Friday, January 22, 2010

Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion

Happy 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade! Last week I was lucky enough to celebrate the right to abortion with two films, Obvious Child by Anna Bean and Gillian Robespierre and I Had an Abortion by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner. The first--a 10minute rom-com about a lady (Jenny Slate) who finds herself pregnant after a totally charming encounter with a very sweet dude--presented abortion as a necessary procedure, one event among many in this lady's life, and as a logical decision for her. And how refreshing to see abortion removed from the highly politicized and abstract realm it usually resides and brought down to one lady's rom-com reality. Importantly, this little movie did all this while avoiding a nonchalant tone; the prospect of her abortion left our main character calling her mom, trying to calm her own nerves, needing to talk to her friends, and trying to navigate a new romantic relationship, but it refused the sensationalism that so often shrouds a woman's decision to abort. And afterall, when 1 in 3 women are having the procedure at some point in their lifetimes, abortion deserves a story that refuses the abstraction and sensationalism of morality plays. So that in Obvious Child, there were the kind of jokes, sincerity, mindfulness, and frankness rarely afforded to pregnancy or abortion in general (and almost never on film), which felt wonderfully close to the way that my friends and I are working to deal with all sorts of political issues that are truly personal.

The second, I Had an Abortion moves chronologically through a series of interviews with women who've had abortions. Starting with a story from the 1920s and traveling to the present through these women's voices, we see the contours of a political and social history take shape in the background. We don't often hear abortion stories which of course adds to the appearance that abortion is a hemogenous experience. This film effortlessly shattered that myth just by going to the source (ladies!) and listening.

If you know me (which, let's be real, you probly do if you're reading this), you know that I like to think about the way that film moves, how movies do the things they do, how their aesthetics make meaning, the way a movie functions in the world, etc. Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion have plenty of internal dynamics worth exploring but these movies' most impressive effect emerges from their simple existence. And that's something that isn't often true in the world of cinema. In a world in which the word 'abortion' is systematically avoided; in which shame and silence guard the abortion stories of most; and even our greatest reproductive rights activists sometimes can't help framing abortion as external, a right worth fighting for but ultimately another woman's problem***; well in this world movies that dare to be frank and honest about abortion experience have an unusually inherent meaning. Their statement is their existence. The details of content are almost beside the point. Their most generous gift doesn't have to do with aesthetic accomplishment or well-crafted arguments or anything else I am used to thinking about when working out how a film creates meaning--these films are meaningful just by being in the world.

Thanks so much to the filmmakers, NARAL Pro-Choice NY, and Soapbox Inc. for working to make abortion experience something we can talk about.

***Many people have written about the limitations of the abortion conversation, and one activist does so in particularly thorough and articulate terms: see Maya Dusenbery's writing at RH reality check and Feministing.

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