As my research on unwanted pregnancy touches on depictions in popular culture, I headed into London earlier today to see the film Obvious Child. Briefly, the plot centres on Donna Stern, a late-twenty-something woman who has an abortion after a one-night stand. But rather than trotting out the familiar cliches that audiences have almost come to expect, this film breaks new ground and deals with abortion in a refreshingly different way.
Obvious Child peels back the layers of secrecy that so often surround an act still seen as taboo, laying bare the reality of abortion. Fans of Dirty Dancing (1987) will recall scenes featuring the character Penny. We learn that she was ‘knocked up by Robbie the creep’, and that her friends had managed to get her an appointment to end the pregnancy — but the word ‘abortion’ is never used. In fact, the termination is only ever implied, never vocalised. Even when Penny lies on her bed, writhing in agony after the botched procedure, we’re told that the man who performed it had a ‘folding table and dirty knife’. It is for the audience to determine what happened. While Obvious Child stops short of showing the actual procedure, we see Donna lying on the operating table, becoming drowsy — and, of course, the term ‘abortion’ is used with frequency throughout the film.
Furthermore, while following Donna’s story, we learn that her mother and her close friend have also had abortions. While her friend is upfront about it, Donna only learns of her mother’s teenage abortion after she reveals her own intentions. That the three main female characters in the film share the common experience of terminating their pregnancies reflects the reality that abortion is more common than society knows or choses to believe.
The film is boldly honest, and unapologetically so: ‘I’d like an abortion, please’, Donna tells the healthcare professional who confirms the pregnancy. ‘I’m pregnant. I’m having an abortion’, she later told her mother. There is no wrestling of conscience, nor is there a moment when she shows any signs of doubt. This is contrary to films such as I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011), in which Momo Hann, a minor character for whom ‘career … and career’ are listed as her hobbies, proclaims her opposition to motherhood. Discovering that she is pregnant, she informs her boss Kate Reddy (the subject of the film who is balancing a successful, demanding career with her domestic responsibilities) ‘Don’t worry, I’m dealing with it. I’m not having kids, remember?’. But we learn later in the film that, on reflection — and perhaps having taken into account Kate’s reassurances that motherhood is wonderful and not to be feared — she has changed her mind. For Donna, on the other hand, there can only ever be one outcome. Any fear or concern she does show in Obvious Child relates to perceived pain-levels associated with the procedure. Her pregnancy is the result of a drunken one-night-stand, not rape or incest. A scan does not reveal a fatal foetal abnormality. Donna is just not ready or in a position to have a baby. It’s as simple as that.
Unlike films such as Alfie (1966, 2004 remake), it is the female protagonist who takes centre stage in this film. The audience is forced to construct the thought-process of Max, the man for whom Donna becomes pregnant, by interpreting his body-language; he is essentially a minor character. The emphasis on Donna is one of the facets of this film that makes it so innovative in its scope and approach. And while the film ends with Donna and Max curled up on the sofa watching Gone with the Wind, it is not the birth of their child that brings them together. Where abortion is used as a device in films such as Knocked Up (2007) to advance the plot line and move the lead characters towards a happily-ever-after based on parenthood, Donna and Max do not reverse their plan and settle into a life together as parents.
Abortion has not been included as a sub-theme in Obvious Child to act as a warning, nor is it a plot device. Rather Obvious Child is a film about abortion, which is what makes it so important, refreshing and honest.