Posted by: mutantpoodle | January 3, 2008

It’s a movie, for crying out loud

There’s been a little bit of left blogosphere navel-gazing about Juno, which was, I thought, easily one of the best films of the year. The question: does a film in which a girl (Juno is 16) who gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby automatically become, somehow, anti-abortion, or anti-choice, or skew people’s feelings about abortions generally?

Ross Douthat in The Atlantic claims that Juno is not “a brief for overturning Roe v. Wade; far from it. But like Knocked Up, it’s decidedly a brief for not getting an abortion.” (By the way, Knocked Up – the half hour I was able to sit through – is a argument for walking out of the theater.) In response, Matthew Yglesias points out that an abortion would make it impossible to tell the story screenwriter Diablo Cody wanted to tell, but notes that the film’s happy ending “lends the film something of an anti-abortion quality.” And Atrios notes that

…both movies feature women who, upon getting pregnant, have autonomy over their bodies, and no one in either film suggests otherwise. The fact that they make the “choice” which makes abortion foes happy doesn’t change the fact that the women were in control of that decision, not the state or the men in the lives.

But he prefaces that entirely correct thought with this:

The only major political issue that Juno and Knocked Up bring up is the fact that super liberal Hollywood doesn’t make movies or teevee shows which feature characters who have abortions despite the fact that in reality, lots of women have abortions.

I think what Duncan means here is that Hollywood doesn’t make comedies which feature characters who have abortions (there was a character in the movie Fame who got an abortion, for example) but having worked in Hollywood for better than two decades, I’d argue it has less to do with the politics of studios or their executives (largely liberal and pro-choice) or their corporate parents (largely focused on money) than with the lemming-like tendency of skilled comedy writers to go where the funny is. Anyone who suffered through the incredibly lame Half-hour News Hour on Fox News Channel can tell you what happens when you make comedy subservient to a political message. (I might quibble with the film’s parody of an abortion clinic, and the gum-chewing receptionist who helps scare Juno off, but I’d argue that it was so broadly drawn that no one, save, perhaps, Pat Robertson, would take it seriously.)

It seems that if people really think that a film about the most verbally skilled 16-year old in the frost belt is going to convince another pregnant 16-year old to carry a baby to term when all the other circumstances in her life, including her beliefs, tell her that she shouldn’t, then they aren’t respecting the intelligence of those whose choices these are to make.

And why is the allegedly pro-life message the one that will get through? Did hot women, after seeing Knocked Up, start looking at overweight, unsuccessful, inarticulate jackasses as potential partners for either marriage or recreational coupling? Please.

Juno is a love story, wickedly funny, with richly drawn characters whose actions and relationships ring true. It pays off in ways both surprising and expected, and it doesn’t choose to club us over the head with dogma. In short, it respects us, it respects its characters, and makes us laugh. Most of all, it respects Juno, whose choice it is in the first place. Isn’t that what we’re trying to support?

UPDATE: Sister Susan, in comments, notes that abortion’s “relative invisibility of abortion in popular culture contributes to the silence about it — it’s a shameful choice rather than a positive one,” and asks fo someone to put that in a comedy.

I actually thought quite a bit about how one make a comedy around someone who has an abortion, and came up empty. Maybe one problem for me, in contemplating it, is that I think that the choice to have an abortion is nobody’s damned business, and so the reality of the decision-making process would unfold in a very small world of characters. So I don’t know that popular culture leads in making abortion invisible – perhaps it reflects reality? Whereas, of course, pregnancy is one of the most public of conditions, and the relationship between the woman who is pregnant and the world is full of comic possibilities.

One of the great movies in this genre is Saved, where Mary (of course), a good Christian girl at American Eagle (Christian) High School thinks Jesus has told her to have sex with her boyfriend to save him from being gay (he has just confessed this to her). Unfortunately, she has just conked her head on the edge of the swimming pool, so perhaps the message got a bit confused. Of course, she gets pregnant, and the comedy is in her ability to hide the pregnancy from nearly everybody pretty much to term, in the un-Christian actions of the most devout “Christians” around her, and in the friendship of Cassandra, the character who acts the most Christian in the true sense of the word – who happens to be a Jewish girl sent to American Eagle High School because she’s a discipline problem.

In Saved, it’s never an option for Mary, the protagonist, to have an abortion because of her indoctrination, which leads to one of the great comic lines in film. Mary has taken the bus to Planned Parenthood to find out if she’s pregnant, and she’s spotted by Macauley Culkin (Roland) and Cassandra.

