Could ‘Obvious Child’ and Abortion Save Rom-Coms?

Jenny Slate stars in the first comedy to take on a subject that has long been taboo—and it may finally lend the L-I-T-E genre some gravitas.

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Watching Jenny Slate play a Louis C.K.-esque, lays-her-shit-bare comedian named Donna in the new movie Obvious Child, I squirmed from the opening vagina joke. Well, it’s not so much a “joke” as an “observation so uncomfortably true it’s funny,” relating to the “cottage cheese”–like substances that routinely end up inside female undergarments that we then struggle to hide from our lovers. And that’s just the point, of both Donna’s brand of humor and the movie itself, in which we follow Donna’s post-breakup tailspin, one-night stand, and resulting very-unwanted pregnancy.

I felt dizzy with recognition at her just-scraping-by Brooklyn life: her lips stained with red wine as she drinks straight from the bottle and leaves ill-advised messages on her ex’s voicemail. Her sometimes cringeworthy, sometimes adorable attempts at a relationship with the guy she drunkenly slept with. Her pure terror at the thought of a positive pregnancy test. There but for the grace of obsessive birth-control-popping go I. Donna’s story moves toward an inevitable conclusion—she will get her happy ending with an abortion. The suspense comes not from whether she’ll take this step or not, but from what comes of her now-loaded relationship with the cute, sweet Max (Jake Lacy). The resulting movie, peppered liberally with both fart jokes and touching stories of other characters’ abortions, makes for something special: a truly modern romantic comedy.

Much has been made about the decline of the rom-com, and for good reason. The genre also derisively known as “chick flicks” has historically told women’s stories better than most films. It is from the romantic comedy that we get some of our smartest and scrappiest heroines, from Holly Golightly to Annie Hall to When Harry Met Sally’s Sally Albright. It is the occasional recent romantic comedy hit that quietly storms the box office and reminds Hollywood that female audiences have substantial power, as when the first Sex and the City movie dominated its opening weekend.

Obvious Child provides one of the few rays of hope for the genre’s survival. Analysts have blamed TV’s ascension, the decline of the movie-star system, and even changes in how people date for its demise. It seems clear from recent offerings like That Awkward Moment and The Other Woman, however, that the problem isn’t as much that dating has changed—it’s that movies refuse to change with it. The best romantic comedies feature characters we love despite their flaws, characters we relate to and thus want to see happily coupled.

To have good rom-coms, we need truly modern heroines with modern problems. Breakfast at Tiffany’s drew both its drama and comedy from a new kind of woman in 1961—a single, free spirit—trying to make it on her own in the city. When Harry Met Sally was great because it tackled a problem that felt new at the time: switching gears from friends to lovers. Today’s rom-coms seem to keep regurgitating the same old conflicts and hoping that subbing in Cameron Diaz or Reese Witherspoon will make them feel current. Instead, they should be looking for the light in the toughest and most confusing issues of our times. How can it be that we haven’t even had one mainstream romantic comedy about a gay couple, for instance? Why not some characters with fluid sexuality? (MTV’s teen dramedy Faking It is doing wonderful, funny things with love triangles that span gays and straights.)

Obvious Child adds a new dimension to both the rom-com and, well, to the “abortion movie” genre, by combining the two (and making it look startlingly effortless, thanks to first-time feature director Gillian Robespierre). Abortion movies have, perhaps not surprisingly, tended to be deadly serious: The Cider House Rules, If These Walls Could Talk. In Dirty Dancing, an otherwise obviously lightweight affair, we knew things were getting real when Baby asked her doctor dad to help Johnny’s dance partner after a botched abortion that almost killed her. So many times it almost kills her, even in movies set in current times.

TV has been able to dabble a bit more in abortion-related storylines without the A-word threatening to overtake their entire identities. But since Maude’s watershed abortion plotline in 1972, which featured the title character unapologetically getting the procedure a year before Roe vs. Wade, television has tended more toward narrowly averted abortions (oh, look, a miscarriage, never mind!) and brave choices to go through with pregnancies. Melrose Place’s Jane, Beverly Hills 90210’s Andrea, and even Sex and the City’s resident feminist, Miranda, backed out of abortions only to find everlasting happiness with their baby daddies.

The most recent incarnation of Canadian series Degrassi broke ground (not unlike its ’80s predecessor) by portraying teenager Manny having an abortion, though the episode didn’t run in sequence on its U.S. network, The N, until a special presentation a few years later. The O.C. slyly revealed that Kirsten Cohen once had the procedure, likely as a teenager, though she seemed regretful about it as an adult mother. It wasn’t until 2010 that American TV got Maude-level bold again, with Friday Night Lights featuring an extended plotline in which Tami Taylor counseled high-school sophomore Becky to get an abortion, then got fired after the news went public. A year later on Grey’s Anatomy, married doctor Cristina Yang ended her pregnancy against her husband’s wishes.

Only Girls, which shares an obvious amount of DNA with Obvious Child—Brooklyn, funny 20-somethings—has gone not only totally unapologetic, but also funny, with its abortion storyline. (Hannah to Marnie, on Jessa’s abortion: “How could she ruin the really good abortion that you threw?”) Of course abortion is a serious issue—that’s why we feminists are always running around talking about it and trying to keep it legal. But just because it’s a serious issue that defines a lot of feminist action doesn’t mean it can’t be anywhere near humor. In real life, our laughing and crying and fighting all mush together; they don’t stay in neat piles.

In fact, humor is how we normalize issues, how we make them our own. To laugh about the world is to acknowledge it, to accept it, to say it’s going to be okay. Donna’s going to be okay after her abortion; she is still going to laugh and cry and love and work and fight. That’s what makes Obvious Child a revolutionary film—and the best rom-com to come along in some time.

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