Writing a wrong

knockedupMy husband is a huge Judd Apatow fan, which means we saw the crassly-named film Knocked Up on the night it came out. The film is not religious, save a few mentions of the protagonist’s Judaism. But coverage of the film has touched quite a bit on religious themes. Knocked Up is a comedy about how a man grows up after he impregnates a beautiful woman during a one-night-stand. Without giving anything away, I think it’s okay for me to share with you that the female in question delivers the baby rather than have an abortion.

This lack of abortion — and lack of agonized discussion over same — in the movie has rankled more than a few film critics and social observers. I thought about looking at some of these reviews last week, but almost everything out there was straight opinion. But I came across two mainstream media pieces that are worth noting.

J. Peder Zane of the Raleigh News & Observer used the lack of abortion in Knocked Up to look at how Hollywood treats pregnancy termination in general. I love his lede:

Foul language, divorce, drug abuse, premarital sex, homosexuality — Hollywood used to have as many taboos as a revival tent meeting. Nowadays, almost anything goes in popular culture, where the explicit is taken to ever-more-graphic levels.

Yet one topic still makes movie and TV producers tremble: abortion.

Zane goes on to speak with various professors and cultural critics who say that abortion is taboo for film and television. He lists examples of films with women who have abortions, but notes that most onscreen unplanned pregnancies end up in miscarriage or birth.

I really liked Zane’s piece, but I found it interesting that he blamed producers for the lack of abortion. Let’s switch real quick to a piece found in The New York Times‘ Fashion & Style section by Mireya Navarro:

Though conservatives regularly accuse Hollywood of being overly liberal on social issues, abortion rarely comes up in film. Real-life women struggling with unwanted pregnancies might consider an abortion, have intense discussions with partners and friends about it and, in most cases, go through with it. But historically and to this day in television and film — historians, writers and those in the movie industry say — a character in such straits usually conveniently miscarries or decides to keep the baby.

“It’s one of those topics that would alienate a portion of the audience no matter what you do,” Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said of Hollywood’s reluctance to tackle abortion more realistically.

Perhaps directors of feel-good movies don’t want to risk portraying their heroines as unsympathetic characters.

Okay, now it’s not producers who are the bad guys, but directors. Maybe this is because one of my best friends is a writer in Hollywood, but this is one of my pet peeves. Directors and producers don’t create characters . . . writers create characters.These characters need motivation, and the goal is for the audience to connect with them and care about them. So when creating characters facing problem pregnancies, they envision people who either will or won’t contemplate or have an abortion. That writers avoid creating characters who abort their unborn children is something worth looking into, and I hope future articles do. But it’s important to identify who is most responsible for characters.

Both articles quote political activists with a vested interest in the abortion debate. Are you surprised? Neither am I. These folks say abortion is a sensitive topic that must be avoided — but I’m not sure that’s the underlying cause. Consider, if you will, how much the protagonist in Knocked Up would have matured if his lover had aborted the child. Consider how long the movie would have listed. Consider how well that would have fit in with a slapstick comedy.

Navarro is unable to speak with the writer of either film, but she does include the writer’s perspective for Waitress that furthers the point:

The producer of “Waitress,” Michael Roiff, said Adrienne Shelly, the film’s writer and director, weighed the concept of abortion as the “good New York liberal” she was. But from a story point of view, Ms. Shelly, who was murdered last year in her New York office, found richer material following the pregnancy through, Mr. Roiff said.

“We didn’t worry about the political ramifications,” he said. “It’s a story about the power of motherhood.”

Exactly. It’s an artistic choice, and one that fits well for writers looking to show complex, ongoing struggles and maturation. I hope other reporters pick up on this and look at why motherhood versus pregnancy termination is chosen by writers so frequently. Both articles are really good and I commend them. One final note on each.

I thought Zane did a great job of seeking opinions from a wide variety of activists with different perspectives. I was intrigued by this pro-choice perspective, particularly the last few words of her quote:

For all our uneasiness, abortion remains legal. Its relative absence from popular culture sends a dangerous message to the millions of women who have abortions or will have them, argues Audrey Fisch, a professor of English at New Jersey City University, who has written about the issue for Salon.com.

