Obvious Child – a witty, touching romcom written and directed by Gillian Robespierre – has been nicknamed the ‘abortion romcom’. But this isn’t quite accurate. It’s a comedy, yes, but the jokes revolve around the seemingly doomed love life of a twentysomething woman and materialise in her self-deprecating one-liners. There are very few jokes about the actual act of terminating a pregnancy.
The narrative arc begins with stand-up comic and book shop assistant Donna’s discovery of an unwanted pregnancy, followed by the ‘will she/won’t she’ conflict and the resolution is an abortion. Comedy does weave in and out of the dialogue but to dub the film ‘abortion comedy’ makes light of Robespierre’s courageous decision to tackle one of the most taboo feminist issues of today.
According to Guttmacher Institute, ‘half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion’. So it’s fairly common. Why, then, does this remain such a touchy topic, and one that is most often excluded from contemporary arts? Perhaps it’s because acknowledging a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy means giving women power and in patriarchal Hollywood, this doesn’t sit comfortably.
That’s why it’s such a triumph that the film, which made it to Sundance following a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, has been a resounding box office hit. You see, people are ready to talk about feminist issues – and they’re ready to admit that women are funny too. Well, some of them are.
I found the film sensitive, endearing and empowering to watch. The writing is intelligent, the acting is great – particularly Jenny Slate’s portrayal of Donna – and it is genuinely funny. But most importantly: it makes you think. It takes you on Donna’s journey and challenges you to put yourself in her shoes – what would you do if you found yourself pregnant from a one-night-stand?
While abortion may be legal, common and perfectly reasonable subject matter for a film – let’s not forget that it’s a difficult, painful decision to make; and it’s rarely taken lightly. But we all respond differently to traumatic situations. Some might cry, others will become introspective and withdrawn – and others make jokes to ease their inner turmoil.
What makes Obvious Child so realistic is that it cleverly depicts the complex emotions Donna is experiencing. It doesn’t trivialise abortion; it documents how one woman deals with it – and that happens to be by turning it into a big joke.
Thankfully, Robespierre didn’t opt for a trite Sex and the City-esque monologue, detailing every last thought flying through Donna’s mind, to demonstrate her inner distress – instead she found clever, alternative ways to hint at it. Like the single tear that wells up in each eye as Donna lies in surgery, waiting for the anaesthetic to kick in before the procedure. Whoops – spoiler alert. But you may as well go in knowing that the outcome won’t necessarily be everyone’s idea of a happy ending. For me, it is the perfect ending because women should absolutely have the right to terminate or to go through with a pregnancy – and Obvious Child simply documents one example of the former.
Following her termination, Donna sits in the recovery room surrounded by other young women in gowns. This scene is poignant, as it addresses the fact that abortion really is commonplace. It’s happening every day. And the patriarchy, Hollywood and the anti-choice brigade ought to get used to it.
As Paul Simon says in the song that the film title is derived from, The Obvious Child: ‘I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more’. We’re hearing you Paul – and neither do us laydees. We’ve had enough of being told what to do with our bodies and we’ve had enough of being dictated to about which subject matter is appropriate to discuss. Good on Robespierre for going with her heart and creating such a compelling piece of art.