Is Hollywood aborting Roe v. Wade?

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As Harry Potter successfully convinces Hogwarts cohorts that mentioning Lord Voldemort’s name won’t kill them, Hollywood itself seems to be under the influence of it’s own nemesis– a real one– that, as Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday points out is becoming a specter that cannot be named.

In her insightful essay, Hornaday points out that this season of sequels– Potter and others– also includes two well received films about unwanted pregnancies– “Waitress” and “Knocked Up”– in which that which shall remain nameless– namely abortion– isn’t considered as an alternative. Not even as an unwanted one.

Has Hollywood recently aborted Roe vs. Wade? Or, has Tinsel Town’s record of representation of abortion really changed that much during the past decade or so?

In the July 2000 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal, Eve Kushner (author of “Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women’s Words”) comments that in Hollywood films produced during the previous decade, “Unexpected conceptions occur onscreen with surprising frequency, but filmmakers routinely play it safe, avoiding substantial discussions of a pregnancy’s pros and cons. They keep abortion out of plots and even out of dialogue, ensuring that movies end with a heartwarming birth.” Kushner cites “Father of the Bride” (1989, “Parenthood” (1989), “Look Who’s Talking” (1989), “Father of the Bride”(1995), “Nine Months” (1995) and “The Opposite Sex” (1998) to illustrate Hollywood’s varied takes on coping with unwanted pregnancies. None of them considers abortion– despite the then effective stats showing that 82 percent of Americans thought abortion should stay legal, and 43 percent of American women would end at least one pregnancy by age 45.

What’s the reason?

Presumably, Hollywood’s past and current pro-life palette comes from marketing concerns– that movie marketers, who’re this year pushing what are touted to be family values in films ranging from the saccharine “No Reservations” to the smash-and-bash “Transformers,” back off that which must not be named because they think it’s more than the market will bare.

They’re featuring kick ass broads, apparently without concern that the characters won’t garner high acceptability ratings and be liked, if not idolized, by moviegoers. But, let a lady consider terminating an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy that will chain her and her unborn child to a man who treats her appallingly, making a mess of her life unto death, and she, markets assume, will be deemed by audiences to be an unholy pariah.

However, as Hornaday’s research shows, the majority of people– albeit a slight majority (and one assumes they include moviegoers in their numbers)– favors freedom of choice, even though (and this is baffling) another small majority declares itself to consider abortion immoral.

So, is there a clear majority on this issue? Is that majority silent? Is that majority silencing Hollywood into playing it market safe to the extent that discussion of freedom of choice no longer occurs on movie screens?

Even the indie “Stephanie Daley,” Hilary Brougher’s drama about a teenager who’s unwanted pregnancy ended in the suspicious death of her newborn, never acknowledged abortion as a viable option for the girl– who was, admittedly, naive. But THAT naive?

In contrast, abortion is still being considered in docs. Jennifer Fox’s “Flying: Confessions of a Free Women,” a six-segment, six-hour documentary in which the filmmaker circles the globe while balancing two love relationships and seeking insight into her own family values, seems to be the summer’s sole cinematic expression dealing with the possibility and consequences of abortion. Six segments means, of course, that Fox provides audiences with sequels to spare– but each is a probing and honest examination of the way in which Fox and her peers handle the issues women face when trying to balance pregnancy and personal development, relationship and career.

Releasing in October after fifteen years in production, Tony Kaye’s (American History X) documentary, “Lake of Fire,” presents an unbiased, difficult and provocative examination of abortion.

On the fiction feature front, Europe seems somewhat– perhaps just barely– more abortion amenable than Hollywood. French officials have decided to lift their ban on screening the Romanian-made abortion drama, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” in French secondary schools, supported by government funding, according to The Guardian.

What are your thoughts? Are Hollywood marketers correctly reading the mood of the majority vis a vis that which they’re not naming? Is that sort of self-imposed censorship a healthy development? Is Hollywood really as liberal as it is supposed by many to be? What films have influenced your attitude towards abortion, and how? Does bias interfere with a film’s being as interesting and touching as it might be? Are there other reasons why Hollywood is obliterating the subject of abortion from the screen? Please comment here.

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  • Carrie Rickey

    While I fervently believe that no one in Hollywood has the brass to make a movie in which the heroine has an abortion, whether incidentally or as a major plot point, I also believe this:

    1) Despite the excellent “Vera Drake,” about a ’50s-era abortionist in the UK, abortion is box-office poison.

