The new film Obvious Child is informed by F-words of all sorts. It’s funny and feminist. It’s about friendship and forgiveness. It contains jokes about flatulence. It’s radically important for so many reasons, not least among them that “seeing an abortion in a negative light in a movie makes viewers less likely to support abortion access” (as noted by Elizabeth Plank in her review). So please see the film, encourage others to see it, make anti-choice peeps in your circle see it or, at the very least, read about it—there is a plethora of excellent coverage (see the list of links at the end of this post). As Gillian Robespierre, the filmmaker, explains,
Young women need to know that abortion is a responsible choice to make when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. In writing this film, we also wanted to make feminism more mainstream and accessible. We believe more people are feminists than they realize.
Robespierre also addresses the lack of race/class diversity of the film (called out in posts such as this one), noting
We really are telling just one young woman’s story here—a story that happens to exist in a privileged environment with regard to race and class. We weren’t going to try to tell about everybody’s experience with abortion; instead we thought we’d start a conversation with the hope that others would decide to share their own (very different) experiences through the medium of film, too.
The “young woman’s story” that makes up the film is that of Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate), a comedian who works at a bookstore, lives with her best friend Nellie and has a boyfriend she talks about in her stand-up routines (along with quips about her vagina, period-stained underwear, copious farting and masturbating away one’s worries). Just after this opening comedic monologue, Donna is dumped by said boyfriend in the club’s bathroom. She launches into red-wine recovery mode and soon meets Max, who will supply the sperm that—isn’t it obvious by now?—makes her preggers.
Though tagged as an “abortion comedy,” the film is about much more than abortion. But, significantly, it is about abortion, and tells a tale I don’t think has ever been told on the big screen. Yes, the film’s main character is a privileged heterosexual Jewish female, and there aren’t a lot of “minority” characters—although there are gay men and a smattering of non-white side characters (such as an Asian doctor and a Latina woman in the post-abortion recovery room). But it’s key that the filmmaker does recognize the lack of diversity in casting this particular story, and calls for other filmmakers to now offer their experiences. She thus emphasizes both the importance of abortion stories as well as the critical need to speak from one’s own life and not speak for others.
That said, let’s get to the quintuplet of F’s the film does cover: F1: FunnyObvious Child is not your average little rom-com, inducing fond smiles and comfortable giggles. It is an in-your-face, gritty, raunchy, vaginal-secretion-filled, laugh-out-loud riot. From the protagonist Donna’s standup gigs to her take-no-prisoners comedic personality to her gay male sidekick Joey’s droll humor to her best friend Nellie’s frankness, the film brims with characters one wishes she could whisk down a few glasses of wine with, or, more importantly, have and hold when facing an unplanned pregnancy.
F2: FeministObvious Child is obvious in its feminism, but not in the academic sense in which feminist brainiacs discuss Judith Butler, the patriarchal panopticon and post-structuralism, nor in the activist sense of world-changing, protesting, picketing, lobbying and so on. Instead the feminism of Obvious Child is the one so many of us live and breathe every day—feminism is filled with brutally honest assessments of the world that are tinged with optimism and fuel our activism; with candid confrontations about the politics of race, class, gender and sexuality; with navigating relationships and daily misogyny; with difficult mothers and enduring friendships; with sexual desire and discussion of sex and sex itself—oh, and sometimes with far, far, far too much wine followed by several cocktails, followed by manic dancing and spontaneous bongo drumming on the nearest surface.
It is a feminism filled with women: Women, who hold our hair back for us when we puke, who listen with all of their being, who protect and love and nurture us and, yes, who sometimes piss us off, judge us, betray us. It is also filled with men. Men who are funny and kind best friends, men who are wonderful fathers, who are creepy and lecherous jerks, and who wear ill-fitting tank tops that show off copious body hair. For all these reasons, Obvious Child is feminist but not obviously so. At least not to the untrained eye. However, for those of us who never take off our feminist lenses, and who have been wearing them as far back as we can recall, Obvious Child is feminist in a guerrilla way—a feminism not so ardent that it scares people away (of the Shulamith Firestone variety) nor so watered down as to be mistaken for empowerment feminism (of the “having a Brazilian wax is so empowering” variety). It is not a feminism characterized by the mainstream media (angry, bitter and out of date) nor as characterized by MRA camps (man-hating, sex-starved and uber-hairy). It is the feminism of my students (fun and funny, raw and necessary), of my academic colleagues (analytical and important and crucial), and of my feminist friends and fellow feminist bloggers (uproariously irreverent, slyly satirical, fueled by a desire to analyze and think critically about the world around us).