“By ignoring the issue, Hollywood ends up suggesting that abortion is an unspeakable abomination and that people who get abortions are bad people,” Fisch said. “By refusing to represent the real lives of women — including the economic and social damage that can come from unplanned pregnancies — Hollywood is fostering a destructive pro-life culture.”

Compare that with this rather shocking line in Navarro’s piece:

Many conservative bloggers have claimed “Knocked Up” as an anti-choice movie, in part because the movie never presents abortion as a serious option.

Oh no she didn’t. I realize she works at The New York Times and all, but, um, no. Conservative bloggers didn’t claim the movie as an anti-choice movie. And, in fact, the use of that phrase is just wholly unacceptable among adult journalists, particularly those who teach the trade at the Columbia Journalism School. I know the Internet is a big place, but somehow I don’t picture conservative bloggers using the phrase “anti-choice.” Ever. Perhaps the phrase she was looking for was “pro-life”? I think that might be it. I mean, really, people. Imagine The New York Times referring to those who support abortion as “anti-life.” It wouldn’t happen.

Christopher Orr at The New Republic criticized the media approaches I mentioned here. His point is worth considering:

As a liberal who writes about film, there are few things that I find more irritating than the tendency of other liberal film writers to treat the 95 percent of Hollywood films that push (explicitly or implicitly) liberal ideas as if they were utterly apolitical and commonsensical, and then react with shock and despair on those rare occasions when a movie with conservative themes makes its way to theatres.

He says such media coverage would be justified if the film community started bestowing Oscar nominations for portraying pro-life characters instead of abortion providers.

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  • http://www.bombaxo.com/blog Kevin P. Edgecomb

    Do these journalists even have functioning brains? The movie would’ve been, what, fifteen minutes long if she’d chosen abortion? It wouldn’t even have been worth making into a movie: guy gets girl pregnant, girl has abortion, and everyone (except the baby) lives happily ever after. Yawn! If anything, it’s the story’s “man bites dog” quality of non-abortion that provides the framework for the humor and charm. People are united and changed by sharing life, not so much by death.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    This rather reminds me of the vast, right-wing plot behind the movie “The Incredibles.”

    GetReligion has been around long enough that we have several posts on that wave of paranoia on the left.

    Check it out!


  • VoxDilecti

    Havn’t seen the film and I initially had no desire too, but I appreciate you highlighting the artistic value of going through with the pregnancy. I completely agree with Kevin.
    This may be a gross speculation but as far as genres go one would expect to find abortion be more viable in the plot of a drama than a raunchy comedy.
    Imagine how serious Knocked Up would have to be if they did indeed bring up abortion as an option and still went through with the birth. One character or the other would have to give a compelling reason abortion was not an option, a reason that he or she could not be budged from and would have to make them both face raising the child instead.
    I simply don’t see this happening on the guys behalf, if the woman disagreed she could just do whatever she wanted regardless. Would the “liberal” Hollywood have to come to terms with contrasting values in this case, and would that not be more uncomfortable than comedic? Imagine trying to make light of that conversation:

    Guy: “So…why dont you have an abortion?”
    Gal: “Um…(insert unshakable reason) I’m catholic”
    Guy: “Oh…so then why did you hook up with me”
    Gal: “I’m not that Catholic”

    Hmm, I honestly dont know how you write a scene like that and keep it funny while backpeddling away from the discomfort of such a “real life issue.” You’d have to keep it brief so that audiences do not dwell on the moral implications of conviction vs. choice. This kinda movie is supposed to provide superficial escape, not thought-provoking reality. But I guess it has in our case, thanks for the post Mollie!

  • http://www.ubirevera.com/ Paul Barnes

    Cider House Rules and Vera Drake. Enough said.

  • Dan

    Heros don’t have abortions. That’s a fact, not a pro-life prejudice. How could it possibly be heroic to take the selfish, violent way out of a problem?

    A Catholic Sister I know who has been doing pro-life work since 1967 (yes, years before Roe) and has absolutely no illusions about the prevalence of abortion and the pro-choice mindset in our society — believe me, she’s seen it all — remarked at a pro-life meeting I attended a few years ago that “Americans hate abortion.” I suspect that filmmakers intuit this and that that is another reason abortion is not featured in movies.

