Hollywood vs. Abortion

It has long been a standard complaint by conservatives that there is a liberal-media bias, not only in the presentation of the news, but also in the dramas and sit-coms we see in movies and on television. In 1992, Michael Medved published Hollywood vs. America, in which he indicted Hollywood for its assault on our values and virtues.  Through its various movies, he argued, Hollywood makes fun of religion, undermines marriage, promotes promiscuity, and bashes America.  The movies are violent, foul-mouthed, offensive, and degenerate.  The book makes for a really great read.  One thing Medved does not do, however, is accuse Hollywood or the television networks of promoting abortion, for the very simple reason that they don’t.  In fact, for the most part they condemn it.

There are four ways in which movies can condemn abortion:  (a) The movie can portray the woman who has the abortion as immoral or unlikable; (b) abortion can be shown to be harmful; (c) abortion can be associated with misery and regret; or (d) the movie can show us how having the baby is a rewarding experience that makes everyone happy.

In order to properly analyze Hollywood’s attitude toward abortion in the movies, we must distinguish among three different types:  (1) Movies made before 1973, when abortion was illegal, (i.e., before Roe v. Wade); (2) movies made after Roe v. Wade, but in which the story takes place before that decision, when abortion was still illegal; and (3) movies in which the story takes place after abortion had become legal.

Not surprisingly, movies made when abortion was illegal, especially those covered by the Production Code, in effect until 1968, invariably condemned abortion by one or more of the four methods listed above.  In A Place in the Sun (1951), for example, a man gets a woman pregnant and then tries to get her an abortion.  When that fails, he murders her.  In Detective Story (1951), several women have died from botched abortions.  The abortionist is pursued by a police detective, who then discovers his own wife had an abortion from that doctor.  He is so disgusted that their marriage is all but ruined.  But then he gets killed in the end anyway, asking his wife to forgive him in his dying breath.  In Peyton Place (1957), a young woman is raped by her stepfather and gets pregnant.  A doctor refuses to give her an abortion, but then she falls and has a miscarriage.  This is a typical Hollywood solution:  deny the woman the abortion, allowing her to remain free of sin, but then give her the benefit of an abortion through a substitute.  In The Interns (1962), a doctor steals some pills to give a woman an abortion, gets caught, and is no longer allowed to practice medicine.  In the television show Maude, the episodes “Maude’s Dilemma, Parts I and II,” (1972), the title character worries about the fact that she is pregnant at the age of forty-seven.  Finally, she and her husband tearfully decide to have an abortion.  In Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), a man and woman have a one-night stand and she gets pregnant.  She wants to get an abortion, but he decides against it because he does not trust the abortionist.  They end up falling in love and getting married instead.  This has become the favorite Hollywood ending, the woman choosing not to have the abortion and living happily ever after.

In the second type of movie, the ones made after 1973 but set during the illegal period, abortion is still presented negatively, though somewhat more sympathetically.  Godfather II (1974) was made just after Roe v. Wade, but set in the 1950s.  When Kay tells Michael about her abortion, she says, “It was a boy, and I had it killed!”  Such defiance on the part of a woman, saying that she had the abortion and she is glad she did, would never have been allowed while the Production Code was in force.  Nevertheless, Kay is pretty much miserable for the rest of the movie.  In Dirty Dancing (1987), a movie set in 1963, a young woman suffers from a botched abortion.  In Cider House Rules (1999), which takes place in Maine mostly during World War II, an abortionist is portrayed as being basically a good guy, but is sort of a pathetic character that is addicted ether, eventually dying from an overdose.  His protégé is against abortion, but ends up reluctantly performing one on a woman who is a victim of incestuous rape.  In Mad Men (2007-2015), we find out that Joan had an abortion when she was younger, but she is redeemed:  she decides to have the baby when she gets pregnant again, in conformity with the preferred Hollywood outcome.

