Sunday, June 22, 2008

Broken record

You may recall my previous rant about Knocked Up's easy dismissal of abortion as a valid choice for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant (and, in that film, anyway, pregnant by Josh Rogan's appalling character, no less). So, a caveat: read no further if you don't want to hear more on that topic.

OK--for those of you still with me: so, I saw Juno on DVD last week. And actually, I liked it very much. For all I'd heard and read about how "unrealistic" Ellen Page's character is--too clever, too articulate, too flip--I found her to be a composite of many of the smart, witty, cynical girls I knew in high school. It's an idealized composite, I'll admit, but still realistic: Juno's naivete about the adoptive couple's faltering relationship and her denial of her own emotional investment cast her seeming worldliness in its proper context. She is, after all, still just 16.

But--and it's a big but, as usual--again, the abortion option gets dismissed a little too handily. Granted, the film at least gives a bit more screen time to Juno's struggle with this decision, and it doesn't romanticize unanticipated motherhood the way Knocked Up does. But all it takes for Juno to decide to go ahead and carry the pregnancy to full term and give the baby up for adoption is the news that fetuses have fingernails, a fact passed on to her by the lone protester--a high-school classmate--outside the abortion clinic.

Of course, the whole point of "pro-choice" is that it is a choice, regardless of what decision any individual makes in the end. But both Knocked Up and Juno fail to address the fact that such choices are also deeply influenced by other concerns--namely, the financial stability of the pregnant woman. Both Katherine Heigl's character and Juno are white, upper-middle class women, the former with a successful career (and presumably, a lucrative salary) and the latter with a supportive family. It's easy for Juno to find an affluent couple to adopt her baby and pay the medical expenses of her pregnancy because she's white, smart, and attractive.

But not every woman who finds herself in this situation has all of those advantages, all of which make it vastly easier to "choose" to have the baby--and both films imply that that is the only moral choice to make. Poor girls who get "knocked up" and get abortions become, in effect, second-class citizens, those who exercised their "right to choose," but made a sad, unfortunate choice that--thank god!--nice, middle-class girls from good families don't have to make.

I get that if either of these characters "chose" to have abortions, we wouldn't have a movie to watch. (Which, in the case of Knocked Up, would be no tragedy.) But there's a disturbing double-standard at work here: abortion is OK if you have absolutely no other options, but you should still feel really bad about it, because of course the "right" thing to do is to have the baby.

There's so much liberal anxiety these days about what will happen if John McCain gets elected and fills the Supreme Court with "activist" conservative justices, and what that will mean for the future of Roe v. Wade in particular. But films like Knocked Up and Juno suggest that as a culture, we really need to reexamine our personal attitudes about abortion. If we're so freaking ambivalent about how valid a "choice" abortion really is, how effectively can we defend it?

No comments: