What Dakota Fanning Has to Teach Us About Abortion
Last week, the social media manager for the YouTube channel, WIGS, emailed Abort73 in advance of a short feature they were about to release on abortion. Though I was unfamiliar with WIGS at the time, they are billed as the number one scripted drama channel on YouTube, using A-list talent to create original series and short films. They have close to 90,000 subscribers and 20 million views. Since that's almost 100 times the number of views Abort73's YouTube channel has received, it's a bit ironic that they're asking us for marketing help. Shouldn't it be the other way around?
Their eight-minute film short on abortion, Celia, premiered on Friday and stars Dakota Fanning and Allison Janney. The entire piece takes place in the exam room of an OB-GYN who is reluctant to perform an abortion for the daughter of a longtime friend. The film, according to the WIGS email, is very relevant to Abort73 and its readers and is sure to "get people fired up and start a lot of conversations." The starting conversations part is a worthy objective. Getting people fired up seems a bit counterintuitive, though I suppose that's what makes for the most publicity.
Whether the filmmakers are legitimately trying to foster a discussion about abortion or just wanting to spike their viewership by tackling a hot-button issue, I can't say for certain. Nor can I say what their intended message even is. The film employs some standard, "pro-choice" talking points but otherwise plays things close to the vest. The conclusion is an open-ended one, demonstrating an ambivalence towards abortion that is actually quite common in Hollywood.
Though actresses like Gwenneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson frequently stump for Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion business in the country, they almost never mention abortion. Instead they infer that Planned Parenthood is a leader in cancer prevention and sometimes make a passing reference to Roe vs. Wade. Likewise, though Hollywood has long had a reputation for being socially liberal, that has not translated into a willingness to publicly embrace one of its main pillars – abortion on demand. Articles on this subject include titles like "Why is Hollywood still terrified of abortion?" and "On Abortion, Hollywood is No-Choice."
"Abortion in cinema has become as popular as discussing abortion at a family reunion," Katherine Butler writes. "No one wants to touch the subject for fear of reprisal." Based on the articles I've read, the consensus seems to be that Hollywood's aversion to abortion comes down to two things. One, studios can't afford to offend people (or sponsors) on either side of the abortion divide. Two, allowing an unplanned pregnancy to continue onscreen opens the door to far more narrative options than does ending it. "An abortion is an action," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "A baby is a whole story line." The film, Juno, wouldn't have had much going for it, she speculates, if the lead character had followed through with the abortion, and Knocked Up "would have (only) been 15 minutes long."
Returning to the film at hand, it's been 11 years since I saw Dakota Fanning's first movie, I am Sam–which I enjoyed tremendously. Though abortion is not part of its plot-line (perhaps for the reasons stated above), it struck me as a remarkably "pro-life" film. Fanning stars as Lucy, a young girl born to a mentally disabled father and a vagrant mother who abandons her at the hospital. Lucy is precisely the kind of girl abortion advocates tell us should not be born. And yet she is depicted as a beautiful, loving and joyful child, despite her father's mental and financial instability. In other words, the circumstances of our birth do not define who we become.
The last time I saw Allison Janney on screen was as Ellen Page's mother in the aforementioned Juno. Ironically, both actresses already held a place in my cinematic, "pro-life" memory. This time around, Fanning stars as the soon-to-be 18-year-old Hannah, who is dead set on having an abortion. Janney plays family friend, Celia Brooks, who is an abortion-performing OB-GYN. When she learns that Hannah hasn't told her mother, she is reluctant to proceed, noting that she is legally obligated to obtain parental consent. Hannah counters that Dr. Brown didn't always require parental consent for her friends' abortions, to which Dr Brooks responds, "I don't always count my patient's parents as my lifelong friends, either." It is the pre-existing, personal relationship Celia has with Hannah's family that creates the central tension in the film. The implication is that performing a secret abortion for a stranger's daughter is one thing. Performing a secret abortion for the daughter of a close friend is quite another.
