In spite of what you’ve heard, abortion was not an option in that decade’s mainstream Hollywood cinema
Ah, movie magic. Hollywood always manages to make difficult situations turn out well after two hours – and nowhere is this more apparent than with cinematic treatments of unplanned pregnancy.
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. Female characters rarely feel any ambivalence about carrying unplanned pregnancies to term – and why should they, when life always works out so perfectly? An unhappy and unwilling dad-to-be will convert to a pro-baby stance in time for a happily-ever-after ending. If mom isn’t too crazy about dad and would prefer to parent by herself, she’ll soon find that single motherhood is a cinch. Although childrearing seems expensive in the real world, money isn’t much of an obstacle for film parents (and made even less of one by the fact that most movies feature middle-class women with plenty of resources).
This sentimental support for parenthood in movies matches our culture’s strong pronatalist streak and its profound uneasiness with abortion. In spite of the facts – 82 percent of Americans think abortion should stay legal, and 43 percent of American women will end at least one pregnancy by age 45 – the issue remains highly controversial, with anti-choice groups garnering disproportionate visibility and wielding significant political influence. Against this backdrop, unplanned pregnancy on film plays out in an alarmingly oversimplified manner. Procreation becomes every woman’s destiny and every man’s responsibility, regardless of circumstances. Abortion exists only as a faux option – something to choose against.
So – unintentionally pregnant? Just watch some American films from the last decade, check your brain in the lobby, and learn how movie magic can make your problems (and your choices) disappear. Here are eight pointers.
- If you have an unplanned pregnancy, birth is the only option. You should act oblivious to other possibilities, even if you or your partner is unhappy about the conception.
1A. You might complain about the pregnancy you have conceived, but in making these comments you won’t actually be proposing abortion.
Just as the gag rule prohibits staff in federally funded clinics from mentioning abortion, characters in movies cannot use the A word if they don’t wish to continue a pregnancy. They can throw tantrums, make sarcastic comments, and whine, but they can’t say, “I think abortion would be best,” even if they obviously feel that way.
In Father of the Bride, Part 2 (1995), George (Steve Martin) is quite unhappy about the pregnancy of his wife, Nina (Diane Keaton), but he does not suggest an alternative. Instead he resorts to jokes: “Our kid will probably be more comfortable calling us Grandma and Grandpa in front of his friends. Because, let’s face it, we’re going to be in our 50s when he’s in preschool. In our 60s when he graduates college. But…it’ll be great to see another kid in cap and gown. . . . If we can still see by then.” He goes on and on with this negative speech, but nowhere does he refer to abortion – not even euphemistically. That’s against the rules.
Parenthood (1989) actually does include a discussion of abortion – but only in a slippery, backhanded way. When Gil (again, Steve Martin) and his wife, Karen (Mary Steenburgen), conceive, he gripes about the ill-timed pregnancy without actually proposing abortion. Karen then asks him to put his cards on the table:
Karen: Why don’t you just say what you’re really thinking?
Gil (sarcastically): What am I thinking?
Karen (sadly): That I should have an abortion?
Gil: I didn’t say that.
No, he hasn’t said that. Although abortion is clearly what he wants, he keeps sidestepping the issue just as a politician would:
Gil: That’s a decision every woman has to make on her own.
Karen: Are you running for Congress? Don’t give me that. I want your opinion. . . , What do you want me to do?
Gil (pained and angry): I want … I want whatever you want.
When she then says she wants the baby, all he can do is make biting jokes: “Well, great! Let’s have a kid! Let’s see how I can screw the fourth one up. Let’s have five. Let’s have six. Let’s have a dozen and pretend they’re doughnuts. I’m really happy about the way things are turning out, aren’t you?” The film is back in safe territory, clarifying that although Gil is angry about the pregnancy, neither he nor the filmmakers have committed the sin of suggesting abortion.
1B. You may talk about abortion only in a negative form.
You can say, for instance, “Well, I’m certainly not going to have an abortion!” Or, “I can’t believe you would suggest abortion.” Just make sure you use the word to bolster your own self-righteousness.
