Why ‘Obvious Child’ is More Than Just an “Abortion Comedy”
This week a very different kind of romantic comedy hits theaters -- combining the sort of incredibly human relatability we've come to expect from independent films with the classic tropes of the rom-com genre, 'Obvious Child' comes from the mind of writer/director Gillian Robespierre and tells the late coming of age story of Donna, a stand-up comedian played by real-life comedian Jenny Slate. Following what might be a one-night stand, Donna winds up pregnant and decides to make what is, for her, the responsible decision: to get an abortion. And, while 'Obvious Child' is definitely concerned with normalizing the idea of safe abortions in media, Robespierre and Slate also set out to make a film that was important on another level: a human level.
We've seen films like 'Knocked Up' and 'Juno,' but those films always tackle the idea of unplanned pregnancy with the happy ending of childbirth, as if that's the only outcome available to women. Writer and director Gillian Robespierre says her inability to relate to those movies helped spawn what would become 'Obvious Child'. But, as she explains, her film was also about giving a woman the chance to be the star for a change. "There weren’t really fun movies, romantic comedies about real women who looked real and had the funny lines. They were always relegated to the best friend role. I always wanted to see that character as the lead. I never liked the blonde, you know..." As she trails off I ask if she means 'Knocked Up' star Katherine Heigl; she emphatically nods in agreement.
It wasn’t about pushing agenda down people’s throats, it was just about igniting conversation.
Often in rom-coms, the primary female character -- the Sarah Jessica Parkers, the Katherine Heigls, and the Kate Hudsons -- are all blonde and superficial. It's the best friend character who gets to have all the fun, who gets to be subversive and edgy and witty -- the Krysten Ritter and Aubrey Plaza types -- much like Robespierre and her star, Jenny Slate, whom Robespierre says has "so much heart and hilarity." Back in 2009, she watched Slate perform stand-up in Brooklyn and Robespierre knew she was right for the part in the short film that would become 'Obvious Child.' "She's beautiful and everything I wanted Donna to be."
In an early scene in the film, Donna performs a stand-up routine where she comments honestly -- and hilariously -- on the truth of women's underwear, and what it really looks like at the end of the day. Slate says her co-star, Gabe Liedman, had no idea what she was talking about. "He was like, 'I seriously never knew about this.' And I was like, really?! He was like, 'It’s just all day? Stuff’s happening?' And I was like yeah, it’s a whole thing." It's this early bit of stand-up that sets the tone for the honesty of the film, but the obliviousness of Slate's co-star to such a simple, every day part of women's life perfectly encapsulates how necessary Robespierre and Slate's candor is, whether it's about underwear or abortion.
Statistically speaking, abortions represented on film and television are often portrayed as way more riskier than they are in real life, often ending in death for the character -- almost like subtle karmic retribution. Robespierre points out that one in three women in the real world have abortions, but "not that many movies have shown positive, safe abortions. I think the only one is really ‘Fast Times' [at Ridgemont High] and that was on the periphery." That she's hard-pressed to think of a single positive representation of abortion in mainstream media is evidence enough that 'Obvious Child' is a big deal.
Often in television in film, the easier out is the miscarriage scenario, which Robespierre calls an "easy quick fix," a trope both women clearly despise. Slate says the cinematic cop out really bums her out, adding mockingly, "It’s like phew, now we can be relieved knowing we would have had the baby. It’s like, fuck you, man. No, you don’t have to." For both women, it was important to tell a story about a woman who had another option, one to which many women would likely relate, and one that was more personal. "For me, I wanted to relate an experience that would probably be close to the one that would be my own and many women’s, which is that it’s complicated," says Slate.
Robespierre wants to make it clear that her film isn't a big message movie, nor is it propaganda. "It wasn’t about pushing agenda down people’s throats, it was just about igniting conversation," she notes. "This is a big chunk of dialogue that’s missing in mainstream filmmaking, but it’s also in our daily lives. Women’s rights are under attack."
Perhaps Slate explains it best when she elaborates on the complexity of making a decision as personal and difficult as whether to get an abortion, which often has little to do with politics. "Just because you’re pro-choice, doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of choices that you’re thinking about," says Slate. "You have many roads before you, and even if you don’t go down them, and even if you close the gate on them, closing them still affects you, and it’s still okay. It doesn’t mean that you’re letting like, the religious right get in or something, or you’re letting pro-lifers guilt you. It just means that it is hard to make giant decisions -- ones that will change your life forever, and that you should bear the weight of them because they help you be stronger."
For as much as we've discussed abortion, and as much as both women have expressed their need to illustrate a safe procedure in mainstream media, it's also important to note that 'Obvious Child' is more than just an "abortion comedy." For Robespierre, making films -- and making this film -- is about more than just telling female-driven stories.
The director, who funded the film independently, says she's aware of the "terrifying" statistics regarding women in film, but her concern isn't with just telling stories about and for women. Robespierre is aiming to start a film production company with her producer, and clarifies that the stories they hope to tell aren't just for men or women. "We really are inspired to write authentic stories." She says the best part of going to the movies for her is "being inspired by a character, somebody who you relate to or who you look up to," and she embraces the idea that people can't be easily categorized based on their behavior. "They don’t have to be perfect, but they don’t have to be villains either. There’s like a gray area where we’re just humans."