In the new movie Grandma, Lily Tomlin plays a cool grandma helping her granddaughter get an abortion. Kristen Cochrane discusses the film, and looks back at the (generally awful) ways that abortion has historically been dealt with in film.
Lily Tomlin is the kind of grandmother I wish I had. Or maybe, she’s the grandmother I wish I could become. She has the first editions of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and she isn’t afraid of some creep who refuses to pay for half of her granddaughter’s abortion. This is filmmaker Paul Weitz’s of American Pie fame’s latest directorial endeavor, and it packs a punch, filling the gaps where other filmmakers have tread too carefully.
In 2015, abortion is still a fraught subject, both in politics and pop culture. When the biggest abortion film in recent history was released, it ended with a monogamous, heteropatriarchal conclusion. I’m talking about Juno, of course, where teenage Juno (Ellen Page) accidentally gets pregnant, backs out of getting an abortion at the last minute due to feelings of guilt, and ends up having the baby. Granted, she arranges a closed adoption and follows through with it.
Obviously, this is fine, if this is what you want. And maybe we needed something like Juno to tell women that if you want to have a baby, you are not a degenerate failure. You can still be a young, hip person and have a baby. And pluralistic narratives are great, except when that narrative is often a dominant narrative in what we see onscreen and elsewhere. When I think about it, I don’t know when I’ve ever heard about a celebrity getting an abortion. We don’t talk about abortion, we don’t see it in our media representations, and we haven’t taken it into our public consciousness the way other taboo subjects have been fleshed out.
“When I think about it, I don’t know when I’ve ever heard about a celebrity getting an abortion. We don’t talk about abortion, we don’t see it in our media representations, and we haven’t taken it into our public consciousness the way other taboo subjects have been fleshed out.”
The reasons for this can be a mix of puritanical social norms and capitalist economics. At the Toronto International Film Festival’s industry conference series, I sat through a day conference on the subject of finance, because I hate myself. One of the talks was led by Voltage Pictures founder Nicolas Chartier, a film agent and producer whose company’s films are in the $15 to $40 million dollar budget range. They’re not blockbusters, but they stick to the same formulas; there’s The Hurt Locker, one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s movies called Empire State, and Don Jon (so basically: war, muscles, and a story of a sex addict who then realizes that being a sex addict is wrong, or that liking sex with lots of people is wrong, or something). They’re all predictable-esque. When the topic of film piracy came up, Chartier expressed his annoyance with people “stealing” films. He argued that if he wants a Ferrari, he does not simply go out and steal a Ferrari, which I’m not sure is similar to streaming films online. He then said something which sounded like a warning, particularly to our crowd of “industry” types: journalists, academics, actors, and people desperately trying to peddle their scripts to people like Chartier. He said that if we want him to keep making films that are outside of what constitutes the mainstream blockbuster, like Voltage Pictures’ The Dallas Buyers Club (2013), the drama portraying Matthew McConaughey as an HIV positive rodeo cowboy, then we need to stop watching movies online because films like The Dallas Buyers Club are more high-risk.
This led me to a depressing hypothesis. Are we getting less progressive because late capitalism is so greedy and can’t lose a few million dollars? Are we seeing exclusively heterosexist, patriarchal, monogamous stories onscreen because studio big shots won’t greenlight anything that has (Voldemort voice) abortion or queer people depicted in an underrepresented light?
In Grandma, Lily Tomlin’s character Elle highlighted the reality of progress becoming reversed. When her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) did not know who Betty Friedan was, or how culturally significant The Feminine Mystique was, Elle expressed her disappointment in the succeeding generations following feminism’s robust second wave. When Elle brings Sage to a former abortion clinic where Elle had even volunteered at one point, to find that the abortion clinic has been shut down for five years, Elle loudly asks why it’s impossible to find a decent abortion clinic these days. The café owner (played by John Cho of Harold and Kumar fame) tells exasperated Elle that he’s going to ask her to leave since she is disturbing the cafe’s customers. Undeterred by his attempt at censoring her, Elle loudly and comically challenges him, mocking the fact that the only two patrons in the cafe must be the ones who are disturbed because she is talking about abortion. And this, in 2015, is a metaphor for the reversal of progress.
In 1967, the BBC ran an anthology series of television plays called The Wednesday Play. In 1965, the television play Up the Junction aired. It’s an exciting, black and white rendering of three young, working class women who chat about life, men, and have amazing hair and makeup. However, this is before abortion was decriminalized and subsequently legalized in the UK. In Up the Junction, one of the young women becomes pregnant. Then comes one of the most jarring scenes of onscreen abortion. After visiting an illegal abortion clinic, one of the young women receives an induced miscarriage. The play’s tone goes from jovial to sombre, while the young woman screams out in pain. It was watched by over 10 million viewers, and received over 400 complaints. Even in 2015, the scene is shocking. Two years later, the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act was enacted, which legalized abortion in the UK (which the exception of Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal to this day). It is argued that Up the Junction influenced this political motion.
The next culturally significant film to treat abortion without an embedded value judgment in the narrative would be Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) finds out she’s pregnant, and after the sleazy Damone (Robert Romanus) doesn’t keep his word on paying for half of the abortion, Stacy’s brother (the dreamy Judge Reinhold) drives her to the abortion clinic. The importance of this film lies in its conception of abortion as a thing that women (and men) have to deal with, and the annoying repercussions when you live in a country where universal health care is nonexistent and your baby daddy won’t come through.
And while it felt weird that such a progressive, fair portrayal of abortion was made by the same guy who created the American Pie franchise, Grandma is a welcome departure from the covert pontification of the pregnancy films that prefer to play it safe.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her most recent essay for Slutever HERE :)