Once in college, a friend and I were talking about unplanned pregnancy, and I mentioned that I knew five or six women that had had abortions. “Wow,” my friend replied, “I don’t know anyone that’s had one.”
“Or maybe you do and they just haven’t told you,” I pointed out.
I thought of our long-ago conversation the other week, after seeing Obvious Child.
Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, Obvious Child is a romantic comedy about Donna Stern, an aspiring Brooklyn comedian who is dumped, has a one-night stand, and becomes pregnant. And here’s where Obvious Child sets itself apart from other romantic comedies that use unplanned pregnancy as a plot device: Donna chooses to have an abortion, and actually does. Not only that, but she talks about her decision — to her best friend, to her mother, to a roomful of friends and strangers during a stand-up set. Donna’s boldness and candor makes her a memorable and relatable character — and Obvious Child’s boldness and candor make it a very necessary, and long overdue, corrective to films like Knocked Up and Waitress. Not only that, but it’s also just hilarious, realistic, and sweet.
“I think there’s a wide range of experiences that a woman has with unplanned pregnancy and it doesn’t always end in childbirth,” Gillian Robespierre told me in a recent interview. “It also it has adoption, it has abortion, it has a couple different scenarios. We felt that it was sort of lacking in mainstream media, the other choice. So we wanted to show a safe, positive procedure … we wanted Donna to make this decision without shame and regret even though it’s complex and something that is personal, [and] not to have a lot of judgment on herself or feel that she’s being judged by her friends, that she’s really open with all the people close in her life.”
Two of those people, Donna’s mother and friend, have also had abortions, and they discuss their feelings and experiences with an equal amount of candor: neither regret her choice, but neither do they shy away from the complex emotions that they felt. “I think [the friend’s] adult self is looking back and wished it didn’t have to go down that way,” Robespierre says, “and I think she did what was right for her 16-year-old self but she can look back at it and feel … it’s not regret she’s feeling, but feel emotions towards that choice and what she went through as a scared 16-year-old. We wanted to depict, in a subtle way, a range of emotions that are attached to different women and the different types of procedures they had. One was when she was 16, and Donna’s in her late 20s … and the mom had it pre-Roe v Wade and was comfortable enough to tell her own mother, which is why she went to a place that, while it was back-alley it was still safe. Her consequences weren’t as scary as some other women and she was lucky.”
Obvious Child is also refreshing in that — unlike other films or television shows that depict abortion — it goes into detail about how much an abortion, even a first-trimester one like Donna’s, will cost. And according to Robespierre, including that information was deliberate. “We wanted to show an honest portrayal of what it’s like in a health center. And the cost was really important, because it was a real moment for Donna’s character to feel something … about where she was at that moment, feeling kind of alone and lost and scared. Donna is complex and she’s trying to figure out so many things all at once. The financial part of the decision is what sort of hit her full on.”
Almost since it debuted as a short film in 2009, Obvious Child has often been referred to as an “abortion rom com” or “abortion comedy.” And while Robespierre says that she doesn’t mind “abortion rom com,” “first and foremost we’re just a romantic comedy with a woman who is sometimes raunchy but also very complex. She doesn’t have a filter yet she’s really earnest, she’s somebody who’s a little meek in the beginning of the movie and we wanted to show that arc where [she’s] getting her confidence back, and we’re really proud of those moments in the film just as much as the straightforward abortion, but I don’t think one takes over.”
“We’re seeking, with Obvious Child, authenticity and characters and an honest film,” Robespierre continues. “As an audience member — I devour romantic comedies and television — I think we’re fed up with the formula and we really want our characters to be actually funny and honest and relatable. And I think there’s a whole movement, I feel like it at least, and we didn’t start it but we’re really glad to be a part of it.”
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.
Photo: Obvious Child Tumblr