A World Without Abortion: USA v. Romania
If you’ve ever experienced, first- or second-hand, a teen pregnancy, or a high school relationship, or a being a teenager, or being pregnant, or giving birth, or being a parent (to an infant or a teenager), or getting divorced, or living in small town, or being in high school, then you probably found "Juno," the "quirky," "feel-good," "little movie that could," released just in time for the recent holiday season, totally preposterous. And if major departures from reality don’t bother you and you head to the movies in order to suspend disbelief, then the reality you’ll be indulging is one where pregnancy isn’t life-changing, teenagers are as sex-savvy as old prostitutes, in-jokes and pop culture references substitute for smarts and dreams, and abortion is superfluous. In the run-up to an election during which abortion could figure as one of the only issues where the two major political parties actually differ, this little piece of fundamentalism, shrink-wrapped in indie-rock, predicts rough times ahead for women.
"Juno"’s acclaim rests largely on its pose as a smart tale told in authentic teen vernacular: you know, get pregnant, tell some people about it in the language that Snoop Dogg made up in jail, jam with yuppies, get a big stomach, give your baby away, snuggle with your boyfriend, have a slurpee. A.O. Scott of the New York Times attributed the public’s (or, at least, his own) seduction by "Juno" to its "feminist" quality: "Despite what most products of the Hollywood comedy boys’ club would have you believe, it is possible to possess both a uterus and a sense of humor." The bar is low when a young pregnant woman portrayed as having zero aspirations and few interests qualifies as a feminist character.
Apart from the recent rise in teen birth rate stats, another happy accident conspired to make "Juno" feel relevant: on December 18, Britney Spears’ 16 year-old sister Jamie Lynn announced her own unplanned pregnancy (sold to OK! for $1 million). "Juno" emerged as the wholesome counterpoint to the Spears family train wreck: a middle class girl who makes the difficult moral choice to provide an infertile, affluent mom with a white baby. Like the Spears story, everyone can comfortably voice an opinion about "Juno" without coming to grips with the uncomfortable, obvious reality that most teenagers who take home pregnancy tests in convenience store bathrooms value the opportunity to terminate the pregnancy.
This is the most obvious criticism of "Juno:" it is not a feminist movie. Like every Republican presidential candidate (except Giuliani) and many other politicians on both sides of the aisle, Juno’s creators willfully ignore the fact that abortion is a mainstream healthcare choice, experienced by nearly 50% of American women (and indirectly, often their boyfriends or husbands), and 52% of them are younger than 25. Most pregnant teenagers who end up getting abortions don’t do so after days of intense soul-searching. The "choice" is obvious. They’re busy searching for an abortion doctor.
As Kate Aurthur pointed out in the New York Times back in 2004, ignoring the reality of underage pregnancy and choice is nothing new for Hollywood: "Unlike such once-taboo issues as date rape, gay relationships and teenage sex, abortion on television remains an aberration." Rather than depicting abortion, not adoption, as a precocious acknowledgement of parenthood’s hardships, most films and television programs systematically avoid the issue. Critics have touched on the hypocrisy inherent in Hollywood’s portrayals of unlikely miscarriages and adoptions and happy teen families, but fail to acknowledge the extent to which this hypocrisy hurts women.
Lately, American movie-goers (at least those in the proximity of foreign cinema) have the rare opportunity to see a movie about an actual abortion. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," by Romanian director Cristan Mungiu, has won many awards including the Palme D’Or at Cannes. But unlike "Juno," which claimed four Academy Award nominations, it is not in the running for an Oscar. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" is a slice-of-life drama, a dark glimpse into one young woman’s abortion experience in Ceau_escu’s Romania. Surprisingly, the young college student named Gabita and her decision to abort are not the film’s central drama. Instead, Mungiu depicts the coercion that both Gabita and her roommate, Otilia, engage in order to procure the procedure at a time when abortion was illegal.