In Look Who’s Talking (1989), when Mollie (Kirstie Alley) tells her lover, Albert (George Segal), that she’s pregnant, she indicates that she wants to carry to term and adds, for extra emphasis, “I’m not getting an abortion.” Albert croons, “Mollie, Mollie, I wasn’t going to ask you to do that!” Whew – they’re both off the hook.
In The Opposite of Sex (1998), after Dedee (Christina Ricci) reveals that she’s expecting, Lucia (Lisa Kudrow) asks, “Do you want to get an abortion?” Dedee’s boyfriend, Matt (Ivan Sergei), answers for her with a horrified, “No! God!” Then the film distances itself further from the possibility of abortion, ignoring Lucia’s sensible critiques of the whimsy of unplanned parenthood. When Lucia later tells Dedee that “smoking is bad for the baby,” Dedee makes a gratuitous dig at Lucia’s pro-choice stance: “Like you care! Or was it someone else who mentioned abortion?” Dedee implies that because Lucia raised the possibility of abortion, the baby’s health is unimportant to her.
- If circumstances make the pregnancy problematic, don’t worry – everything will work out somehow. Just be happy. After all, a baby is on the way.
In Nine Months (1995), Rebecca (Julianne Moore) has mastered the “don’t worry, be happy” mindset. She states all the reasons not to continue her pregnancy: She and her boyfriend, Samuel (Hugh Grant), aren’t emotionally prepared for this accidental conception, a baby could damage their relationship, the apartment would require redecorating, and she’d have to stop teaching dance classes while pregnant. Then comes the zinger: “There’s not one good reason that I should keep this baby. But I still want to.”
And if she ends up going it alone? Also not a problem – Rebecca knows that single motherhood is a snap. Although she has never reared children, she asserts that she can handle the responsibilities alone, as if parenting would be no more difficult or demanding than her current life: “I’m prepared for that. You know, I can do that.”
Advanced age might be another disincentive to giving birth. In Father, Nina and George conceive at the combined age of nearly 100. As Nina points out, her cohorts are doing Geritol and Fixodent commercials. But hey – what does age have to do with pregnancy? Nothing! When George grouses about reproducing at their age, she retorts, “I know how old I am, George. I’ve already been the mother of the bride. But here I am – at the age I am – and I’m pregnant.” What a persuasive reason to proceed. Even their doctor presents the news of Nina’s pregnancy as if it’s problem-free. When George says he’s too old to become a father again, the doctor tries to talk him into it: “C’mon! Picasso had children well into his 70s.” Way to go – coercing people to parent.
Even If These Walls Could Talk (1996), a film spotlighting the evolution of abortion rights (see below section, “Baby Steps Toward Change”), is disappointing in this respect. The filmmakers create every reason for the middle-aged Barbara (Sissy Spacek) to abort. Caring for her four out-of-control children consumes most of her time and energy. She’s back in school, savoring the respite from domestic chaos and pursuing her goals. If she has another child, she’ll have to postpone her degree, her husband won’t be able to retire as soon as he’d like, and their daughter won’t be able to attend an expensive, first-rate college. Barbara wants to work out the pregnancy “without us all having to give up everything that’s important to us.” She researches abortion in depth. Then, though she never expresses any desire for another kid, out of nowhere she chooses birth and completely ignores the conflicts. In presenting the decision to her tearful daughter, all Barbara offers is, “Don’t worry, honey. It’s what I want. It’ll be okay.” The story ends there; viewers never learn how the family will accommodate a child and still avoid unpleasant sacrifices.
- You will glow with pride and femininity as you proceed with the noble mission of carrying to term.
Even if you didn’t plan or especially want a baby a little while ago, you will spring into maternity mode as soon as you learn of the pregnancy. Life will be a stream of baby showers (Father), trips to the toy store (Nine Months, Look Who’s Talking), and nursery renovations (Father, Look Who’s Talking).
