On Abortion, Hollywood Is No-Choice
IN the hit indie movie “Waitress,” the lead character, Jenna, finds out she’s pregnant at a time when she’s plotting to run away from her abusive husband. In last week’s No. 2 film, “Knocked Up,” Alison becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with Ben, an ungainly suitor.
In some ways, both movies mirror reality. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy says unwanted pregnancies have actually increased among some adult women, even as they have decreased among teenage girls. More than half of all unwanted pregnancies occur to women in their 20s.
But in another way, both movies go out of their way to sidestep real life. Nearly two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, data from federal surveys shows. Yet Jenna in “Waitress” is more likely to ponder selling the baby than to consider having the procedure. And Alison, who has just been promoted to her dream job as an on-camera television personality and asked to lose 20 pounds, is torn over whether to keep the man, not the baby.
The possibility of not having the baby is never discussed by either woman despite her circumstances. The word “abortion” is never uttered.
Though conservatives regularly accuse Hollywood of being overly liberal on social issues, abortion rarely comes up in film. Real-life women struggling with unwanted pregnancies might consider an abortion, have intense discussions with partners and friends about it and, in most cases, go through with it. But historically and to this day in television and film — historians, writers and those in the movie industry say — a character in such straits usually conveniently miscarries or decides to keep the baby.
“It’s one of those topics that would alienate a portion of the audience no matter what you do,” Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said of Hollywood’s reluctance to tackle abortion more realistically.
Perhaps directors of feel-good movies don’t want to risk portraying their heroines as unsympathetic characters.
Jonathan Kuntz, an American film history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that for the entertainment industry, “It’s a no-win situation.”
“It’s kind of a tricky topic,” he said. “It’s something that’s going to turn off people on both sides unless you do it just right. It’s no surprise Hollywood avoids it.”
And so in “Knocked Up,” a romantic comedy, whose director and writer, Judd Apatow, declined to be interviewed, when one of Ben’s friends suggests that Alison have the procedure, he says it rhymes with “shmashmortion.”
The producer of “Waitress,” Michael Roiff, said Adrienne Shelly, the film’s writer and director, weighed the concept of abortion as the “good New York liberal” she was. But from a story point of view, Ms. Shelly, who was murdered last year in her New York office, found richer material following the pregnancy through, Mr. Roiff said.
“We didn’t worry about the political ramifications,” he said. “It’s a story about the power of motherhood.”
Hollywood doesn’t shy away from all controversial topics, some film historians noted. In fact, sometimes controversy translates into huge success, as with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which some critics accused of anti-Semitism.
In the rare instances when abortion has made it into the plotlines of major films, like “Dirty Dancing” and “The Cider House Rules,” they tend to be films set in the past and the women who undergo the procedure do not always fare well. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is the rare American film in which abortion is legal and dealt with matter-of-factly — and it is 25 years old.
Geoffrey Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, said the subject of abortion comes up more realistically in independent films, as do other difficult themes like drug addiction, incest, even infanticide, most recently in “Stephanie Daley,” about a teenager accused of murdering her newborn.
“That’s the meat and potatoes of independent filmmaking,” he said of such social issues.
The price to pay, though, is smaller audiences.
“The industry as a whole is getting to be more public-friendly,” said Brian Dyak, president and chief executive of the Entertainment Industries Council, an organization formed by leaders in the industry to try to ensure the accurate portrayal of health and social issues on screen. “That’s driven by the cost of the movies and the international release. Abortion is not big box office material.”
But an executive with a Hollywood film production company who spoke on condition of anonymity, unauthorized to speak for the company, noted that the film industry has other tough questions to worry about aside from commercial considerations.
“At a time when women’s reproductive freedom is under attack in the courts, why wouldn’t it come up as part of the conversation?” the executive said. “Are you making a statement by assiduously avoiding the discussion?”
Some on the anti-abortion side seem to think so. Many conservative bloggers have claimed “Knocked Up” as an anti-choice movie, in part because the movie never presents abortion as a serious option.
Television, many agree, is freer to deal with abortion because its market is more fragmented and it can single out specific audiences better. But the medium, which has presented the subject occasionally in dramas and soaps (“Everwood,” “Six Feet Under,” “General Hospital”) has also struggled because of the risk of alienating advertisers, affiliates and viewers.
The Viacom-owned cable channel N, for instance, pulled episodes of the Canadian teen drama “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in 2004 that dealt with a character’s decision to have an abortion.
Christopher Keyser, co-creator of the Fox drama “Party of Five,” which ran for six seasons until 2000, said that when he tried to have a leading character go for an abortion, the network vetoed the idea just as the episode was about to be shot, citing the risk of upsetting sponsors. The story line was changed to have the 16-year-old character miscarry before she goes in for the procedure.
“It was a cop-out,” he said. “It was an attempt to avoid the issue but it was the best we could figure out under the circumstances.”
Mr. Keyser said he and the other writers wanted to mine a subject they found “incredible, rich material that happened in real life” without thinking about the consequences. After all, they had featured other controversial topics, like unprotected drunken sex and a gay relationship, in previous episodes.
But he said he understood the network’s position.
“In their defense, it was difficult,” he said. “Even though a majority may favor abortion rights, the minority position is extremely active and vocal.” In fact, a New York Times/CBS News poll last month showed that three-fourths of Americans favor access to abortion, though about half of those would like to see more restrictions than now.
On a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Yang, the most competitive medical resident on the show, decides to have an abortion but loses the fetus instead during emergency surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. Even on “Sex and the City,” which was shown on advertiser-free HBO, Miranda, a single, high-powered lawyer, decided to have the baby — after she had a change of heart at the abortion clinic. (In the same episode, Carrie and Samantha admit that they’ve both had abortions.)
And though “General Hospital” went so far as to portray a character going through with an abortion last year, Nancy Lee Grahn, a longtime abortion rights advocate and an actress who plays Alexis on the show, said the writers made sure they wrote in opposing views, including dialogue in which another character called the pregnant woman a “baby killer.”
Ms. Grahn, who said she had an abortion in her 20s, said that “women who have been able to go on with their life without feeling evil” are not represented on television.
Dr. Kuntz, the film historian at U.C.L.A., said there is little incentive for such stories to be told. “Hollywood wants to entertain and make money,” he said. Autor: Mireya Navarro