Why Deny the Obvious: Hollywood’s Backward Stance on Abortion

Obvious Child is the belated inheritor of a pro-choice movement gestating in Hollywood for decades—a movement aborted the moment politics turned contentious.

Fox Searchlight/Everett

Obvious Child is the movie that Hollywood should have been making 40 years ago, the second that the Supreme Court legalized abortion with the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. It’s the movie Hollywood should’ve made 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan was waging war against Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health-care providers, and it’s the movie Hollywood should have been making 10, 20 years ago, when states began passing laws that limited women’s access to safe and legal abortions.

It’s to the immense credit of writer-director Gillian Robespierre that Obvious Child never seems to register the weight of our expectations.

Obvious Child is not “the abortion movie” that its own marketing and reception might lead you to anticipate. Robespierre and star Jenny Slate have made a movie about a woman, not an abortion. There are no impassioned speeches about women’s rights, no bad guys protesting outside the clinic, and no after-the-fact breakdowns. Donna’s life does not revolve around her choice, and neither does the movie. It is at every turn more relaxed, more confident, and more rewarding than what we as an audience have been conditioned to expect from this kind of movie—the kind with a capital-I “Issue” at its heart. Maybe the most political thing about Obvious Child is that it makes abortion feel as if it isn’t an issue at all.

If the rest of us have had trouble catching up to Robespierre and crew, well, we are starting from a bit of a handicap.

Hollywood likes to think of itself as a liberal stronghold, pushing America forward one very important Oscar picture at a time. But for the last 30 years Hollywood has remained conspicuously silent as women’s rights have been rolled back bill by bill, Supreme Court ruling by Supreme Court ruling. The last major release to feature an abortion was Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls in 2010—since that film’s release, over 3 million legal abortions have been performed in the United States alone.

Like any successful politician, Hollywood excuses its own failings under the rhetoric of progress—things might not be perfect, but aren’t we doing so much better than before?

Industry professionals and critics hasten to hail Obvious Child as “groundbreaking” or “first of its kind,” but in actuality, Obvious Child is the belated inheritor of a pro-choice movement that had been gestating in Hollywood for decades—a movement that was aborted the moment that politics turned contentious.

The first major studio film to tackle abortion was the Pre-Code 1934 melodrama, Men in White, which follows the story of a doctor who begins an affair with a kindly nurse, only for her to get pregnant and die after a botched abortion. The film, while sympathetic to the doomed Barbara, also sees her as the root of her own problems—her death plays like a natural consequence for her sexual transgressions. The movie might feel bad for Barbara, but beyond that, the film shows no ambitions when it comes to the treatment of abortion. Barbara is a nice girl who did a bad thing, and she dies as payment for her sins.

Pre-Code films like Men in White have a reputation for being almost like the naughty older sibling to the squeaky clean Hays Code era that would follow, but in some ways the Hays Code was a liberating force for filmmakers—you can’t bend the rules until you know what they are.

It would take until 1945, but eventually even the rules around abortion proved flexible.

John Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is the story of a woman who loves too much. Ellen’s mad jealousy leads her to murder her husband’s handicapped brother, abort her child, and eventually to commit suicide—all in the name of love. Leave Her to Heaven was MGM’s biggest hit in 1945, and Ellen’s choice to abort was one of the most publicized elements of the film. The original trailer even opens with her confession and defense of the abortion: “Sometimes the truth is wicked.”

On paper, Ellen is a classic Hollywood madwoman, and she is punished like one, as her machinations only result in her death and her husband’s eventual marriage to her sister. But the experience of watching the film doesn’t quite mesh with its perfectly Code-acceptable paper credentials.

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Ellen’s virtuous husband and sister seem like perfectly pleasant people, but they are utterly forgettable when compared to Ellen. At any given moment, Ellen is the most interesting, most powerful, and most beautiful figure on-screen, and we spend more time with her than any other character. Stahl films her with his camera low, and she dwarfs the frame like an avenging angel—the script might be telling you she’s bad, but how can anyone be bad when they look that good?

