Obvious Child Poses a Challenge

“Romantic comedies today are called ‘romcoms.’ This is perhaps the explanation of why they are no good . . .  ‘Romcom’ implies a little bit of love but not too much, and a little bit of comedy, but not too much (‘not too much’ being all they can give).”

— Jeanine Basinger,
I Do and I Don’t:  A History of Marriage in the Movies (2012)

Obvious Child movie posterWe are invited to care about the movie, Obvious Child (2014, directed by Gillian Robespierre) because —gasp!—it presents having an elective abortion as an ordinary, normal life event. The feminists among us may also be invited to admire the movie because it’s produced, written and directed by a woman so it’s an important cultural product in and of itself. A female auteur foregrounding women’s real experience? Attention must be paid! Alas, this invitation is only a marketing ploy masquerading as ideology. We are being sold a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The set-up introduces us to the doleful life and dreary world of Donna Stern, bohemian (Brooklyn variety), child of affluent Manhattan (Upper West Side variety). As the world knows, Brooklyn is now a self-styled epicenter of youthful creativity. Donna, played by Jenny Slate, feels entitled to her share. That she has nothing to say at the stand-up mic is no deterrent. True to their time and place, she’s surrounded by well-meaning friends who assure her that her shtick—narcissistic bio-bites about unhappy affairs and (female variety) biological processes—is hilarious. Hey, women can be “rude” too!

Thus, the content-free children of Lenny Bruce. (“Lenny Bruce?” “Not my generation, man!”)

Because youth is always young and frisky (and thirsty), Donna hooks up at the bar with a straight guy after her “performance.” This is not an affair born of eros but in scatology. Hey, women can “pee in public,” too! Still, Max is kinda cute. They fall into dismal sex without further ado, and why not. Are we surprised that a pregnancy soon benights this idyll? That abortion will be her obvious choice?

An unplanned pregnancy begets questions: Should Donna tell her mother? Comfortable with her daughter’s predicament and supportive of her decision, mother deftly inserts herself into the story with the sort of information that always blows the wind out of a child’s sails—she had an abortion too! Who’s the center of attention now? From this interlude, we learn that Donna comes by her narcissism honestly.

Mother is surrounded by books on her bed, so you know she’s an intellectual. Does this give her endorsement extra weight? Either way, don’t expect any philosophical musings on women’s moral authority or empathy with others in similar situations. Don’t look for gratitude to the pioneers who legalized abortion or the activists who continue to fight against increasing and dreadful restrictions. There won’t be any rallying cry here to defend Roe or simply provide a welcoming hand to others at the clinic. Donna lives in New York City; Planned Parenthood survives here. Nothing else matters to these characters. This disinterest, apparently, is what we mean by presenting abortion as “normative.”

Should Donna tell Max? Words fail her, so she stands him up. This could be looked upon as bad-mannered, but such considerations don’t apply in her milieu. Nevermind. He ends up in her Brooklyn bar to learn that he’s (not) about to become a father; via her stand-up routine, Donna announces her pregnancy and forthcoming abortion. To be fair, Max is her primary audience for this big reveal, but he’s alone in a crowd.

Max sorta tries to do the right thing. He doesn’t get violent or call the cops.  Perhaps they’ll grow into a relationship. Whatever. Following the historic template of the classic “women’s film,” this movie doesn’t much care about the man’s character or caliber. His presence (or absence) is all that’s required. It’s why he was so often played by second-tier stars.

Do we have to like and/or champion a movie just because it presents a rarely seen viewpoint on an issue that’s important to us?

 Beyond Donna’s self-regarding Brooklyn, there’s an ongoing and apposite debate on whether women possess the inherent moral capability to make decisions about such profound issues as termination of pregnancy. Feminists have not won the proposition; pragmatists have retreated from it. Worldwide, majority opinion continues to fundamentally distrust women as a class, even as liberals approve some relevant special permissions, such as those codified—but not guaranteed—by Roe.

Donna Stern doesn’t care about any of this. (Or, at least, there’s no evidence to suggest that she does, or that the abortion has awakened a social interest.) She just wants what she wants when she wants it. In this, she’s an obvious child, and there’s no suggestion that change will follow from cuddling up on a sofa with Max watching content-rich old movies like—no kidding! —Gone With the Wind. Donna lives in the world of Lena Durham’s Girls (Brooklyn) not Claire Booth Luce’s The Women (not Brooklyn). Who wants to be a grown up anymore? Who cares about the unknown activists who worked to give us these privileged adult experiences?

Which brings us to the twin challenge posed by Obvious Child: Do those of us who are unambiguously prochoice have to like and/or approve of the individual women who avail of legal abortion (the ideological challenge)? Do we have to like and/or champion a movie just because it presents a rarely seen viewpoint on an issue that’s important to us (the marketing challenge)?

My personal education on the first issue came from Deaglán de Bréadún of the Irish Times. For the newspaper of record, we were discussing women’s reasons for elective termination. (Deaglán is an honest reporter; he really wanted to know, and I had just published a report.) He put several scenarios to me, including some of the provocative hypotheticals bandied about by anti-choicers. Slightly exasperated, I opined that, “women don’t have abortions for trivial reasons.” Deaglán was way ahead of me. “Who are we to say what that is?” he asked. “What’s seemingly trivial to you might be deadly serious to another.”

Touché. It’s the individual’s right to choose on her own behalf, it’s not for me to judge or circumscribe.

Philosophically speaking, then, the hard cases needing prochoice defense are not the cases with maximum emotional appeal (usually identifiable victims of other outrages), but the ones which trigger our subjective prejudices. And am I triggered by Donna Stern! No matter. I’m now and always wholeheartedly committed to continued and expanded access for all women, her included.

But I do not have to like this film. And it’s disingenuous to ask me to align with a movie which has so very little to say about women (girls?), abortion, politics, love (or eros), Brooklyn. (It is a primer on contemporary narcissism, however, with some insights on depression. There’s value in that, surely.)

Is it romantic? Is it comedic? Pace Auden, the question is absurd. But it will certainly enter the lists as a “romcom,” a genre we may confidently avoid until further notice.

Ruth Riddick led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.

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