‘Unpregnant’ and the Cathartic Beauty of the Hollywood Abortion-Comedy
The HBO Max film “Unpregnant,” about a teen who travels from Missouri to New Mexico to get an abortion, has received backlash from the Christian right. They’re missing the point.
In the 1966 romantic dramedy Alfie, a young Michael Caine (as the “cockney Casanova” himself) sits in an armchair in his apartment, staring uncertainly at a curtain. Behind it, a shifty, unreliable abortionist induces a woman named Lily, who is pregnant after a one-night dalliance with Alfie.
“I hate anything like this,” Alfie confides to the camera. “My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain, I’m like every other bloke: I don’t want to know.” Seeing the fetus later reduces Alfie to tears. He grieves the “perfectly formed being” now “murdered” and renounces his careless womanizing; the abortion transforms him, setting him on a path to attempted respectability. He slips into a suit, grabs a bouquet, and sets off to court a woman called Ruby, hoping to settle down with her. Lily shuffles out of Alfie’s apartment in a traumatized haze, stroking a child’s teddy bear. It’s the last we see of her.
There were no happy endings for women who terminated unwanted pregnancies in movies until long after the 1968 dismantling of the pre-MPAA censorship guidelines often known as the Hays Code, which included demands that abortion should always be “condemned” if referenced at all. Another stipulation of the Code: Abortion “must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy.” Alfie, despite being among the first film comedies to show a woman going through with an abortion, satisfied the decree easily; it painted the act as a moral failing with painful, tragically un-funny consequences. Movie comedies have progressed considerably since, though, in depicting abortion as matter-of-factly as life’s other complications—and daring to laugh at the absurdities surrounding it, too.
Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s sophomore feature Unpregnant, now streaming on HBO Max, is the newest in a limited but growing tradition of movie comedies involving abortion. Not that it, nor any of these movies really, are strictly about abortion itself. Rather, Unpregnant is a teen buddy comedy about friendship and coming of age, set in the legislative and logistical labyrinth some women and girls must navigate to get an abortion. The abortion experience it presents is hardly universal; its 17-year-old heroines are white, reasonably well-off, and never in any real danger. But it does reflect an everyday reality rarely captured in a movie aimed at young adults. For the characters in Unpregnant and for many women, abortion is just one part of life. So are bad road trips. So are complicated friendships and shitty ex-boyfriends. None of it means you can never laugh again.
Straight-A popular kid Veronica (Support the Girls’ Haley Lu Richardson) knows at once what the right decision for her is when she discovers she’s pregnant, thanks to her boyfriend’s failure to tell her when his condom broke. She’s attending Brown in the fall, but he wants her wifed up and tied down to their hometown for good. With no one else to turn to, she enlists her wry, green-haired ex-best friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira of Euphoria) to drive with her out of their hometown in Missouri—a state with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the U.S.—in an electric blue, eagle-emblazoned Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Their destination: the nearest women’s clinic where Veronica can terminate without the permission of her conservative “Jesus freak” parents.
That clinic is 996 miles and roughly $2,000 in expenses away in Albuquerque, New Mexico—a road odyssey filled with cops, kooks, and one unforeseen hurdle for every tiny triumph. Necessary details of the trip become marathons: getting together the money, hitching rides once the Trans Am gets impounded, dodging pushy men and anti-choice evangelicals—even making it across the waiting room of the women’s clinic is a trial of its own. It is not due to any moral, spiritual, or political hand-wringing; there is no “Veronica’s Dilemma.” And by the end, what Veronica comes to regret isn’t the abortion itself. It’s losing touch with Bailey years ago and dating that dolt of a boyfriend in the first place.
The girls’ slowly mending, sometimes fracturing relationship claims center stage through it all, with Richardson and Ferreira’s magnetism and chemistry fueling the movie’s warmth. It’s a commiserative comedy; it offers laughter when the alternative is to feel insane or enraged. “The point that we’re making,” Goldenberg tells The Daily Beast, “and the source of the comedy is, why is this so fucking hard?”
Veronica herself says so explicitly in the movie’s middle-finger-to-the-sky speech. “This is a joke!” she yells mid-breakdown, sunburnt, dirt-streaked, and stranded with Bailey in an empty field. “I shouldn’t be here. I should not be here! I should be able to just walk down the street and open a door and waltz right in and say, ‘Hello, my name is Veronica. My boyfriend is an asshole. Here’s my $500.’” The movie and its humor hardly align with what anti-abortion activists have accused it of being: some celebration of death, gleeful in the face of what they deem should be a categorically excruciating and traumatic decision for all women.
