The Pro-Choice Film Festival You Didn’t Know You Needed
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you might have heard a bit of news about the US Supreme Court. Specifically, a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked, and it looks as though the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which codified a woman’s right to an abortion in all 50 states, will soon be overturned.
This news was upsetting to many but surprising to few. Donald Trump was only in office for one term, but because of timing and the corrupt machinations of one Mitch McConnell, he had the ability to appoint three very conservative justices to the Supreme Court. The prevailing wisdom is that the ramifications of these appointments will be felt for decades.
Personally, I suspect that the next period of American history will be rough. And, I do have hope that the court’s attempts to recriminalize abortion will likely fail, for one simple reason. No American woman under the age of 50 can remember a time when abortion wasn’t legal. They take the right for granted. It’s part of their permanent wiring. In other words, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Now, I write a lot about pop culture, specifically television and movies, but the court’s radical conservatism is on my mind this month for obvious reasons. So, I thought I’d recommend some films — some newer, some older — that celebrate a woman’s right to choose.
Love With the Proper Stranger (1963). Released a full decade before Roe v. Wade secured a woman’s right to choose, Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen starred in a film about two young New Yorkers in search of someone to terminate a pregnancy. It’s sobering to see what abortion looked like in the 1960’s: unsanitary, unsafe, and ultimately terrifying. In this film, Wood’s character doesn’t undergo the procedure — not by choice, but by not having a real choice.
Cabaret (1972). Released the same year the oral arguments for Roe v. Wade were being made before the Supreme Court, this film features a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance by Liza Minnelli as the indomitable, breezy, annoying flibbertigibbet Sally Bowles in 1930s Berlin. After cheating on her lover with a married aristocrat, she finds herself pregnant. Not knowing who the father is, she is prepared to terminate the pregnancy (illegally) when her erstwhile lover proposes, leaving her with a choice between him and all her dreams. That, and the slow rise of a fascist government in the background make this film especially prescient these days.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). While most people remember Sean Penn as a hilarious stoner who has pizza delivered to history class, the emotional heart of Amy Heckerling’s high school “dramedy” is Jennifer Jason Leigh as a high school freshman who gets pregnant by a smooth-talking ticket scalper who abandons her on the day of her scheduled abortion, forcing her to pay for the procedure alone. Watching the film, it’s almost impossible to imagine that this confused, impulsive 15-year old should be a mother, and her choice is both simple and obvious.
Dirty Dancing (1987). Yes, that Dirty Dancing. You might have forgotten, but the whole reason Baby got out of the corner and danced with hunky Johnny Castle in the 1963 Catskills is because his partner Penny is pregnant. In addition to rehearsing with Johnny, Baby borrows money from her rich father to pay for Penny’s abortion, but is gravely injured when the illegal procedure is botched.
Citizen Ruth (1996). Laura Dern plays Ruth Stoops, an irresponsible, glue-sniffing lost soul, who finds herself caught between activists on both sides of the abortion debate after a judge tries to convince Ruth to get abortion by offering a lesser sentence on felony charges (for endangering her fetus by continually huffing whatever she can find at the hardware store). While the pro-choice activists don’t come off much better than the pro-life activists in this film, it’s probably because neither side is really pro-choice, allowing Ruth to make up her own mind about what to do with her own body.
The Cider House Rules (1999). The wonderful Michael Caine won his second Oscar for playing Dr. Wilbur Larch, an OB/GYN in the 1940s who runs an orphanage but secretly performs illegal abortions on the side. It’s a movie that evokes the period beautifully while telling a story that movies simply couldn’t tell during the Second World War.
Vera Drake (2004). Imelda Staunton was nominated for an Oscar as the titular character of this heartfelt drama. Drake is a working-class housewife in 1950s London who runs afoul of the law when it is discovered that she secretly performs illegal abortions for women in need. What’s startling about this film is not just the cruelty of the law, but Vera herself. She’s not an activist, and probably doesn’t even consider herself a feminist. She’s simply a good person who helps people when they have nowhere to turn. The film also features a subplot about an upper-class woman who receives a safe abortion in a hospital after being coached by a psychiatrist to game the system and receive a prescription, underlining the facts that abortion is indeed healthcare, and that it’s mostly poor women who suffer from anti-choice structures and laws.
Obvious Child (2014). Literally marketed as an abortion rom-com, this indie comedy was written and directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate as a comedian who rebounds from a humiliating breakup with a one-night stand, and … you guessed it: a few weeks later, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She immediately schedules her abortion, but meanwhile keeps running into the rebound, who seems like a perfectly nice guy. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s surprisingly sweet and absolutely pro-choice in tone and content.
Grandma (2015). Lily Tomlin is acerbic and hilarious as Elle, who is scouring Los Angeles to come up with enough money to pay for her granddaughter’s abortion. The trip forces her to confront her past in scenes that alternate between poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. Interestingly, the abortion she herself procured as a much younger woman becomes a major plot point as well.
Every single one of these films is entertaining, which doesn’t diminish their importance — rather, it heightens it. The right to choose is as American as movies themselves. For that reason, I believe it’s here to stay.
Eric Peterson co-hosts a podcast called The Rewind Project about old movies and modern times. His first novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available online and at your local independent bookstore.