Obvious Child is a romantic comedy. It is romantic, and it is funny, and the heroine has an abortion.
Most romantic comedies don’t include abortions, and lately, most romantic comedies don’t even call themselves romantic comedies. The typical line on romantic comedies is that they’re neither romantic nor comedic anymore. But that isn’t accurate, or fair. (This idea has been fuel for many a trend story on the “death of the rom-com” though, so, there’s that!) Plenty of very recent and very funny movies are rom-coms, they’re just marketed as something else: bro/weed comedies (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The 40 Year Old Virgin), artsy inversions of or commentary on the typical rom-com ((500) Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), indie flicks (Adventureland, The To Do List), Oscar contenders (Silver Linings Playbook, Enough Said).
But Obvious Child suffers from no such identity crisis. It’s clear from talking to star Jenny Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre that the makers of this film intended it to be a rom-com, heart and soul, and have zero problem advertising it that way. “Romantic comedies are my favorite kind of movie to watch,” said Robespierre. Watching them “feels like you’re snuggling with your best friend. It’s like a warm blanket. Those movies have been my friends for a long time.”
Jenny Slate’s character, Donna, was intended to be “a leading lady in a romantic comedy who was actually really funny. Somebody who got the best jokes in the movie, but also really sounded like us and our friends,” said Robespierre.” I am all for that — and I think Obvious Child achieved this, and then some — but this isn’t actually the most innovative aspect of the movie. Obvious Child isn’t the only romantic comedy of late to feature a heroine who is wittier and smarter and more vibrant than her best friend and/or love interest. Emma Stone’s Olive is the funniest, most brilliant part of Easy A. Jessica Stein gets the best laughs in Kissing Jessica Stein. Julia Stiles is just as charismatic, authentic and hilarious as Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You (“Am I that transparent? I want you, I need you, oh baby, oh baby.”) Cher’s Clueless lines are, like, way above and beyond anything Josh gets to say. Mindy is the spark of The Mindy Project. And so on.
Obvious Child absolutely breaks some new rom-com ground. But it’s not because Donna is funny, or even that, as Slate said, she has actual problems in her life and not just “problems [that] are too adorable. It bothers me when the main character is supposed to be quirky or down on her luck, but somehow all of her clothes are still designer, and her mistake is, like, she trips.” It’s not even the abortion — or, I mean, it is not just the abortion.
What Obvious Child explores, in a way that even the best modern romantic comedies have yet to really tackle, is the private lives of women.
The joke that kicks off the movie is a stand-up bit on something that grown women deal with literally every day and men without live-in girlfriends likely never confront or consider. It sets the tone for the rest of the movie: Donna, through her stand-up, and the film’s creative team, through their storytelling, take the things women typically keep hidden and broadcast them to a coed audience.
When Donna is alone in her apartment, she is not the Esquire man fantasy of what a woman alone in her apartment is like: lacy lingerie, just-so tousled hair, Crest commercial smile. She wears a nude bra, when she wears a bra at all; her teeth are stained gray from chugging cheap red wine. Her hair is in a messy bun — a legitimately messy bun, not a Pinterest, takes-a-thousand-bobby-pins bun.
“I love talking about wine teeth!” said Robespierre. As for wardrobe, “Donna is going to wear sweatpants and tank tops without a bra on when she gets home, because those are her comfortable clothes. The second I walk through my door, I take my jeans off… Even the lighting, it’s not your classic bright romantic comedy where everyone’s skin is flawless. We wanted those wine stains to show up in the first act. We worked really hard on graying out every single one of her teeth.”
Slate said one of her favorite things about romantic comedies is how “there is often a dance scene,” and she was especially excited to do the dance scene in this movie, in her underwear, “at the direction of another woman. Because oftentimes what women find sexy about each other is often not what is put out there, as far as what is sexy about a woman. It was fun to see a woman in normal underpants, not doing crazy gyration but being filled with energy and playful.”
The abortion, then, is just one issue in this bigger space of “things that so many women face but rarely discuss in public.” One in three women in America will get an abortion in her lifetime; how many women get abortions in movies? On television, the ratio of convenient miscarriages to abortions has got to be ten million to one. Why is it preferable, in the world of narrative entertainment, to have a pregnant character trip down a flight of stairs than to make an appointment at Planned Parenthood? Why do characters who, in real life, would be statistically far more likely to terminate their pregnancies — Juno, Katherine Heigl’s Allison in Knocked Up — carry them to term? What are we so afraid of acknowledging: that women have choices, and make them?
“I don’t really think it’s just in the movies,” said Robespierre. “I think in our culture, in general, it’s an unspoken word and an unspoken stigma surrounding that decision.”
“It’s very disappointing that it’s a taboo subject when millions of women need to have abortions, and have safe procedures,” said Slate. “Obviously, it’s not great for us right now. Women’s rights are under attack. That doesn’t mean that every abortion is a tragedy or a victory. Sometimes women have abortions and just move on. I liked that about the movie: Donna has an abortion, and it’s normal.”
Robespierre sent a copy of the script to Planned Parenthood to make sure the dialogue at the clinic was correct, and unlike in the short film upon which Obvious Child is based (where Donna’s abortion was filmed at Robespierre’s mom’s podiatrist’s office) the movie shot all the Planned Parenthood scenes in a real Planned Parenthood. “I think we were nervous that they were going to think it was raunchy,” said Robespierre. “But quite the opposite. They thought it was important, and they were really happy.”
The act of an abortion is something that isn’t just rarely left out of movies. Even the word is rarely uttered. The fact that it’s such a forbidden term can, in and of itself, be a joke. “I think sometimes people think that you’re not allowed to joke about something unless everybody knows exactly what it is,” said Slate. “And abortion is one of those topics where people have all these options about who should have them and what an abortion is. But my rule, and I think what our film does in terms of the comedy, is it just has to be thoughtful.”