What’s more, Stahl presents Ellen’s concerns about her pregnancy with rationality, not exploitative hysteria. Ellen can’t leave the bedroom, she can’t eat what she wants, she can’t exercise, and Richard is still more interested in talking books with her sister than he is in attending to his pregnant wife. Ellen’s actions might be outsized, but her frustrations surrounding her pregnancy are always treated as natural, valid, and even appropriate.

Ellen makes her choice, and she throws herself down the stairs to abort the baby. The next time we see her she’s emerging from the ocean—a force of nature, free and magnificent. The film lets her unspoiled beauty speak the so-called “wicked” truth: for Ellen, abortion was the best choice.

If Leave Her to Heaven was an ambiguous and provocative introduction to abortion on-screen, the films that would follow in its wake would only make Hollywood’s position more clear.

In 1951, two controversial Paramount films tackled the continued illegality of abortion head-on. In the George Stevens picture A Place in the Sun, it is strongly suggested that an unfortunate factory girl’s inability to obtain an abortion directly leads to her death, as her lover murders her to free himself of their engagement, and the William Wyler film noir Detective Story features Kirk Douglas as a detective obsessed with apprehending a criminal abortion doctor, only to find out that his wife is a former patient. Both of these films sympathize with the women who seek abortive care, and both seem to present abortion not just as an option, but as a preferable option for young, unmarried women.

But while these films made an admirable cause out of abortion, the release of the romantic comedy Love With the Proper Stranger in 1963 began a new tradition in Hollywood—character-driven films where abortion is just one facet of life, and it is this tradition that continues with Obvious Child today.

Love with the Proper Stranger follows Angie, a shopgirl weighing her options after a one-night stand with a sweet, irresponsible musician leaves her pregnant. Though the abortion proves to be dangerous and she does not follow through, the film spends the majority of its runtime sympathetically following Angie as she plans for the procedure, collecting money, arranging for meeting places. There is never a question of guilt or shame regarding Angie’s decisions—the film treats her search for an abortion with the same respect as her later search for an apartment or a husband.

If the outcomes of these films seem dated, well, why shouldn’t they? Coming in a time where not only was abortion illegal, but the tide of public opinion was still significantly negative, these studio productions were political statements, and they were powerful ones, even with the limitations of censors. Studios were portraying the illegality of abortion as a devastating, potentially fatal problem for both men and women, and studios weren’t fooling about where this problem was happening—these early abortion pictures were, without exception, films set in the present and among respectable middle-class people.

Hollywood put itself on the line to ask that audiences empathize with people who would be considered criminals in the eyes of the law and at least half the country’s population. For once, the industry was living up to its liberal reputation.

Following the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, it seemed like abortion was going to become a natural part of Hollywood storytelling. Films like Cabaret and The Godfather Part II featured successful abortions without shame or fuss, and even television—which at the time was a more conservative medium—made the foray into abortion with shows like Maude and All My Children leading the way.

But in the 1980s, all the progress that had been made over the course of the last four decades suddenly halted.

As Ronald Reagan led a neo-conservative revival at the polls built on a campaign of “family values,” the tide of public opinion began to shift, and Hollywood began to shift with it. Hollywood began the decade with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a modern comedy featuring a teen girl’s safe, legal abortion—but by the decade’s close, industry was hedging its bets with movies like For Keeps and Dirty Dancing.

If abortion wasn’t being completely passed over at the movies in favor of childbirth or adoption, then it was only being portrayed as a part of the past. Even as illegal and unsafe abortions became more and more rare, the number of films at the box office that depicted abortion as dangerous or life threatening refused to drop.

For the last three decades this pattern has persisted, becoming so prevalent that now films and television shows that just mention abortion as an option are considered a part of the liberal bastion. Citizen Ruth, Knocked Up, Juno, Sex and the City, Girls, Short Term 12—all progressive media in many ways, and all shy away from abortion no matter how unlikely the usual alternatives might seem. Meanwhile the Academy throws parties for films like The Cider House Rules and Revolutionary Road—films that pat themselves on the back for their liberal credentials while rehashing politics that would have been on their way out over 50 years ago.

Thirty-five percent of women in this country will have an abortion in their lifetimes. For tens of millions of women, films like Obvious Child reflect experience, not just values. Isn’t it time for Hollywood to catch on to the obvious and catch up with its audience?