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What 'The Giver' and 'Obvious Child' say about abortion in America

Jenny Slate in 'Obvious Child.'
Jenny Slate in 'Obvious Child.'
(A24)

In the summer of 2014, abortion became an unlikely subject for the multiplex. Both indie comedy Obvious Child and novel adaptation The Giver tackled the subject — albeit much more obliquely in the latter case. (Though abortion rights opponents readily saw The Giver as an anti-abortion film, what's presented in it is actually infanticide.) Both films looked at abortion from politically opposite viewpoints. Not that either film was meant as a political treatise on reproductive rights, but moviegoers — especially the more politically attuned ones — were quick to note the political undertones of the stories.

Gretchen Sisson, research sociologist at the University of California San Francisco, co-authored a study last summer tracking abortion plotlines in Hollywood. According to Sisson, since 1916, there have been about 300 abortion stories in TV and film. That means for the past century, there have been about three a year, although Sisson notes there's been a recent uptick in these kinds of stories.

The uptick in stories that treat abortion as a neutral or even potentially positive experience is even more recent. Sisson found that in more than 13 percent of these TV and film abortion plotlines, the characters who had abortions died for various reasons.

Those films, she told me, "are not necessarily playing abortion as dangerous, but they are linking abortion and death and violence in a way that's disproportionate." Of course, much of this is probably owed to the existence of the bygone Hayes Code, which stipulated that the word "abortion" was not to be used in motion pictures, and that when it was alluded to, it could never be in any sort of comedic way.

Obvious Child

Enter Obvious Child. According to Sisson, this isn't the first film to portray abortion as something that doesn't destroy a young woman's life. However, she told me, "it is different in that it certainly is the first film that unabashedly talks about abortion not as hidden plot twist — it makes it the talking point of the film." Its uniqueness is also owed to the fact that its a comedy, she notes.

The film, which marks the directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, has been dubbed the "Abortion Rom-Com" because, well, it's a romantic comedy that deals with abortion. But it isn't about abortion — it's about a woman who has an abortion, and, unlike many other women in movies who have abortions, she gets a happy ending. Because of that happy ending, Variety called the film "refreshingly honest."

Variety is hardly alone. Marie Claire's Julia Felsenthal wrote that Obvious Child is "the Rom Com we've all been waiting for" because the protagonist has "a refreshingly progressive attitude toward abortion." In The Guardian, Karley Sciortino called Obvious Child "important" and contrasted it with 2007's Juno, a film about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and decides to carry the baby to term. The "sarcastic realism" of Robespierre's tale, writes Sciortino, will be relatable to many women who have found that "having an abortion ... might just all work out fine."

Slate's Amanda Hess took the praise one step further: "Obvious Child is the most honest movie about abortion that I've seen," read her article's headline. Like Sciortino, Hess notes how relatable the film is to the lived experience of many American women. As research from the Guttmacher Institute shows, 40 percent of "unintended" pregnancies are aborted. By the age of 45, estimates project that 30 percent of American women will have had an abortion. Research also demonstrates that most women (95 percent) who have abortions feel they made the right decision. Obvious Child, then, is an attempt to tell a story that fits those numbers.

Cristina Richie, Flatley Fellow in theological ethics at Boston College, agrees that Obvious Child is an honest film, but notes its honesty isn't owed to the fact that it ends in abortion, "but in the depiction of the human aspects of navigating a life interrupted by surprise." Richie says a film's authenticity "must be rooted in its consideration of the various and complex realities of sex, love, conception, contraception, and pregnancy, regardless [of whether] that pregnancy ends at a clinic or a maternity ward."

The Giver

The Giver, meanwhile, presents a scenario that has resonated with pro-life advocates. While the film is in no way a story about abortion, the issue is metaphorically explored in ways that speak directly to those who are most opposed to abortion.

In the dystopian world of The Giver, based on Lois Lowry's 1993 novel of the same name, babies who aren't deemed fit to live are "released" to a place called "Elsewhere." In one of the story's most painful moments, the protagonist Jonas secretly watches his father perform one of these releases on a newborn. The film sequence follows the book closely. Here's how Lowry describes the scene:

To his surprise, his father began very carefully to direct the needle into the top of the new child's forehead, puncturing the place where the fragile skin pulsed. The newborn squirmed, and wailed faintly. …

Still in the special voice, his father was saying, "I know, I know. It hurts, little guy. But I have to use a vein, and the veins in your arm are still too teeny-weeny."

He pushed the plunger very slowly, injecting the liquid into the scalp vein until the syringe was empty.