Cassandra: There’s only one reason Christian girls come down to the Planned Parenthood.

Roland: She’s planting a pipe bomb?

Cassandra: OK, two reasons.

My guess is that societal attitudes towards women and sex come into play here as well – in order to make comedy about abortion I think the protagonist would have to be able to say that she enjoyed sex for its own sake, didn’t want to be pregnant, and chose to terminate. And I think that first concept, perhaps more than the concept of abortion, makes many people extremely uncomfortable. While both Juno and Saved are good at not judging their protagonists, but neither had sex for pleasure, either – in Saved, it was a delirious Christian duty; in Juno, curiosity. (In Knocked Up, it was drunken, fumbling, desire, but I think that film is so bad as to merit exclusion from this analysis.)

So perhaps the “shameful choice” isn’t the abortion, but the sex. Still, I think the very private nature of an abortion limits its comedic possibilities, and maybe that will consign abortion to a dark corner of popular culture forever. I still don’t think it’s based on the cowardice of our purveyors of mass entertainment.

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Responses

  1. Haven’t yet seen Juno, but I do think the relative invisibility of abortion in popular culture contributes to the silence about it — it’s a shameful choice rather than a positive one. Now, someone who could put that in a comedy, please?

  2. Where are all these dramas where abortion is seriously examined as a choice … there are a few, but your citation of Fame (why not Dirty Dancing?) underlines one has to go back or stretch in so thinking.

    “Juno” could have been a fine movie w/o a shot at abortion clinics, and the fact abortion clinics are so rarely cited in movies does make it relevant. Surely, we can’t make it super relevant, but cultural references in film matter all the same.

  3. I had forgotten Dirty Dancing – but one issue with Dirty Dancing is that the abortion, at that time, was not legal, and certainly (as demonstrated by the results) not safe. I also forgot Cider House Rules, which may be the most pro-abortion film I’ve ever seen – and a drama.

    I think my point is that writers don’t usually think about the larger politics of jokes. As I said above, the portrayal of the clinic in Juno was a caricature, but it was treated with the same breezy ridicule as so many other elements of the movie – the sameness of the Lorings’ neighborhood; the insensitivity of the ultrasound technician, even the lone anti-abortion demonstrator who is Juno’s schoolmate. So the clinic wasn’t singled out.

    Perhaps what I’m saying is that, nice as it might be, acceptance of abortion isn’t going to be promoted through film comedies. That said, I don’t think Juno set back the pro-choice cause at all.

  4. Not safe because it was illegal, basically, but I take your point. I also have never seen Fame, so was not aware of the context of the abortion. Also, Cider House is a somewhat unique case.

    And, many comedies (particularly satire) have serious moments, often rather serious. So, I don’t really buy the easy dividing line. As to how the movie itself balances all references, like a good satire should, that’s fair.

    But, one reference still is notable given the reality of how the subject is generally covered in film. As I said, I don’t want to give Juno too much credit, but t.v. and film actually do often help raise important issues, if in small ways. A transsexual on “Ugly Betty” or whatever. It notable, even if “it’s just a movie.” Don’t worry, I like movies, and do enjoy them as movies too!

  5. I did have one thought about a pro-abortion comedy. It would involve, through some miraculous intervention, a high-level male anti-choice zealot getting pregnant after out-of-wedlock sex – better still if he’s married and has to explain himself. But it seems like a one-joke movie.

    The other unspoken element of the abortion debate is class. The abortion in Dirty Dancing wasn’t unsafe because it was illegal – it was unsafe because Penny went to a guy in a trailer, and not a Park Avenue Physician who could perform an abortion safely. Limitations on choice will, in the end, affect those without the resources to overcome them. I doubt that those with both the money and the inclination will be deterred by the assaults on choice of the theocrats.

    And I agree – the power of entertainment to create sympathy for characters one might reflexively fear is strong. (Here’s the chicken-egg question for the day: did Will and Grace help further acceptance of gays, or did growing acceptance of gays allow Will and Grace to succeed?) I think if someone smarter than me writes a pro-choice film of any sort, and studio executives think it will get an audience, it will get made. I don’t know that you can ask for more than that.

  6. Oddly I too blogged about the Knocked Up/Juno deal today. I’d like to put in that the last comedy that featured an abortion was…Fast Times at Ridgemont High, making the 80s more progessive than now. Rad!


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