Abortion, Shmashmortion ... What You Won't See on Screen

By Christine Cupaiuolo — June 12, 2007

The New York Times on Sunday looked at a pop culture issue that’s been heating up blogs and message boards: Why do film and television characters who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant so rarely consider abortion? Mireya Navarro writes:

Jonathan Kuntz, an American film history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that for the entertainment industry, “It’s a no-win situation.”

“It’s kind of a tricky topic,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to turn off people on both sides unless you do it just right. It’s no surprise Hollywood avoids it.”

And so in “Knocked Up,” a romantic comedy, whose director and writer, Judd Apatow, declined to be interviewed, when one of Ben’s friends suggests that Alison have the procedure, he says it rhymes with “shmashmortion.”

The producer of “Waitress,” Michael Roiff, said Adrienne Shelly, the film’s writer and director, weighed the concept of abortion as the “good New York liberal” she was. But from a story point of view, Ms. Shelly, who was murdered last year in her New York office, found richer material following the pregnancy through, Mr. Roiff said.

“We didn’t worry about the political ramifications,” he said. “It’s a story about the power of motherhood.”

Hollywood doesn’t shy away from all controversial topics, some film historians noted. In fact, sometimes controversy translates into huge success, as with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which some critics accused of anti-Semitism.

In the rare instances when abortion has made it into the plotlines of major films, like “Dirty Dancing” and “The Cider House Rules,” they tend to be films set in the past and the women who undergo the procedure do not always fare well. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is the rare American film in which abortion is legal and dealt with matter-of-factly — and it is 25 years old.

Here’s more related story links from PopPolitics.

There are, of course, independent and foreign films that dare to go where U.S. commercial films won’t — including the Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” whose director, Cristian Mungiu, recently won the top award at the Cannes Film Festival (thus confirming Canne’s “radical reputation,” according to the Catholic News Agency). It too, though, is set in the past: The film takes place during the Communist era and tells the story of a university student seeking a back-alley abortion.

“His film, shown early in the festival, had enjoyed ardent critical support from the start,” write Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. “Harrowing and brilliantly acted, the movie presents a stark image of life under totalitarian rule without political grandstanding or sentimentality. Through meticulous formal control, Mungiu generates almost unbearable suspense and also shows, in sometimes graphic detail, the consequences of abortion and also of its banning.”

Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote that it “is a stunning achievement, helmed with a purity and honesty that captures not just the illegal abortion story at its core but the constant, unremarked negotiations necessary for survival in the final days of the Soviet bloc.”

You’ll find more praise here. Hopefully you’ll also find the film itself at a theater near you.

7 responses to “Abortion, Shmashmortion … What You Won’t See on Screen”

  1. This is an issue that really rubs me up the wrong way. Most recently, in the latest (US) season of Lost (SPOILER!) the option of abortion never comes up, even though the alternative is death (or, I suppose, being rescued). It’s never even mentioned. Frankly, that’s ridiculous and offensive. Despite the justification of avoiding a hot-button issue, the reality is that this equates to erasing the stories of women who do have abortions, and for whom abortion is a real option, from the screen, casting a pall of silence over the subject.

  2. In 1988 a French film called Une Affair de Femmes, and dealt with the topic of back alley abortions that occurred during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Based on the true story of Marie-Louise Giraud the film presents contrasts the evils of the Nazis occupation and that of abortion, embodied by Giraud. She is portrayed in the film as morally ambiguous: flirting with young handsom Nazis, accepting gifts from dubious sources, and not treating her own son very well. She provides an invaluable and wanted service for the women of her community (albeit with unrevealed methods) yet the film remains withdrawn to the point that her eventual downfall does not elicit the tragic sentiment associated with the death of a heroine.

    Perhaps abortions are kept out of stories because it is so hard to represent them without commenting. And abortion right now is such a polarizing question, that pregnancy and carrying the baby to term is almost the required choice. Having children has always been seen as a nationalist and patriotic action for women. In these polarized times, when national pride is a few notches higher than the national security alert level, carrying children to term in media and films validates the illusion that the United States is a happy, healthy country. And that is a role that abortions really can’t fill.

  3. It is about time that the rose colored glasses fell off. Marriage and children are not these happy times. Most marriages take a lot of work, and children make the work and the marriage more challenging.

    Take “Knocked Up’ for example, it was a one night stand and now she is pregnant. I have not seen the movie. If in fact they do get married, chances are very high that it fails.

    The U.S. views marriage and children (especially babies) far too romantically. Babies are hard work. One gets very little sleep.

    I think our divorce rates are so high because of our rose colored view. I think many couples marry for “love” which is often times infatuation or romantic love, if you will.

  4. I was reading an article about Canadian teen show Degrassi recently and it mentioned that an episode dealing with abortion was never aired on The N (the network carrying the show in the States).

    In an N interview about Degrassi’s most shocking moments Shelley Scarrow (one of the writer’s) said, “We had to skip over the abortion. What I find sort of upsetting about it is we have a school shooting, we have all the violence you want, we have all kinds of sexual issues on Degrassi, but you can’t even talk about the A word.”

    I find that terribly sad. I also worry about what that will mean for a YA book I have due out which does touch on abortion.

    The media is selling so many women and girls short by ignoring the subject. Jess’ lost example is a prime example and yet, watching it, I wasn’t in the least surprised they avoided the issue. To see it confronted so much rarer.

  5. There was a great Mike Leigh movie out in 2004 called Vera Drake about a female abortion provider in the 1950s, but again, it took place in the past. I can also think of a few episodes of House that involved abortion, but in at least one of these episodes a woman was glorified for refusing an abortion that would save her life, and in another espisode abortion was only advised because the woman had been raped – not exactly pro-choice messages.

  6. This is a really interesting and disturbing issue, and one which crossed my mind when I saw the film Knocked Up last summer (obviously if she had an abortion there would have been no movie, but it was never even really brought up as a legitimate option). As I try to think of films/TV shows that do depict abortion (either as a choice characters are considering or going through) not many come to mind. I agree with Laureli that having children and family life are closely associated with national pride. I wonder how much, if at all, abortion depictions in film have declined during the Bush years/post 9-11. A really interesting book out now by Susan Faludi (called Terrorist Dreams) explores how 9-11 has impacted women in general and heightened media portrayal of traditional family values and gender roles. This throwback to the 1950s, combined with the scary anti-abortion legislation and the dismissal of abortion in film/media, is definitely a concern.

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