Writing a wrong

knockedupMy husband is a huge Judd Apatow fan, which means we saw the crassly-named film Knocked Up on the night it came out. The film is not religious, save a few mentions of the protagonist's Judaism. But coverage of the film has touched quite a bit on religious themes. Knocked Up is a comedy about how a man grows up after he impregnates a beautiful woman during a one-night-stand. Without giving anything away, I think it's okay for me to share with you that the female in question delivers the baby rather than have an abortion. This lack of abortion -- and lack of agonized discussion over same -- in the movie has rankled more than a few film critics and social observers. I thought about looking at some of these reviews last week, but almost everything out there was straight opinion. But I came across two mainstream media pieces that are worth noting.

J. Peder Zane of the Raleigh News & Observer used the lack of abortion in Knocked Up to look at how Hollywood treats pregnancy termination in general. I love his lede:

Foul language, divorce, drug abuse, premarital sex, homosexuality -- Hollywood used to have as many taboos as a revival tent meeting. Nowadays, almost anything goes in popular culture, where the explicit is taken to ever-more-graphic levels.

Yet one topic still makes movie and TV producers tremble: abortion.

Zane goes on to speak with various professors and cultural critics who say that abortion is taboo for film and television. He lists examples of films with women who have abortions, but notes that most onscreen unplanned pregnancies end up in miscarriage or birth.

I really liked Zane's piece, but I found it interesting that he blamed producers for the lack of abortion. Let's switch real quick to a piece found in The New York Times' Fashion & Style section by Mireya Navarro:

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.

Okay, now it's not producers who are the bad guys, but directors. Maybe this is because one of my best friends is a writer in Hollywood, but this is one of my pet peeves. Directors and producers don't create characters . . . writers create characters.These characters need motivation, and the goal is for the audience to connect with them and care about them. So when creating characters facing problem pregnancies, they envision people who either will or won't contemplate or have an abortion. That writers avoid creating characters who abort their unborn children is something worth looking into, and I hope future articles do. But it's important to identify who is most responsible for characters.

Both articles quote political activists with a vested interest in the abortion debate. Are you surprised? Neither am I. These folks say abortion is a sensitive topic that must be avoided -- but I'm not sure that's the underlying cause. Consider, if you will, how much the protagonist in Knocked Up would have matured if his lover had aborted the child. Consider how long the movie would have listed. Consider how well that would have fit in with a slapstick comedy.

Navarro is unable to speak with the writer of either film, but she does include the writer's perspective for Waitress that furthers the point:

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."

Exactly. It's an artistic choice, and one that fits well for writers looking to show complex, ongoing struggles and maturation. I hope other reporters pick up on this and look at why motherhood versus pregnancy termination is chosen by writers so frequently. Both articles are really good and I commend them. One final note on each.

I thought Zane did a great job of seeking opinions from a wide variety of activists with different perspectives. I was intrigued by this pro-choice perspective, particularly the last few words of her quote:

For all our uneasiness, abortion remains legal. Its relative absence from popular culture sends a dangerous message to the millions of women who have abortions or will have them, argues Audrey Fisch, a professor of English at New Jersey City University, who has written about the issue for Salon.com.

"By ignoring the issue, Hollywood ends up suggesting that abortion is an unspeakable abomination and that people who get abortions are bad people," Fisch said. "By refusing to represent the real lives of women -- including the economic and social damage that can come from unplanned pregnancies -- Hollywood is fostering a destructive pro-life culture."

Compare that with this rather shocking line in Navarro's piece:

Many conservative bloggers have claimed "Knocked Up" as an anti-choice movie, in part because the movie never presents abortion as a serious option.

Oh no she didn't. I realize she works at The New York Times and all, but, um, no. Conservative bloggers didn't claim the movie as an anti-choice movie. And, in fact, the use of that phrase is just wholly unacceptable among adult journalists, particularly those who teach the trade at the Columbia Journalism School. I know the Internet is a big place, but somehow I don't picture conservative bloggers using the phrase "anti-choice." Ever. Perhaps the phrase she was looking for was "pro-life"? I think that might be it. I mean, really, people. Imagine The New York Times referring to those who support abortion as "anti-life." It wouldn't happen.

Christopher Orr at The New Republic criticized the media approaches I mentioned here. His point is worth considering:

As a liberal who writes about film, there are few things that I find more irritating than the tendency of other liberal film writers to treat the 95 percent of Hollywood films that push (explicitly or implicitly) liberal ideas as if they were utterly apolitical and commonsensical, and then react with shock and despair on those rare occasions when a movie with conservative themes makes its way to theatres.

He says such media coverage would be justified if the film community started bestowing Oscar nominations for portraying pro-life characters instead of abortion providers.

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