It is not surprising that movies set before Roe v. Wade would present abortion negatively, for that was a time when not only was abortion illegal, but also when it was shameful for a woman to have premarital sex in the first place.  What is surprising is that in the third type of movie, made after the sexual revolution and the legalization of abortion, Hollywood still condemns abortion.  A pregnant woman almost never has an abortion in this third type of film, deciding instead to have the baby.  A case in point is the movie Alfie (1966) and its remake (2004).  In the 1966 movie, which belongs to the first type, Alfie gets a married woman pregnant at a time when she and her husband have not been having sex.  He helps her get an illegal abortion, and is deeply distressed to the point of tears when he looks at the fetus lying on the table.  He later talks to a friend about the unborn child, saying that he “murdered him.”  In the remake, which belongs to the third type, we are led to believe that the woman had a legal abortion, but she later reveals to Alfie that she had the baby instead.  That part could have been left out of the movie and we would never have missed it.  But Hollywood went out of its way to say, “We were only kidding about the abortion.  She had the baby.”

In Knocked Up (2007), a friend of the father-to-be suggests an abortion.  But so taboo is the subject that he can only utter something that rhymes with “abortion,” at which point the father-to-be quickly dismisses the idea.  The woman he got pregnant has the baby and she and the father become a loving couple.  In Juno (2007), the title character changes her mind about having an abortion when she gets to the clinic, in part owing to her conversation with an abortion protester, no less.  She ends up having the baby and giving it up for adoption.  Then, she and the boy who she had sex with end up being happily in love.  But this movie does more than merely encourage women to give a baby up for adoption rather than have an abortion.  It also makes the case that there is nothing wrong with being a single mom at the same time. The husband of the adoptive couple is portrayed as immature.  Just before the baby arrives, he tells his wife he wants a divorce. The wife decides to go ahead and adopt anyway, and we see her happily holding the baby in the hospital.  So, the movie is saying that both giving up the baby for adoption and being a single mom are good alternatives to abortion. In Murphy Brown (1991-1992), the title character gets pregnant and decides to have the baby and raise it herself, since the man who got her pregnant has an aversion to being a father and husband.  This show was made famous when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized it for disparaging the importance of fathers in raising children.  Michael Medved, whom I referred to above, also complained about the way movies and television promote the idea that being a single parent is just fine, as in the case of Murphy Brown.  But he overlooked the fact that in so doing, the movies are actually making a case against abortion by showing it to be unnecessary, something one would think Quayle, Medved, and other pro-life people would welcome.  Given the way unmarried women in movies and television casually have babies, the implicit message is that there is absolutely no need for a woman to have an abortion.  Have the baby and be happy, the movies and television shows seem to say.

On the other hand, when an abortion does occur in this third type of movie, it is condemned by one or more of the first three methods listed above.  In The Last American Virgin (1982), after a boy gets a girl pregnant, he refuses to have anything to do with her.  Another guy, who is in love with her, manages to come up with enough money for her to have an abortion, after selling some of his possessions and borrowing money from his boss.  But after she has the abortion, she gets back together with her former boyfriend, who wants her back now that she is no longer pregnant.  The guy who helped her get the abortion ends up looking like a fool.  Obviously, she is no good.  In House of Cards (2013- ), Claire, a ruthless woman with no scruples, has had three abortions in the past, and for that she is punished:  when she realizes she wants to be a mother, she finds out it may be too late.  Of course, the old abortion-substitute method is still useful.  In Citizen Ruth (1996), the title character is a pregnant lowlife, who becomes caught up in a tug of war between pro-choice and pro-life groups.  The movie goes between the horns of the dilemma by having Ruth miscarry.

There are two great exceptions to Hollywood’s condemnation of abortion.  The first is Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).  This the rare movie in which a major character, who is sweet and likable, gets pregnant, casually has an abortion with no regrets, and then lives happily ever after.  The movie has a remarkably clean conscience about abortion.  When her older brother finds out that she is having an abortion, he completely supports her, which goes against the stereotype of the older brother that is puritanical about his sister’s sex life.  I was stunned when I saw this movie.  Mistakenly, I thought that a milestone had been reached in movie morality. But I was wrong, for it was completely anomalous.  Movies soon reverted to the standard formula:  having an abortion is bad; having the baby is good.

Over thirty years had to pass before there was a second exception to the rule that movies usually condemn abortion, Obvious Child (2014), and what an exception it is.  This movie not only portrays abortion in a positive light, as in the case of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but it also expresses utter contempt for the pro-life point of view.