    (The quote from the English professor, “Hollywood is fostering a destructive pro-life culture,” could be Exhibit A for the claim that the academy has gone off the deep end. Hollywood is fostering a pro-life culture? And it’s “destructive”?)

  • Stephen A.

    There have been few abortions on film (one in The Godfather Part II comes to mind as one example – Michael Corleone’s wife Kay admits aborting his son) but of course the same can’t be said of television.

    On soap operas, I understand this has been discussed endlessly, and perhaps an entire high school’s worth of fictional TV babies have been aborted. But given the laughable storylines of soaps (kidnappings, amnesia, rapes, evil twins, etc.) that topic’s almost tame, I guess.

  • Karen

    The first article on this topic in the NYTimes included a picture of Miranda from “Sex and the City” as an example of a female character who has an unplanned pregnancy and decides to keep the baby. I think that was a questionable example, however, because that character did consider abortion and then came up with a reason why she should go through with the pregnancy (because in her mid-30s, she might not be able to get pregnant again at a time when she had a relationship), and that same reason might not have been persuasive at another stage in her life. Then the article writer noted that two other characters in the episode admitted to having abortions earlier, so the “rate” in that episode was 2:1, and yet it got classed into support for the central thesis. No media outlet I’ve read on this (NYTimes, Salon or Slate) mentioned Abby’s unplanned pregnancy on “ER.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    If you are interested in this topic, you may want to check out the “I’m pregnant…” scene in “Fools Rush In.”

    Later in that movie, we see the unborn child on the movie screen — REALLY BIG. I thought, at the time, that the moral left might protest that, but I did not see any signs of that.

  • Brian

    A more interesting take for the pundits would have been to consider how abortion decisions are made, used and depicted in movies. In Cabaret, Sally’s abortion means giving up a coat to keep her career. In High Fidelity, John Cusack’s girlfriend has an abortion — and Cusack’s character stops to think a minute — but life just goes on. In Entertaining Angels, Dorothy hits bottom with her abortion. In The Brothers McMullen, abortion is strongly considered but becomes serendipitously unnecessary. In The Cider House Rules, women turn to heroically portrayed male abortion providers. In If these Walls Could Talk, the decisions are celebrated as triumphs of freedom.

    In the first four, abortion is simply a plot element in a larger story. In the latter two, the story is about individual adults requesting or performing abortions. The baby/fetus/pregnancy/(insert approved noun here)has no agency, is never granted the status of Other.

    When a movie pregnancy ends (one might even say “terminates”) in a live birth, however, the story enlarges to include the unexpected Other. It’s the confusing accommodations required to do precisely this that supplies whatever humor might be found in Knocked Up or Look Who’s Talking.

  • BJohnD

    One show that has taken this issue head-on is the new version of Battlestar Galactica. In an episode from Season 2 the adamantly pro-choice President Laura Roslin, faced with data showing that the 47,000 surviving humans will be extinct within 50 years, imposes a complete ban on abortions. The villainous Dr. Baltar uses the issue in his run for the presidency and goes on to defeat Roslin by a handful of votes.

  • VoxDilecti

    Wow, I have not not watch Battlestar in forever according to what you’ve just said. Talk about a spoiler alert. It was interesting however, the moral dilemma involved in aborting the Cylon/Human Child that Dr. Baltar was supposed to have. Never watched the episodes following that though.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    But historically and to this day in television and film — historians, writers and those in the movie industry say — a character in such straits usually conveniently miscarries or decides to keep the baby.

    How does one “conveniently miscarry?” Does one “plan” a miscarriage? Must be that R-whatever number pill all the rage.

    There is an artistic and financial reason perhaps not to write an abortion into the script. The immediate struggle is over and the conflict is lost. Problem “solved.” Life goes on. In the book Unprotected the author notes that Post Abortion Trauma Syndrome usually doesn’t surface for five years. Of course that would have to be a pro-life movie with a “time lapse” to carry off. Better feature the “brave” men/women who provide the service and their dilemna (see the Toby Maguire character in Cider House Rules).

