Why a ‘good abortion film’ should never just be an ‘abortion film’

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It’s no secret that abortion is a tricky subject for people to handle. With the recent shooting at Planned Parenthood, the abortion laws in Ireland and stories of illegal abortions around the world, abortion has been hitting all of our news screens in the past few months. But what about our film screens?

Grandma (2015) is the latest release that has taken on abortion as a subject, and a year ago Obvious Child (2014) did the same. Both films take a humorous tone but manage to face abortion with the sensitivity it deserves. These films show a new hope for films that deal with the subject, and appear a far cry away from the likes of Knocked Up (2007) and Juno (2008). What is seen in Grandma and Obvious Child could be described as a step back, but not a negative step back, a positive one. To a time when films tackling abortion were not simply ‘abortion films’, they where films about women, they confronted issues such as race, class, the idiocy of the far right and left, citizen hood, and the everyday life of being a teenager. Regarding them all as just ‘abortion films’ is a reductive trap we should not fall in to. It takes away from what they actually are, films about the lives of different women and what we go through.

Now to say Grandma and Obvious Child are perfect would be a lie. Both films are completely white washed, with the exception of Laverne Cox and a dead character in Grandma. It is a sad fact that women of colour are often missing from the debate when in fact; African American communities are being preyed upon by pro-life campaigns. Posters have been seen stating ‘Abortion is the number one killer of black lives in the United States’ and ‘The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb’, many of which attempt to parallel African American women having abortions to genocide.

Two films that do look at these issues are Our Song (2000) and Just Another Girl On The I.R.T (1992). Both focus on African American and Latino girls growing up in poverty stricken neighbourhoods, they show the everyday dramas of the girls focusing on school life, friendship, boys, and struggles of growing up as a working class black woman in America. In Our Song, the girl decided to have an abortion, in Just Another Girl in the IRT we see her visiting clinics and eventually deciding to keep the baby but hide the pregnancy from her family. The choices made by the girls really have little significance in making the film a ‘good’ depiction of abortion or a ‘bad’ one. What matters is that the films are truthful depictions of women’s lives, they show how economic situations factor into our lives as women and in the choices we make. They show teen pregnancy, unwanted pregnancy, and yes abortion, but as we can see they are much more than just ‘abortions films’.

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It would also be wrong to mention the humorous side of films like Grandma and Obvious Child if we didn’t look at Citizen Ruth (1999). This film isn’t a pro-life film or pro-choice film. It’s a caricature of the idiocy of the far right and the hard left in America. Ruth is a down and out glue sniffer. She just wants an abortion, or doesn’t depending on who will give her enough money, the pro-lifers or the pro-choicers. The big factor in this film is that neither side really cares about Ruth or what she actually wants; they just want to win the argument. Although in reality, there is no winner in this everlasting fight between the right and the left, and it’s usually the women who lose out. What we also see in the film is something many girls will recognise, we see two extreme sides of the political spectrum trying to ‘educate’ Ruth on what is best for her own life and body. This is a paradox as education is exactly what is needed to tackle the abortions debate just not this kind of ‘education’.

On a similar note The Education Of Shelby Knox (2005) is a documentary that does look at the right kind of education, or the lack thereof. This documentary doesn’t specifically look at abortion at all, but that should not exclude it from the debate. Instead it looks at the issue of comprehensive sex education in America and it’s link to teen pregnancy, with many schools still teaching abstinence only. It is a great portrayal of how the lack of sexual education effects young people, increasing the risk of unwanted teen pregnancy and at the same time completely attacking the idea of any form of contraception or abortion.

Realistically, in the last few years we have had very few films that match up to these, but Grandma and Obvious Child do come very close. Grandma is a story of three generations of women, of our differences but also our similarities. It is also an honest portrayal of love and loss between two women. Obvious Child is an out right rom-com, a story of a young girl. A struggling comedian who happens to fall pregnant, get an abortion and just maybe fall in love. You see, none of these films should be referred to as an ‘abortion film’, because they are so much more. They should take from past films like Our Story, Just Another Girl On The IRT, Citizen Ruth and The Education of Shelby Knox to replicate what is so powerful about them. They should then make themselves even more inclusive, looking at other wider issues surrounding abortion like gender, race, class, education, and including truthful depictions of abortion procedures. And finally, not making ‘abortion films’ at all, instead making films about the lives, loves, and lessons of different women who just happen to have an abortion.

Words by Ella Sweeney

Illustration by Laura Hollingworth