(WOMENSENEWS)–There’s a climate change happening in this country and I’m not just talking about global warming.
I’m also talking about abortion.
At one time the procedure to terminate a pregnancy was not a dirty word in Hollywood films.
Throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and even into the ’80s you could not only say the word abortion but have characters actually get one in a film, like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character in the 1982 comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Imagine abortion in a comedy, dealing with a difficult situation with humor and pathos. "I called the ‘free’ clinic and it cost $100," Leigh’s character laments.
Not anymore. Judd Apatow’s "Knocked Up," a raunchy comedy in a cinema near you, turned abortion into the "A" word, in league with the "N" word and other epithets so taboo as to be bracketed off from regular speech.
This is a particularly pointed attack on choice given the central drama of the movie. This is not a movie called "Let’s Have a Baby" or the "Blessed Event."
This is a movie called "Knocked Up," which means it’s a head-on encounter with an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy where a termination would at least be given some consideration. But instead abortion is treated as unmentionable.
"The entertainment industry has elected to silence the discussion on abortion," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "It’s an issue fraught with moral and ethical challenges and Hollywood has been almost silent on it for the past 20 years. It has been the one controversial subject matter that has not only not progressed, but has totally retreated from popular culture. If you’d watch TV or films in this country, you’d never guess that abortion is such a big issue."
Unintended Pregnancy Is Premise
The movie, distributed by Universal Pictures, grossed more than $90 million in its first three weeks. It stars Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in the story of a beautiful, young, successful TV executive (Heigl) who, after getting promoted to an on-screen job, celebrates in a bar, gets drunk and takes home a chubby, unattractive, broke, stoned slacker, has unprotected sex and gets pregnant.
So it’s clear the movie is all about a piece of bad luck. But even in this situation–where abortion is all too obvious an alternative–the word is apparently too laden with guilt and other baggage to say out loud.
Amazingly, there’s almost no debate on whether she’ll keep the baby, even though she was drunk, the father is one long list of problems, they have no relationship and she’s got a promotion to look forward to. In one brief scene, her mother, portrayed as a nasty woman, raises the idea of not having the child, but that’s quickly dismissed. The way it works out: She ends up having the baby and going home with Mr. Wrong, who miraculously gets a job and diligently reads the baby book.
In a discussion with three friends Rogen’s character gives the topic a pass as well. Excuse me? Four stoned slackers–none of whom has a job or apparently much else to do besides coming up with new ways to take a bong hit–and no one strongly suggests terminating the pregnancy with a woman Slacker in Chief doesn’t even know?
The ‘A’ Word
Instead, the abortion question is dealt with by having one of the four suggest, weakly, "have you thought about . . . something that rhymes with smushmortion." After the laugh, they refer to it as "the A word." Then nothing. No one can even say the word.
In numerous interviews, Apatow, the writer and director, said that many of the film’s humor scenes were improvised and there was a great deal of "abortion" talk in scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. "It’s very, very funny, but really shocking and disturbing," he said in one interview. "It may have killed Jerry Falwell."
But instead of antagonizing groups such as Focus on the Family and National Right to Life–which have raised tens of millions of dollars to shape media coverage of abortion–the filmmaker seems to have made friends.
In his movie reviews and mentions, Michael Medved, a nationally syndicated columnist and radio host, praises the movie as containing an "unexpectedly potent pro-life and pro-family message."
That’s also the word on the anti-choice blogs.
"I have friends that lurk on anti-abortion list-serves and this film sits very well in the pro-life arena," said Jennifer Pozner, director of Women in Media and News. "They are urging them to see this film with a caveat; they can’t recommend the coarse language or the drug use, but the strong pro-life values are there."
Far From the Truth
To the extent the movie conveys this anti-choice message it also drastically distorts reality.
Most 20- to 30-year-old men I know are not afraid to say abortion. I have two sons in their 20s who saw the film and were surprised by the silence on abortion, given the elements of the plot. They were also surprised by the fearful use of the "A" word.
Plenty of women in this country are also having abortions and going to lengths to combat the stigma of silence, as the subjects wearing "I had an abortion" T-shirts in Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgartner’s 2005 documentary film "I Had an Abortion" attest.
Approximately 1.29 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2002, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Half of all pregnancies by U.S. women are unintended; 4 in 10 of these end in abortion.
But you’d never believe these figures it if you watched Hollywood films, which are spreading the impression that abortion, if the subject comes up, can be treated as the evil "A" word.
Outside of the United States, things are different.
This year, a Romanian film whose main topic is abortion won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
"4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days" documents the harrowing story of two women on an illegal quest to end an unwanted pregnancy in a totalitarian communist state. It is a bleak tale of women suffering when they don’t have the right to choose.
It’s also a cautionary tale for those of us in the United States at a time when the Supreme Court is tilting away from abortion rights. So far only one procedure has been banned but who knows how many more infringements on women’s health, privacy and reproductive freedom lie ahead?
Movies like "Knocked Up"–that make it seem as if abortions aren’t real alternatives for women–can only help pave the way in that direction.
Sandra Kobrin is a Los Angeles-based writer and columnist.
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For more information:
"Abortion Stigma Enters Era of Unburdening":
"4 months, 3 weeks 2 days":
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