    There is also the financial reason. Abortion remains legal because the pro-choice movement has been successful in promoting the “good” of keeping it legal for those who endured rape and/or incest. As a principle and a story line the subject isn’t financially viable. I suspect if one digs deeper one will find writers who have written said scripts. But why aren’t they turned into movies? Artistically there may not be enough conflict and struggles with conflict to hold one’s interest. And if the script buyer in Hollywood loses interest, that buyer knows the audiences will have no interest and the ticket sales will not materialize. Ergo, no movie. Even Cider House Rules had a poor box office (I only saw it because I had free tickets).

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    Post Abortion Trauma Syndrome, is the elephant in the room regarding the Abortion debate.

    The stats I know of say something like 40,000,000 Americans have been aborted since Roe.

    Since there are 300,000,000 Americans, even if you allow for some people having multiple abortions, that is still a large fraction of the American population that have had an abortion.

    Add in the fact that a goodly number of men have pressured for, paid for, or otherwise participated in an abortion.

    Even if not all of them have, or admit to having Post Abortion Trauma Syndrome, you still wind up with several million people who’s feelings, views on, and reactions to abortion will be deeply affected by Post Abortion Trauma Syndrome.

    Many of these people are no doubt writers, producers, directors, actors.

    (Actress Sues ABC Over Pregnancy Discrimination, Abortion
    by Steven Ertelt
    LifeNews.com Editor
    January 15, 2006

    Another actress has filed a lawsuit against a television network saying she is the victim of pregnancy discrimination. This time, former “General Hospital” star Kari Wuhrer has sued ABC and ABC Productions alleging the media outlet killed off her character and dismissed her from the program because she got pregnant.
    Actress Hunter Tylo, who has gone on to be a spokeswoman for pro-life causes, filed a similar lawsuit in 1997.)

    I think these facts need to be considered in any discussion of this topic.

  • Martha

    It seems to boil down to it’s only a choice if the outcome is abortion. If abortion is not chosen, then a choice has not been made, and so the film is anti-choice.

    What was all that again about abortion not being mandatory, and if you didn’t want one, you didn’t have to have one? Seems like that doesn’t apply to TV and movie characters: if your character gets pregnant, she must have an abortion, or else you are peddling an evil, destructive message.

  • Steve

    Yes, Vera Drake, The Cider House Rules, If These Walls Could Talk

    …but I for one won’t forget the classic teen angst ’80s comedy Fast Times At Ridgemont High (with future Oscar winners Sean Penn and Forest Whittaker). They actually showed the freshman teenager go to the abortionist, lay on the table in the hospital gown, and have the doctor kneel down to perform the act. Abortion as taboo for Hollywood? Give me a break.

    And Knocked Up did address abortion. The female protagonist’s mother desperately wanted her to “take care of it” and then eventually settle down with a nice man and have a “real baby.” Of course, the protagonist never even considered it. And one of the male protagonist’s friends wanted him to do it, but his opinion was essentially booed down by the others.

  • Cole

    From http://movies.about.com/od/knockedup/a/knockedja052707.htm

    Apatow wanted the conversations about Katherine Heigl’s character’s unexpected pregnancy to ring as true as possible. “From the very beginning we knew we wanted to have a moment where Seth and his idiotic stoner friends debate abortion. We actually improvised for five hours, these guys debating the issue. Some of it you will see on the DVD. And it’s very, very funny, but really shocking and disturbing. It may have killed Jerry Falwell (laughing). It may be, I think that that he knew it was out there and he just could not handle it. But it is part of the movie, because the movie is about two people trying to decide how they are going to handle the fact that a baby is coming. The first decision you make is, ‘Am I going to keep the baby?’

    Part of what is interesting to me is that it’s two people trying to do the right thing and keep the baby. They are trying to decide if they ever could like each other, which is probably something most people don’t do and that’s what hopefully makes it an original concept. I am pro choice and I don’t think anyone should tell anyone else what to do with their bodies or their points of view. I think those decisions are very personal and no one has the answer, so I am pretty solid in that position. But, I also think it’s a very interesting story when you decide not to get an abortion. I am also kind of surprised that it’s shocking to people that they don’t get an abortion because some people say, ‘Wouldn’t they just get an abortion?’ Is it so weird that in this day and age that people are uncomfortable doing that? So, everyone has their own take on it and subjective view on it.”

