Last Sunday, Channel Four screened the 1982 movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, one of the first and arguably best of the “teen” movie genre, which features a whole heap of actors who went to become big stars, like Sean Penn (as the stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh (the main female character, high schooler Stacy Hamilton) and Judge Reinhold (Stacy’s elder brother Brad). In the movie, Stacy gets pregnant to the slick-talking, premature ejaculating Mike Damone. With no fuss, and admirable determination, she asks him to split the $150 cost of an abortion at the local free clinic. “Doesn’t sound free to me,” Mike tells her. But he agrees to pay his share, and give her a ride to the clinic.
About now, in pretty much every contemporary movie or TV show that dares to touch the abortion issue (and that’s not many), Stacy will suffer a lot of angst and will eventually decide not to go through with the abortion. She will then either have a convenient miscarriage or a baby. (The 2010 Ben Stiller move, “Greenberg” is a notable exception, as is the lol episode of The Sarah Silverman Program “Bored of the Rings” in which Sarah finds out the community group she recently joined is a radical anti-abortion group planning to bomb on the clinic where her sister, Laura, volunteers. Here’s a clip of Sarah fondly remembering her past abortions there.)
But “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” doesn’t follow the modern script. When Mike Damone reneges on his side of the deal, Stacy gets Brad to drive her to the clinic, pretending she’s going to the bowling alley across the street. She goes through with the abortion with little fuss or drama. Meanwhile Brad, who has learned the truth, arrives to pick her up after the procedure. He asks her who the father was, but Stacy won’t tell. “All right, it’s your secret,” her brother says. And that’s that. He’s supportive and non-judgmental, as family and friends in the real world so often are, and she’s just fine, just like real-world women. Well, just fine other than being ticked off at that scumbag Mike Damone, who is immediately snubbed and scorned by all the other girls at school.
Oh how times have changed. No longer are women able to make no-fuss abortion decisions and have no-fuss abortions. As Caitlin Merriman noted on this site recently, quoting her almost-namesake Caitlin Moran, women making this one decision are subjected to “more pressure about preserving life than, say, Vladimir Putin, the World Bank, or the Catholic Church.” Lots of people have noticed this trend over the years, and have written about the fact that TV and movie makers live in a parallel universe on the topic of abortion (for a recent example, see Mary Elizabeth Williams’s “Why is Hollywood Still Terrified of Abortion”) but what struck me watching “Ridgemont” was how much more open we used to be able to be about abortion. (By ‘we’, I am limiting this to primarily the U.S., U.K. and NZ.) Sure, not 100% open, but incomparably more so than today. Even though abortion is a reality for so many women and girls – in the United States, around one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, while it’s about one in four in New Zealand – in movie and TV land, it’s about one in 20,000. It’s more than OK to show war, mass killing, torture, horror, murder, sexual assault, etc. etc. but it’s radical beyond measure to depict a woman having a problem-free abortion.
The anti-abortion movement has won a remarkable cultural victory in having virtually outlawed positive or even neutral depiction of abortion in the movies and on TV. Of course, that victory doesn’t seem to have had much impact on reducing the numbers of women actually able to access safe, legal abortion, so maybe it’s a case of “who cares”. Except that this kind of cultural disapproval does have an impact on real women’s lives in adding to the stigma, shame and secrecy surrounding abortion.
On a lighter note, I’ll close with some dialogue from another clip from that Sarah Silverman episode, in which Sarah decides she can’t go along with her new friends and give up on abortion:
Sarah: Um, I don’t think I can make the sacrifices you guys want me to make. I guess I’m just stubborn and stuck in my ways and I’m going to have to say goodbye.
Carol: Sarah I don’t understand this decision.
Sarah: Do you ever just get a sense about something Carol?
Carol: Of course.
Sarah: Well it’s kind of like that. When I got an abortion the last time, it just didn’t feel like the last time, you know?
Angry White Man: Your wickedness will be punished. The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice. That clinic will be wiped off the face of the map and some day, so will all the clinics.
Sarah: Aarrrgggh. How long are you gonna talk? I might like abortion but at least I’m no a-bore-son.
Sarah leaves. Later, talking to her dog Doug:
Sarah: Man, Doug, I’ve had the craziest day. Like, I met these people and at first they were really nice, ya know. But then they’re all, like, you have to be like this and you can’t do this or that and the arc of history is all like this and the free clinic is gonna be wiped off that…oh my god, Laura! And my abortions!!
Sarah races to save the clinic….