F3: Friendship Friendship goes with feminism like peanut butter with chocolate. The film knows this. It recognizes that, yes, peanut butter can survive without chocolate by its side, that chocolate can and does have many other friends to hang with, but, let’s face it, peanut butter and chocolate are much better together. As the saying goes “you gotta have friends.” This saying is never more true than when one is a feminist, given that the world at large is not a very feminist-friendly place. The saying is also apt when facing an unplanned pregnancy.It is often not the sperm donator one wants to go running to, nor one’s parents or siblings, but to friends who will lend shoulders to cry on and ears to listen.
F4: ForgivenessObvious Child does not, thankfully, ask that we forgive Donna her “transgressions.” It does not ask us to forgive her for getting drunk and having a one-night stand. It does not expect us to forgive her for her vengeful, semi-neurotic, response to learning her unfaithful beau is dumping her. No, it asks us to consider her need to be forgiving of herself and of the man she slept with (Max, played by Jake Lacy), not because sleeping with him was “wrong” but because it resulted in an unwanted, inconvenient and costly unplanned pregnancy. It also asks us to forgive her mother Nancy (Polly Draper) for being rather controlling, her best friend for being a bit preachy and her embryo-daddy for failing to call back in timely fashion and then walking out during the stand-up routine wherein she reveals she is pregnant and has an abortion scheduled for the next day. In short, it asks to forgive people being human.
F5: Flatulence Not only does Obvious Child have fart jokes galore, it also reveals Donna’s level of comfort with her own body in all its messiness, bloodiness and gassiness. Taking body acceptance to new highs (lows?), the film even contains a scene in which Nellie defecates while talking to Donna as they wait together in a small bathroom for the excruciatingly long 3 minutes it takes a pregnancy test to register a line (not pregnant) or a plus sign (bun in oven). In addition to being heavy on the scatology, the film does not shy away from bodily realities generally: periods, vaginal secretions, body odor, body fluids, boob pain. This narrative undercurrent nods to double standards of physical norms: Not only are women’s bodies policed more excessively in relation to appearance, they are also expected to be less physically human—to not fart or burp, to hide their bleeding, to act as if their shit don’t stink.
The Missing F: Fetus Though the film is very F-filled, one F is left out—fetus. Given that it tags itself as an “abortion comedy” and a driving part of the narrative is Donna’s unplanned pregnancy, the lack of any medicalized, hand-wringing, legalized and morality-tinged “fetus talk” is refreshing—and very, very, very fucking rare. Donna’s brain tells her in a self-talk moment, “You played Russian roulette with your vagina.” This is, of course, a game that one generally does not intend to play, but if one is sexually active it is, nonetheless, inevitably played, even by consenting adults who fully intend and know how to use condoms. This frank representation that unsafe sex happens—even for those who are fully educated about STDs and unplanned pregnancy, have a storehouse of Plan B and can put on a condom one-handed and blindfolded—is rarely depicted in film.
The economic component of accessing reliable contraception is also noted in the film: Donna is a broke stand-up comedian, about to lose her job at “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books” and faces the $500 price tag for an abortion with an exasperated “That’s, like, my whole rent.” Yes, Donna may be able to afford the Pill, but who knows why she is not on it. Maybe she can’t take it for medical reasons, maybe she wasn’t on it because she was just getting out of a long-term relationship, maybe she actually can’t afford it or has nowhere convenient to get it. Really, it’s none of our damn business. That the film conveys this is deserving of props.
Another prop-deserving component is the way the films talks, and does not talk, about abortion. Donna knows without a doubt that she wants one and none of her friends try to talk her out of it. Instead, they share their abortion stories. Nellie, who had one as a teen, admits “I get sad for my teenage self … but I never regret it.” Even Donna’s mother, who Donna assumes will be angry and disappointed, instead tells her about the illegal abortion she had as a college student. The details she gives are key: Donna’s grandmother took her (which debunks the myth that previous generations were more conservative about choice), the procedure was carried out on a kitchen table by a stranger (a reality when abortion is illegal) and she felt well enough to dance at her sister’s wedding the next night (which emphasizes that, yes, abortion may be painful and emotional but, no, one does not usually suffer inordinate pain, become infertile, or curl up and die of shame).
What the film doesn’t talk about is the legal onslaught against choice currently being waged. It doesn’t need to; it’s in the subtext. It’s there when we imagine what Donna would have to resort to if there were no Planned Parenthood and what might become of her sexual life, her comedic talent and her ability to economically provide for herself if she were compelled to either carry out the pregnancy or find an illegal way to abort. Instead, Donna is able to tell the woman at Planned Parenthood, “I would like an abortion, please.” Rather than forcing her to listen to other options or guilting her into a choice she does not want to make (the job of crisis pregnancy centers), the counselor accepts that Donna is able to make an informed choice without a bunch of old white dudes who make laws breathing down her neck.
Hopefully it’s obvious by now: This film is fantastically funny and feminist and important.
(To read more coverage and analysis of the film, see the links below.)
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.