Some of you may know that the Supreme Court will be hearing a landmark abortion case, Whole Women’s Health vs. Hellerstedt, this March, one that will consider the constitutionality of a Texas law imposing restrictions on abortions in that state. I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to do a little research on this case, and lend your voice to the conversation. My own interest in it inspired me to write a post on movies featuring abortion; today’s list includes Juno (2007) dir. Jason Reitman, Vera Drake (2004) dir. Mike Leigh, Citizen Ruth (1996) dir. Alexander Payne, and Obvious Child (2014) dir. Gillian Robespierre.
It is not my intention to get too political on this site—after all, this is a film blog, and I’m here to talk to you about movies. Still, with this legal action pending, my mind has been very much on women: their bodies, their rights, and the way conversations about what they should or should not do are framed. Films provide a helpful and often critical lens with which to view our society; this, of course, includes the political issues that so sharply divide us.
It occurred to me, watching these films, that there are two ways to make a movie about abortion: you can either make the audience cry, or make them laugh. Most of the films I watched in preparation for this post chose the latter. I wondered, why is it that these directors chose comedy to speak on such a serious topic? And what is different, cinematically, between a somber abortion film and a comedic one?
It might seem silly to even write the words “funny abortion film”; still, I can’t deny that I laughed out loud at these movies. In Obvious Child, Donna Stern, the main character, opens the movie with a joke about her panties “[looking] like they army crawled through cream cheese” by the end of the day; the punk-y receptionist at the Women Now clinic in Juno says “[these condoms] make my boyfriend’s junk smell like pie” with a deadpan sincerity; Ruth, in the eponymous Citizen Ruth, shrieks at a smiling nurse at an emergency pregnancy center “Are you people fucking deaf?! I want an abortion!”
These moments of humor are often, somewhat necessarily, uncomfortable—or at least, they deal with the realities of womanhood in a way that most movies shy away from; they are surprising simply by virtue of being presumed inappropriate. It is the candidness of these moments that makes them so funny. The women in these films speak with an almost alarming frankness that occasionally verges on un-likeableness (particularly in Citizen Ruth); it seems to me that, in this way, the women very much are the movie. That is to say, no film can successfully deal with abortion without being honest, and that honesty is almost always coming directly from the mouth of the woman whose body forms the contested political ground.
To briefly say more about the body: I noticed that the camera and its gaze had a complicated relationship with the female form in these films. In some, the women are put on display: Donna in Obvious Child dances in her underwear; in Citizen Ruth, Ruth bends over the sink as the camera pans over her bottom, landing on the thong peeking over the edge of her sweatpants. Of course, this gaze is fairly neatly subverted shortly after we are treated to it: we see the underwear Donna danced in crumpled up on a pillow, dirty now; the same night Ruth bends over the sink, she huffs spray paint and faces the audience with her mouth and chin covered in black pigment. The convention of objectifying the female form (through partial nudity, the segmenting of the body into sexualized parts, the slow pan that mimics the erotic gaze) is used, certainly, but also mocked and worked through; these films are fluent, it seems, in the cinematic technique of blockbusters, but repurpose them to tell women’s stories in a funny and revolutionary way.
On the other hand, films like Vera Drake don’t use or subvert the (normative, sexualizing) gaze of the camera at all; indeed, the main character in that film bustles around in housedresses, or else swathed in her green coat. It is made clear to us that power, for Vera Drake, does not come from anything close to nudity: in fact, one of the lowest points in the film takes place when Vera is symbolically disrobed, and asked to remove her wedding ring upon entering her jail cell. Perhaps this is one of the differences between a comedy about abortion and a drama about abortion: sex, in the former, is still on the table. The woman’s body, while the site of struggle and stress, is also a place for pleasure and levity.
It is interesting to note that the leading women in these films don’t look the way we necessarily expect our movie stars to look. One is a homeless woman, often shown onscreen with paint on her face, dazed and red nosed from getting high; another is a well worn, middle-aged, working class woman; one is unabashedly Jewish (and no, her main concern is not getting a nose job); and one, of course, is pregnant, with her belly button popping out and a 64 oz. blue slushie in her hand.
It would be unwise to ignore that these women are not necessarily part of the demographic that is deemed normatively attractive. This is not to insult the actresses, who are all beautiful; rather, I want to make the point that these movies, which aim to tell female stories, cast a wider variety of women than we see in most box office films. This is a space where the woman’s body cannot merely be a sex object; it has to be made real, seen, understood as vital to the plot, which often means it must be flawed, or at least rendered convincingly, with all its attending oddness.
