Knocking Up Juno: Hollywood's Abstaining from The A-Word
Tim Mitchell printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 12:01:37 PM EST
I have been monitoring pop culture for a long time, examining trends and singularities that both reflect and influence public thought. One particular topic has been on my mind for some time now: the release to two films last year, Knocked Up and Juno, which use unintended pregnancies, both of which are carried to term, as a central plot device. In the case of Knocked Up, the pregnancy is the result of a drunken one-night stand; in Juno, the pregnancy involves a teenager who decides to put her unborn child up for adoption. Both films received mostly positive reviews, and both did very well at the box office; Juno has even garnered several Academy Award nominations. The popularity of these films have been nagging me, but it hasn't been until the recent anniversary of Roe v. Wade that I felt qualified enough to write anything about what scares me about these two movies. I don't believe that these films represent a complete shift away from the pro-choice perspective when portraying unwanted pregnancies in movies; after all, the documentary Lake of Fire takes a look at the anti-abortion/pro-choice debate in a very balanced manner. Nevertheless, it's the complete absence of abortion in FICTIONAL movies that strikes me as bothersome, as if abortion is a subject only worthy of discussion in the less emotional, more sterilized genres of documentaries, news reporting, and non-fiction books.

What is particularly jarring about Knocked Up and Juno is that it feels like these films were made in their own little, oblivious bubbles: they are comedies (with dramatic undertones, but comedies nevertheless), thus suggesting that unintended pregnancies (and in turn abortion) are joke-worthy topics, while the issue of reproductive freedom has been rife with controversy and violence for decades. For example, even though the Roe decision has not been overturned, 87 percent of counties in the U.S. have no abortion provider. As recently as 2006, abortion bans were passed in the states of South Dakota and Louisiana. While pills for "erectile dysfunction" are readily available, pharmacists have been refusing to give women birth control medication for religious reasons. In turn, the anti-abortion movement has been edging into anti-contraceptive campaigns. Even though we are currently in the midst of a "war on terror", this so-called war repeatedly overlooks violence aimed against abortion clinics, one of the leading targets of domestic terrorism even to this day. This doesn't even begin to cover how poorly women are treated in other countries, with so-called "honor killings" and female genital mutilation still being practiced in other parts of the world. There are even women who feel compelled to get their hymens reattached so they can be found acceptable by prospective husbands. Yet you wouldn't get a hint of any of these issues by watching a film like Knocked Up or Juno; watching these movies to gain insight into the current reproductive rights issue is like watching Gone with the Wind to better understand slavery during the Civil War era. Furthermore, the underlying suggestion of Knocked Up or Juno is that carrying an unintended pregnancy to term is a step towards maturity--not the usage of contraceptives, terminating an unwanted and/or unfeasible pregnancy, or being more selective of one's sexual partners. Even the supposedly edgy, satirical 2004 film Saved!, a film that attempted to parody Christian fundamentalism, featured a teen protagonist carrying an unintended pregnancy to term.

What is going on here? Everyone who's born again knows that Hollywood is Satan's playground, the world's capital of sleaze, debauchery, hedonism, and all things liberal. Since when did Hollywood decide to back off from openly discussing abortion, one of the most emotionally and sexually charged controversies of the last 30+ years? For abortion--and reproductive choice in general--to be segregated away from fictional movie narratives leaves me with a nagging feeling that abortion is reaching (or has reached) a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" level of taboo in certain public forums. Even movie critics have been unusually unaware of the abortion subtext of Knocked Up and Juno or, when they do notice it, are mostly dismissive. In one case, author Ann Hulbert goes so far as to argue that Juno "seems to have disarmed both sides of the family values debate" (?). Controversial subjects may be difficult to discuss, but I'd rather seem them talked about, even in the realm of fictional storytelling, than not talked about at all. At the very worst, it feels to me that the reduction of abortion to a throw-away topic in comedies promotes the notion that reproductive freedom is a secure, unopposed right in America and that simply isn't the truth.

Aborting Abortion

Other articles have been written about Hollywood's peculiar avoidance of abortion in its movies as of late. Each time when the filmmakers are directly asked if they are pro-choice or anti-abortion, they always answer that they are pro-choice. Some defend their narrative choices because if they allowed their characters to get abortions, their stories would be much, much shorter; others say that the films are indeed pro-choice, and that the characters just chose to carry their unintended pregnancies to term. To be fair, abortion has never been a popular topic in Hollywood. The last fictional cinematic narrative to boldly tackle both sides of the modern abortion controversy was Citizen Ruth back in the mid-90s. Recent movies such as The Cider House Rules, Vera Drake and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are more direct about abortion, but they also displace it by setting their narratives in times and places away from modern America. Overall, abortion is so rare in mainstream U.S. cinema that the only films that could be viewed as being consistently pro-choice are the grotesque Alien movies (which, coincidentally, are plotted around a strong lead female protagonist). Along those lines, the edgiest fictional narratives of late about anti-abortion and its related topic, misogyny, are not found in comedies but in the genre of horror: the Showtime series Masters of Horror recently featured episodes such as Pro-Life and The Screwfly Solution that dealt with both of these subjects in a manner much more explicit than mainstream movies. Likewise, the new, limited-release horror film Teeth stands in stark contrast to Juno. The female protagonist of Teeth does not have to contend with an unwanted pregnancy, but her problematic adolescent development allows the movie to explore religious and male fears of female sexuality in a way that is much bolder than her more genteel, Oscar-nominated counterpart.

