Thursday, July 1, 2010

Abortion in Narrative

I can pretty much guarantee that you had some reaction while reading this title… some kind of uncomfortable pang associated with a hot issue. Well, I’m not going to discuss the issue itself here, but I want you to remember that pang because it goes directly to the point I am making.

Juno and its bastard child Secret Life of the American Teenager are pretty old by pop culture standards, but I feel like getting around to a point about them. I remember watching Juno and looking back over its pretentious hipster script, and I remember a set of scenes that stuck out. When Juno finds out that she’s pregnant, she decides automatically to abort. When she arrives at a clinic a single girl is standing outside with a sign chanting stupidly into the air like the village idiot.

At this point in the narrative, I saw the movie as put itself squarely in the “Pro-Choice…Duh!” camp and prepare to move on (After a laughably stereotypical discussion about kids taking prescription drugs extracted unaltered from any given episode of SVU or “Talk To Your Kids” brochure). When Juno walked into the clinic, though, she was confronted by an aggressive, vaguely-slutty receptionist and had a sudden change of heart, not wanting to kill her baby with ‘fingernails’. Boom! All of the sudden the movie pulled a complete 180 and was a pro-life fairy-tale about the infinite joys of full-term pregnancy with nary a backward glance to abortion.

And here we arrive at my point: Abortion just can’t fit casually into popular narrative.

That isn’t a judgment on the issue, and that isn’t to say that narrative is ruled by patriarchal pro-life sentiment, but it is to say that the way narrative works makes it impossible to bring in abortion without making it a core issue.

Going back to Juno, I don’t think that the movie can be classified as conservative/pro-life, at least not in a core or intentional way. Juno didn’t have its lead abort for a very simple reason that had nothing to do with politics: Aborting would have ended the story.

If Juno went back home having terminated the pregnancy, the entire creative argument of the story would have ended with nothing to show for it. Not only that, it would sort of feel like a retcon: the story presents you with a potential conflict and chance for development and then, in an effective instant, wheels back to a time to before that conflict.

Now, it isn’t strictly accurate to say that the status quo has returned, since the aftermath of abortion definitely offers psychological footholds to climb onto, but now we enter the territory of the Third Rail, wherein abortion is just too volatile an issue to discuss or deal with and without completely entering the fray of a divisive political issue; if the character is depressed afterwards you have a condescending pro-life message, if the character is okay with it you have a condescending pro-choice message, and if reactions are mixed you have an annoying namby-pamby cop-out.

I think this is what really makes abortion different from other equally hot-button issues like gay marriage or stem-cell research or Teapot Dome in that it sort of demands that you introduce a retcon in order to bring abortion into the story, and, from a pure narrative perspective, that’s a really jarring entrance.

You might say that Juno and works like it kind of disprove my point since they introduce abortion as an issue without the retcon, but I think that proves my point, rather. If she had gotten the abortion, it would have ended the narrative. Abortion exists in these only to highlight that the girl didn’t do it. As the Bright Lights Film Journal puts it correctly (Amid a generally more pro-choice slanted article) to say that “Abortion exists only as a faux option - something to choose against.”

So, it’s time in this discussion to get to the significance of all this. And that is that, whether for good or bad, popular media is going to see an absence of abortion and everything that that absence entails. I think, whether intentional or not, that that means that there is going to be a subtle pro-life leaning in stories involving pregnancy since the inherent demands of narrative structure coincidentally lead to a side in the issue.

Unless the woman has a miscarriage, which is typically just bad writing trying to undo a plot they don’t want anymore.

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At July 1, 2010 at 5:43 PM , Blogger Riley said...

I'm not really sure what to say to this entry as a whole, mostly because I didn't entirely follow your argument. I will say however that I watched a movie recently called Palindromes, that you may well hate for a variety of reasons, but it does manage to deal with (parentally mandated!) abortion in a rather nuanced way, in that it presents what happens as neither an incorrect choice nor a correct choice, but recognizes the motivations of both sides of the particular instance and plays out a rather complex scenario as a result.

At July 1, 2010 at 5:56 PM , Blogger Kyle said...

You pose an interesting point. I've noticed that the vast majority of pop culture outlets (read: TV shows)subtly brand abortion as simply a non-option, or at best one that the characters are really uncomfortable about. I'd be curious to know if this is how a good number of Americans feel, or if it is merely a reflection of the sociopolitical leanings of TV execs.

At July 3, 2011 at 8:20 PM , Blogger Miss Elainie said...

dammit Taylor. Juno was a great movie. What I took from it was that, for whatever reason, there are women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term- not necessarily because of religious fervor so much as emotional ambiguity. Yes, Juno did kind of gloss over that whole process but the point of the movie wasnt to become glutted by controversy but to express solidarity with women who suffer from society's overwrought mores and prejudices. part of making that point was to show how making the decision to have a child doesnt have to be hasty premature devoutly religious and stupid. it shows that every woman deserves the right to choose for herself whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term and that society can shove its prejudice and condescension up its proverbial ass.

At July 3, 2011 at 8:27 PM , Blogger Miss Elainie said...

to sum up my previous post, juno is a pro-choice polemic and theres nothing wrong with that.


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