I would also like to point out that these films create a unique opportunity to depict communities of women. I will take a moment here to say that the movies I watched for today are flawed in that they only represent the white, straight, cisgendered female experience; I was disappointed to see that there were so few women of color cast (indeed, I can only recall two: one, who goes unnamed in Vera Drake and appears only briefly, later referred to as a racial slur; the second, Su-Chin in Juno, is onscreen for all of thirty seconds and gives the impression of being rather stupid.) Still—and this is not to push away concerns of whitewashing, merely to say that there is a positive among the negative—the films did bring women together in convincing, moving ways.
Be it Donna climbing into her mother’s bed in tears to hear about the illegal abortion she had in the 60s; or Vanessa holding Juno’s stomach in the midst of a Midwestern mall; or Vera comforting a panicked young woman by telling her that she will be “right as rain”, it is clear that the women in these movies care for one another in an important, even radical way. They are not depicted as rivals, as is more typical in film, but as companions. The love they have for one another seems to be uniquely feminine, not by nature of their biological characteristics, but because of the deep sympathy and compassion they have for one another as people trying to make it in a world that can be at best androcentric, and at worst nakedly oppressive.
Truthfully, it is a little misleading to group these movies together and try to speak about all of them at once; even amongst the comedies there is a wide variation in style and message. This could be due to the directors; men directed three of the four films I watched for today (I’ll refrain from commenting further, and allow you to conduct your own analysis of this bit of trivia.) The fourth film, Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre, is the one that seems to me the most blatantly political of the comedies. It manages to be funny, but also informative; Donna asks if the procedure will hurt, if her friend regrets getting an abortion, how much it will cost, etc. The goal of that film, it seemed to me, was to allow abortion to appear in mainstream conversation, rather than be relegated to women’s bedrooms to be spoken of in shamed whispers.
The other comedies didn’t necessarily share that sentiment: in fact, Citizen Ruth casts an equally scathing gaze on both pro-life and pro-choice parties. Both become caricatures fighting what they call a “war”, which includes acts of elaborate costume and deception, armies of followers standing on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence, and expensive (dare I say military grade?) private transportation (see Jessica Weiss’ helicopter, Blaine Gibbons’ private jet.) That film concludes with Ruth escaping a women’s clinic through its bathroom window, walking right through a crowd that has gathered outside, ostensibly to speak with her. None of them see her, even as they shout her name and wave signs; both groups are rendered utterly ridiculous.
Juno, too, is funny without taking a firm political position. On the one hand, the women’s clinic Juno visits is a dark, dirty place with lazy employees, and Juno seems to find abortion immoral; on the other, she is able to speak freely and openly with her friends and parents about her reproductive health and planning, and the decision to have the baby then give it up for adoption is her own.
I will note one last, important detail before I conclude this post (I’m afraid I’ve gone on a bit long already); one of the greatest differences, in my opinion, between a funny abortion flick and a sad one is its relationship to place and setting. Vera Drake is shot almost entirely indoors: in bedrooms, hospital rooms, jail cells. The farthest outside we go is the tenement block. Films like Juno, Citizen Ruth, and Obvious Child, on the other hand, chose not to maintain that internal focus and brought the viewers out to face the landscape: Juno bikes under blue sky and flowering cherry trees; Donna walks through the bustle of New York city; Ruth drives down a snowy, unvariegated Midwestern plain.
The movies that refused to be sad were the movies that allowed their women out of doors and into the real world, that confronted the tradition of domesticity and broke their characters out of it. This isn’t to suggest that the women’s relationship to the outside world is uncomplicated, by any means; I merely want to bring attention to the physical space these women are allowed to inhabit.
I will leave my considerations there, for now. It is hard for me to conclude this post; to do so seems to suggest that I have said everything I wanted to say about abortion, and about the way it is pictorialized, which is not the case. Still, I can only hope that this post has encouraged at least some of you to find more: more films, more articles, more passion (and, probably, more arguments.) Abortion is something that, however uncomfortable, however political and divisive, needs to be spoken of, particularly in the weeks ahead. I hope you take a look at some of these movies; and then, I hope you take a look past them, and into the lives of real women. I think it will be an eye opening experience.