Shade Grown Hollywood: 10 Rules for Depicting Abortion in Movies

ColumnWhere celebrity becomes conscious.

Hollywood is a land of contradictions. An extra serving of ice cream can send people into hysterics while no one bats an eyelash at a starlet on her fifth arrest. But when it comes to abortion politics in film, everyone generally joins together to dive under high-end Egyptian cotton sheets, refusing to come out until someone yells “big opening weekend.” Even torture porn flicks such as Saw can cause less controversy than a pimpled teenager walking inside an abortion clinic.

While the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion occurred in 1973, the debate has continued to rage. Take issues near and dear to people, nicely steeped in the American zeitgeist, and you have a political fire starter no one wants to touch. With such impassioned supporters on both sides, you would think Hollywood would have been quick to carry over the argument on film. Controversy breeds ticket sales, after all. Right?

In a word: No. Abortion in cinema has become as popular as discussing abortion at a family reunion. No one wants to touch the subject for fear of reprisal. When films and television shows do deal with abortion, they generally employ the following ten rules of portrayal. While some of these rules walk the thin gray line, all seem determined to leave you confused and uncertain about the state of abortion politics in America.

If your character goes through with her abortion, be prepared to fight the studio to keep it in.

Dirty Dancing, 1987’s wildly popular tribute to 1963 Catskill dance moves, reminds us that abortion was once completely illegal in America. Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) is forsaken by her bad-guy boyfriend and will lose her ability to earn a living as a dancer. She almost dies after seeking a back-alley abortion, and is saved by kindly Dr. Houseman (Jerry Orbach).

Eleanor Bergstein wrote the script for Dirty Dancing. The Daily Beast reports that when the studio saw the final version, they urged Bergstein and director Emile Ardolino to edit out all references to the abortion. As Bergstein tells The Daily Beast, “I explained that it was integral to the plot…and if we cut that out, the rest of the story would collapse. So we kept it in.” According to Bergstein, the lesson is clear. As she further expounds, “What movies are saying now is that if you are of fine moral fiber, you make the opposite decision and decide to have the baby. And everything turns out beautifully. The girls never end up in a shelter, as girls in real life often do.”

If your character is thinking about abortion, she will likely back out of it or experience an unfortunate miscarriage.

Several television shows have addressed the issue accordingly. The original Beverly Hills: 90210 (1990-2000) explored abortion when brainy Andrea became impregnated by her boyfriend, Jesse. Jesse breaks up with Andrea over the decision, only to realize the error of his judgmental ways. In the meantime, Andrea has decided to back out of the abortion. Happiness reigns. No judgment!

Sex and the City (1998-2004) similarly dealt with abortion a decade later. Miranda finds herself pregnant by her sometimes boyfriend, Steve. She initially chooses abortion, but backs out when confronted with the realization that, at aged 36, this may be her last chance at motherhood. While this episode explored the myriad issues surrounding abortion, it inevitably gave us a main heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, who has admitted to having an abortion. Further, Carrie truthfully acknowledges the uncomfortable feelings she still has over the procedure.

And if your character is still undecided? She can always fall back on the conveniently-timed miscarriage. In Party of Five (1994-2000), teenager Julia (Neve Campbell) chooses abortion, backs out, chooses it again, and then succumbs to a miscarriage.

If your character decides to go through with an abortion on a TV show, make sure it is on premium cable.

Abortion issues on the small screen almost always coincide with a premium cable bill. We’ve already mentioned HBO’s Sex and the City treatment of the issue. The same network also gave us Claire Fisher’s procedure on Six Feet Under (2001-2005), as well as with the HBO produced movie If These Walls Could Talk (1996), which looked at three women dealing with abortion over a span of forty years.

But abortion issues on network television? Keep looking. In 1972, Bea Arthur’s Maude decided to have an abortion after becoming pregnant at age 47. This episode of Maude, which was on CBS, is one of the only times where a character on network TV actually went through with an abortion.