  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com Christopher Orr

    it’s important to identify who is most responsible for characters.

    Yes, it is the writer who is most responsible for the characters they write, but producers and studios are responsible for which scripts are produced and distributed. There are likely very many scripts with abortion an open fact, but whether they are produced comes down to questions of audience, profit, and other political factors for studios (will Revolutions Studios’ abortion flick negatively impact on the next Disney film – Disney owning Revolution Studios).

    So, writers are responsible for the abortion or lack of abortion story lines in films produced, but which films written by writers are produced that deal with pregnancy and end in miscarriage, birth or abortion is determined by by producers.

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  • Joel

    The biased language of the journalists is telling albeit not surprising. If abortion rights are about ”choice,“ then why is the movie anti-choice or anti women‘s rights if the woman chooses to keep the kid? This just exposes ”choice“ as a euphemism for ”unintended pregnancies should be terminated.“

    Kevin (#1) is of course right that the plot choice was probably in the name of the story rather than one about values.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    This from the June 21 OpinionJournal “Best of the Web Today” (a service of the Wall Street Journal:

    That’s Entertainment

    People who support legal abortion–even those who applaud the Supreme Court for its preposterous decision elevating abortion to a constitutional right–generally insist that they’re not “pro-abortion,” just “pro-choice.” Sometimes, for good measure, they add that abortion is a tragedy; it’s just that making it iillegal would be worse.

    Not syndicated columnist Bonnie Erbe. For her, in some circumstances, abortion is the only choice:

    Seems like ancient history at this point, but as one who came of age as a 1970s Ivy Leaguer, no self-respecting career-oriented peer who conceived out of wedlock would have considered bringing that pregnancy to term. What, and sacrifice the promise of a “good” marriage, rewarding career and children who would later be born to two involved, concerned, emotionally and financially secure parents? The tradeoff was not even worth discussing.

    Erbe goes on to criticize two current movies, “Knocked Up” and “Waitress,” in which female characters carry their pregnancies to term despite being unmarried and in an abusive marriage, respectively. Opines Erbe:

    Get real, Hollywood. One producer told the [New York] Times there was better “material” in a script in which the unwed woman has the baby. What if, instead, the “Waitress” had an abortion after leaving her abusive husband, went to college, landed a six-figure job and found a non-abusive spouse with whom she had children? That would have provided the best “material” of all.

    Echoing Erbe is Sue Hutchison, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News:

    What’s frustrating about “Knocked Up” is that it is so insightful about the pitfalls and complications of marriage, commitment, growing up and growing old. One scene alone, where a nightclub bouncer turns away Alison and her sister Debbie because they’re too over-the-hill to pass the velvet ropes, is worth the price of admission.

    It’s a shame that with so much going for it, the movie couldn’t have turned the same intelligent lens on the real agonies of choosing to have an abortion or not.

    Some say that abortion is murder. Some say it’s a tragic but necessary choice. And some say it’s entertainment.

  • http://www.jp2tob.com Pete Colosi

    The doctor in Cider House Rules lies every time he wants or needs something to get it, he kills (euthanizes) that little boy in the breathing appartus (remember he is showing him King Kong with just the two of them, and the boy “dies” right at his favorite scene), he is a drug addict, and he commits suicide (notice his eye movement right before that bottle in his hand comes crashing down). There are more examples of his numerous immoral actions – he commits them all. I had to study the film to lead a discussion group. Maybe this is slightly off topic from the discussion above, but the producers, the author of the book it is based on and planned parenthood all praise the movie for its pro-choice/pro-abortion attitude (planned parenthood recommends having a tea-party and discussion group to promote the cause). I’m surpised the doctor is such a bad person in it – I wonder if they notice that; or if they notice that abortion, euthanasia, drug addiction and suicide flow together so naturally – even in their own movie.

  • http://www.jp2tob.com Pete Colosi

    p.s. and lying