Given how common an experience abortion is, the mainstream stories are few and far between, and the ones that are the most memorable are half a century old.
As of today, Obvious Child, the Jenny Slate “abortion rom-com” about a New York City comedian who has an abortion after a one-night-stand-that-maybe-won’t-be-a-one-night-stand, is 119th on the box office charts for 2014. Above it on the list, in case you’re curious, are Nymphomaniac III, Nymphomaniac I, and the collected Oscar nominated short films. In other words, Obvious Child is a microscopic blip on the entertainment radar that, unless you pay really close attention to the state of women-told stories in media, you might have missed. But then again, you’re reading this essay, so maybe you noticed it after all.
I noticed it too, and not because I’m a diehard Jenny Slate fan, or because I just can’t get enough of abortion, but because there are so very few mainstream stories told about this incredibly common experience. How could I skip the chance to show, with my $12 ticket, that I want more like this?
Despite the fact that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion before age 45, judging by the content of mainstream movies and TV, it seems more likely a woman will try on ten thousand bridesmaid dresses, accidentally fall for a trained assassin, or change bodies with her teenaged self than terminate a pregnancy. When I see something, anything, that resembles a reasonable version of a reality that is lived by so many women, I will always pay attention.
And Obvious Child is a good story, a funny, tender, sweet, complicated story. I laughed a lot, I cried once, I squirmed more than once. Donna, the protagonist, is empathetic without being pathetic. She’s no saint; besides the typical millennial woe-is-me self-obsession that we’ve come to recognize as a hallmark of the 20-something on film, I was deeply uncomfortable with the way she ultimately revealed the pregnancy to the one-night-stand.
Flawed as she is, Donna is also deeply and disconcertingly familiar; curious about the procedure, confused about the ethics of telling her sexual partner, embarrassed to be pregnant in the first place, scared for the future. In an interview with Vulture, Slate said, “One thing I think our movie fights for, and I will fight for as a person, is that it’s a woman’s right not just to choose, but to have complex feelings about that choice.”
Obvious Child is not enough. Yes, young, white, highly-educated, bookstore-loving, politically-progressive, unapologetically sex-positive comedians who do bits about their vaginas get abortions, but that’s a definitively unaverage representation of the American abortion landscape.
Where are my stories about black and Latina women who make this choice? They make up 30% and 25%, respectively, of American women who get abortions. Where are my stories about women who are already mothers (60%) or Catholic women (28%)? Nearly 42% of women who have abortions live below the poverty line ($10,830 for a single woman with no children), where’s that story? [Note: all stats from Guttmacher Institute]
Given how common an experience abortion is, the mainstream stories are few and far between, and the ones that are the most memorable—Maude Findlay’s at age 47 on Maude in 1972, and Penny’s back alley nightmare in Dirty Dancing, set in 1963—are half a century old. What more recent examples do we have to grapple with? Cardiologist Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, teenager Becky Sproles on Friday Night Lights, and Claire Underwood on House of Cards, come to mind, but we need more and we need variety.
The problem is not Obvious Child, which, despite its limitations, is very much part of the solution. No single “abortion rom-com” can capture the experience of all women and all choices, nor should one try. For many women, the idea of telling their stories with humor might even be offensive, undermining the pain they feel, and that’s fine too. I don’t just want the happy stories.
I want abortion dramas, abortion biopics, abortion buddy comedies, abortion travel diaries. I want stories about the women who wanted abortions and couldn’t get them, stories about women who considered abortions and picked other paths, stories about women who laughed at the clinic and about women who cried. I even want stories about women who had abortions and regret them. Unintended pregnancy is a reality of life, and how we respond is not just good storytelling, but essential for understanding how we value life, and which lives, and why.
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.