Akshay Seth: Finally, a woman's perspective on abortion in film

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published June 11, 2014

Before we begin, a little bit of self-reflection. For the past 10 months, I’ve been doing my best to pretend I understand what a majority of moviegoers are thinking while reclined in cinema hall seats. Then, fast-forward a little bit, putting it into a neat, bow-topped package of 1000-or-so words my grandmother can nonchalantly peruse before exclaiming ‘Heyyyy Raaamm, enough with this Ryan Gosling already — what is that, anyways? Another one of those apps you heathens use?’ I wish, grandma. I wish.

There have been successes, there have been failures, but above all, chances for me to openly snigger at the people who forget how as kids, we all fell in love with films for the same, really simple reason: the fucking pictures moved, man. I’ve sniggered a lot. And I think it’s only fair I give the so-called pompous-movie-critic-despising populace a chance to direct some sniggering in my direction.

So without further adieu — yes — I bought tickets for “Obvious Child,” along with most of the other films I’ve seen in the last few years, at an independent movie theater. You know, the type of place where there are more French New Wave posters plastered on walls than obnoxious RC students drifting through hallways. The kind of place where mustachioed beatniks sell you sweet potato tater-tots or artisanal cheese plates at the concession stand before directing you to your cup-holder-less seats. Where white people sporting Om tattoos sneak in baby carrots and trail-mix instead of Sour Patch Kids. I could go on; I want to go on, but in fear of angering any more hipsters, let’s assume you get the image.

Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” is the type of film that falls perfectly in place at the center of this hyper-liberal patchwork quilt. It’s a touching comedy-drama hybrid about Donna Stern, a budding comedian, who after a rough breakup, after losing her job, has a one night stand with a complete stranger. She gets pregnant. She decides to have an abortion. She knows she’ll have an abortion and, in making that leap, sets an entirely new precedent for future comedies willing to touch on the choice vs. life debate.

Which is not to say the film spends an inordinate amount of time circling the political undertones dictating Donna’s decision. Rather, what sets “Obvious Child” apart is that the abortion is assumed from the get-go, not something Donna spends days mulling over while listening to quirky bits of advice from every friend or family member within reach. Analogous films in the past have followed a distinct, defined structure that similarly takes off with the news of the pregnancy, but instead of sticking with the female, wavers for a while around input from the DBM (Dude-Bro-Manchild) who got the woman pregnant before plateauing close to a resolution that resembles ‘OK, maybe I can be a mom.’

I’m not here to argue the whys or ifs of whether or not abortion is the only fathomably sane option in every situation. It’s not. What irks me is how this crucial decision in so many womens’ lives, no matter what it may be, is often used in such films just for the sake of pushing thematic devices forward. Take, for example, “Knocked Up,” a Judd Apatow written-directed, Seth Rogen vehicle in which the only reason we set up the pursual of parenthood — basically the entire premise of the 130-minute film — was so Apatow could show us a DBM’s miraculous transformation from schlub to beacon of responsibility. Katherine Heigl’s character (one of perhaps three prominent female roles sprinkled in the DBM-heavy cast) is made out to be a one-dimensional, often irrational woman who’s just drawn in to hold one end of the leash tied around Rogen’s neck — there to pull him into line while the camera watches. She’s an accessory in a story that should treat her as its logical centerpiece. The centerpiece that, I don’t know, I’m shooting in the dark here, actually delivers the baby and goes through months of pregnancy?

But there’s no denying “Knocked Up” is a funny film, one I’ve watched approximately 89,376 times since its release and the reason I went through that really anti-beard phase. The perspective it offers is entertaining, on some levels essential even. Yet, it’s not the female side of the story so recurrently lacking in these pictures.

“Juno,” released later in the same year “Knocked Up” debuted, offered that female perspective. And despite the script ultimately choosing to sidestep the whole abortion dynamic, its particular brand of hilarious, well-executed filmmaking for once gave us a glimpse, from start to credits, what many women live through. The film is reminiscent of the 1963 classic “Love with a Proper Stranger” in which Natalie Wood’s character gets pregnant after a brief affair, almost follows through with a backroom abortion though eventually opts to keep the baby. Every significant development in the narrative is presented decidedly through the female lead’s lens, and importantly, without any politics to dilute the much more relevant theme of individuality.

It was a pertinent movie because it remained honest to its characters’ journey without shying away from the facts — the uncertainty so many women faced when society didn’t even consider choice. Likewise, “Obvious Child” is a woman’s journey. A woman who calls eyes “pee-pee missiles.” A woman who forces you to bounce around to Paul Simon with her after getting drunk. It’s built in Robespierre’s frustration with Hollywood’s unwillingness to give audiences an honest look at such an overwhelmingly relatable topic, and the only reason abortion is a given from the start is because the movie boldly elects to present a holistic, unbiased image of what a large portion of women — similar, funny, normal women who laugh after getting farted at — go through.

The most impactful scene in the whole film is one in which Donna, played by Jenny Slate in a sublime, breakout performance, asks how much the procedure will cost. For the briefest moment, for the first and only time, she cries after realizing it’s the same as her monthly rent, that she doesn’t have health insurance — that it will have to be carried out on Valentine’s Day.

There are over 1.21 million abortions every year in the US. forty percent of unintended pregnancies in the country are aborted. There’s nothing groundbreaking about seeing Donna convinced she’s not ready to be a mom. What is groundbreaking is finally seeing that happen on screen.

I saw it in the epicenter of a theater-full of hippies, all of them cheering along at every turn, getting up and chest-bumping in the middle of jokes. It was a safe-haven for this “exclusive, liberal” way of thinking, though I can’t help but wonder whether it really would’ve made a difference if I was sitting in the midst of Ted Cruz’s extended family instead of a tsunami of hipsters.


But somewhere halfway through the movie I think they, just like any sane human being watching Slate rail on dirty underwear, would crack a smile. And maybe, just maybe, stifle a laugh. I’m pretty sure it’s a “no” on the artisanal cheese plates, though.