Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child has been marketed as an abortion rom-com, an alternative-ending Juno or Knocked Up. As such, it’s inevitably going to infuriate those who believe that abortion is murder and should be illegal. That perspective makes for a pretty obvious movie review, though — especially when there’s so much for even a pro-choice woman (or a feminist who’s squishy on the topic, for that matter) to find utterly offensive.
The premise: Donna (played by Saturday Night Live actress Jenny Slate) is a hard-up but witty comedian who has a one-night stand with a charming stranger named Max after her boyfriend breaks up with her. A few weeks later, she discovers she’s pregnant. And that she’s lost her day job. And that the next available date for an abortion is Valentine’s Day.
Obvious Child is kind of funny sometimes but not that funny — which is not the film’s main problem. Obvious Child is reprehensible because, through tasteless and unsubtle humor, it trivializes something that’s of grave importance for pro-choice and pro-life women alike.
There’s a reason the film isn’t called Obvious Fetus: because the child in reference is not the one in gestation but Donna herself, a girl in her late 20s who is obsessed with poop jokes, who performs an entire stand-up set about what it would be like to theoretically be a grown woman, who giggles and makes faces like a child in the most serious of circumstances. (Example: The doctor confirms Donna is pregnant. Donna responds by making a goofy face and saying, “I would like an abortion, please. . . . [and punchline!] That sounds like I’m ordering in a drive-thru.”)
Donna weighs no philosophical or moral questions. Instead, abortion is presented as an obvious solution for someone who is not mature enough or adult enough to make a real, considered choice. Obvious Child becomes a coming-of-age story, with abortion as a rite of passage. In one of the creepier scenes, several women in pink hospital robes wait in the clinic recovery room post-operation. It looks more like a mani-pedi salon than a doctor’s office, and the women smile knowingly amongst themselves, forming a sisterhood of abortion.
Abortion is also presented as a matriarchal legacy, weirdly enough. Donna finally tells her mother she’s pregnant and is met with the retort: “Thank God. I thought you were [going to tell me you were] moving to L.A.” Donna’s mother then divulges her own abortion in college, which was not quite back-alley but pretty close, conducted on the kitchen table of a stranger’s apartment.
Not even that revelation is treated seriously by Donna, who turns her mother’s longtime secret into a joke during her next stand-up-comedy session. Abortion was hard to get in the ’60s, Donna yuks it up at the microphone — because waxing and grooming wasn’t trendy, which might create some physical obstacles for a doctor trying to perform one.
That’s not the grossest joke, either. Much of the humor is scatological, as Donna delights in jokes about flatulence and feces.
That quirky aspect of her comedic personality takes on a sick symbolism, because she treats abortion with the same irreverence, something to be flushed away from a slightly different orifice. Donna reveals her pregnancy to Max while performing at a comedy club in front of a packed house. “You’re going to kill it out there,” a friend tells her before she goes on stage. “Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow,” she quips. Later, she and Max dub the abortion clinic the DMV, and she jokes about emptying out her trunk. And then she really hits you over the head with it: She was afraid for a little while to drive her car after going to the DMV, but now she thinks she’s ready to take it for a spin again soon. Get it?
Robespierre does no favor to women by making such a difficult physical and metaphysical decision into a cheap joke, with dead babies as the punchline. In trivializing abortion so radically, she infantilizes women and undermines the feminism she purports to endorse.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.