In the days before Unpregnant’s release, USA Today published an op-ed by a Catholic priest with the headline “Hey HBO, abortion isn’t a joke,” calling for readers to cancel their subscriptions. Similar op-eds followed in right-wing outlets, responding not to the movie itself, but to its trailer. YouTube users with names like “Freedom 3:16” swarmed the movie’s trailer page, downvoting en masse and flooding the comment section with fire-and-brimstone diatribes. (Several recommended Juno instead, since that teen heroine decides not to abort.) The reflexive distaste isn’t exclusive to conservatives. The Boston Globe’s chief film critic deemed Unpregnant’s humor “crass”; he speaks for the “women of America” in declaring they “deserve better.”
But the crassest (and funniest) jokes about abortion in film and TV comedies aren’t in Unpregnant. In Gillian Robespierre’s groundbreaking 2014 rom-com Obvious Child, a friend rallies her stand-up comedian bestie Donna (played by Jenny Slate) just as she’s about to go onstage. “You are gonna kill it out there,” she reassures her. “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow,” Donna jokes back. In an instant, the tension as Donna readies to go public with her abortion evaporates.
In a 2016 episode of BoJack Horseman, a pop star named Sextina Aquafina fakes an abortion and unleashes a hit single called “Get That Fetus Kill That Fetus,” with lyrics like “I’m a baby killer / Baby-killing makes me horny / Aliens inside me / Gonna squash it like Sigourney.” The episode went on to stage one of the most nuanced onscreen abortion stories to date, skewering the inanity of the debate surrounding the procedure (an all-white, all-male televised panel doles out lines like, “I can say that with confidence because I’ll never have to make that decision, so I’m unbiased”), and acknowledging that there is no one right way for a woman to feel about her own.
By comparison, Unpregnant takes a firmly grounded approach to talk of the procedure itself. In one of its quietest (and most moving) moments, a counselor walks Veronica through what she’ll soon experience in the clinic. The standard intake questions, her anesthetic options, the length of the procedure, what she’ll feel, and where she’ll rest afterward are relayed in a voice as calm and reassuring as those at real-life abortion clinics, with images of each step filmed through Veronica’s eyes. She admits that she’s nervous; the counselor assures her that’s normal.
It’s one of few teen movie comedies to demystify so much of the process. In Amy Heckerling’s 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for instance, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Stacy enters and leaves a clinic in L.A.; we see a short conversation with her nurse after it’s over, but the scene Heckerling set during the procedure itself didn’t make the final cut. (In it, Stacy asks her doctor, “Does it hurt more to have a baby?” “Yes,” he replies. “But I think you mind it less.”) Director Boaz Davidson’s Nice Guy manifesto/teen sex comedy The Last American Virgin, released just two weeks before Fast Times, on the other hand, depicts part of the procedure itself. But it does so through a cold, almost cruelly-detached lens—and it sets the whole thing to a U2 song.
“I think that there’s sort of a bad-faith argument that we’re trying to say abortion is funny with [Unpregnant], when much of the comedy is derived from how hard it is for [Veronica] to get the abortion,” Goldenberg says. She points to high-profile detractors on social media who had not seen the movie before condemning it. “The accusations I’ve read feel sort of specifically designed for people who have lots of followers to try to get more followers by saying something really terrible is happening, more than actually having any awareness of what the film is or where we’re coming from with it.”
Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco, notes that so-called “abortion comedies” have tended to attract more backlash than dramas. “If it’s a drama, you can say, ‘Oh, it’s serious. It’s sad. It’s dangerous.’ You know, those things come across in a lot of the depictions that we still see,” she tells The Daily Beast. “But when it’s a comedy, there is the idea that you’re being flippant. You’re not taking this life-changing decision seriously. But they don’t look at where the humor is directed.”
“Particularly when you look at these regulations and restrictions and barriers to access,” Sisson adds, “the work of navigating those is absurd, right? Like, look at this ridiculous thing that we put women through. Why shouldn’t that be grounds for humor?”
Unpregnant is far from the first movie to, in one conservative critic’s less-than-accurate assessment, “turn abortion into a joke.” It’s not even the first to contend with abortion through laughter this year. Kelly O’Sullivan’s Saint Frances beat it to the punch in February. It featured a graceful performance from the writer/actress as a thirtysomething making peace with seemingly irreconcilable facets of her life—including her recent abortion and a deepening appreciation of what it takes to birth, raise, and love a child. “Do I look cute?” she asks her boyfriend in one scene, an abortion pill stuffed in her cheek. “Yeah, you look very cute,” he replies, sincerely charmed.
