July’s Movie of the Month, writer-director Alexander Payne’s debut feature film Citizen Ruth, is a pitch black comedy about a woman pressured to have (or not to have) an abortion by political activists who care far less about her right to choose (or her unborn fetus’s right to life) than they do about scoring political points in the mass media. Payne intentionally chose the abortion rights debate as the moral crisis centerpiece of his film because he knew it was a hot button topic that would elicit strong reactions from his audience, one he could use to discuss the way a person’s humanity is stripped once they’re exploited as an issue instead of treated as an individual. This approach to abortion as a plot device in comedy is fairly typical. Movies that utilize abortion as a thematic focal point will often derive all of their dramatic weight from the decision about whether or not to have the procedure in this way, leaving the romance & humor of their narratives to separately function as relief from what is generally portrayed as a traumatic, life-changing experience. From classic examples like Fast Times at Ridgemont High & Dirty Dancing to recent comedies like Juno, Knocked Up, and Leslye Headland’s (sadly underappreciated) Bachelorette, abortion is almost always portrayed in cinema, even in comedy, as A Big Deal, A Life-Changing Event, An Insurmountable Trauma. Citizen Ruth‘s major variation on that standard, besides its excruciatingly frank & honest discussion, is that it points the finger back at the political pundits that make abortion such a huge ordeal in the first place for the (fictional) woman who endures their grandstanding manipulation & exploitation.
The only comedy I’ve ever seen that casually engages with abortion as a normal, everyday subject instead of a life-altering crisis is 2014’s unconventional romcom Obvious Child. When we included Obvious Child on our Top Films of 2014 list, we praised it for “approaching a sensitive subject from a sincere & deeply empathetic place” and declared that it “deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great romantic comedies. Or at least one of the best in recent memory.” In the film Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant after a one night stand with a nice Midwestern boy who she knows essentially nothing about. Unlike all of the other abortion titles cited here, this film’s central crisis isn’t whether or not to have the abortion (a decision that’s made quickly & decisively), but how to negotiate its impact on the would-be mother’s social & familial circles, a question that’s complicated when she finds herself falling in love with the would-be father. Obvious Child may be the only abortion comedy to date where its central procedure is presented as not a big deal, just another aspect of a complicated, nuanced life, which is in itself a sort of political statement (though not one as loud or as pointed as Citizen Ruth‘s). The film borrows a little bit of Citizen Ruth‘s blunt honesty & dark humor, but in its protagonist’s particular story arc a terminated pregnancy is presented as a solution to a problem instead of the source of one. It’s a refreshing change from the bleak norm of cinematic moralizing & browbeating typical to the abortion comedy, one both Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child manage to criticize in their own respective ways: either by examining the intent of that browbeating or by sidestepping it entirely.
The major differences between what Citizen Ruth & Obvious Child accomplish might boil down to a question of genre. Alexander Payne’s 1996 political provocation is a true blue dark comedy, committing itself to Todd Solondz levels of inhuman cruelty & utter despair. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is a genre-faithful romantic comedy that just happens to center on a topic that the play-it-safe romcom formula usually won’t touch with a ten foot pole. Laura Dern & Jenny Slate’s respective protagonists in these two works aren’t all that different from one another and the the movies’ sources for humor start from a similarly bleak place. However, the severity of their circumstances are drastically dissimilar. Both Dern’s Ruth & Slate’s Donna begin their respective journeys as depressed addicts. Ruth is a homeless woman addicted to huffing household chemicals & Donna is a much more typical heartbroken alcoholic type trying to deal with the fallout of a recent breakup. Donna has a support system of caring friends & family who coach her through her unwanted pregnancy while Ruth is hopelessly alone in the world & thus vulnerable to anyone looking to exploit her for political gain. The father of Donna’s fetus is a genuinely nice guy the audience roots for her to date while Ruth’s baby’s father is an abusive monster the film thankfully avoids much contact with, except when Ruth gloriously jeers him with the John Waters-esque insult, “Suck the shit out of my ass, you fucker!” from the window of a passing car. Even the reason for the two women’s delayed abortions is tonally telling: Ruth’s is delayed due to a national debate that supersedes her right to choose, while Donna is simply too early along in her pregnancy for the procedure.
I don’t mean to compare the two films’ disparate dramatic situations to claim that only one holds any significant weight and the other is a breeze. Donna has also suffered. She begins Obvious Child as a rejected lover unceremoniously dumped in a dive bar men’s room and suffers monetary dilemmas similar to (but not nearly as drastic as) the economic desperation that drives the plot of Citizen Ruth. I just mean to illustrate that Obvious Child stands as a tonal shift for the heavy-handed place abortion usually occupies in the modern comedy. Citizen Ruth represents an early moment of cinematic clarity where abortion is debated openly & honestly instead of being shamefully & superficially used as a plot device (or as shock value in throwaway gags, like in John Waters’s cult classic Polyester), as is typical for movies brave enough to approach it at all, including a lot of movies I greatly enjoy. Obvious Child latches onto that honesty & runs so much further with it, however, showing what it’s typically like for a woman (with a decent support network & a “livable” wage) to have an abortion & subsequently move on with her life. Donna & Ruth both start from a place of heartbreak & end on a note of open-ended success, but Donna’s journey is sadly funny in a much sweeter way, finding humor in details like sleeping with someone because they farted in your face or having to schedule an abortion on Valentine’s Day. The stakes are much lower than Citizen Ruth‘s life or death descent into poverty & addiction and, although it’s amazing that Payne was able to find humor in such a dark place, it’s much more encouraging that Obvious Child could move the conversation along while downplaying the abortion debate’s necessary emotional impact on a story.
The trajectory I’m detailing here is the same kind of effect as a Hollywood production passing homosexual romance off as no big deal instead of only portraying it as an inevitable tragedy where at least one of the characters involved dies & there’s no possible happy ending, as has been the Big Studio standard for decades. Citizen Ruth starts a frank & open conversation about abortion most comedies would typically exploit for dramatic or shock value beats. Obvious Child was yet another game changer that makes that need for a debate feel almost entirely insignificant in a modern context. It presents abortion as a normal, everyday thing people go through, opening the door for cinema to move on & let the debate die forever. Together, they help define the heights & boundaries of the abortion comedy as it stands today as well as the inevitable trajectory for a more honest, open-minded future (assuming that last bit’s not just wishful thinking on my part). We’re lucky to have them both.