A new film tries nobly to 'de-stigmatize' abortion. So why does it leave me cold?
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In its effort to be sympathetic, Unpregnant flattens abortion into a simple and palatable narrative
In the new HBO Max comedy Unpregnant, a 17-year-old girl calls a clinic to set up an appointment for an abortion. Veronica has just learned she is pregnant, and while we are not told why she is choosing not to continue her pregnancy, we can guess it has something to do with all of the medals and certificates of scholastic achievement on her wall. (Future’s so bright…gotta get rid of that unborn baby…) When she’s told that without first getting parental consent the closest place she can have the procedure done is 1,000 miles away, she remains undaunted and creates a detailed budget, map, and schedule to have the abortion, while avoiding informing her parents and keeping anyone at school from finding out.
Because we all know #menaretrash, Veronica chooses as the companion for her road trip a plucky but now estranged childhood friend, Bailey, and the film morphs into your typical teen comedy. Despite never quite abandoning its After School Special undertones, Unpregnant is very charming. It’s just two girls, running from the police, getting into hijinks, overcoming barriers to their friendship and their futures with zeal and sugary drinks. It hits all of the expected plot points of its genre, and the predictability of it all is very comfortable. They get into trouble, they learn something about themselves and each other, and you know at every step all will ultimately end well, and our hero will get what she wants, like the loss of virginity or admission into the college of choice, but in this case it is an abortion.
It’s just one of several films and TV storylines of the last several years, created (mostly) by women looking to, in the words of Unpregnant director Rachel Lee Goldenberg, “destigmatize” abortion and present it as a normal part of a woman’s life. It joins the 2014 abortion romantic comedy Obvious Child, the pilot for the Hulu series Shrill, the Lily Tomlin film Grandma, and the drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, among others.
While the actors, filmmakers, and writers often talk about wanting to present a different perspective on abortion, watched back to back, the similarities in these stories overwhelm. The men involved are either useless or menacing, the path to the clinic is strewn with burdensome obstacles, anyone pro-life is monstrously religious, and someone is almost always on hand to tell the main character (and the audience) facts and statistics about abortion, like how many women (one in four! Did you know? It’s 1 in 4 women!) will terminate a pregnancy in the course of their lives.
If we’re trying to destigmatize abortion and tell different stories about it to reflect the reality, we should wonder: why do these stories always revolve around the same character? She is almost always young, white, middle class, and bright, but in need of learning how to stick up for herself and say what she wants.
The abortion itself is no longer something that happens after the scene cuts away, but something depicted on screen in a realistic albeit idealized manner. The health care workers are uniformly caring and warm; there is very little discomfort or pain. The woman leaves the clinic feeling empowered, often during the golden hour. This montage starts to feel like a commercial for the regional abortion clinic, indistinguishable from half of the other commercials I saw that day. I can feel empowered from having an abortion, just like I can feel empowered while eating ice cream despite not being a size two, or while taking a new prescription drug for Crohn’s disease, or while bundling my home and auto insurance.
It’s natural to want to show the good in something that has been portrayed mostly as bad. Abortion opponents like to characterize women who have had abortions as having low moral character, callous and uncaring. Even films with good intentions kind of overdid it a little, turning every abortion into a tragedy to really hammer in what a serious issue this is. The women who undergo the procedure either end up invalids (What Have You Done to Solange?) or dead (Revolutionary Road, If These Walls Could Talk, The Cider House Rules, The Thief, etc., etc.).
It would be easy to see the way abortion used to be portrayed in pop culture and think, “But I had an abortion, and I am now neither insane or dead, nor filled with regret, my story must be told!” But in the rush to create a positive representation of a stigmatized experience, the complications get flattened and the representative will ultimately have to be respectable and noble. But somewhere, after watching the two Jesus freaks who try to kidnap Veronica and Bailey to prevent them from “killing her baby,” there is a pro-lifer who is furiously scribbling a screenplay, muttering under their breath about not “feeling seen” by Unpregnant.
As I was watching these movies, I wondered whether this positive representation of abortion would have made a difference to me as a lonely, pregnant 20-year-old with an appointment to get a surgical abortion looming on the horizon. Or maybe the obvious differences between myself – unemployed, with zero prospects and no zany best friend to see me through the process, only the disappointing man involved – and the just-doing-her-best heroines would have made me feel more like a failure than I already did.
What helped instead was meeting people in real life who went through the same thing with vastly different backgrounds and circumstances, some of whose stories were funny, others tragic, and occasionally even callous or full of regret. None of them would be chosen to represent all women’s stories in a made-for-TV movie. Too complicated. But they deserve to be seen, too.
Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist