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Pregnancy and “the a-word” at the multiplex

Pregnancy and “the a-word” at the multiplex June 5, 2007


Chris Knight of the National Post notes that three of the top six movies at the North American box office last weekend happened to revolve around pregnant women (and a pregnant ogre).

In Shrek the Third, the pregnancy represents a reasonably happy addition (or set of additions) to a reasonably happy marriage.

But in Waitress, the marriage is a distinctly unhappy one, and in Knocked Up, there is no marriage at all — in fact, beyond the original one-night stand, there isn’t even a relationship of any sort until after the conception takes place. (It’s kind of like a shotgun wedding, but without the shotgun and without the wedding.)

So why, Knight wonders, don’t the characters in those latter two films give any serious consideration to abortion:

Consider Jenna, the waitress in Waitress who fumes that she should never drink because it makes her do stupid things “like sleep with my husband.” When she visits the town’s new doctor (played by a nervous Nathan Fillion), he starts to tell her that his practice doesn’t perform — but that’s as far as he gets, as she tells him she’s keeping the baby. Even though she doesn’t want it and feels no love for it, even though she bakes pastries with names like I-Don’t-Want-Earl’s- Baby Pie, she’s determined to eat healthily, take care of herself and give the rug rat the best start in life she can.

Then there’s Alison in Knocked Up, who also decides as a matter of course that the baby will be kept. The father, played by Seth Rogen, actually has more of a conversation about the alternative with his pack of stoner friends, but even they can’t bring themselves to say the word, preferring the rhyming term “sh-shmortion.” (And note how dismissive that sounds: “What do you think of abortion?” “Abortion, sh-shmortion!”)

It’s instructive that Waitress (PG-13 rating in the U.S.) and Knocked Up (a well-deserved R) can’t ignore the topic completely, but clearly don’t want to say any more than they have to. Human relationships feature few taboos that movies aren’t willing to explore, but abortion is beyond the pale for most.

Knight goes on to bemoan an “absence of discussion” about this issue — not only in “mainstream” American films like these, but also in the recent Romanian Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where a woman apparently seeks an abortion without ever considering that perhaps she ought to keep the child.

FWIW, I haven’t seen the Romanian film yet, but I think there may be a little more “discussion” in the American films than Knight allows for — and what’s more, I think the films derive some of their power from the fact that they raise the issue and then point beyond it, claiming the thematic high ground as it were. Let’s start with Waitress — and warning, there be spoilers here.

Given that director Adrienne Shelley was, until now, best known for starring in a couple of extremely independent films directed by Hal Hartley nearly two decades ago, it is somewhat funny to hear her movie described as “mainstream”. Suffice to say her film retains some of the semi-absurdist quirkiness that one associates with Hartley’s films, and there are a number of decisions her characters make that aren’t examined in very close detail — and the fact that Jenna keeps her baby may be one of them.

But consider Jenna’s declaration that “I respect this little baby’s right to thrive.” If one believes that preborn children have a “right to thrive”, then what is there to discuss? And consider the powerful, transformative effect that the birth of this child has on Jenna — giving her the courage to ditch her abusive husband and the strength to put certain other aspects of her life in order.

I do not necessarily assume that Shelley set out to make a “pro-life movie” — but I do think the film suggests, in its own way, that affirming life in the most basic sense is the key to truly living. (I am vaguely reminded of how, in the 1980s, Woody Allen called himself “pro-choice” yet consistently depicted pregnancy as a hopeful thing and abortion as the death of hope.)

And now, Knocked Up.

Yes, the father’s boorish buddies come closer than anyone else to using “the a-word”. But what about the scene between Alison and her mother? The elder woman tells the younger one to “take care of it”, and tells her to wait until she’s ready to have “a real baby”. What a callous line! The reason Alison is so torn up over what to do is precisely because the creature growing inside of her is real. I don’t think it’s all that big a stretch to say that Alison chooses to keep the baby because she recoils at her mother’s attitude.

I’m not necessarily saying that writer-director Judd Apatow and his team of improvising actors were trying to go all “pro-life” on us. But I do think they were at least finding comedic value in subverting conventional wisdom, here and elsewhere in the film, and if the conventional wisdom happens to be pro-choice…

There may be movies that merely dodge the issue, but I think these two films do something a little different. Instead of dodging it, they take aim at it — however briefly — and then they move beyond it. They may or may not be anti-abortion, but they are arguably pro-life — and that’s not a bad thing to focus on.

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