    I can imagine a feature about abortion working dramatically only if the heroine was the subject of incest or rape or if she and the father had to weigh the emotional and psychological choices of terminating a pregnancy where the fetus was genetically compromised. While I can imagine scenarios where the heroine elects abortion for justifiable personal reasons (career, not wanting children, not wanting to be a single parent, inability to afford another child), the choice to terminate a pregnancy for these equally excellent reasons immediately stamps the heroine as selfish and therefore unsympathetic. Dramatically speaking, I don’t see a way of getting beyond the double-bind here, unless the heroine terminated a pregnancy for her career and her career was discovering a cancer cure. Can it be that the last widely-distributed American feature about abortion was “Citizen Ruth”?

    2) Without the decision to keep the baby, there would be no second and third acts in “Waitress” and “Knocked Up.” This said, for emotional verisimilitude I wish there had been some discussion of the abortion in the latter.

  • Jennifer Merin

    Just a reminder that the girl in “Stephanie Daley” was the victim of rape. Yet there was no discussion of termination of the pregnancy– which was, in part, the point. The girl was extremely naive and entirely without information and skills to deal with her pregnancy. And that, in a way, resulted in the death of the child, albeit not by abortion. Could that extreme ‘innocence’ be the product of society’s– and Hollywood’s– reluctance to discuss troubling topics like abortion? Is non-discussion a good way to deal with difficult issues that cry out for public debate?

  • Carrie Rickey

    Having not seen “Stephanie Daley,” I am at a disadvantage. For Hollywood to make a film involving abortion, the premise has to be commercial, not only ideological, I am not for supressing discussion about abortion, I’m for imagining scenarios where a woman who elects an abortion can be seen as sympathetic and pro-family. Can our readers imagine such scenarios? Or is the typical Hollywood message movie like “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where self-improvement is almost overwhelmed by extreme selflessness?

  • Jennifer Merin

    I find it interesting that we find it difficult to conceive of a movie scenario in which a likeable woman who decides to have an abortion for a well-thought out reason doesn’t become so unsympathetic she’s deemed a box-office-killer. I know several women who’ve had abortions for various reasons, and find their stories quite sympathetic. I think the keys to creating a character– even one whose actions might not be totally acceptible to a segment of the population– are the actor’s honesty and the performance choices she makes.

    The choice of “Pursuit of Happyness” as an example is an interesting one. Why is Will Smith’s character, based on a real person, so likeable and sympathetic as he drags his son from squat to squat while trying to get a job? Is it because he’s a single dad? Would a single mom have received the same leeway, understanding and support?

    And, along the same line of questioning, why do we sympathize with out-and-out killers (Ben Kingley’s character in “You Kill Me,” for example) who kill for their profession or for reasons of anger, when we can’t accept a hardworking, honest woman who’s trying to do the right thing in her life and feels she has to terminate an unwanted pregnancy?

    “Vera Drake” is a great film that raises the question of abortion in an honest, non-judgemental way that serves to promote discussion and public awareness. Imelda Staunton’s Vera– a character who breaks the law while ‘helping’ women with unwanted pregnancies– is unquestionably sympathetic. We, the audience, are not told what to think about her and her actions. We are, however, priviledged to witness her, come to understand her way of thinking and empathize with her.

    I can think of several personal “I had an abortion” stories I know about that I’d say produce, although they’re not on screen, in me the same sort of empathy. I don’t dislike the women who’re at the heart of these stories, and I don’t think audiences would either– if they were honestly portrayed in a filmed version of their lives and circumstances.

  • Maitland McDonagh

    I find myself having a flashback to the glib ’70s feminist rallying cry that if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

    As far as I’m concerned, starting in the late 70s, Hollywood has become increasingly geared to serving the fantasies of boys. Not men. Twelve-year-old boys of all ages. And what 12-year-old boy wants to so much as think about icky lady parts and processes?

    Periods, pregnancy, menopause… it’s all just too gross, and not in a cool, can-you-handle-this-dude kind of way. No wonder abortion is topic non grata.

  • Bernie

    A few earlier articles that took on this same topic: Dana Stevens’ insightful analysis of “Knocked Up” in Salon, A.O. Scott’s review of the same film in NYT, and J Peder Zane’s review

  • Bernie

    A few earlier articles that took on this same topic: Dana Stevens’ insightful analysis of “Knocked Up” in Salon, A.O. Scott’s review of the same film in NYT, and J Peder Zane’s review of pop culture’s abortion taboo

    It seems to me it’s all a lack of guts. Reality is reality — not dealing with abortion is avoiding a fact of life.