I always focus more on the content of a movie than on formalist considerations, but I could not help but notice that the movie was filmed in a 2.35:1 ratio, the widescreen format typically used for action movies, instead of the more common 1.85:1 ratio that tends to be used for romantic comedies. This movie intends to present its pro-choice message in a big way.  Speaking of romantic comedies, that is exactly what this movie is.  Donna (Jenny Slate) is a struggling comedienne who does stand-up, and she is just as funny offstage as she is on.  Her humorous take on life persists throughout the film, and even her abortion provides material for one of her comedic routines.  People who are pro-life need the subject of abortion to be taken seriously, and this movie refuses to do that, treating it instead as something to joke about.

When the movie starts, her boyfriend breaks up with her right after one of her performances, and for a while she is upset.  Then she meets Max (Jake Lacy), and she has the best one-night stand you ever saw.  But you know what that means.  In movie logic, if a woman has sex with a guy just once, she gets pregnant.  She goes to an abortion clinic to make sure, and when the test comes back positive, she says she wants an abortion.  The doctor tries to talk to her about options, but Donna says she is not interested in hearing about those options, and simply wants an abortion.  In this way, the movie snubs the pro-life alternatives.  Speaking of which, we never see the outside of the abortion clinic, and thus we never see pro-life people hurling insults and carrying signs saying “baby killer” and whatnot.  The movie ignores them, much in the way Donna ignores the options the doctor keeps mentioning.

Donna is a Jew.  This is important for two reasons.  First, it allows for a crucial joke to be told.   Because Donna’s humor is always about stuff going on in her life, when her boyfriend breaks up with her, her depression over the breakup enters into her performance.  Supposedly she bombs, but actually her jokes are still funny.  And one of her jokes is about the holocaust.  If she were not a Jew herself, such a joke might have come across as anti-Semitic.  But being a Jew, she is inoculated against that charge.  So, why does the movie need a holocaust joke anyway?  This movie makes its attacks on the pro-life movement not through direct argument, but through the association of ideas.  A lot of pro-life advocates try to equate abortion with the holocaust, arguing that abortion clinics are like the showers at Auschwitz.  This movie undermines that argument by treating the holocaust itself as material for humor, refusing to take that analogy seriously, just as it refuses to take abortion seriously.

Second, it allows for a cultural contrast between her and Max.  When Donna first meets Max, a friend comments that Max is very much a Christian.  This is ominous, because we associate the pro-life movement with Christianity. Therefore, when Max comes back into her life after she has decided to have an abortion, we expect that when he finds out, he is going to take a strong pro-life position, waxing sentimental about the baby, and being appalled that she would even consider doing such a thing.  But as it turns out, he is all for it, completely upending our expectations.  In a similar way, when Donna tells her mother about her situation, her mother tells her about the illegal abortion she had in college, which worked out fine and was for the best.  And Donna’s roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) is also an abortion veteran, with no regrets.  In other words, no one in the movie represents the pro-life position.  It is deemed unworthy of consideration.

Much of the humor in the movie is scatological.  There were several fart jokes, on and off stage, including a scene in which Max urinates outside while accidentally farting in Donna’s face.  There is a joke about what fluids do to a woman’s panties, a joke about diarrhea, a joke about anal sex, and a funny scene in which Max steps in shit.  When Donna’s boyfriend breaks up with her, he does so in a unisex restroom, and there are several references to his “dumping” her. Furthermore, when Donna and Nellie are in the bathroom doing a pregnancy test, Nellie sits down on the toilet to have a bowel movement.  I have no problem with bathroom jokes, but they keep appearing so relentlessly throughout the movie that it becomes clear that they are intended to have some kind of significance.  Their purpose is to get us to form an association between the embryo and fecal matter.  The message of this movie is that having an abortion is just a way of taking a reproductive dump.  Therefore, whereas the pro-life people argue that the embryo is a human being and that killing it is murder, this pro-choice movie answers that the embryo is just waste material that needs to be excreted.

Finally, abortion is shown to be perfectly compatible with romance.  The abortion takes place on Valentine’s Day, and Max brings Donna flowers and accompanies her to the clinic.  He says it is the best Valentine’s Day he has ever had.  Later, when they are back home and she is recovering from the procedure, they decide to watch Gone With the Wind.  This, coming at the very end of the movie, is emphatic by position.  They are going to watch one of the great romantic movies of all time, and it is just the right movie for these two lovers, who we believe will eventually get married and live happily ever after.

As effective as this movie is in making its pro-choice case, I suspect that Hollywood will play it safe in the future and continue to make movies that condemn abortions when they occur and reward women who have the baby instead.

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