European producers or financiers are more likely to back a film with an abortion plot line.

The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), written by Erin Dignam, features an abortion plot line. William Hurt is a recently released convict who went to jail after being incited into a criminal rage by the revelation that ex-wife Maria Bello has an abortion. As Dignam has said, finding financing for the film was extremely hard. Eventually the film was produced by Europeans, Arthur Cohn and Lillian Birnbaum. According to Digman, “The producers backed me. I’m sure the fact that they are European helped.”

Your character should be played by Laura Dern.

If you want to discuss abortion in the most satirical way possible, cast Laura Dern. Dern wickedly plays the titular character in Citizen Ruth (1996), the worst possible candidate for motherhood. Ruth is a stupid, often inebriated drug addict who already has lost custody of her four children. When she is arrested, the judge offers to lighten her sentence if she has an abortion. Pro-life and pro-choice sides are inflamed, nonsense and hilarity ensues. It’s rather like watching political debates on abortion today.

To avoid social moralizing in 1982, your unwed pregnant character must have the abortion.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) had Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy Hamilton getting an abortion after an ill-fated hookup in a pool shed. The procedure was done quickly and without judgment, aside from the ire heaped on her hookup’s head for bailing out on Stacy.

To avoid social moralizing today, your unwed pregnant character must not have the abortion.

In 2007’s Juno, teen Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) considers an abortion and even visits an abortion clinic. But she backs out after a classmate points out her unwanted baby already has fingernails. Also in 2007, Knocked Up’s Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is an ambitious, career-oriented young woman who gets pregnant after a one night stand with a slacker. She doesn’t even consider abortion as a viable option. Of course, neither film would have had a story if they had. In the meantime, both films were appropriated by the pro-life movement as a testament to the right to life. But there’s also the point to be made that both heroines were merely exercising their right to choose not to have an abortion.

If your character has an abortion, make sure she is impregnated by a really bad guy.

In The Godfather: Part II (1974), Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton) aborts a male heir to the Corleone crime family. Penny Johnsons’ aforementioned lover in Dirty Dancing is a shady rich boy who is sleeping with wealthy married women. In The Cider House Rules (1999), Rose Rose (Erykah Badu) is raped by her father. Who she then murders. Because he’s a really bad guy.

After her abortion, your character will likely pay for her choice in some negative way.

The Cider House Rules walks a fine line of moralizing about abortion rights. Michael Caine’s Dr. Larch is a charitable abortionist in 1940s Maine who treats women while taking in their unwanted children. He ends up dead. Tobey Maquire plays Homer Wells, his uncertain protégé, himself an unwanted child.

Homer’s ambiguity over abortion is challenged by two women. Charlize Theron is Candy Kendall, whose abortion is seemingly consequence-free until her boyfriend turns up from war paralyzed from the waist down. Candy is now likely permanently childless. Coupled with the grim fate of Rose, who wins in any of these scenarios? No one. Even Homer Wells, who returns home to Maine to take up where Dr. Larch left off, is left to provide medical care to women in desperate situations in a barren, frozen landscape with a young Paz de la Huerta making eyes at him over the staircase.

And finally, if your character is going to have the first legal abortion on television, make sure the aborted fetus “reappears [decades later] fully grown after having been miraculously saved by the unscrupulous doctor who had performed the initial procedure.”

In 1973, All My Children’s Erica Kane had the first legal abortion on television. Which one would think is a landmark event, no? Until said fetus, now fully grown, showed up year later in Pine Valley. Just this April, ABC canceled All My Children after decades on the air. Tough break, fetus. Welcome to show business.

This is the latest installment in Katherine Butler’s column, Shade Grown Hollywood, where celebrity becomes conscious. “Shade grown” refers literally to shade grown coffee, a farming method that “incorporates principles of natural ecology to promote natural ecological relationships.” Shade Grown is our sustainable twist on Hollywood.

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