Arguments about what constitutes propaganda, as I know from experience, can go on forever. Does any piece of art with a clear political point of view qualify as propaganda, or does a work only earn that pejorative if its sole purpose is to persuade? Director and co-writer Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child fits the former definition but not the latter. The movie certainly lives up to the two-word “abortion rom-com” description that has become attached to it in the press. But it’s also a credible and funny depiction of life as a single, late-20s, soon-to-be-unemployed woman in New York ca. 2014. Other writers have already praised these aspects of Obvious Child, and either celebrated or belittled its openly pro-choice agenda. My question is: as propaganda, as a political tool, will it work? Does it deserve New Yorker critic Richard Brody’s accusation, that it’s just an exercise in “blue-state high-fiving”? Or does it have the capacity to change minds?
The answer may be more important than it seems, with implications eventually reaching beyond the cultural realm to make a real impact on American politics. Think about how many (relatable, humanized) queer and gender non-normative characters we see on TV and in the movies in 2014, compared with how many there were around the turn of the millennium. Then take a look at how dramatically attitudes towards same-sex marriage have changed since 2001. Clearly, there are plenty of factors involved in this shift — and just as an uptick in realistic depictions of LGBT people has helped to galvanize support for LGBT rights, an increasingly tolerant public helps to make the proliferation of those depictions possible (not to mention economically feasible). But the fact remains that the entertainment industry has provided some powerful PR for the same-sex marriage movement and, more recently, the movement for transgender rights and visibility.
Now, think about when you last saw a film or TV character have an abortion — without tragedy ensuing. Sure, it happened a few years ago on Friday Night Lights (after the show had been moved from NBC to DirecTV’s obscure The 101 network), and a few years before that on HBO’s Six Feet Under. Shonda Rhimes even smuggled an abortion subplot into a prime-time network drama, her wildly popular Grey’s Anatomy, in 2011. Meanwhile, on the big screen, The Nation‘s Michelle Goldberg reminds us that “[t]he last time abortion was handled so straightforwardly in the movies was in 1982’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and director Amy Heckerling has said she doesn’t think she’d be able to get away with that today.”
Even the stodgiest, most isolated conservative viewers have had plenty of opportunities, through fictional characters, to feel like they know LGBT — or at least gay and lesbian — people. But it’s likely they haven’t, or have only rarely, seen sympathetic characters who’ve had abortions, as roughly one-third of real-life women will in their lifetime. And this may well have something to do with how little public opinion has shifted on abortion over the past four decades.
It isn’t a perfect comparison, LGBT rights vs. the pro-choice movement. Being queer or trans is a lifelong identity to be unequivocally embraced and celebrated, while an abortion is a single medical procedure that, as such, a patient may want to keep private. The fact remains, though, that visibility is powerful. A few more films and TV shows that tell relatable stories about abortion could go a long way, especially at a time when extremists still threaten clinics and doctors, and “coming out” about having terminated a pregnancy can put a woman at great risk.
So, is Obvious Child one such story, with the potential to make people reevaluate their politics? It’s a complicated question, one tied both to how many Americans will end up seeing Obvious Child and to whether audiences that are ambivalent towards abortion (forget the clinic-terrorizing crowd; they’re hopeless) will connect to its protagonist and her story.
The film’s heroine, Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern, is a disarmingly honest (some might say “oversharing”) comedian who, in the movie’s first few minutes, does a foulmouthed routine about her boyfriend and then gets dumped by the cheating bastard in the bathroom of the same bar where she performed. She is the kind of young woman we’ve seen a lot of recently, mostly on TV, although she’s perhaps the most likable version yet. Donna is less narcissistic than the Girls girls, despite nursing the same career anxieties that plague them; she’s not quite as goofy as Abbi and Ilana of Broad City, but nonetheless, she wouldn’t be out of place sharing a joint and a fart joke with them. Self-destructive at times but essentially sweet, she’s the kind of character I’d like to see at the center of more romantic comedies.
That’s me, though — a 29-year-old Brooklynite who could easily be Donna’s next door neighbor or coworker or best friend. How will a mouthy New York Jewish girl who drinks a lot, talks openly about her sex life, gets pregnant after an exuberantly intoxicated one-night stand, and then shows up at Planned Parenthood to order an abortion like it’s an item on a diner menu play in the red states? Well, she’ll be a harder sell than Kathryn Heigl’s standard rom-com heroine, but there are factors working in her favor: aside from her basic likability, Donna has a great relationship with each of her parents (they’re divorced, alas). The strong community around her also extends to her friends, particularly her roommate Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), whose care and concern for Donna is palpable in every scene. And her love interest is the sort of kind, wholesome MBA student that every Middle American mom presumably wants for her daughter.
Obvious Child has a raunchy sense of humor, and it isn’t sentimental about abortion, but its characters (aside from Donna’s ex, fuck that guy) are good people. The movie uses them to pull viewers close instead of making us feel conflicted, like an edgier ensemble might. Therein lies its potential appeal beyond the pro-choice set, if conservatives and undecideds can be persuaded to watch Obvious Child – and that’s assuming they even get to see it.
So far, comparatively few moviegoers have the opportunity to see the film: it only opened in New York and LA over the weekend, but its $27k per-theater-average has its distributor, A24, bragging that Obvious Child “is now poised to become one of the breakout hits of summer.” As Deadline reports, the plan is to roll out the film in major markets over the next few weeks, with plans to go nationwide June 27. It’s still not likely to show up alongside Transformers 4 at the suburban mall multiplex (this list of upcoming engagements suggests it will mostly screen at art theaters in midsized cities and college towns), but it will surely have a wider reach than your average low-budget comedy.
There are other hints that Obvious Child will find a broader audience, too: titans of film comedy, like Edgar Wright and Judd Apatow, are enthusiastically endorsing it to their armies of followers, who are precisely the people who could take it mainstream. (I’d like to see one of them put his money where his mouth is and back Gillian Robespierre’s next movie.) It also seems inevitable that Obvious Child will pop up on demand and stream on Netflix, attracting unlikely new fans along the way. The film has only been out for a week; it’s got a long life ahead of it, one that I imagine will only get bigger when it’s available for anyone to watch at home.
I’m not sure I believe it’s possible for a single movie to effect large-scale political change, and even if it were, Obvious Child isn’t going to be that movie. But I think it has the potential to change individual minds, to make people understand that there are good women who have abortions for good reasons. If Obvious Child starts a trend — if we don’t have to wait another three decades for the next film like it — it could be the best thing to happen to the pro-choice movement in years.