Grandma, a Sundance alum that opens on August 21st, is the story of a teenager who goes to her eccentric grandmother (played by Lily Tomlin) for money to get an abortion. Her grandma is also broke, so they endeavor to collect the money they need by the end of the day. You can read my review here and I highly suggest skipping the trailer, which unfortunately gives away some great moments better experienced in context. This piece is not a review: instead it’s a look at why this feels like a pivotal contribution to the pregnancy subgenre.
Let me get the one caveat out of the way: I’m a man. I am a feminist, but I cannot speak for a woman’s experience. In this article, I hope to shed light on how Hollywood portrays pregnancy. I will never be pregnant, nor will I ever go through an abortion myself. However, I am compelled to share what I’ve observed in these films.
It is old news that Hollywood is absurdly male dominant, but clearly 1 in 3 women’s experience cannot be entirely summarized by one scene from ‘Blue Valentine’.
The first time I ever saw an abortion depicted in a film was Blue Valentine. Anyone who saw the movie remembers the scene. It’s absolutely traumatizing without ever being graphic. The director manages to get you in the character’s circumstance and make the abortion feel horrifying, and in the end it’s a no-brainer she does not go through with it. As an 18-year-old seeing this, I felt confident that abortions were bad news all around and a horrible experience to have, despite the fact that I was raised (and am still) Pro-Choice. How could I have this strong negative impression without ever experiencing an abortion myself?
Having an abortion is no doubt a serious decision. However, 1 in every 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. This is a huge percentage of the population! It is old news that Hollywood is absurdly male dominant, but clearly 1 in 3 women’s experience cannot be entirely summarized by one scene from Blue Valentine. Organizations have been working hard to demystify the negative stigma associated with this experience, but movies have been serving a counter point of view that reaches far more general audiences.
It is no spoiler that Grandma is a film where an abortion is a key plot point. The film is a comedy, but the abortion is never treated lightly or seen as casual. Instead, it is treated as a viable option, and not a thing of shame for the woman. Sage, the character having the abortion, is a teenager not ready to go through with an unwanted pregnancy and has made the decision that this is what will be best for her. Seeing the subject of abortion depicted this way is incredibly refreshing and honest instead of hokey. Why did something this simple and authentic feel so progressive for a movie?
I encourage readers to look back at any movie you’ve seen with an unwanted pregnancy – how many characters ever decide not to keep their child?
The pregnancy subgenre hit a noticeable peak in 2007, when 3 major movies came out: Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno. All of them are about women who unexpectedly get pregnant and everything after. They also have another major element in common: all of the women at some point in the movie make the active decision to keep the baby. In Juno, she is set on getting an abortion, until a lone protester outside the clinic tells her that her baby has fingernails, and that elicits an emotional reaction that causes her to leave. The abortion protestor is a bit of a punch line, yet nonetheless the protestor effectively convinces the protagonist. In all of these high profile films, having an abortion is ruled out fairly early, despite the fact that all three women aren’t planning for motherhood. I’m not saying that just because a pregnancy is unwanted means there is a clear answer of what to do. But this is where in seeing Grandma, I realized how few times in movies I had seen an abortion depicted as an acceptable way to handle a situation, and therefore, it felt like an untold story. I encourage readers to look back at any movie you’ve seen with an unwanted pregnancy – how many characters ever decide not to keep their child? Another Sundance film getting released on August 21, Ten Thousand Saints, also features a teen pregnancy. The film includes a scene where the character confidently heads to a clinic to get an abortion, but arrives only to be scared off and in the end keeps the child. Sound familiar?
Even on the first season of Orange is the New Black, undoubtedly one of the most progressive shows in terms of depicting dimensional female characters, we still fall into this same predicament with two sides of the coin. A heroic character decides to keep her unplanned pregnancy, whereas a villainous antagonist has apparently had over 6 abortions. It appears to be abundantly clear which is the better character to emulate. (Side note: Laverne Cox is in both Grandma and Orange is the New Black).
It confirms my hunch that there is a clear negative stigma in the conservative world of Hollywood around the subject
In researching this article, I discovered that another recent indie film, Obvious Child, collaborated with Planned Parenthood to make “an edgy, hip, funny, remarkably honest (movie) revolving around one woman’s abortion.” According to the PP website,
“When NBC rejected an ad for the film because it included the word ‘abortion,’ Planned Parenthood Action Fund led a national campaign to insist the network reverse course… the campaign ignited a social media firestorm, opened a conversation about abortion stigma, and NBC decided to run the ad and clarify its policies.”
What this tells me is that I was incorrect in thinking Grandma is not the first film to progressively depict having an abortion. But it confirms my hunch that there is a clear negative stigma in the conservative world of Hollywood around the subject. Grandma is the best counter argument to this stigma I could have ever dreamed up: it’s a witty, clever, and completely believable story in which having an abortion is something that happens without a character feeling shameful or as though she is making the wrong decision. The ideal cinematic world should depict as wide a variety of opinions and scenarios as possible, and on the subject of unwanted pregnancies, there appears to be a clear majority as to what is shown as “right.” Not only is Grandma a fantastic film with well-executed humor and fully realized characters, but it is also a great counterbalance to an alarmingly unprogressive industry. I recommend seeing it for both of these reasons.