The New Honesty about Abortion in Film

I have not seen “Obvious Child,” a recent romantic comedy about abortion, but I did take note when film critics kept going on and on about how honest it is. It’s “anchored” by an edgy “kind of truth-telling” according to the L.A. Times; the N.Y. Times says that it’s “trying above all to be honest;” and Buzzfeed describes it as even “painfully honest” in the headline. This would be surprising, since honesty about abortion isn’t terribly well received. After all, when some pro-life activists start bringing exceptionally gruesome placards onto college campuses, the honesty of such images is seldom lionized. So how could an honest narrative about abortion gather such glowing reviews from liberal Hollywood? The answer, based on reading the reviews at least, is that true honesty about abortion is too alien to be recognized by that particular culture.

Apart from frank comic discussion of bodily functions (which is now described as “honest” rather than “potty humor” I guess,) the main claim to honesty seems to be that the heroine of the film actually goes through with the abortion—a fairly rare event in popular films and television. When filmmakers want to create a likeable character, the tendency is to make her somehow avoid the procedure. The N.Y. Times inadvertently reveals why while trying to make the opposite point: “There have been a handful of comedies — “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” most notably — about women who choose not to end their unexpected pregnancies, so why assume that the other side of the coin is off limits? Like it or not, abortion is a fact in many women’s lives and therefore as available for humorous treatment as any other aspect of human experience.” You know… just like child molestation. It’s a fact of life & human experience and therefore just as available for humorous treatment. The honest truth is that it’s very hard to make a character actually funny and genuinely likeable when she inflicts terrible violence on her own child.

Daring to include the procedure in the narrative is, of course, not the same thing as being honest about it—something lost on the critics. The worst offender on this point is the aforementioned Buzzfeed review. It highlights the film’s “responsibility… toward the procedure” by noting how “the camera follows Donna right into the examining room and holds on her anesthetic-addled face.” It doesn’t mention the camera lingering on any of the more gritty and real parts of the procedure that immediately follow the anesthetic. The review also talks about the movie’s “acknowledgement of the way abortion tends to be discussed in whispers and euphemisms and part of some furious skating around the issue itself” and praises how “You won’t find euphemisms here.” The same review euphemizes abortion as “an unfun possible outcome of sex” and Donna, the mother, as “not yet ready to be a mom.” Of course abortion, though presumably unfun, isn’t a mere possible outcome of sex anymore than wife-beating is a mere “possible outcome of burning a pot roast.” Likewise, the character of Donna was already a mom—one who makes a grisly decision how to treat her child.

Having not seen it, I cannot judge the film itself, but as far as the critics are concerned, I’m underwhelmed at their ability to discern anything at all as “honest” on the subject of abortion.

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