"Humanizing What Choice Looks Like"
Among the weapons used to attack women’s reproductive freedom, the stigmatizing of abortion and shaming of women who make that choice are among the more relentless and insidious. This summer’s unique romantic comedy Obvious Child offers a refreshing counterpoint to these tactics, embracing one woman’s abortion experience without apology but with plenty of hilarity.
Obvious Child, writer/director Gillian Robespierre and producer Elizabeth Holm’s humorous glimpse into the life of Brooklyn-based comic Donna Stern (played brilliantly by comedian Jenny Slate), is a romantic comedy with an unlikely premise—the romantic lead gets an abortion. The story centers on Donna, who within the first 30 minutes is dumped by her boyfriend, loses her job, and becomes pregnant after a rollicking one-night stand. The icing on the rom-com cake is that she has no choice but to schedule her abortion on Valentine’s Day. But rather than make a film about an unwanted pregnancy, the filmmakers created a story about a woman who decides to have an abortion in the midst of finding herself and a new romance.
“This was something very relatable because millions of women face unplanned pregnancies each year,” says Robespierre. “We felt that the ‘safe, judgment-free abortion’ was missing from mainstream movie making.” Both filmmakers saw the romantic comedy as a natural fit to tell Donna’s story. Indeed, within this framework, Donna’s identity as an unabashedly honest comedian works perfectly and gets plenty of laughs. Her stand-up sets are featured throughout the film and include uproarious reflections on growing into womanhood, feminine discharge, and farting, among other confessional humor.
Obvious Child not only puts a personal story up against national politics, but it also contributes a new narrative to the annals of abortions depicted on screen. It may well be the first feature-length film “that finds comedy in the circumstances of the unplanned pregnancy and the decision to have the abortion,” according to Gretchen Sisson, coauthor of a recent UC San Francisco study on portrayals of abortion in film and television. Sisson is part of the UCSF-based research group and think tank Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, which catalogued all U.S. representations of abortion on television and in film from the earliest, in 1916, through January 2013. The study unearthed just 385 abortion scenarios in nearly 100 years of the moving image. Although 385 is a relatively low number, Sisson contends, “There’s this myth out there that [these scenarios] are entirely absent [from film and television], and that’s just not true.”
Sisson’s study also found that abortion is shown in movies and TV as far more dangerous and complicated than it actually is in real life. According to the study, these depictions “influence public perception of abortion care and may play a role in the production of social myths around abortion.” And that’s exactly why a film like this can be so impactful: when women’s lived experiences of abortion are shown, it takes away the power of these myths and reduces the stigma. In Obvious Child, Planned Parenthood is the provider that Donna chooses for her abortion. The film follows her through what is shown as a normal, manageable, uncomplicated medical procedure that plenty of women are undergoing.
Planned Parenthood was an advocate of the production early on. They provided access to a New Rochelle, New York office for pivotal scenes, consulted on the script for accuracy, and co-hosted a Washington, D.C. screening in June. NARAL also lent its support by co-hosting a screening in New York City around the same time. Samantha Gordon, NARAL director of public affairs, considers current attacks on choice “a wake-up call” and embraces the film as a means to destigmatize abortion. Gordon says, “I really appreciate seeing such fantastic young women bring this [issue] to the big screen so that more women and men can see what choice looks like.” In the current climate—with access to abortion services diminishing rapidly in many places, buffer zone laws struck down, clinics closing because of bogus regulatory requirements, providers continuing to be threatened, and myths proliferating about the safety of abortion—a film like Obvious Child can make a significant impression. As Gordon says, “One in three women will face this decision; it happens and it’s okay. If anything, that’s what I want people to walk away with.”
Another subversive dimension of Obvious Child is its deft inclusion of other women’s abortion stories—in different circumstances from Donna’s but still with no regrets. Donna and her fiercely feminist roommate/best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), share profoundly intimate moments as Nellie nurtures Donna through the succession of challenges she faces. In a funny and eloquent dinner scene, Nellie shares the story of her own unwanted pregnancy without shame or regret. Later, we witness an intimate scene between Donna and her powerful psychologist mother, Nancy Stern (Polly Draper). Assuaging Donna’s fears around disclosing to her mother, Nancy shares that she had a pre-Roe v. Wade illegal abortion. Robespierre says, “There’s no one story to [abortion] or one emotion that you can have…we’re just trying to humanize what choice looks like, and it looks different for different people.” Holm continues, “We wanted women in the film to talk about their experiences the way we do with friends and moms. Hopefully we achieved that.”
Obvious Child has been a winner among critics from Variety to Bitch Magazine to The New York Times. Robespierre and Holm have made a touching film about a woman’s right to choose within a contentious national atmosphere. Its success has already garnered them a second movie deal. This time they will tackle a comedy about divorce that will also star Jenny Slate. In describing their new project, Holm quips, “We only do comedies about the fun stuff.”
This week on WMC Live with Robin Morgan:
Robin on the NBA and racism. Exclusive, controversial conversation with President Jimmy Carter—her first male guest—on prostitution. Brittney Cooper on the Crunk Collective and black feminism; Angela Bonavoglia on the Pope’s “cosmetic Catholicism.”