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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Abortion and Popular Culture: Fast Times v. Knocked Up


Sherry Colb has a FindLaw essay and blog post on the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which depicts the efforts of a student to obtain an illegal abortion in Ceausescu's Romania in the late 1980s. In the post, Colb wonders why abortion is not depicted as a serious option in recent American movies such as Waitress, Knocked Up, and Best-Picture nominee Juno (and I confess to not having seen any of these). Colb suggests these films "demonstrate the success of a pro-life movement operating within a pro-choice regime."


I want to agree with Sherry and expand on something I wrote in the comments. The success of the pro-life movement has been in controlling the rhetoric of popular culture on the subject of abortion. It now is inconceivable that a mainstream movie or television show (especially a comedy or "dramedy") would depict a character choosing to have an abortion. The anticipated and expected enraged backlash from the pro-life movement, Republicans, and the right-wing media (mainstream and alternative) would scare any major (and most minor) studio or network away from the subject and the overall project.

Compare this with two examples from the not-so-distant (which is to say, within my lifetime) pop-culture past in which very different characters are shown choosing to terminate a pregnancy in very different circumstances: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where a high school sophomore becomes pregnant after a one-time mistake with a jerk, and the television show Maude, where a middle-aged woman with grown children decides she cannot go back to that earlier stage of her life. I cannot imagine either situation being shown today.

Even if the pro-life movement has not succeeded (yet) in overturning Roe (something Jack Balkin has argued the Republican powers-that-be do not really want anyway), it has succeeded in taking abortion out of the popular culture. This is not to suggest that real women are making real-world choices based on what they see in either a movie with Judge Reinhold or one with Seth Rogen. But a society's popular culture reflects the societal narrative, which in turn affects the conversations, if not the actual actions, occurring in that society. To the extent abortion is less a part of the societal conversation, even though it remains a legal option, that is a victory for the pro-life movement--although perhaps not yet a tangible one or the one they really wanted.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 19, 2008 at 04:52 PM | Permalink


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Andy Ackerman obviously hasn't seen "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."
Fast Times was far smarter than "Knocked Up." It's absurd to even compare the two. Jennifer Jason Leigh was absolutely right to have an abortion.
Both Juno in "Juno" and Katherine Heigl's character in "Knocked Up" should have had abortions. How absurd is it to think women should have babies when they're in high school or when they barely know the man that's fathering the child?
I'm sick of Hollywood showing fat male losers with hot women ("Knocked up," "King of Queens," "According to Jim") It's tired and unrealistic.

Posted by: Pete Johnson | Aug 21, 2008 2:15:51 PM

I know that this thread is done, but FYI I did want to mention that as I understand it the soap opera, General Hospital, had a sympathetic female character have an abortion, and she didn't suffer any 'punishment' for it.



Posted by: ruth hoffmann | Feb 26, 2008 9:10:15 PM

Whether or not you agree with Roe, I find it perverse that some people are rooting for more abortions in Hollywood movies.

Posted by: Asher | Feb 23, 2008 2:32:33 AM

A terrific new HBO show is In Treatment, exploring people in psychotherapy. It is actually based on the Israeli series, Be Tipul. On thursdays, Jake and Amy are in couple treatment and the episodes follow their decision on whether or not to have an abortion after having been in fertility treatments for 5 years. The issue is all about whether a second child is right for their relationship and career, but yet again, the writers avoid an actual resolution to abort when in one episode, Amy has a miscarriage.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Feb 22, 2008 2:46:26 AM

"Point is, Abortion can and has been dealt with hilariously. Juno and especially Knocked Up really wimped out."

Yeah, Knocked Up would have been so much funnier if the girl had an abortion. Then, all of Ben's friends could sit around theorizing how funny it would have been had Ben became a father and had to accompany a woman through the pregnancy process. Hilarity ensues...

I've also always thought Weekend at Bernie's would have been so much funnier had Bernie been alive. They really wimped out on that one, too.

Posted by: Andy Ackerman | Feb 22, 2008 1:53:50 AM

I don't want to discount the comments above, but the reason abortion isn't an option in Knocked-Up is that it wouldn't be funny. There are plenty of shows and movies I have seen where the option of abortion is discussed (and usually discarded) - but usually not in the comedies....