If fiction is supposed to provide a mirror to fact, then it appears that Hollywood would rather paint over the looking glass than to seriously examine abortion and its many implications in contemporary society. A recent article by entitled "Roe, 35 Years Later" provides a good overview of where the abortion issue today by asking several leading feminists about Roe and its significance. Of particular relation to my concerns is the quote given by Cristina Page, spokesperson for Birth Control Watch, who likens the current state of the abortion debate to "white noise":

<font size="2">What surprises me about the current state of reproductive rights is how much it has all become white noise for the average American. The abortion debate has become the political equivalent of living next to the train tracks -- after a while, you no longer feel the shake as the train powers by. As long as the pictures aren't falling off the walls, Americans don't pay much attention to which direction the train is heading -- or what rights it is carrying away with it. It's all political white noise until the pharmacist won't fill your prescription, or until you need the now-banned partial birth abortion because your very-much-wanted pregnancy is gravely deformed and now threatens your ability to get pregnant ever again, or your 16-year-old daughter just missed her period. It's then that the white noise can become the soundtrack for your personal nightmare.</font>

If I had to accuse films such as Knocked Up and Juno of any particular wrongdoing, it would be that they contribute to the white noisification of abortion. For example, the pregnancies in both of these films happen to fairly well-adjusted white people. By that rationale, I suppose unintended pregnancies just aren't that cute and funny when they happen in the context of an abusive relationship or impoverished communities such as run-down rural trailer parks and crime-ridden inner city ghettos. One could only wonder how Knocked Up or Juno would have been received if either film featured a scene where a fundamentalist pharmacist denies access to emergency birth control medication for religious reasons, thus resulting in the narrative's unplanned pregnancy. Or perhaps the unplanned pregnancy happens because there were no abortion providers available within driving distance of the characters. Would the films have been less cute and funny if the plots included these elements?

Abstinence-Only Sex Comedies

Of the two unintended pregnancy films I'm talking about, Knocked Up has a peculiar pedigree. It was written, produced and directed by Judd Apatow, a highly-sought comedic talent behind movies such as Superbad and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The unlikely, male-centric plot of Knocked Up--that an irresponsible, out-of-shape, man-child slob, Ben (Seth Rogen), ends up bedding a gorgeous woman, Alison (Katherine Heigl)--is actually rather mundane, since it has served as the central premise of many sitcoms as of late, such as Yes, Dear, The King of Queens and Life According to Jim. In fact, such a fantasy has also propelled Ron "The Hedgehog" Jeremy's rise to superstardom in the adult entertainment industry. But in comparison to Juno, Knocked Up dismisses the possibility of abortion early on without even mentioning it by name. While it's hard so say that Knocked Up is anti-abortion propaganda (most critics have failed to notice or comment on the absence of the word "abortion" in the film), its refusal to consider abortion as a serious option has not gone unnoticed by anti-abortion demagogues. In an odd coincidence, the shrewish mother of the pregnant Alison in Knocked Up, who is the only character who pushes for abortion (not by name, of course, but she urges her daughter to have the unplanned pregnancy "taken care of" so she can have a "real baby" later), is played by Joanna Kerns. Kerns also played the mother on the popular 80s sitcom Growing Pains, the show that launched the career of current Christian Right poster boy Kirk Cameron.

Even though Apatow has said he's pro-choice, a conservative undercurrent is also present in his previous hit, 40-Year-Old Virgin, which starred Steve Carell. Despite the rave reviews this film received, it is a rather odd duck of a sex comedy. The title character Andy is so intensely repressed in everything he does, it often feels as though not having sex is the least of his problems. Yet for all of his sexual phobias and as much as he desires to consummate the relationship with the love interest his finds during the film's narrative, he still waits until after they are married to have intercourse for the first time--and, wouldn't you know it, he suddenly becomes a sexual dynamo at that very moment. The film never says why he waits until after marriage to have sex; like the Alison character in Knocked Up who chooses to carry her unintended pregnancy to term, no solid explanation is given to decisions that would normally have a religious element to them. What's also particularly unusual about 40-Year-Old Virgin is Andy's aversion to masturbation. He announces during the film how he doesn't like masturbation, but he never says why; in fact, he shows more interest in plastic model representations of female sex organs than pornographic magazines and movies (?).