In addition to those terribly original shopping-set-to-music montages, viewers are treated to sentimentalizing like the scene in Father after Nina and George learn that they have conceived. As they drive through town, George comments in a voice-over on how “glowing” and “peaceful” Nina looks. Indeed, she gazes beatifically out of her window and sees happy images of maternity, including a mother and a daughter who skip down the sidewalk in flowing skirts. Viewers hear the song “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with its sappy “Can you hear the pitterpat?” lyrics.
- When you deliver the child, there will again be irrepressible joy and widespread celebration.
It’ll be glaringly obvious that birth was the only valid decision. If you aren’t up to the task of parenthood (which is doubtful, because everyone takes to it naturally), scores of people will sub in for you.
The Opposite of Sex’s Dedee isn’t the “mommy type,” but it doesn’t matter because every gay man in town wants to take care of her baby. And why not? Babies are “miracles” and “magic” (according to a character in Nine Months). They glow under a soft-focus lens. They don’t cry much. If they do, some dancing will quiet them down (again, Nine Months). In the womb or even as mere sperm they think amusing thoughts and feel physical sensations (Look Who’s Talking). Given that babies, fetuses, and even sperm are so darn personable, how can anyone not feel swept away by the prospect of birth?
Even Parenthood, which focuses on parenting failures and the resultant emotional pain, concludes with a peculiar pronatalist frenzy: Every woman under 55 conceives, and the characters blindly embrace hopes that future parenting attempts will turn out better. We’re supposed to forget the struggles we’ve just witnessed and join in the euphoria. After all, a birth represents a joyful new beginning – and, conveniently, a happy ending.
- If you’re a man, you may feel unready or unwilling to have a baby, in which case you’re just a party pooper. You should rise to the occasion and improve yourself if necessary.
Father’s George needs to work on himself until he can see things clearly (that is, less realistically and more sentimentally). The film shows his journey from a sour antinatalist viewpoint (he initially complains about his daughter’s and his wife’s pregnancies) to a profound appreciation of babies (at the end he holds both kids and says that life doesn’t get any better). As he prepares for renewed parenthood, he acts as if he’s training for an athletic event. He wonders whether he’ll have the “stamina” for a baby. He says he and Nina will be “the oldest parents ever at the starting gate.” And he shoots a basket while saying, “I’ll be able to do it again. I’m sure I can. All right, if it swishes, no problem – father of the year.” The ball drops in perfectly, of course, implying that parenthood is as easy as a jump shot.
George’s preparations are mild compared with what Samuel endures in Nine Months. To “grow up” and prepare for the pregnancy, he must get rid of his cat and his convertible. Then he must stop believing that children grow up to hate their parents (as he has seen in his child-psychology practice). He learns to worship his developing child by reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, attending a Lamaze class, and becoming teary while watching an ultrasound video. Although Rebecca has left him, he never once moons over her – only over the fetus. Samuel later tells her, “I’m in love with my child. . . , And I’m completely in love with you for having it.” (In other words, he values her as an incubator, not as a person in her own right.) He repudiates his earlier feelings about the pregnancy and redeems himself for his sin – an unwillingness to parent – by effectively erasing himself: “Now I don’t care what I think or don’t think anymore. I don’t give a damn about me.” That’s some self-improvement program – it got rid of his self altogether.
See also 1a, 2, and 8.
- Babies only strengthen romances.
Couples may worry that new babies could stress out their relationship. But no – babies keep families together. Although the couple might separate during the pregnancy or after the birth, fatherhood will appeal to a man so much that he’ll soon return to the woman and his child. It happens in Nine Months. Why shouldn’t it happen for you?
- What this world needs is babies, babies, babies. Bring them on by the caseload. Don’t stop to think about the population explosion.
Nobody in movieland thinks about urban sprawl, crowded classrooms, and congested freeways. Why, those ideas could put a wet blanket on all the giddy baby showers! Only sarcastic, recalcitrant jokers (see 1a) and misanthropes (see 8) would be so low as to point out that three or four children might be more than enough for one couple.