"All done. That wasn't so bad, was it?" Jonas heard his father say cheerfully.

It's disturbing enough to watch a baby receive a lethal injection in its brain. But the moment is further intensified by the sing-song way Father tries to calm the very baby he's killing. On top of this, Father has no idea he's actually hurting or killing the child.

To be clear, what happens in The Giver is not an abortion. The babies killed by Jonas' father have already been born, and have lived outside of the womb for several months. What Father kills are not fetuses, and there isn't any debate in his society about whether or not the babies are alive. There is debate, however, about whether the babies are fit to be alive, about whether they are viable — and therein lies the comparison for pro-lifers.

Charles Camosy, ethicist at Fordham University and author of a forthcoming book on abortion, told me that not all would see the murder scene in The Giver as a nod to abortion because many believe that "babies after birth are different, morally speaking, than babies before birth." But for Camosy, that's a "questionable assumption." It is warranted, he argues, to draw a parallel between Jonas' father and abortion. "Jonas' father is guilty of murder because he kills a living (albeit immature) member of our species — abortion kills a living (albeit immature) member of our species, as well."

As Alyssa Rosenberg points out at the Washington Post, because of the way it nods toward these questions and other contemporary political issues, conservatives have given The Giver a right-handed thumb way, way up. Sarah Palin called the film "a moving pro-liberty movie," and Breitbart praised it as a "tribute to individualism, the human spirit, and the sanctity of human life."

But as Rosenberg notes, the politics of The Giver aren't nearly so straightforward: "progressives could easily claim that part of the nightmare of The Giver is the way it turns some women into professional baby vessels, stripping away their reproductive choices." And Natalie Wilson, for Ms. Magazine, argues that rather than promoting a pro-life message, The Giver actually deconstructs it:

That the images of "release to elsewhere" are juxtaposed with murderous images — the slaughter of elephants, the killing of innocents by military forces — could be interpreted as furthering the pro-life claim that the taking of "life" is murder. However, the suggestion that murder of the past (war, genocide, etc.) has been supplanted with a different kind of murder which is no better emphasizes the hypocrisy at the heart of the pro-life stance:  that those who condemn abortion as "murder" also call for the killing of abortion providers and/or support war, resist gun control, and fail to condemn genocide

When politics hit the Big Screen

In spite of all of its rightly earned praise, it's hard to pretend Obvious Child is free of any sort of political context. Writes Hess:

The filmmakers have teamed up with abortion-rights group NARAL to sell the movie, and promotional materials state that "Obvious Child is a story that depicts one young woman's reality and many women's rights." And the movie features the most charmingly competent Planned Parenthood doctor that a young, sexually active woman has ever seen. (Unlike Fast Times' "Free Clinic" or Juno's "Women Now," Planned Parenthood signed on to display its insignia in the film.)

At the same time, some see The Giver as being set within a different but equally charged political context. The film was produced by Walden Media, and according to one CNN critic, the production company has been known to "push life-affirming messages." (By "life-affirming," the critic specifically means "pro-life.")

Camosy thinks it's worth noting that research has shown a growing skepticism toward abortion among Millennials. In 2012, for example, only 37 percent of college-aged Millennials agreed that abortion was "morally acceptable." Fewer Millennials than Gen Xers believe that abortion should be legal in all cases. While Camosy takes care not to conflate correlation and causation, he suggests that increasingly pro-life-friendly media may help explain why Millennials are increasingly skeptical of abortion.

There's no denying that political battles are sometimes borne out on the Big Screen. Films treating political themes become proverbial Rorschach tests for audience members: people interpret the films in different ways based on their own biases, and then they hold up those films as evidence that their particular views are right.

That many have staked political flags on two of the most successful sumer movies demonstrates just how polarized America has become on hot-button issues. Of course, says Richie, it doesn't help that popular forms of media tend to polarize contemporary discussions about abortion as either-or debates. In reality, she says, there is a "vast middle ground for consensus between the two camps," such as the desire to reduce abortions, to make contraception more widely available, and to support women who choose to give birth.

In some sense, it might be tempting to see The Giver and Obvious Child as two competing narratives dealing with society's views on, among other things, abortion. But, as Obvious Child star Jenny Slate told Mother Jones, her film isn't meant to make a grand statement: "You know, we just set out to make this story. We weren't thinking about anything but making this story."

Good stories, in other words, are always particular: this one person right here is doing this specific thing, and here's what happens to her. Obvious Child and The Giver have different, particular stories to tell, and they will still be telling those stories long after any political arguments over them have died down.

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