Written by Guest Blogger, Julia Berrebi
In times of crisis and fear, it can be profoundly enlightening and educational to turn to film. Film can echo and juxtapose current events in its ability to act as a mirror of and challenge to reality. In the wake of Texas’s new law, which threatens the future of reproductive freedoms, we’ve been exploring how these issues have developed on the screen. While there’s been an increase in abortion restrictions in the last several years, filmmakers have depicted stories about reproductive rights through a realer, more humane lens than ever before.
Moreover, recent statistics indicate that while there is a plethora of opinions about which restrictions should be in place, the majority of Americans want to uphold the existence of Roe v. Wade. As the film industry seems to reflect this complex majority of support, politics are becoming more and more black and white. By looking at these films, we can raise awareness of what nuanced reproductive rights look like for those who decide to have abortions or use emergency contraception, as well as garner compassion and a call to action. We may even be able to conceptualize the chasms among political developments, public opinion, and recent film representations.
This article by The Guardian from June 2021 provides a rich historical overview of reproductive rights in video, as well as reviews of recent trailblazing films. Journalist Adrian Horton wrote and published the piece before the recent bill, reminding us that this real-world crisis has been building for several years. Meanwhile, in contrast to current events, the “reproductive rights road-trip mini-genre” has blossomed.
These plots position the protagonist’s decision to use emergency contraception or get an abortion as a given, not questioning nor villainizing their choice. In these films “the dramatic tension is not whether the character will decide to go through with an abortion but if she’s able to given the hurdles, both comically inane and devastatingly prohibitive, to reproductive healthcare in the US.” In other words, recent films depict these decisions as the constitutional right that they are, despite the backdrop of a rise in 6 and 8 week abortion bans and restrictive “regulations” on abortion clinics that have rendered some unable to provide their services and forced many to close.
This modern portrayal contrasts to decades of storylines which display abortion as deeply taboo, centering on the protagonist’s fraught decision “portrayed as anguish for herself and others” (90210, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, etc). While these TV shows and movies wrote the plot around a last minute decision not to get an abortion, some neglecting to even say the word itself, recent TV has not followed suit. Many recent television shows portray a neither glorified nor tragic decision to get an abortion; rather, the decision is personal and specific to each character and their preferences for their reproductive health (GLOW, Sex Education, Girls, etc). Each character has their own unique emotions and reactions. Each portrayal shows an uncontested conviction in the protagonist’s right to choose.
Some films have followed in TV’s footsteps; of these, Horton highlights Unpregnant, Plan B, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. These plots depict the need to travel across the state or country to find an abortion clinic or the Plan B pill, relying on friends as companions while roadblocks stand in the characters’ path. In Unpregnant, Haley finds out she’s pregnant even though she has always used condoms. It’s a state law requiring parental permission that requires her to take a long, covert journey to another state to get an abortion without her strict and disapproving parents’ involvement. In Plan B, Sunny wakes up and realizes the condom malfunctioned the night before. She finds herself in a desperate chase to beat the end of her window and find a pharmacist willing to give her a Plan B pill. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it’s Autumn’s failed attempts to violently induce miscarriage that force her on a journey from her rural community to a Planned Parenthood in New York. There, we find out that she has been sexually abused by previous partners. She learns that the anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center in her hometown lied to her about how far along she is in her pregnancy.
In the face of recent legal manipulations against Roe v. Wade, film has shifted its focus from the decision itself to the absurd, at times unpassable, deserts void of reproductive healthcare. In looking at these films through the words of Horton, the reality happening across state legislatures comes to light as an issue of accessibility, especially for those without the means to travel to their constitutional right.
Women and Hollywood’s Reproductive Rights page provides a plethora of articles on current developments for this topic in film. One of these pieces highlights this year’s rePRO Film Fest. The festival, celebrating its second year, advocates for “women’s (cis, trans, and non-binary inclusive) reproductive health care, justice, and bodily autonomy.” The festival founders explain, “Storytelling — especially film — is an incredible entry point into dialogue and discourse around reproductive justice. All too often, these issues become politicized and the women* behind these lived experiences are forgotten.”
The films featured by Women and Hollywood exemplify the rePRO festival founders’ point and refocus the lens on real lived experiences. Of the many featured on the page, including the films mentioned in The Guardian article above, are Saint Frances, This is Jane, and Ask for Jane. In Saint Frances, there’s an honest conversation between two characters (Bridget and her kind-of boyfriend, Jace) about her decision to get an abortion. Neither dramatized nor swept under the rug, the conversation holds up Bridget’s decision as the final say, and ends with Jace’s offer to accompany Bridget to the clinic and pay for the procedure, to which Bridget responds, “We’ll split it.” The script does not negotiate with nor undermine Bridget’s decision. It’s not about passing positive or negative judgment on her choice, it’s about the fact that it’s hers to make.
In the words of the actress who plays Bridget and the screenwriter of the film, Kelly O’Sullivan, “Women and girls are encouraged, outrightly or subliminally, to keep abortion, postpartum depression, periods, or any other innate part of womanhood that’s considered messy, ‘gross,’ or shameful to ourselves…Saint Frances endeavors to normalize and destigmatize those parts of womanhood that we’re encouraged not to talk about. I wanted not only to talk about these subjects, but to show them onscreen unapologetically, realistically.” In light of O’Sullivan’s words, we can take a step back and see how a trend towards this unapologetic portrayal has been building within visual media. It is a form of recognition of the humanness and autonomy of the 1 in 4 women in the United States who have had an abortion.
As Saint Frances brings stigmatized choices out from under the shroud of shame, This is Jane, currently in production, will explore the true story of the founder of an underground abortion service in Chicago from 1969-1973 (the years immediately preceding Roe v. Wade). This is Jane will echo the 2018 film Ask for Jane, also about the largely untold story. Ask for Jane takes us back to when abortion was illegal in most states and highly restricted in others. It tells the story of the young women who saw their peers without health education or the legal option for an abortion, many turning to poison or self-injury to terminate unwanted pregnancies. In response, this group of women found a provider who would perform safe, hygienic abortions and learned how to perform the procedure themselves to save their peers from life-threatening alternatives. While threats to legal abortion grow in the United States, Ask for Jane and This is Jane recall the consequences of a country without safe and medically-regulated abortion procedures.
Resources, Awareness, Compassion
By sharing these articles about reproductive rights within our industry, and what we’ve learned from them, we hope to offer new perspectives and resources for our colleagues to learn about current events and video portrayals of the larger topic at hand. We believe in the power of film to communicate what is often lost, or help deepen and invigorate our understanding and conviction. As recent films and TV shows humanize those affected by these laws, they also offer a chance to grow compassion, and in compassion, both empathy and a desire to help. We are proud to stand with our friends in Texas and women all over the country to protect our rights.
For further reading on video and reproductive rights, including fiction films and documentaries about abortion providers and their struggles, explore these resources:
For further reading on rising restrictions over the last several years, see these informative articles: