Obvious Child: The movie about abortion we’ve been waiting for

Ed. note: This a guest post by Steph Herold on the eagerly anticipated new film Obvious Child, which opens in select theaters tomorrow. Steph works to create culture change around abortion so that we can have many more abortion rom coms. Spoiler alert for general themes, but almost none of the jokes!

Think fast: what was the last movie you saw that had an abortion plotline? What was the last movie you saw with an abortion plotline that didn’t make you want to throw your food at the screen? Coming up short? Obvious Child, coming out tomorrow, is going to change all that and a whole lot more. It’s the abortion movie we’ve been waiting for. Take all your friends, especially the ones who aren’t so sure how they feel about abortion, to see Obvious Child. It will not only help demystify abortion but give concrete examples of how to make someone who’s having one feel loved and supported. Plus, it’s really, really funny. Here’s what you’ll see:

People who have abortions are normal human beings.

What types of TV or film characters actually get abortions? Often they are depicted as promiscuous, alone, hopelessly sad, or victims. Think about If These Walls Could Talk, where one woman who has an abortion is portrayed as cold and isolated from the world, or even one of my personal favorites, Dirty Dancing, where Penny is a victim of an unsafe abortion. There are similar tropes in Blue Valentine, Greenberg, and Revolutionary Road, among others.

Obvious Child’s main character Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate) turns all these stereotypes on their head. She is actually a relatable human being–she farts, she has a hard time paying her rent, she is a hilarious stand-up comedian, and she’s surrounded by friends and (divorced) parents who love and support her.

Many people have abortions, and they talk to each other about it.

In Obvious Child, Donna is not the only character who has had an abortion. In fact, she’s one of three women who talk about their abortions during the film. This might just be more than any other movie–and is much more realistic given that 3 in 10 American women will have an abortion in their lifetime.

In a scene so familiar it feels like it could happen on your own couch, Donna’s best friend Nellie (played by Gabby Hoffman) describes her own abortion. She shares that the abortion wasn’t bad–it didn’t hurt and that the procedure itself lasted five minutes. This was not only a realistic portrayal of female friendship, but an unusually accurate portrayal of abortion (unlike most portrayals of abortion on film). Nellie also shares that although she thinks about her abortion from time to time, she doesn’t regret it. The weight and significance of this moment are palpable. When was the last time you saw two women talking on screen about their abortions so directly and honestly, without euphemisms, and without mentioning abortion as a polarizing political issue?

This connection around personal experience happens not once but twice in the film. Donna goes to her mother looking for support after not being able to figure out how to tell the guy she slept with that she’s pregnant. We’ve seen Donna and her mother’s tense relationship throughout the film—we don’t know whether her mom will be caring or dismissive. It turns out that Donna’s mom too has had an abortion, and shares her experience with her daughter. A moment that could’ve been filled with judgment and disappointment is instead filled with heartfelt empathy and support. I wish I could peer into the minds of American filmgoers as they see these women talk so openly and honestly about their abortions, breaking the stereotype that there’s only one type of person who has an abortion.

Abortion clinics can be warm and welcoming.

Do you remember the abortion clinic in Juno? There was one pathetic protestor, and the inside felt about as welcoming as a high school cafeteria. In Greenberg, the clinic is so unsanitary that the woman having an abortion ends up in the hospital, and in If These Walls Could Talk and Weeds, clinic violence breaks out mid-abortion. Donna’s experience at Planned Parenthood couldn’t be more different. The waiting room exudes tranquility with bright colors and professional staff. In Donna’s session with a counselor, it’s clear that the counselor actually cares about her and about making sure that she has a good abortion experience.

As for the abortion itself, Donna’s friend was right—the procedure is short and we don’t see Donna go through pain. Abortions are often portrayed as dangerous and heart wrenching; in Obvious Child, we see a pristine clinic environment, a safe abortion, and a woman who’s sure of her decision. When we see Donna in the recovery room, surrounded by other women (again emphasizing that many people have abortions), she seems relaxed and relieved, another unusual and welcome depiction of post-abortion wellbeing.

Abortions are often out of reach for many people.

When Donna is talking to a counselor at Planned Parenthood, she expresses absolutely certainty about her decision to having an abortion. What she’s most upset about isn’t the actual abortion, but the fact that it costs as much as her rent–$500–and that she’ll have to wait two weeks to have it. Both of these facts communicate the reality that abortion is as much a logistical issue as it is a social, moral, and political issue. Obvious Child (similarly to Fast Times at Ridgemont High), skips tired tropes, encouraging us to confront some of the real hardships often associated with abortion: the cost and the wait.

You can have complicated feelings about your abortion and still be 100 percent sure of your choice.

Donna never questions her decision to have an abortion. Unlike in so many other movies, we don’t see her agonizing about whether abortion is moral or whether she’d regret the decision. Instead, she’s stressed about paying for it, anxious about what the procedure itself might be like, worried about disappointing her mom and potentially fucking it up with the guy. Never once does the film suggest that because the events surrounding her abortion are stressful, Donna doesn’t want to get the procedure. Once she’s made the decision, the fact that she has feelings about it is never used to second-guess her choice. She is not required to reaffirm that this is what she really, really wants, and no one implies that she might regret it later. This is revolutionary.

People who have abortions can be treated with love and respect.

The supporting characters in Obvious Child sets an example for how to care for a friend who’s having an abortion. They don’t call it “smushmortion” like Jonah Hill did in Knocked Up, but instead provide non-judgmental, unconditional support.

On the day of her abortion, Donna’s friend Nellie makes her some tea and calls them a cab, saying, “We’re going to abort in style.” Unexpectedly, the guy Donna slept with shows up with flowers and asks if he can go to the clinic with her. He stays with her at the clinic, and afterwards, cuddles with her on the couch while they watch a movie. While this is not everyone’s experience of abortion, it demonstrates that women who have abortions can (and should!) be treated with love and respect.

Many Hollywood portrayals of abortion are somewhat sympathetic to people who have abortions. But by showing women as isolated, unsupported, and in danger, they can unintentionally reinforce stigma, shame, and fear around abortion. Obvious Child takes another approach, showing us that abortion is normal, manageable, social, and not the end of the world.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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