When word that the plot for the newly released film, Obvious Child, involved a Brooklyn woman in her 20s who breaks up with her boyfriend only to wind up pregnant following a rebound one-night-stand and decides to have an abortion, it immediately made the internet explode. Everyone aired all their feelings for and against a film depicting the abortion process so unapologetically, including NBC. The network decided to not air the movie’s trailer because the word “abortion” is uttered in it.
The indie film from Gillian Robespierre stars Jenny Slate, who you might recognize from her one season stint on Saturday Night Live. Slate plays Donna, a young woman who decides motherhood on a moment’s notice might not be the best idea. It also stars Gabby Hoffman as her full-browed best friend, and was an official selection for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
While the film is a comedy, and it does center around a women who decides to have an abortion, that does not automatically make it a comedy about abortion, a point much of mainstream media has missed. Creating sensationalized headlines referring to Obvious Child as an “abortion comedy” is reductive. Any rational human understands that having an abortion isn’t fun or funny. That being said, plugging the abortion plot line does seem to be mutually beneficial to both the media and movie’s makers, as it has garnered a lot of attention from both reviewers and theater goers. Obvious Child has grossed over a quarter-million dollars in two weeks despite only opening in three theaters initially. (It expanded into 15 additional theaters its second week and premieres nationwide June 27.)
So if Obvious Child isn’t just a movie about abortion, then what is it about? More accurately, it’s about the existential crises most people face in their twenties and thirties, a time when a lot of decisions come with weighty consequences, whether they’re about jobs, relationships, rent-controlled apartments, or whether or not to have babies. It’s also a time when pretty much every decision feels overwhelmingly serious, and we tend to spend hours talking them over, obsessing with our friends.
Granted, Robespierre could have comedically captured the post-adolescent angst that underscores early adulthood without including a story line about abortion. Look no further than Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha for evidence that this avenue can be both critically and commercially successful. Creating female characters that never entertain the idea of abortion, then offering them up as authentic representations of what life is like for modern women, is not only ridiculous, but it does the public a disservice as it does little to alleviate the taboo surrounding the topic.
Abortion, and ambiguity about childbearing in general, is more a part of the average women’s life than the film and television industries would have us believe. This, I think, is the point Robespierre is making by treating abortion as a matter of fact for her main character instead of some exceptional circumstance–similar to the way Lena Dunham did early in season one of Girls, though the “Vagina Panic” episode received relatively little media scrutiny compared to what Obvious Child has garnered thus far (possibly because Dunham cut off a lot of the controversy by having Jemima Kirke’s character have a miscarriage instead). Dunham even took to her Twitter feed on June 21 to defend the new film and express her frustration with NBC for not airing Obvious Child’s trailer, subsequently starting a #StoptheStigma hashtag.
Women between the ages of 20-29 account for nearly 58% of all abortions in the United State according to the Center for Disease Control’s most recent statistics. Furthermore, “At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and at 2008 abortion rates, one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in 10 by age 45,” according to research by the Guttmacher Institute.
Taken in this context, it’s unsurprising that Obvious Child has hit a chord, especially with women in their twenties and thirties who can identify with Donna’s life in general, whether that’s deliberating over what to do about an unplanned pregnancy; sorting your self out after a break up; dealing with financial instability; or just dealing with the randomness of life on an ongoing basis. This film manages to flesh out what life really looks like for an average woman just trying to figure her shit out, without resorting to a sappy Lifetime movie or relying on the old Hollywood fallback–the happily-ever-after ending.
The porn and the mainstream film industry alike would have us all believe that unprotected sex never leads to an unplanned pregnancy. And if it does (a la Katherine Heigl’s character arc in Knocked Up) it always ends up with the women realizing what she really wanted was to have a baby after all, turning the entire experience into one big blessing in disguise. Or, as Diablo Cody did for Juno, it treats it as a learning experience we’ll walk away from happier to have lived through without having our life altered in any meaningful way. The idea that Michael Cera and Ellen Page’s characters could wind up so unfazed by the process of teenage pregnancy and put their baby up for adoption seems so farcical seven years on, maybe because we have TV shows like Teen Mom to obliterate that fictional bubble.
Obvious Child is, in a lot of ways, just stating the obvious, which turns out to be a lot more controversial than the idea that a driven woman with a successful, exciting career, who also looks like Katherine Heigl, would rather embrace motherhood earlier than planned, and commit to a schlubby stoner she barely knows, than get an abortion.