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Thursday, January 26, 2023

January 26, 2023: AbortionStudying: Dirty Dancing

[On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that case and a handful of other histories and stories of abortion in the U.S., leading up to a weekend post on the current laws and debates.]

On the two most common portrayals of abortion in films, and a rare and important third option.

Last May, with the Supreme Court’s dismantling of Roe in the Dobbs decision looming on the horizon, Megan Garber wrote thoughtfully for The Atlantic about a telling bit of dialogue in the film Knocked Up (2007) and the tendency of films and pop culture texts to “edit out abortion.” I couldn’t agree more, and could cite plenty of other 20th and 21st century films that have focused on themes of unplanned or uncertain pregnancy and potential parenthood yet have almost entirely (if not indeed entirely) left out or at least seriously downplayed the option of abortion for their protagonists. Given just how fraught and divisive that issue has been over this last half-century, it’s understandable that artists and cultural works which are not specifically focused on it have tried to find ways not to get pulled into and sidetracked by those debates. But as Garber argues for Knocked Up, this consistent choice could just as easily be said to do the opposite: to create an elephant in the room that lingers more than if the characters talked out the possibility as most anyone in these situations would.

If that’s been one main thread of cinematic portrayals (or rather non-portrayals) of abortion in the decades since Roe, the other end of the spectrum is illustrated by a film like Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth (1996). Payne’s satirical black comedy is seemingly all about abortion, but I’d say that it’s much more overtly about the abortion debate—the pregnant protagonist Ruth Stoops (the always-excellent Laura Dern) becomes in the course of the film much more of a political pawn for all sides of that debate than a woman struggling to make her own choices. When it comes to the smaller number (compared to the non-portrayal type above) of films that do portray abortion as a significant potential choice, I’d argue that most fall into this category—films more about abortion as a debate and issue than about the women and human beings dealing with these experiences and challenges. Of course I’d rather films and cultural works of all kinds grapple overtly in these ways than minimize or ignore, but at the very least this is just one lens through which to depict abortion (or pregnancy, or anything), and not necessarily the most effective when it comes to telling human stories.

That’s where Dirty Dancing (1987) comes in. I can’t believe I haven’t had occasion before now to write in this space about that 80s classic—no, that’s Payne-level satire, I have thought about Dirty Dancing less than just about any other topic I’ve ever covered on the blog. Just not really in my wheelhouse as either a film buff or an AmericanStudier, I suppose. But one thing Dirty Dancing does really well, besides coin enduring catchphrases, is portray the human experience of abortion and all its related contexts and challenges. It does so through a plotline around a secondary character, the dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), who finds herself pregnant by caddish waiter Robbie (Max Cantor) who has no interest in being there for her; the entire storyline around Penny’s pregnancy, choice to abort, and its aftermaths can be seen, as author Yannis Tzioumakis puts it, as a “gold standard,” a “compassionate depiction of abortion in which the woman seeking an abortion was not demonized, with the primary concerns being her health and preserving her capacity to bear children at a future time rather than the ethical dilemma that might or might not inform her decision, a portrayal that is not necessarily available in current films.” Leave it to a Patrick Swayze romantic drama to do a better job portraying this complex human issue and experience than much of the rest of pop culture put together.

Last AbortionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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