- A childless life is worthless, and anyone who doesn’t want kids must be bitter and selfish and morally deficient. If you postpone or eschew parenthood, you’ll face a future of unhappiness and regret.
When Nine Months’s Sean (Jeff Goldblum) states his opposition to parenthood, he comes off as an unpleasant, self-important woman-hater. He has this to say about an ex-girlfriend who wanted children: “She was hungry for seed. So I closed the iron door. Denied her my essence. I’m not ready to be biologically extraneous. She would have devoured me from the head down. Chewed up my manhood, swallowed my youth, and gobbled me up like some praying mantis.” He’s an unfeeling killjoy; when his sister announces the impending birth of her fourth child, he notes that “the world is overpopulated” and “has too many starving children.” (See 7.)
Clearly, his child-free life will end terribly. “You keep this up, you’ll die alone like a dog, like a bum,” scolds his sister. And just a few scenes later, Sean inexplicably comes to agree with her: “Look at me. Look what I’ve become. . . , My life’s a pile of shit. . . , It’s empty and pointless. . . , If I continue this way, I’m facing a lifetime alone without a family. . . , It’s terrifying.”
Oversentimentality and an utter lack of realism are staples in Hollywood, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at Sean’s swift and absurd transformation – or at the about-faces of Samuel, Gil, and George. But the fact that all these men end up relishing the notion of fatherhood – and that even Opposite’s pragmatic Lucia has an unplanned pregnancy of her own and simply assumes she’ll carry to term, whimsical though that is – demonstrates more than just a cinematic penchant for a happy ending. Such plotlines naturalize the choice to parent, making abortion seem incomprehensible. What better way to handle one of the most heated contemporary sociopolitical dilemmas than to present streams of couples who conceive by accident and routinely ignore their reproductive choices? Hollywood can then have its plots completely risk-free. What with talking fetuses, soft-focus lenses, and abortion as a theoretical possibility only, anti-choice propagandists could hardly do it better.
Baby Steps Toward Change
In 1996, two films broke new ground by putting abortion at center stage. The black comedy Citizen Ruth and the HBO multinarrative If These Walls Could Talk approach the topic openly, going far beyond most films’ fearfulness.
Citizen Ruth accomplishes the unthinkable by making us laugh at the absurdities of the abortion wars, no matter how dogmatic we may be. Who’d’ve thought a work about abortion could ever be so entertaining and funny? At the same time, the film makes the serious point that individual women are overlooked in the furor over fetuses. The film definitely deserves praise for these achievements.
On the downside, Ruth’s pregnancy ends in miscarriage, conveniently making abortion unnecessary. Although this turn of events doesn’t weaken the film (on the contrary, it preserves the delicate balance that allows the film to ridicule everyone and side with no one), it’s frustrating – as usual, we don’t see a character commit to abortion and go through with it on the big screen. And if we don’t witness that act in a brave film like this, we’re not likely to see it in many others.
We do see women choose abortion in Walls, which does a tremendous amount to bring such experiences out into the open (though, significantly, it appeared on HBO rather than in theaters). For example, the second act features honest talk about a past termination. When Barbara finds herself pregnant, she anxiously asks a friend about her own abortion experience:
Barbara: Julia, do you regret it?
Julia: No, I really don’t. You know, my friends told me I’d be depressed and feel guilty. Honestly, I was so relieved. But not everybody’s the same.
What a pleasure to hear these words! They convey essential information that’s missing from most American movies. First, lots of women have abortions – not only Julia but also her friends. Second, abortions might prompt a mixture of relief, sadness, and guilt, but this will differ for everyone; the emotional experience isn’t one-dimensional or necessarily negative. Third, women need not disown and condemn past abortions; instead, they can view them as valuable pieces of their personal histories. Finally, women can help each other through abortions. You would never know this from the way most movies frame a pregnant woman in freakish isolation, as if she’s the only one who has ever contemplated abortion. Such conversations help break down the “walls” that usually hide abortion from view, both onscreen and in society.