Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

Happy-Go-Lucky Nihilism

A troubling new film makes a joke of abortion

In a telling exchange in the new film Obvious Child, the main character, Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate), about to go onstage for her comedy act, receives encouraging words from her best friend: “You are going to kill it out there!” her friend urges. “I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow,” Donna responds with a smirk. The appointment is for an abortion. In a Hollywood culture whose obsession with explicit sexuality and graphic violence has lost the power to shock, that line — which shrugs off killing with a glib, nihilistic chuckle — shocks, as does the film’s novel twist on the genre of the romantic comedy.

Watching the film, which culminates in a Valentine’s Day visit to an abortion clinic (described as a “trip to the DMV”), and witnessing the way it has been universally celebrated as a “refreshing,” “honest,” “sophisticated” take on romantic comedy and abortion, one cannot help but sense that the culture has taken something of a turn.

Just a few years back, around 2007, a number of films (Bella, Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up) featured young women with unplanned pregnancies who opted to keep the baby. But that unusual coincidence of films, which had some observers speculating about a pro-life turn in the popular culture, now looks like a blip rather than a trend.

Obvious Child represents a radicalization of something latent in the pro-choice position, indeed within modern liberalism itself, that is only now coming to fruition: The notion that abortion needs absolutely no defense. The choice is now so trivial that it can be considered a fit subject for a romantic comedy.

Comic takes on abortion have been rare but not nonexistent. Recall the Seinfeld episode “The Couch” (1994), in which Jerry causes an uproar at Poppie’s restaurant by urging Elaine to inquire about Poppie’s views on abortion. To Poppie’s peremptory claim that “on this issue there can be no debate,” Elaine retorts that “the Supreme Court” has given her the right to a different opinion. One arbitrary assertion meets another. Another plot in that episode has Kramer teaming up with Poppie to establish a pizza shop in which customers make their own pizza. The plan comes undone when Poppie bristles at Kramer’s notion that customers should be allowed the opportunity to choose their own toppings. Then the debate, such as it is, shifts to the question, When does a pizza become a pizza — when it comes out of the oven or when you first put your hands in the dough? The episode could be seen not so much as making comedy out of abortion itself (viewers were not invited to laugh at an actual abortion) but rather as a send-up of our shrill and inconclusive public debates about abortion.

To my mind, the true cultural predecessor of Obvious Child is the 1999 film The Cider House Rules, which, like Obvious Child today, was embraced quite publicly by Planned Parenthood. Cider House stars Michael Caine as Wilbur Larch, who runs a New England orphanage and an illegal abortion clinic. Larch tries to train one of the residents of the orphanage, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), as his heir and medical apprentice. But Homer is against abortion and, as adulthood approaches, he decides to leave the orphanage. He ends up working at an apple orchard where he lives and toils among the African-American workers. When it comes to light that one of the male workers has raped and impregnated his own daughter, Homer faces a crisis of conscience and elects to perform the abortion. Eventually he returns with great fanfare to the orphanage, where he will carry on Larch’s tradition of caring for orphans and aborting unborn babies.

Tough cases may make bad law, but at least the film forces its viewers to reckon with a case of pregnancy that is somber and serious, even horrifying. But the film also contains an especially troubling line of defense of abortion. The title of the film is crucial and revealing: The rules of the cider house are rules typed up and affixed to a wall in the building where illiterate African-American workers live. In the film, these rules, references to which occur immediately before and just after the performance of the abortion, are a source of comic mockery. Homer chuckles as he silently reads the rules, most of which have to do with forbidding workers to go on the roof, which, it turns out, is long, flat, quite safe, and one of their favorite places to eat lunch. As he reads them aloud, the workers guffaw and deride the rules as irrelevant and outrageous. With little subtlety, the film equates the cider-house rules with rules against the taking of the life of unborn babies. In fact, at least in the theatrical-release version of the film, the scene immediately after the performing of the abortion has the African-American workers standing on the roof — a scene that drew laughter at the screening I attended at the time.

Cider House moves back and forth uneasily between abortion as a necessary evil and abortion as a choice so trivial as to be unworthy of serious debate. Obvious Child has no such ambivalence.

“Obvious Child” refers not to the unborn baby but to the main character, Donna, who is a woman and yet a child. She’s 28 but has the maturity and sense of humor of a 14-year-old (boy). She’s incapable of completing a sentence without frequent interjection of the word “like”; the range of her comedy routine extends from vaginas to farts. She exemplifies her generation’s blurring of the private and the public, as her stand-up routine is nothing more than exposing her private experiences for public consumption as entertainment. When her boyfriend dumps her and she learns that the used bookstore for which she works is going out of business, her already fragile sense of self unravels. During a night of heavy drinking, she has sex with a guy she meets in a bar. Discovering she’s pregnant a few weeks later, she decides, without a moment’s hesitation, to have an abortion.

It’s not just that the film slides right past the debate about abortion. It doesn’t even feel compelled to argue that the fetus is not a human life. Her best friend describes abortion as “getting that f***ing thing” out of one’s body.

The trivialization of choice here is evident in the fact that informed choice simply means, “I want this.” In Donna’s initial meeting with a  Planned Parenthood representative, the staffer interrupts her request for an abortion by saying that she wants to make sure that Donna has thought this over and understands her options. Donna responds that she’s thought about it and this is what she wants. That’s the end of the discussion of options.

#page#When she confesses to her mom, with fearful hesitation, that she’s pregnant and considering an abortion, her mom laughs, takes a deep breath, and says, “That’s a relief. I thought you were going to say you were moving to L.A.” It turns out that Mom had her own abortion, and even in the pre–Roe v. Wade days it was no big deal. “That was that,” Mom explains. “I was out dancing.”

The trivialization of choice, the reduction of formerly grave matters in need of deliberation and debate to matters so insignificant that to take them seriously is itself laughable, might seem an odd result of modern liberalism, which likes to trace its ancestry to Immanuel Kant, who detected in human freedom, in our free self-rule (“autonomy” is Kant’s word), the basis of human dignity.

Not long after Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that autonomy and morality are incompatible with each other. What he had in mind was that, while morality is about being bound by and to some standard other than one’s own will, autonomy as self-rule could easily slide into self-expression and authenticity, aspirations governed by aesthetic rather than moral criteria.

Here liberalism faces a quandary. If choice itself is the highest value, a self-justifying one, then there is nothing in light of which — no independent standard on the basis of which — we can distinguish between good and evil, noble and base, or better and worse choices. And that, as Nietzsche saw, is an apt and succinct statement of nihilism.

In its desperate attempt to remove abortion from the realm of public debate and to rid it of the stigma of shame and the burden of guilt, contemporary liberalism embraces the self-absorbed fantasies of libertine adolescents, the chief example of whom is the obvious child, Donna Stern. More seriously, it courts nihilism.

The impoverishment of the moral cosmos of the characters in the film is lost on them, as it is on film critics across the country. Perhaps it was with something like this condition in mind that Mother Teresa once urged, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” A poverty perhaps, but for contemporary liberalism no longer a tragedy; instead, “to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish” is now, in the words of film critics, a surprisingly refreshing source for romantic comedy, a comedy about and for happy-go-lucky nihilists.

– Mr. Hibbs is the dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press.

Thomas S. Hibbs — Thomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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