I would like to direct your attention to the second season of Sarah Silverman's show. The episode about Abortion is one of the funniest things I've ever seen, and it was on basic cable. Especially hilarious is the montage of Sarah reminiscing about her trips to the Abortion doctor, and her inability to understand until it's almost too late that what Anti Choice fanatics actually want to do is stop abortion. When she realizes they're going to blow up and Abortion Clinic while her sister is in it, she says "Oh my god, My sister!... MY ABORTIONS!"

Point is, Abortion can and has been dealt with hilariously. Juno and especially Knocked Up really wimped out.

Posted by: Ross Lincoln | Feb 21, 2008 1:33:06 PM

Thanks to everyone for the comments and the examples, some of which prove my point (if a character gets pregnant, the writers find a way around the abortion issue), others of which go in the other direction. I probably overstated my point (which is what happens on blogs)--it is not inconceivable, but I still believe depiction is relatively rare, and for all the reasons I stated.

Note a couple things. First, a lot of the examples in the comments involve characters discussing abortion--or at least one character urging/suggesting to his partner to have an abortion--but not acting on it. Which is not a bad thing--I am not suggesting that all movies should show abortion as the choice. But there are more examples of choosing otherwise--which, of course, is necessary to the plot of a movie such as Juno or Knocked Up.

Second, I think it is important for this discussion to distinguish abortion talked about in dialogue as something from a character's past from the depiction of it as an event happening in the present-day narrative of the story. I am not sure about Matchstick Men--I think Cage's ex-wife just told him she lost the babby as a way of showing Cage that he had been conned by the woman pretending to be his daughter. But even if the ex-wife did have an abortion, talking about it as a past event is not the same as the movie showing that decision and showing a central character acting on that decision now. It is not as central to the story and will not, I don't expect, provoke the same protest.

Third, in Dogma, Linda Fiorentino did work at an abortion clinic. And Jay and Silent Bob were hanging out there trying to pick women at the clinic, since women who needed to have an abortion obviously were "easy." But Smith was satirizing *everything* in that movie, so I am not sure how much mileage we get out of that example.

Fourth, Cider House Rules is an interesting example for two reasons: First, the events occurred in 1944, not present day. Second, the pregnancy was the product of incest/child sexual abuse (the father was having sex with his teen-age daughter). So many (not all, obviously) pro-lifers might accept abortion as appropriate in that situation.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 20, 2008 8:53:23 PM

Nowadays you can see those Degrassi: The Next Generation episodes on cable along with the others. The N, the teen-themed cable network that shows Degrassi in the United States, initially opted not to show the two episodes centered on Manny's abortion, claiming they were too serious for the audience. Maybe advertisers had problems. So season 3 was incomplete (and badly out of order) as initially broadcast in 2004. In 2006, The N decided to show the abortion episodes as a special hourlong event and now includes them in the normal rotation of old episodes.

Maybe you are thinking of the original Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High? A character had an abortion--one of the twins, I think--and most PBS affiliates seem to have shown it without incident. That series was regarded as pretty serious and teachy to begin with. The Next Generation has become more of a teen soap.

Posted by: Abe Delnore | Feb 20, 2008 5:23:39 PM

The Canadian teen show Degrassi has a story arc about a high school student who has an abortion (and doesn't regret it) that was never aired in the U.S. Also, for TV show Party of Five, Neve Campbell's character got pregnant and was supposed to have an abortion, but the network balked, and the script was changed to have her miscarry instead.

Posted by: anon | Feb 20, 2008 1:07:29 PM

I think abortion is portrayed as a serious option in Juno. It's played for laughs, and it's portrayed as a horrifying option, but I think it's portrayed as the natural thing for a pregnant teenager to do.

Posted by: Chris | Feb 20, 2008 12:35:21 PM

It now is inconceivable that a mainstream movie . . . would depict a character choosing to have an abortion.

Vera Drake? Cider House Rules?

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Feb 20, 2008 12:16:17 PM

On Grey's Anatomy, Christina was scheduled to have an abortion, but the pregnancy was ectopic and required emergency surgery before that could happen. I guess one could argue that the writers aborted the abortion, but I think the emergency surgery was more designed so we could meet Christina's mom and see Christina and Burke get back together under emotional circumstances. That being said, I generally agree with what you are saying about network television.