What the hell kind of sex comedy is this? This is America, home of the hair gel joke from There's Something About Mary, the "Master of Your Domain" episode of Seinfeld, and the Divinys' one-hit wonder, "I Touch Myself". Have we, in the midst of our culture war, become squeamish (again) over masturbation, an activity that is not considered symptomatic of mental illness (anymore)? This reminds me of a quote by former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders: "We know that more than 70 to 80% of women masturbate, and 90% of men masturbate, and the rest lie." Elders was dismissed from her presidential appointment after recommending that schools should consider teaching masturbation to students as a means to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. It should also be noted that laws that prohibit the sale of sex toys, toys with obvious masturbatory applications, are still on the books in several states. Still, one can only wonder how the Catholic League would have reacted if the title character of 40-Year-Old Virgin were instead an ex-priest who left the Catholic faith, with promotional posters showing a smiling, bright-eyed Steve Carell in full priest garb.

Unwanted, Unaborted Pregnancies = Safe Cinema Sex

Even if Hollywood chooses the genre of comedy as a safe way of approaching abortion, there are still plenty of themes to be explored that filmmakers aren't touching. For example, I have yet to see one fictional film tackle faith-based, federally-funded abstinence-only sex education programs in way that shows them to be the frauds they are. There's no reason why this shouldn't be: abstinence-only culture is rife with elements of the hypocritical (abstinence pledges that have not only been shown to be ineffective, but to have increased the likelihood of to teenagers engaging in oral or anal sex), the absurd (claims that abortion contributed to the illegal immigration problem), and the creepy (such as the prom-like father-daughter "purity balls"  that would make Electra proud). A satirical portrayal of these elements would make for a comedy classic of Dr. Strangelove-esque proportions, but it just hasn't happened. That said, there were two witty, short parodies of abstinence-only sex education on the Internet called "Technical Virgin" that were funnier and smarter than Hollywood's squeamish attempts to make unwanted pregnancies into comedic punchlines. Unfortunately, the only lasting impact these shorts had was to get its leading actress, Melanie Martinez, fired from her hosting duties on a children's TV show.

I can't help but to imagine that somewhere out there, there's a group of movie executives huddling in a dark corner and engaging in a session of collective pants-wetting over how powerful Bush and his anti-abortion, homophobic, pro-Biblical-literalist allies have gotten over the last several years, and thus approve abortion-less films like Knocked Up and Juno as a means of appeasing these new political powerhouses--peace offerings, in a sense, with enough "hip" and/or crude humor to please the more secular masses. By avoiding the complexities of abortion, Hollywood does not have to portray how unjust and downright violent men can be against women, particularly for religious reasons; ergo, it suits the entertainment industry to reduce the reproductive choice issue into something harmless that provokes laughter, not something controversial that provokes anger, fear and violence. (I've suspected for some time now that the reluctance to find out just how violent our own home-grown religious fundamentalists can get is what motivates many journalists to write articles claiming that the Christian Right is "dead"). Then again, I suppose you could say that Knocked Up and Juno are the other half of Hollywood's plan to reach out to the modern conservative Christian audience (some of whom even hold their religious services IN movie theaters), with the first half consisting of films such as The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia.

People are welcome to make whatever films they like. Yet to see such a stark absence of fictional narratives that tackle the issue of abortion from a contemporary pro-choice perspective, or at least deal with the issue of unplanned pregnancy and reproductive choice in a less candy-coated, more honest manner, makes me wonder what the future has in store for women's reproductive freedom in America. While these films do not portray real situations, fictional narratives nevertheless have an impact on public perception. How can we expect women and the public in general to appreciate--and in turn support--the (supposedly) government-protected freedom of reproductive choice when mainstream filmmakers are too afraid to choose to make films that portray the value of choice in its more complicated and controversial forms?

Recently, there were efforts to promote another film among conservative Christians: "Bella." Some of the film's advocates accused the secular media of deliberately ignoring or panning the film a la Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

by khughes1963 on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 12:43:34 PM EST

Yeah, I've heard about the Bella movie in my research for this article. I left it out because it seemed like a film that was mostly made for the anti-abortion crowd and that it was made outside of Hollywood; these two attributes kept me from including it in my analysis of Knocked Up and Juno, which are in-Hollywood films made for larger audiences and in turn have a broader distribution pattern. There's another film that could've fit my analysis called Waitress, but that narrative raises other issues (in addition to unwanted pregnancies) that are different enough from Juno and Knocked Up that I decided to not include that one as well.

by Mitchell on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 01:52:17 PM EST
I would actually like to see more films like the Brothers McMullen -- a movie from a few years ago that had abortion as a minor theme, one of many themes about relationships and sexuality in the film.  In fact, the audience doesn't even realize that some of the conflict between the youngest Catholic brother and his college sweetheart are happening because she has gotten pregnant.  Without that knowledge, she comes across as pushy, when she is actually trying to discern whether he will marry her because he loves her (and not, as she expects that he would do if he knew she were pregnant, "for the sake of the baby").  When he is not willing to commit, she has an abortion and ends the relationship.

by Rusty Pipes on Mon Jan 28, 2008 at 08:46:32 PM EST

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