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Smushmortion: Hollywood’s preoccupation with “keeping the baby”

November 16th, 2007     by Wesley Fok     Comments

As a moviegoer whose cinematic diet as of late has been rather heavy on action-packed popcorn flicks (Hello, Live Free or Die Hard! How ya doin’, Bourne Supremacy? I hate you with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns, Spiderman 3 hours of my life I’ll never get back!), I’m looking forward to an unusually high number of indie/arthouse flicks over the next few months. One of them, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, is Juno, an apparently heartwarming comedy about a teenage girl who suddenly finds herself pregnant, and has to decide what to do with the baby. In addition to being an obvious choice for Arrested Development fans, thanks to the presence of Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, Juno looks to be genuinely funny and a great vehicle for young actress Ellen Page, who’s already in the unofficial running for an Oscar nomination thanks to the movie.

Ellen Page as a very pregnant Juno and Olivia Thirlby as Leah in Juno. Fox Searchlight

Since this plot point is revealed in the first few seconds of the movie’s trailer, I’ll give it up here: Juno decides to give her baby up for adoption to a childless couple, played by Bateman and Jennifer Garner. The movie hasn’t even been released outside festivals and test screenings yet, so I won’t tell you exactly how abortion is treated in the film, but suffice it to say the option is considered—and then dropped.

This hasn’t escaped the notice of some reviewers. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek touched briefly on the subject:

The only downside is that although the picture shows no evidence of having a right-to-life agenda, it’s going to spawn a million Sunday arts section stories about the new “trend” – which began, of course, with “Knocked Up” – in movies about women who choose to not have abortions. If either “Juno” or “Knocked Up” spewed any nonsense about abortion being murder, I’d be worried. But in both movies the women simply decide, impulsively, that they’d just rather not terminate their pregnancies. Sometimes a choice is just a choice. But you know how hard it is to come up with those Sunday arts section ideas.

Well, okay, Ms. Zacharek. I’ll bite.

Juno’s consideration of abortion as an option is, at least, more fleshed out than Knocked Up. The popular summer comedy, staring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl as the parents of an unexpected child, can’t even bring itself to say the word “abortion”—“the A word” and “smushmortion” is as close as we get, and the choice phrases are uttered by Rogen’s set of slacker friends. Heigl’s character, when asked by her mother about “taking care” of the situation, immediately rejects the idea. And that’s pretty much the end of the abortion discussion.

If you’ve read any of the abortion discussion about Knocked Up (and there’s no shortage of opinions) you’ve probably already read the initial response of “hey, this movie doesn’t give enough attention to abortions,” so I won’t go there. You’ve maybe also read the argument that “there wouldn’t be a movie if she got an abortion.” This argument applies to Juno as well—if Juno has an abortion, we’d have a very different movie.

With both movies there’s a concern that abortion is marginalized not because the producers have anti-abortion agendas, but because America somehow isn’t ready or willing to watch people seriously hashing out the possibility of abortion on camera, or that abortion just doesn’t fly in a mainstream comedy. Judd Apatow, the creator of Knocked Up, claimed the omission of abortion from the movie wasn’t a political choice:

In numerous interviews, Apatow, the writer and director, said that many of the film’s humor scenes were improvised and there was a great deal of “abortion” talk in scenes that wound up on the cutting room floor. “It’s very, very funny, but really shocking and disturbing,” he said in one interview. “It may have killed Jerry Falwell.”

But wait, hang on—there is one recent example of a comedy that manages to handle the issue of abortion relatively well without minimizing its complexities or preaching too much. And it comes not from a two-hour movie but a half-hour sitcom: Scrubs. Last season, the show devoted an entire episode to the question of whether the main character, JD, and his girlfriend, Kim, should keep their unexpected child. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that in the end, there’s no abortion. But the way the show depicts JD and Kim grappling with the issue is funny without being insulting, and the show even manages to include a monologue from gasp a character who has actually had an abortion.

I’m not saying you’d necessarily agree with the way Scrubs handles the abortion issue, especially if you lie on either extreme of the abortion debate. But if a sitcom can cram that much complexity into 22 minutes, surely a whole movie can afford to give the abortion issue more than “shmushmortion.”

Tags: body politics, film fridays

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