of industry moral censorship guidelines that spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for movies produced in the U.S. She says, "In 1956, the code decreed that 'the subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned' in films. 'It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed. The word 'abortion' shall not be used.'"
These rules were abandoned in 1968 in favor of the film rating system we're more used to today, indicating that we're not all the same and the one-size-fits-all code is outdated and unnecessary. But Hollywood has kept in line with traditional abortion rules: If it's in the movie, it's an insta-drama, meant to leave you tearfully sad, not warmly smiling.
Stepping into this century
Obvious Child is rated R, but it's definitely a romantic comedy — tissues not necessarily required. And some viewers say it's about time. Sarah Buttenwieser is a Western Massachusetts writer, columnist, published essayist and a mother of four kids who are simultaneously in the toddler to teen years. Buttenwieser is one of those viewers. She says, "Abortion is so much more common than the media has made it out to be — and more common amongst us than we think, because we don't talk about it."
The beauty of Obvious Child is that it does talk about abortion, and it does so unapologetically. Buttenwieser explains, "To have a baby is such a big deal that any time a woman becomes pregnant she's faced with a big decision, because to let the pregnancy continue results in a big deal, as a tiny person is a big deal. To me, that means to terminate a pregnancy can feel like a big deal, or not — depending. You may feel, as it sounds is the case in this film, that 'Wow, that's not how I'd like to become a mom, given that I only met this person once.' And to that — or any other 'no' when it comes to pregnancy — I say, absolutely your choice."
One choice of many
What happens when Hollywood assumes that everyone's choice making process is exactly the same, is that this myth gets perpetuated and many stories get left untold. Most viewers agree with Buttenwieser, breathing that "it's about time" sigh of relief when seeing that in Obvious Child abortion is portrayed as exactly what it is for many women: a choice. A hard choice, but still, a choice.
Veronica I. Arreola, professional feminist, writer, mom and the voice behind Viva la Feminista, explains, "I really loved this movie. Donna's pregnancy crisis and decision to have an abortion is only part of what propels the story along. Her conflict over falling in love with "a good guy" is, too. This film shows that the decision to have an abortion is not frivolous in the manner that anti-choice forces would want the rest of the world to believe. Rather women choose abortion as their best option and some struggle with the ramifications (Donna's relationship with her mother, whether to tell Max). But in the end, it is their decision."
Anti-choice = anti-Obvious Child
In the movie trailer, there are three phrases describing Obvious Child: A movie about the chances we take. The choices we make. And Uproariously and refreshingly funny. These words strung together are (predictably) rubbing pro-life viewers the wrong way. Writer and mother of two, Rebecca Bahret, says, "Overall, as a champion of individual rights, I absolutely applaud this filmmaker's right to make the film she chose, telling the story she chose. But as a champion of the rights of the unborn, I'm appalled by the very premise of this movie as a romantic comedy." Her opinion is unsurprising and shared by other anti-choice viewers, so the tone of the movie is, clearly, not for everyone.
But the important part to note is that life is a series of choices and it's nice to see Hollywood embracing an updated code of portraying real life unfolding in unpredictable ways and letting viewers decide for themselves whether or not they agree with the character's moves. We can forgive the movie morality code from the first half of the 1900s, because it was a sign of the times. But that doesn't mean we should still be following it a century later. Just like we've let go of rotary phones and corset-requiring dresses, it might be time to let go of the assumption that there's only one choice in every situation, or that anyone can decide how others are supposed to feel — in life or about a movie. As Buttenwieser says, "Can abortion be featured in a comedy? Hell, yes."
Unapologetically a rom-com and about abortion
Obvious Child was purposefully written as a rom-com because writer and director Robespierre loves the genre. The abortion twist was also purposeful, because she wanted the story line to ring true to real choices that real women make every day. Slate is quoted saying, "I like our movie because I think that it's satisfying in the way that traditional rom-coms are satisfying, but that its storyline is just more modern and less squeaky clean... But it's not trying to be shocking." And that's what I love about Obvious Child. It tells a real story without apologizing for it.
Share with us!^ What do you think about abortion as a plot in a romantic comedy? Can we do that? Would you watch it?