On the plus side, there are a number of things I appreciate about this film, but I must first point out that its immediate context is extremely misleading. According to the National Abortion Federation, only 2% of U.S. abortions are performed in a doctor's office, which is what we see depicted in Celia. Five percent are performed in hospitals and a whopping 93% are performed in free-standing abortion clinics. At these clinics, the patient rarely has any interaction with the abortionist prior to the abortion, and there is no personal history. The interaction between Hannah and Dr. Brooks makes for good drama, but it bears almost no resemblance to the vast majority of abortions in America. I realize it may have been a necessary construct for creating the film's central dialogue and tension, but we must not make the mistake of thinking that this is a normal abortion consultation. Most abortionists are not in the business of talking their patients out of an abortion.
In some ways, the dilemma facing Celia Brooks is the same one facing Hollywood. Dr. Brooks says she believes in abortion, but does she really? Apparently, it's easy for her to abort someone else's grandchild, but not so easy to abort her friend's grandchild–who may also represent her grandchild, since Dr. Brooks clearly sees her own daughter in the person of Hannah. By the same token, it's easy for filmmakers to affirm an abstract support for abortion, but much harder to actually saddle one of their beloved characters with having one. It's the difference between saying, "Yes, movies should present a more positive view of abortion," and, "My movie should present a more positive view of abortion."According to Dana Stevens, "a fictional heroine has two choices, if she wants to maintain the audience's goodwill: carry the baby to term or have a convenient miscarriage." There's not a lot of sympathy for aborting mothers.
Pro-choice pundits are quick to criticize Hollywood for presenting a warped picture of abortion, but it may be a far more accurate portrayal than anyone is willing to admit. With rare exceptions, women aren't proud of having had an abortion. More times than not, they keep it a closely guarded secret. They say nothing and tell no one. In the context of film, the audience is only privy to what a character reveals by word or action. Since we can't usually see into their thoughts, isn't it possible for a character's deepest secrets to be beyond even the audience's ability to know them? We live in a world where few women talk openly about having an abortion. Why should we wonder at it not being any different on film?
By implication, it is the shame associated with abortion that prevents Hannah from telling her parents or even the father of the baby that she is pregnant. She doesn't want "to make waves" or "start some big dialogue." She just wants things to go back to the way they were before. One of the great lies in the recent Democratic party platform on abortion is the assertion that abortion should be left up to "a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy." One of the things this film does well is to demonstrate just how absurd this claim is. Notice that Hannah hasn't told anyone in her family about her pregnancy. Her primary physician is unwilling to perform the abortion and her "back-up" doctor thinks it's a bad idea. There is no indication that any pastoral counseling has taken place, and yet Hannah demands an abortion. If Dr. Brooks won't do it, she'll find someone else who will. And in the real world, she easily could. The DNC platform may sound noble for claiming that abortion is a joint decision between "a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy," but in actual practice, this celebrated support network has no legal influence. If a mother wants an abortion, a mother can have an abortion, even if it's against the wishes of her family, doctor, and clergy.
After I watched Celia the first time, I had it in my head that Dakota Fanning's character was Celia. I guess I just assumed that she was the namesake. It was only during the second viewing that I realized my mistake. Allison Janney is Celia, and according to the WIGS naming convention, that makes her the central character–which is appropriate. Hannah may have the more immediate crisis, but it is the internal crisis faced by Dr. Brooks that should get us thinking. If abortion is a good thing for other people's underage children, why isn't it a good thing for our friends' underage children? And if an abortionist is unwilling to subject her friends to things she willingly inflicts on strangers, what does that say about her moral compass? Doesn't that imply a double standard?
Though I appreciate some of the nuances brought out it in this film, it's still hard for me to sympathize with either character. Hannah callously recycles Planned Parenthood rhetoric, and though Dr. Brook exhibits some compassion, I've read the abortion textbooks. I know what she does to unborn children behind closed doors. And that brings us to the third character in this drama–the one who will be most affected by the decision Hannah makes. When you leave unborn children out of the equation, it's easy to argue for the judiciousness of abortion. But when you take their existence into account, it becomes impossible to do so. In one respect, what is true in movies is also true in life. Abortion may be faster, cheaper, and easier, but a child makes for a far more compelling story.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.