Content Warning: In this blog post I talk about the portrayal of abortion in old movies and the lack of portrayal in recent movies. If this subject is troubling or bothering to you in any way, it may not be something you want to read.
Sometimes, I miss writing essays. I know this sounds insane, and I’m sure if I was actually in university again I would take back my words, but right now as a graduate who hasn’t written an essay in two years, I’ll admit I miss it. I miss analyzing books or ideas and doing the research to prove my point, learning more about the topic I wrote about with each word I typed on my laptop screen.
Even now, when I read a book or watch a movie that gets particularly stuck in my brain, I’ll wish I could pull apart a certain topic, dissecting it in an attempt to understand, to discuss with someone some part or issue that won’t leave me.
I guess I really am institutionalized. Or a nerd. Or both. (Probably both).
So I guess it’s a good thing I have a blog, where I can write informal essays and just get all these ideas out their. Which is what I’m going to do that now.
My dad, like many parents I’m sure, makes my sister and I watch a lot of old movies. Now, I like old movies, but sometimes your parents taste in movies and your own don’t match up, and you end up having to pretend that the weird 70’s indie Canadian flick you watched was really good when really you had no idea what you were watching (sorry dad).
One of my dad’s favourite movies that he had my sister and I watch last year was Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). It was a movie he loved when he was younger and one he assumed (like most parents showing their kids relics from their childhood) that we would like it too. And honestly, I actually did like it. It was a typical teen comedy that was funny and focused on a group of teens and what one year at their high school was like for each of them. I liked that it was older, that it was different, but there was one plot point that really stood out for me.
One of the main characters, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion. The film shows Stacy having to go alone to the clinic after the boy who got her pregnant fails to show up to the appointment, Stacy leaving the clinic, and being confronted by her brother about it who promises not to tell their parents. The scene was unusual to me because it made me realize that many recent movies, particularly movies aimed at teens, show scenes that really discuss abortion.
It made me think back to movies I’ve seen in the past that do deal with the topic of abortion, and how they portray it. I know this is a random train of thought, but watching that scene made me realize how few recent movies I’ve watched openly talk about abortion, especially with the conversation of abortion being made even more prevalent and openly in public in recent years..
I’ve thought back on what movies I’ve seen that I can remember openly talking about abortion, and there aren’t a lot that I could come up with. But I’ll talk about the few I can remember that have stuck out to me.
The first movie I remember talking about abortion was Dirty Dancing (1987). In the movie, Johnny’s (Patrick Swayze’s) dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) reveals she is pregnant by one of the restaurant staff at the resort they work at and needs money for an abortion. Baby (Jennifer Grey) steals money from her father, gives it to Penny, who then goes to have an illegal abortion. However, the procedure goes wrong and when returning to the resort Penny is in need of medical help. Baby gets her father, who is a doctor, to treat Penny, and he does, going so far as to do follow up appointments and assure Penny that she can still have children in the future.
Juno (2007) is probably the most recent movie I can remember showing the option of abortion. When sixteen-year-old Juno (Ellen Page) realizes she’s pregnant, she goes to an abortion clinic, believing at first that it is the right option for her. Once their, she ultimately decides against an abortion and opts to put her baby up for adoption instead.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is interesting because it did film an important scene between the characters Charlie (Logan Lerman) and his sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) which appears in the books in which Charlie drives his sister to an abortion clinic after she reveals she’s pregnant and wants to get the procedure done, but it was ultimately not used in the final cut of the film.
See, that’s only three movies (The Perks of Being a Wallflower doesn’t really count since the scene ultimately wasn’t used in the film) that I can remember seeing that talked about abortion, and they all do it in varying ways. Fast Times at Ridgemont High shows Stacy talking to the guy who got her pregnant and asking him to come with her and pay half for the abortion. Ultimately, he fails to do both and she is forced to go alone, but is confronted by her brother outside the clinic who keeps her secret and drives her home. Dirty Dancing’s scene is easily one of the most memorable because not only is it a subplot of the film (that results in Baby dancing with Johnny and making the main plot of the film possible) but it also shows the dangers surrounding illegal/backdoor abortions and shows an adult medically treat Penny without judging her for it. Penny’s decision to have an abortion is also never questioned or challenged by any other character in the film and is an accepted fact, and Baby goes out of her way to make sure that Penny can get the abortion she wants. Juno’s scene is also important because it shows Juno deciding for herself which option is best for her, leading her to ultimately decide to go for adoption instead of abortion.
I find it incredibly interesting that the abortion scene in The Perks of Being a Wallflower was filmed but not used in the film. It’s obvious why it wasn’t, it’s a controversial scene and if the producers and directors wanted their movie to have a chance at success (which the movie already did, considering it’s a very popular book) it was better to cut the scene out than to risk criticism for putting it in. Since the scene was never put in the movie, we can never really know how audiences would have reacted to it. It’s very similar to the scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High except that Candace confides her pregnancy to her brother from the beginning and asks for his help by driving her to the abortion clinic. Charlie waits for Candace outside the clinic with food and blankets and tells her to rest, not judging her in any way for her choice.
Considering the conversation of abortion is almost constantly talked about online in some way (usually referring to the States, with everything that’s going on their right now) but it pops up in daily conversations, in prejudices, in biases, in misinformation. In a world where, arguably, the conversation of abortion is talked about much more publicly now than when some of the movies mentioned portray them, why isn’t media following suit? What does that say about us, the viewers watching these older (and not so old) films without these conversations? What does it say that older movies were much more open about showing these scenes and having these conversations without fear of losing money or an audience?
I don’t have an answer, but I can guess it’s the same old belief that if we don’t talk about a subject then people won’t participate in it. If people don’t talk to their children about sex education, then they won’t have sex and won’t get pregnant. If people don’t talk about abortion, they won’t get an abortion. This thought process is wrong of course, but it’s still something society widely believes, and the only way we can fight it is by talking about it, by portraying it. It’s not about portraying these scenes with a bias or as propaganda, but about talking about the facts, about showing the reality, about getting people to understand the things they may only have a vague understanding about.
With these conversations on abortion happening so often in our daily life and being so present in news outlets, newspapers, and maybe even affecting friends and family members, it’s time that movies and television shows followed suit. It’s time these conversations were shown and talked about again and not hidden like we’re doing now. The fact that older movies were ready to have these conversations while modern movies want to hide them seems to be very telling about where we as a society and people are going, slowly repressing our thoughts, ideas, and questions, unknowingly silencing ourselves in the process.
(The article “‘Dirty Dancing’ Led the Way in Depicting Abortion – If Only Other Media Would Follow” is an excellent article about much of what I’ve talked about, but with stats and facts, and if you’re interested in reading you can do so here.)
(Film reel image found on this website.)