Abortion, Shmashmortion ... What You Won't See on Screen

June 12, 2007

The New York Times on Sunday looked at a pop culture issue that’s been heating up blogs and message boards: Why do film and television characters who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant so rarely consider abortion? Mireya Navarro writes:

Jonathan Kuntz, an American film history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that for the entertainment industry, “It’s a no-win situation.”

“It’s kind of a tricky topic,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to turn off people on both sides unless you do it just right. It’s no surprise Hollywood avoids it.”

And so in “Knocked Up,” a romantic comedy, whose director and writer, Judd Apatow, declined to be interviewed, when one of Ben’s friends suggests that Alison have the procedure, he says it rhymes with “shmashmortion.”

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.”

Hollywood doesn’t shy away from all controversial topics, some film historians noted. In fact, sometimes controversy translates into huge success, as with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which some critics accused of anti-Semitism.

In the rare instances when abortion has made it into the plotlines of major films, like “Dirty Dancing” and “The Cider House Rules,” they tend to be films set in the past and the women who undergo the procedure do not always fare well. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is the rare American film in which abortion is legal and dealt with matter-of-factly — and it is 25 years old.

Here’s more related story links from PopPolitics.

There are, of course, independent and foreign films that dare to go where U.S. commercial films won’t — including the Romanian film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” whose director, Cristian Mungiu, recently won the top award at the Cannes Film Festival (thus confirming Canne’s “radical reputation,” according to the Catholic News Agency). It too, though, is set in the past: The film takes place during the Communist era and tells the story of a university student seeking a back-alley abortion.

“His film, shown early in the festival, had enjoyed ardent critical support from the start,” write Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. “Harrowing and brilliantly acted, the movie presents a stark image of life under totalitarian rule without political grandstanding or sentimentality. Through meticulous formal control, Mungiu generates almost unbearable suspense and also shows, in sometimes graphic detail, the consequences of abortion and also of its banning.”

Jay Weissberg of Variety wrote that it “is a stunning achievement, helmed with a purity and honesty that captures not just the illegal abortion story at its core but the constant, unremarked negotiations necessary for survival in the final days of the Soviet bloc.”

You’ll find more praise here. Hopefully you’ll also find the film itself at a theater near you.

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