In its portrayal of the quest for an abortion and the attendant collateral damage, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" is no barrel of laughs. It doesn’t offer much in the way of in-jokes; even its nods to the irony of life behind the iron curtain fall flat. Where "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" outshines "Juno" is in its attention to the true, complicated interactions between men and women. Two scenes especially expose the screenplay’s poignancy: first, when the abortionist grandstands about his risks–despite the fact that the illegality of the procedure is precisely his livelihood–and elicits the women’s complicity in his abuse by exploiting every possible aspect of power differential between him and them; and, later, when Otilia picks a fight with her boyfriend to transfer her rage and humiliation onto a familiar situation.
Middle-class, young women in America, for whom the abortion experience calls to mind the supportive environment of Planned Parenthood, won’t recognize the rented hotel room, the briefcase of strange instruments sterilized in alcohol, the waiting to hemorrhage, but many older women in America experienced the abuse and chicanery of "back-alley" illegal abortion. As the W.H.O. showed in a comprehensive study last year, abortion rates are pretty consistent, regardless of its legal status. When abortion was illegal in America, young women weren’t delighted by the opportunity to provide childless couples with kids; they were like Gabita and Otilia, scrambling for cash and phone numbers.
Neither "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" nor "Juno" dramatizes the unplanned pregnancy as it’s relevant to young American women, but "4 Months…" comes closer. Without knowing much about Gabita and Odilia, we might guess that, despite living in a dictatorship, they have aspirations.
Women who are able to get safe, legal abortions acknowledge dreaming not only of education, and careers, and the slow transition to adult responsibility and financial independence, but also of having a family when they want to with the person they want to be with–even if their limited life experience precludes, in many cases, the full articulation of this possibility just as it permitted the disconnect between sexual impulses and their corresponding biological conclusion. They get abortions to vaguely acknowledge their right to establish the parameters of their sexual experiences and prioritize themselves and their wellbeing. For many young women, the decision to get an abortion will be the first one they make that responds to their needs, that puts them the center of their own lives.
Why is abortion such a hot-button political issue in America? What unspoken gestures are made when a candidate declares himself pro- or anti-choice? Apologists on the left and right have begun to treat abortion as if it’s passé, just some women’s cause incomparable in importance to the war in Iraq or the widening class divide. The political candidates understand, however, that this issue communicates a symbolic pose, "traditional morality" vs. "progress." Just as many lower and middle-class Republicans defend the rights of the wealthy to hoard, men and women who have had positive experiences with abortion nevertheless often vote for anti-choice candidates aspirationally: voting Republican makes people feel, if just for a few seconds, rich and moral.
In interviews, Jason Reitman, the film’s director, expressed his intentions for "Juno" as being "completely apolitical." He failed. Perhaps, more than anything, the belief in "Juno" represents our current cultural predilection for denial. Maybe, we hope, a young woman can wittily act as a surrogate for a wealthy single mom and no one is any worse for the wear. Maybe teenagers don’t need ready access to safe abortions, and women don’t have anything better to do than be pregnant, and it doesn’t make them any less "cool." The danger of "Juno" is the danger of all propaganda and political fantasy: it legitimates our denial. It provides a cultural reference for something that can’t exist. Based on the composition of the Supreme Court and the cases coming before it, however, the denial of abortion may become a more pressing reality for many American women.
In the hospital birth scene in "Juno," Juno’s father woefully tells her, "One day you’ll be here on your own terms." What the screenwriter (formerly an ironic stripper) failed to realize was that, according to the film’s alternate universe, she already is.
"4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" spotlights much more compelling conceptions of choice: is Otilia "raped" by the abortionist, who demands sex along with cash, for performing her friend’s abortion? How do you feel when a young woman, in the wake of trauma invoked by coerced sex, ditches her nice boyfriend at his mom’s birthday party to discard her roommate’s aborted fetus somewhere dogs might or might not find it? Where does your sympathy lie and how does it shift? While "Juno" represents our cultural wish for a woman who is young and witty and smart and submissive, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" reminds us of a real world without abortion and what it feels like to be there.
R.F. Blader can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org