But Sisson notes that until recently, even the outwardly liberal bastion of Hollywood has often been squeamish about mixing comedy and abortion onscreen. In 2014, The Mindy Project creator Mindy Kaling deemed abortion off-limits for her sitcom about an OB-GYN. Her reasoning: “It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.” (She later walked that back a bit.)
Four years before that, FOX refused to air an episode of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy in the U.S. because it involved abortion. MacFarlane criticized the decision at the time, explaining that “it undervalues the power of comedy to make a statement that is at least as profound as the power of a live-action drama.” He pointed specifically to House, which ran on the same network and had aired three episodes by then about abortion. Sisson agrees with MacFarlane’s point. “The bottom line is, a lot of people get an abortion,” she says, and comedy “is a way for them to connect with it.”
Unpregnant aims to connect with young women specifically—one aspect that sets it apart from recent movies on the same topic, of which there are a few. It bears a passing resemblance to this year’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s poetically understated drama about two teen girls journeying across state lines to get an abortion without parental consent. The plot of the 2015 dramedy Grandma could also be described as an abortion road trip. In it, a magnificently ornery Lily Tomlin zig-zags the streets of L.A. to scrape together funds for her underage grandkid’s procedure. (“Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?” she gripes.)
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to bring this discussion to more people—to younger people and older people,” Goldenberg says. “I think that the shame that has been built up around abortion is intentional, and that not talking about it is what the people who want to restrict it are aiming for.”
Learning to talk openly about her own abortion is what set Goldenberg on the path to directing Unpregnant. “I felt grateful for it and had no moral qualms with it, but I found myself not telling a lot of people,” she says. “And I never looked inward about that decision. I just sort of accepted, well, this isn’t something you really talk about. Moving on.” It was an opinion piece she read somewhere that changed her mind. It made the case that when fewer and fewer women speak up about their abortions, anti-choice activists inch closer to winning their cause.
“As recently as the ’80s, this was something that was talked about way more,” she learned. “There were letters signed by all these female celebrities who had gotten abortions, and people would be on the cover of magazines for an issue saying ‘We’ve had abortions.’ And I didn’t know that.” Famous women who’d done so, she learned, included Catherine Deneuve, Billie Jean King, Agnes Varda, and Gloria Steinem. So Goldenberg began forcing herself to talk about hers, “feeling like that was its own mini political act.”
When she read the manuscript for Unpregnant (based on a novel by Jenni Hendricks and Ted Caplan; Goldenberg, her writing partner Bill Parker, and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson of Sweet/Vicious adapted it for film), she felt a connection to its honest depiction of how, for some women and girls, abortion itself isn’t the crisis. It’s the stigma and culture war surrounding the procedure, and how they contribute to the dwindling of safe, affordable resources for accessing it.
Making the film exposed her to people who feel differently. She’s grateful for that experience, too. “We had a crew member who had, as a child, participated in anti-choice marches. And so this person had to have a conversation with their mom to let her know they were working on this movie,” she recalls. “It just sort of gave me compassion for different perspectives, while at the same time strengthening my own resolve in my position.”
She’s heartened by this year’s small flurry of films about women who have abortions. But she’s also clear-eyed about their precariousness. “We’re talking about three” of these movies, she points out. “That’s less than Marvel was originally supposed to make this year.” Sisson highlights another glaring limitation: like most movies in this genre, they’ve all starred young white women. “It’s not inaccurate as an individual depiction, but it’s certainly not a pattern that reflects what actual abortion patients in the United States look like right now,” she says, pointing to aggregate data that shows most women who undergo abortions are women of color; most are in their 20s and 30s; most are already parenting.
Still, there’s room within that limited slate for all sorts of stories, Sisson says. “They don’t need to be heavy-handed, fraught, sad, dramatic, scary. You can explore abortion from the context of people’s relationships or friendships, or their own decisions about their lives and what they want for their futures and their families. Any story that involves any of that complexity can be dramatic, it can be comedic.”
What may matter most is the clear fact at the center of these movies: No woman wants to have an abortion. But life happens. And if the need arises, women must be able to access safe and affordable options for termination.
And yes, for some of us, we also gotta be able to laugh.