The recently released Obvious Child has been dubbed the first “abortion rom-com”. Donna, played by Jenny Slate, is a 20-something Brooklyn comedian pregnant after a post-breakup one-night-stand. She even cracks jokes about the situation: when a friend encourages her before a show, saying “you’re going to kill it”, she replies “no, that happens tomorrow”. The film’s willingness to consider the comic side of abortion as well as its difficult one allows it to show the experience in its messy, human complexity. Slate insists: “The movie isn’t saying that abortions are funny. It’s saying that people are funny.”
There’s been a recent spate of rom-coms in which pregnancy functions as a catalyst of romance, rather than a byproduct. In many other films and TV shows, this narrative problem is “solved” through miscarriage: in Party of Five or Mad Men, for example, where characters lose pregnancies they weren’t sure they wanted anyway. Girls did allow for some abortion humour – when Jessa fails to show for her appointment, her waiting friends text her: “Uh, hey. You’re pregnant when you don’t want to be. So you might want to come have your abortion now.” But the show cops out by giving her what many interpreted as a miscarriage rather than a late period.
When abortion does appear, it’s only ever as a plot device. Fellow indie flick Blue Valentine (2010), for example, has its rather bland female lead change her mind mid-abortion and marry a man she isn’t that crazy about, a man who isn’t the father of her child (but who, to be fair, is Ryan Gosling). Her decision creates the relationship we then watch falter.
This instrumental use of abortion has a long history, even in films usually lauded for their progressive politics. Dirty Dancing (1987), for example, uses a minor character’s near-fatal illegal abortion in order to get Baby into Johnny’s arms.
But it gets even more cliché. The use of abortion to signal a turning point for male characters has an incredibly long history – a pattern at least as old as 1907, when the British playwright Harley Granville-Barker wrote Waste. The title refers not to the loss of a woman who dies of a backstreet abortion after a one-night stand, but instead the suicide of a promising politician — the father — whose career was destroyed by the scandal.
The foetus is often imagined as male in these narratives, for example in George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), in which a struggling poet gives up his art in order to marry his pregnant girlfriend. Like the male slackers in contemporary films such as Knocked Up (2007), he magically becomes mature when faced with fatherhood, returning to his job in order to support his wife and baby — which is imagined as “a bit of himself”.
In Alfie (1966), Michael Caine (playing Alfie) has to arrange an illegal abortion in his own flat after getting his friend’s wife pregnant. He breaks down into tears when he sees the aborted foetus of his would-be son (referring to the foetus as male even though the abortion occurs at around two months, too early to discern foetal sex). Fleeing after the procedure, he runs into another lost son, a child from a previous relationship. This traumatic experience spurs him to try and settle down with his wealthy older girlfriend, even if she has other plans. Women’s bodies have long been written out of the story by narratives that depict abortion as problematic – because there might be a little man in there.
These examples date from the time when the operation was illegal, but abortion stories are still being appropriated to tell the stories of men. In the 2011 thriller The Ides of March, for example, an intern pregnant by a presidential candidate kills herself after being pressured to have an abortion; her death tips the balance of power between men. Of course male characters (and men) can have valid reactions to abortion, but a disturbingly gendered anti-abortion ideology emerges in all of these examples.
But in Obvious Child, Donna’s one-night stand turns out to be not only supportive but also, crucially, a minor character. This sets the film apart even from another nonjudgemental depiction of abortion, Greenberg (2010), in which the main character’s support for his kind-of girlfriend during her abortion (not of his child) is all about demonstrating that he’s a good guy at heart.
Instead, Obvious Child focuses equally on Donna’s relationships with women, including a female friend who shares the story of her own abortion, helping to destigmatise the experience. It’s about time. After all, about a third of women in both the US and UK will have an abortion by the age of 45.
Obvious Child does dwell too much on Donna’s supposed unreadiness to be a parent (She drinks! She does stand-up and works at an independent bookstore!). But it also breaks new ground in the representation of abortion. So let’s hope it’s merely the first of many more nuanced depictions of this extremely common experience.