By Aya de Leon
Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre’s feature debut starring Jenny Slate, is by no means the first romantic comedy based on a drunken one-night-stand leading to an unplanned pregnancy. It is, however, the first one where the pregnancy ends in abortion, which marks a massive shift in the cultural landscape. What has happened in the pop culture landscape over the last decade or so to make the once taboo abortion rom com plot possible – even comical?
Some bloggers dubbed the original 23-minute short version of Obvious Child the “anti-Knocked Up.” In that 2007 Judd Apatow film, Katherine Heigl plays a young woman who goes out drinking in celebration of her promotion and ends up having sex with an immature stoner played by Seth Rogen. In Obvious Child, the roles are reversed, with Donna as the drunken, over-sharing comedian, and Max as the successful, clean-cut young businessman. Knocked Up relies on the hard-to-accept premise that an aspiring television star would choose motherhood at the moment it would cost her career with a man she disdains. Critic Emily Nussbaum said, “Alison [Heigl's character] made basically zero sense… [and] glided into this pregnancy, assumed from there that she should try to make a go of it with Rogen, and hung out benignly smiling at his stoner buddies. She was…strangely spineless…especially considering that she was this ambitious young Hollywood babe.”
In the real world, I have observed that a majority of women in these positions choose to have abortions. Up until Obvious Child, the story of the ambitious woman who terminates a pregnancy had belonged exclusively to the province of dramas, where the viewer isn’t required to like the characters to invest in the show. In romantic comedies, however, we need to like the two lovers. We need to want them to succeed in order to enjoy the film.
In Obvious Child, the abortion is the obvious choice. We wouldn’t want to see the impulsive, chaotic, and recently unemployed Donna attempt to be responsible for a goldfish, let alone a human child. Nevertheless, she’s likable enough that we may hope she might make a good mom in the future, after many life lessons. Likeability is a big issue for many female characters who are ambitious or “pushy” or don’t follow the rules. Female characters who transgress, whether in TV, film, or fiction, tend to get punished. But Obvious Child portrays the abortion sympathetically and doesn’t deliver any moral comeuppance. Critic Gabrielle Moss notes two other sympathetically depicted abortions in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing, but in neither case was it the protagonist who had the unwanted pregnancy, and neither were classic romantic comedies.
While an abortion storyline might be shocking in another rom com, it works in Obvious Child because so much of Donna’s comedy material is toilet humor. By the time Donna ends up pregnant, the film has already shown itself to be raunchy and raw. Interestingly, the big choice Donna has to make is not about whether to have the abortion, but about whether or not to tell Max that she got pregnant in the first place, which is an interesting conundrum, as they had sex, but are not emotionally intimate enough for her to share the consequences.
This film could never have been made in years past, not only because the topic would have been too taboo, but also because many other important films and TV shows needed to pave the way first. Incredibly awkward and raunchy comedy has been made popular by the likes of The Office, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And Obvious Child also comes along in the wake of New Girl‘s and Girls’ success, which, like Obvious Child, respectively moved the female character that has traditionally been the “quirky friend” to the position of romantic lead, and brought the brilliant, uncensored New York millennial female to the screen for the first time. Obvious Child brings together some of the best bits from these influences and creates a new breed of awkwardness, raunch, and adorkability.
It makes sense that a female comedian would be the one to carry this issue to the rom com screen. In Bossypants, Tina Fey’s autobiography, she recounts a moment when Jimmy Fallon told Amy Poehler that her joke was “not cute! I don’t like it.” And Amy responded “I don’t f@#%ing care if you like it.” Obvious Child is right in line with Tina Fey’s advice from that same chapter: “do your thing. Don’t care if they like it.” But as is often the case when women take bold risks in comedy, the audience is loving it.