'Obvious Child' Is A Good Idea. Too Bad The People Who Need To See It Won't

While instances of abortion on TV and in film have nearly doubled since the early ‘90s, the depictions we do see aren't exactly positive.

If you lived through the Seventies, there's a part of you that's saying, "What, didn't we settle all this already?" ("This" being safe, legal, accessible abortion.) And you're right, we did -- until the Christian right wing took over the country and bullied the media into submission.

So it's a positive thing that "Obvious Child" got made in the first place. Huffington Post:

The acknowledgement that sh*t happens, and then you deal with it -- sometimes that sh*t being unintended pregnancy and abortion being the way a woman chooses to deal with it -- is what “Obvious Child” gets so very right. Using quippy romantic comedy conventions, like when Donna’s one-night stand (played by the adorable Jake Lacy) tracks her down at her place of work only to find her curled up in a giant box, the film strips away the stigma that surrounds terminating a pregnancy.

Donna decides very early on that she needs to get an abortion and then faces other decisions as a result: Should she tell her one-night stand about the pregnancy? Should she tell her mom? How will she pay the nearly all of her rent fee that the procedure costs? And she has a myriad of feelings about all of those decisions, despite the refreshing fact that no one in her life even attempts to dissuade her from going through with the abortion. "We didn't put that [judgey] character in there because we've seen that character, and that's not a character I wanted to put in a movie," Robespierre told the audience after a screening of the film sponsored by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Cosmopolitan.

“Obvious Child” also strives for authenticity when it comes to the details of Donna’s visit to Planned Parenthood, from the counseling session she goes through before she schedules her abortion down to what she sips in the waiting room after the procedure. She also asks her best friend (played by Gabby Hoffman), who we learn has previously had an abortion, the questions one can imagine any young woman might want to know the answers to: Does it hurt? (Not really.) How often do you think about it? (Depends.)


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“One thing I think our movie fights for, and I will fight for as a person, is that it’s a woman’s right not just to choose but to have complex feelings about that choice,” Slate told NYMag.

But perhaps the most realistic part of the movie is that Donna’s story isn’t solely defined by her unintended pregnancy and that pregnancy’s termination. She cries in bed with her best friend after she gets dumped. She grapples with the intersection of her identity and life experiences, and her work as a comic. She makes awkward comments when out on a date with a boy. She navigates the line between dependency and independence from her parents. And she also happens to be certain that this moment in her life is not the moment she should become a mother.

I have mixed feelings about the film. It's standard edgy indie fare, with cute rom-com characters. But it's the spotlight on the abortion -- the thing that's getting such attention for the film -- that depresses me. It means that media characters who make a non-agonizing choice to have an abortion, 50 years after Roe v. Wade, are so rare that we applaud them.

And that sucks.

I was talking to a friend who works in reproductive health rights, and I bemoaned the lack of positive abortion models. (We won't even get into the insane depictions of childbirth in the media.)

I said I still remember when it was a big deal that Erica Kane, the diva of "All My Children," had the first "positive" abortion on daytime TV. That groundbreaking depiction -- of someone who made the decision to have an abortion, but more importantly, didn't die or become infertile as a result -- seemed to open the floodgates. Suddenly, we saw abortion all over the place. It seemed like every other TV Movie of the Week featured a young girl struggling with an unwanted pregnancy.

And of course there was Maude's abortion. (My Catholic mother, a huge "Maude" fan, never said what she thought of it. But she didn't denounce it, either.)

From a Chicago Tribune article written in 1992:

In the rare case that abortion actually occurs, it is usually on a program without sponsorship-the 1989 TV movie ``Roe v. Wade`` reportedly cost NBC $1 million in lost advertising.

Feeling the pressure
The reasons for this are twofold: the presence of organized pressure groups threatening to boycott the products of advertisers who sponsor shows they disapprove of, and the economic concerns of the networks, threatened by competition from cable TV and home video. These factors lead many people to believe that "Maude`s Dilemma" would not make it onto today`s TV schedules. ``You automatically think, `Of course it could be done today, look what we did 20 years ago,'" said Susan Harris, who wrote the "Maude" abortion shows. ``But we have a very interesting (political) climate today, with the influence of the religious Right. The economy is different today, and the networks would feel less likely that they could take a stand.``

Parker agreed. ``There are a lot of things we did the networks would not touch now,`` he said. ``I don`t think they have the courage. They are frightened of pressure groups.``

But Lear isn`t so sure. Once the most powerful producer on TV, he remembers a time when one person could stand up to a network.

``We are still working in an industry where clout matters,`` he said.

``Could I get an abortion story on my show (``The Powers That Be``) on network? Absolutely not. Ask me that question if we become a wild `Murphy Brown` success.`

TV has power, real power, to shape the thinking and the lives of people who watch. You'd like to think it wasn't that simple -- but it is. I knew someone who was in a home for unwed mothers, and she was planning to give her baby up for adoption -- and so were most of the girls in there with her.

Until one of their favorite pregnant soap opera characters realized "I could never give away my own flesh and blood!" They all changed their minds along with her. Oy.

And then we had the movie "Knocked Up." Dear God, a high-powered TV producer doesn't even consider having abortion after a one-night stand? Really?

This, of course, comes back to misogyny and the idea that only "bad" (selfish, uncaring, unfeminine, etc.) women have abortions. So we see the same media images, over and over again.

So it's important to support films like "Obvious Child" and show that there's an audience for stories about abortion -- romantic comedies, even. But it's not enough, because the working-class and poor women aren't going to the local arts cinema. To do that, we need to get stories on TV. Don't let the right wing freeze out the other side of the story.

If you see a negative depiction of abortion on TV, call the network and complain. We have to start pushing as hard as the other side does.

About Susie Madrak

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