In 2020, two films were released with almost identical premises and completely opposite end products. One was Unpregnant, a light buddy comedy about two high school girls traveling across different states so that one could get an abortion, and the other was Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a gritty, realist drama about two girls traveling across different states so that one could get an abortion. These films solidified the distinctness of the “abortion movie” (which here I’m classifying as a movie that includes a significant plotline about abortion) showcasing how the same experience can be so vastly different. These films can be comedies (Obvious Child, Saint Frances), romances (Dirty Dancing), and dramas (The Surrogate). So, through the lens of Unpregnant, one of the first hard-comedy abortion films, what can we learn about the genre as a whole?
What struck me about Unpregnant was the desire to understand it in a strict, Film-with-a-capital-F format. We know who the protagonists are, we know the story arc, but who is the antagonist? Is it distance? Time? Strict laws? Anti-abortion activists who pick up girls from carnivals and offer hospitality with a secret agenda? Unpregnant doesn’t end with a sweeping restructuring of public health laws and wider accessibility of abortion for everyone in the way that a Marvel movie ends with saving the entire world from destruction. I don’t expect Unpregnant, or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, or even Saint Frances to present a bright, shiny world where all problems are solved at the end of an hour and thirty minutes. That said, I do I wish that abortion film protagonists could save others as well. As much as it feels like closure to have a character finally get the abortion they traveled miles to get, on a core level it’s an individual story. Yes, I’m happy for the character, but what about all the other women for whom the procedure remains inaccessible?
And perhaps these films will always need to be micro-focused, because regardless of where or when the film takes place, the film is in the world we currently live in. Access is unequal and unfair and there are obstacles for some (place, age) and different obstacles for others (money, other children at home to take care of). But movies aren’t confined to reflecting our world back to us, they can show us what a different world could look like. In Unpregnant, two teenagers taking limo rides with Giancarlo Esposito and going to carnivals with Betty Who. We can spread our imaginations pretty far in that world. Why, then, can’t we do the same thing and present a society where abortion access is widespread and accessible for everyone? Of course, that would make the main conflict of the film obsolete, but what better kind of abortion movie is there than one where someone who wants one can easily get it and then move on with their lives?
I am interested in the ‘genre’ of abortion movies because I think there are few other topics where the films and television shows really are the main sources of education. We learn a lot through the media. We learn about other parts of the world, other people, other experiences, but many of those topics are supplemented through knowledge from elsewhere. Yet, many schools, and much of the agenda of the anti-abortion movement is about cloaking the entire topic in a shroud of guilt and shame. Therefore, abortion films have the unfair pressure of not only being a cinematic piece, but a PSA as well. What are the options? What will it look like inside the room? These are questions that aren’t readily answered in health classes or public discourse, so the films bear the brunt of both entertainment and education for those who don’t have access to this information otherwise.
In terms of the procedures, both Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always take their protagonists through a step-by-step sequence of what will happen. Whether or not these are necessarily in a filmmaking sense, or seem overly didactic, is irrelevant to me. These scenes are not so much for the characters as they are for the audience. These are for people who may want to get an abortion at some point in their lives, and have mostly heard about it through political debates and horror stories about women being unable to receive care. For the record, both of these scenes fit, cinematically, within the context of their respective films. But even if they were as blatantly educational as a jury duty instruction video, I would still argue for their inclusion for the mere fact that I have never seen the procedure explained or outlined in any other area of my life.
But as we know, great power comes with great responsibility. For all the stigma-breaking it wants to do Unpregnant falters in some significant elements. Around three-quarters of the way through the film, Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) get into a fight. “I’m not like the type of person who’s just supposed to go and get an abortion!” Veronica yells, to which Bailey replies, “You are exactly the kind of person who gets an abortion and then doesn’t tell anyone!”. It’s exchanges like these that are contradictory, and detrimental, to the main thesis of abortion movies. By merely implying that there are “types”, they are playing into the idea that women who get abortions should be put into a category against those who don’t. Veronica’s grades and social status don’t make her any more or less likely to get an abortion than another person. The type of person who gets an abortion is simply the type of person who needs one, and even then, many don’t have the privilege of securing one.
But even in our portrayals of abortion, there is much to be desired. According to the CDC, “In 2018, compared with non-Hispanic White women, abortion rates and ratios were 3.4 and 3.0 times higher among non-Hispanic Black women and 1.7 and 1.4 times higher among Hispanic women”. Yet Abortion Onscreen reports that in 2019, 65% of characters who obtained abortions on television were white. Many were also young, straight, and childless, which is only a fraction of the population who get abortions. The central questions of many abortion films, Unpregnant included, are things like, how do I get an abortion without getting parental consent? How do I get an abortion when the closest procedure centre is hours away? How do I get an abortion when I don’t have health insurance?
These are not the only significant questions though. There are others, ones like, how do I get an abortion when I have a family to take care of? How do I get an abortion when I have a pre-existing condition and worry about my health? How do I get an abortion if I am undocumented? The latter questions are equally valid and deserve the same attention as the former. The film industry, and media as a whole, have a responsibility to tell a multitude of stories. But because discussion of abortion is so stifled elsewhere, onscreen representations have an even greater responsibility to be as inclusive as possible. As Kelly O’Sullivan, the writer and star of Saint Frances notes, “It’s important not to be monolithic in the way that these stories are told”.
I welcome Unpregnant into the pantheon of abortion movies, because at the very least, we need more. We need it to cross genres and tropes and characters, and to show diverse experiences and viewpoints. Through those representations, we are able to discuss not only the films but the issues at their core. We are able to see our society from the perspective of a girl who wants a procedure, and we are able to see both the act and the odyssey it takes to get there. Hopefully one day, abortion movies will be banal – getting one will merely be a side plot line, a decision made and done with little struggle. But until then, Unpregnant joins its predecessors in doing the work of opening up the dialogue and furthering the discussion.
by Michelle Cohn
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. You can find more of her writing here, and you can find her twitter here. She is tired.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films, Women Film-makers
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