The Obvious Child: New Rom-Com Talks About Abortion

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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

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 (that is,  if you're a 20 or 30-something 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: MaudeFast 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.

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