'Obvious Child' Normalises Abortion, And I’m Glad For It. Review by Purnima Singh
I saw Obvious Child for the first time around three years ago. But the Jenny Slate starrer wasn’t exactly a popular film when it came out, and neither do I remember the trailer making an appearance on my, an-avid-watcher-of-the-film-trailer-but-never-the-actual-film, enthusiast’s Youtube recommended page. It was, and I am probably guessing, in a 2 AM post less than stellar Netflix rom-com window shopping stupor that I had stumbled upon some list on IndieWire that featured Obvious Child. I watched the trailer, read the description, and was not at all interested. “Another movie about an unintended pregnancy, and she chooses not to go ahead with the abortion at the end? Wow, tell me more!” I had scoffed. Maybe the other films on the list weren't that great, or maybe it was pure coincidence, that I ended up watching Obvious Child that night. And I am glad that I did.
Obvious Child is a 2014 American romantic comedy written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. The film stars Jenny Slate (of the Parks and Recreation fame), Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, and David Cross in prominent roles. The plot revolves around Donna Stern, played by Slate, an almost 30-something stand-up comedian, having a drunken one-night stand with a man named Max (Lacy), after her boyfriend breaks up with her. Donna later finds out she is pregnant and the rest of the film focuses on her decision to get an abortion.
And that’s pretty much it. On surface level, there’s nothing much to the plot. It’s the part about the abortion that gets everyone talking about the film. The fact that unlike most Hollywood films about abortion, Donna actually goes through with the procedure at the end. So the film was not devoid about the discussion around its politics. Amongt the conservatives because it is ‘America’s abortion film’ and the liberals because the film talks about an important social issue. I for one, while applauding the underlying message of the film, was just in awe of how it normalises abortion and the conversation around it.
As soon as the movie opens, with Donna performing her stand up routine and getting a bit too personal about her and her boyfriend’s sex life, you know that the movie is not afraid to talk about controversial topics. Donna’s loudmouth, swearing tendencies tell you that yes, this film will go ‘there’. And ‘there’ it goes. You see Donna drinking in almost every shot after the breakup. She drinks after she bombs her set. She is drinking even as she meets sweet-natured Max at the bar. The drunken one-night stand is also nothing remarkable for her, until she finds out that she is pregnant. As soon as Donna is able to confirm she visits a Planned Parenthood clinic, where she gets the confirmation that she is indeed pregnant and conveys her decision to get an abortion.
It’s not like there aren’t any films about unintended pregnancies and the possibility of an abortion, there’s Juno, Knocked Up, and Waitress. But they all tiptoe so awkwardly around the possibility of an abortion (Juno) or don’t even mention it (Knocked Up), thereby adding to the stigma that exists around abortion. Which is where Obvious Child shines. The film is not afraid to talk about abortion. When Donna finds out she is pregnant, she is with her best friend Nellie (played brilliantly by Gaby Hoffman), who does ask her best friend about whether or not she used a condom, but doesn’t shame or judge her when Donna shares that she ‘remembers seeing a condom’ but doesn’t know if she and Max used one for sure. Nellie, who also had an abortion, becomes a pillar of support for Donna. Donna casually asks her if having an abortion hurts, and Nellie, without a break, tells her that it definitely doesn’t, and that after the procedure ‘you just need to wear a pad, and if there might be some pain, it feels like menstrual cramps’. I had never before seen abortion being discussed in a frank and honest way, as if it just might be any other medical procedure, which it is, to points to Obvious Child for that. When later into the film Donna breaks down in front of her mother, she tells her daughter that she had an abortion too, ‘back in the 60s, when it was illegal’. Donna’s mother, while stern with her daughter about her career prospects, also doesn’t judge her for getting pregnant or choosing to get an abortion. This was extremely refreshing for me, as it’s not just about Donna or her abortion that the film talks about, but many other women like her who have gotten an abortion, too.
According to this paper published in The Lancet, there were 121 million unintended pregnancies annually in 2015-19, 61% of which ended in abortion. So, abortions are quite common. Whether we want to accept it or not. The only thing we should be talking about is how many of these abortions were safe and how many unsafe. Donna has access to safe abortion services because she has privilege, the privilege of being a child of loving and supporting parents, the privilege of having friends who support her, the privilege of being a cis-heterosexual white woman living in New York, the privilege of being able to afford the procedure. In a way, by not talking about it, the film does talk about the other side of the coin. What happens when the person in question is not Donna, is not that privileged, lives in a country where abortion is illegal or abortion services are not accessible? What then?
There are many other things that Obvious Child does well. It tells us that any of us could be Donna, and that having the reproductive rights and freedom she has is important. It talks about the gray area that surrounds the decision of talking about your decision of getting an abortion with a partner, who while in the film might just be a one-night stand, becomes quite important to Donna. Most importantly, it shows Donna getting an abortion in a way I would imagine many people getting it, without tears, or fear for her life, or some unspeakable guilt. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad about an abortion or scared for that matter, it is just that that we should be not only be seeing the films where it is always accompanied with feelings of guilt and tears over well, just an abortion.