I did love Juno, though.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Feb 20, 2008 11:52:39 AM

A few years ago, "Everwood" had an episode where a teenager had an abortion. Of course, the WB then decided not to re-air the episode on its "Easy View Sunday" based upon the content: http://www.tv.com/everwood/episode-20/episode/238787/summary.html

Posted by: Colin Miller | Feb 20, 2008 8:39:06 AM

There have been episodes dealing with abortion on network TV - recently:

I don't want to discount the comments above, but the reason abortion isn't an option in Knocked-Up is that it wouldn't be funny. There are plenty of shows and movies I have seen where the option of abortion is discussed (and usually discarded) - but usually not in the comedies....

Posted by: Michael Risch | Feb 20, 2008 8:25:37 AM

Don't forget Sarah Silverman. She practically sings about the joys of abortion.

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 20, 2008 7:14:51 AM

It's also worth noting that on television shows like Sex and the City, often the character is pregnant because an actor is pregnant, so you can't really expect them to go through with the decision - a thoughtful consideration of the topic is that the best that can be done.

Movies don't have that excuse, of course.

Posted by: Katie | Feb 20, 2008 6:22:30 AM

An abortion was also performed on HBO's acclaimed old-west drama "Deadwood." The pattern seems to be that abortions can and will be performed and discussed on HBO. I think this is totally consistent, since HBO allows profanity and nudity, two other things that occur normally in the real world that also don't appear on network TV. Therefore, I don't think this is reflective of changes in society, any more than the absence of swearing on network TV. The only other channel I can think of that has dealt with abortion recently is FX (standard cable): "Nip/Tuck" characters decided whether to abort a disfigured fetus, and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (a politically incorrect comedy) devoted a whole episode to abortion.

As for movies, I can think of a couple examples in the early 90's and afterward: Ron Howard's "Parenthood", in which Steve Martin (kind of) suggests it as an option after he quits his job; In "Seven" when Gwyneth Paltrow's character discusses it with Morgan Freeman; I think that Nicolas Cage's ex-wife in "Matchstick Men" had an abortion; In Kevin Smith's "Dogma," the main character works at an abortion clinic; In Woody Allen's "Match Point," the main character tries to persuade his lover to get an abortion. That's all I can think of now, but I'm sure if I looked, I'd find more.

Posted by: Bandwagon Smasher | Feb 20, 2008 2:08:52 AM

Howard: on SATC, not only did Miranda think about an abortion, but she actually went to the clinic to get one, dragging the main character, Carrie, along for support. And the only reason she seemed to have changed her mind at the last minute was the realization that, given her medical history, this might be her only chance to have a kid, ever. It was -- very clearly -- not an internal debate about the sanctity of life.

Posted by: prawfetessa | Feb 19, 2008 11:36:15 PM

I agree with prawfette's point about HBO and that is a caveat that I should have thrown into the original post. Plus, SFU was such a quirky show, it figures it would be the exception rather than the rule. What is noteworthy about the SATC example is that they worked it into a conversation about what happened in the past, not as part of the show's present-day story. Did Miranda even think about an abortion when she became pregnant? I don't recall--but I imagine the uproar would have been loud if she had.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Feb 19, 2008 9:04:23 PM

In an episode of Six Feet Under, Claire (Lauren Ambrose) gets an abortion and seeks support and a driver from her brother's ex-girlfriend Brenda (Rachel Griffiths).

This episode as well as the SATC episode mentioned in the post above handled the topic very well.

Note, of course, that these are both HBO shows which are always a bit edgier than normal pop culture.

Posted by: prawfette | Feb 19, 2008 7:59:16 PM

Maybe this is too out of date to qualify as an indicator of *current* culture, but I remember a Sex and the City episodes where the four main characters discuss their previous abortions. I think that they had this conversation during brunch.

(I've tracked it down -- it's an episode from Season 4, and it was aired in 2001.)

Posted by: C.Hessick | Feb 19, 2008 5:40:41 PM

Howard, you may be right about this, and certainly my impoverished familiarity with pop culture can't find a ready counter-example. Still, I view Knocked-Up and Juno, both of which I did see, and LOVED, as swimming against the current, rather than being pulled by it. Maybe it's because I once lived briefly on the West Coast and hung out with some Hollywood types, but my sense is that this is not a group of people who think of themselves as taking orders from the mainstream right-wing consumer/family lobbies. They're both very thoughtful quasi-indie movies whose main gist I take to be strikingly at odds with the cultural milieus in which they were produced. But perhaps you're right and there's already a self-censoring at work such that no one in Hollywood wants to create movies where characters seek abortions because they don't think the movies will get financed.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Feb 19, 2008 5:10:36 PM

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