When Pop Culture is Good, It’s Really, Really Good

There are many good things about having a baby. But there are enough places on the internet to tell you what they are that I will not do so here. Instead, allow me to address a very serious drawback to raising up a child: the fact that the responsibility of raising up said child severely (SEVERELY) cuts into one’s television and film time. For a person like me, who loves (LOVES) both TV (we’re living in a golden age) and movies, the extent to which my beloved viewing time was limited cut me deeply. I’m only just now catching up on past seasons (and sort of not even really: there are about 20 unwatched Walking Deads on my DVR right now) and films released since August 2013.

So I’m a good year plus late in coming at you with my views on Obvious Child, the abortion rom-com directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, which was released way back when in 2014. But having watched this film in the same week that I watched the travesty known as the first GOP Debate of the (2015-)2016 campaign season, my thinking about this film isn’t progressively fading. I just keep thinking about it.

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I’m sure the beasts of the GOP potential presidential pool would be/are unmoved by this film, or are moved to indignation and outrage at an adult woman making choices of her own volition in a safe and responsible manner, given their obvious self-satisfaction at their collective efforts to limit women’s reproductive freedoms. Admittedly, I’m part of the choir to which this film is preaching (except that it’s not preachy AT ALL), but it struck me as such a smart, thoughtful, and human way of discussing the importance of reproductive freedom. I assume, again, a year plus later, I don’t need a spoiler alert here, but just in case: I’m about to go into some plot detail.

Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, begotten during what appears as though it will be a one-night-stand, Donna (played by Slate) visits a clinic (Planned Parenthood?), has her pregnancy confirmed and schedules an abortion in this clean, safe, legitimately medical location. She’s not happy about the pregnancy – or the abortion – but she is certain that this is the correct decision for her, at this time. That is never in doubt.

In the weeks between the scheduling of the abortion and having the procedure, she considers the implications of what she’s decided. She is surrounded by supportive friends, one of whom has had an abortion. Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) is strong and independent, and serves as our for-real feminist voice when she assures Donna she has no obligation to share news of the pregnancy with Max (Jake Lacey), the one night stander. It’s her life, and her body, and her responsibility to pay for and live with the consequences of her decision (and, again, the decision is very, very clear). She also is surrounded by supportive family, including a mother who reveals to Donna her own abortion, performed on a kitchen table in an apartment in New Jersey during the 1960s, when abortion was illegal. There is kindness and understanding all around. And an effort to bring humor to an unfortunate situation, in a kind of ‘we laugh to keep from crying’ spirit.

There is romance, too, with some of it coming during the one night stand – but much of it coming after Donna and Max have slept together. Unexpectedly, they cultivate a kind of relationship, during which Donna knows she’s pregnant and planning to have the abortion, while Max is unaware. But when Max does learn of the pregnancy and the intended abortion – during Donna’s stand-up routine (she’s a comedienne, FYI), no less – he ultimately finds her at her home on the morning of the scheduled procedure and accompanies her to the clinic, where he offers his unequivocal support. After the abortion, they spend the afternoon (longer?) together, and he sees to her comfort. There is some melancholy, but there is also the sense of possibility, the idea that life will go on.

In interviews, Robespierre has discussed her desire to create a realistic film, one that women of her generation could look to and see something of themselves. Thinking of reality v. fantasy, the obvious comparison is between this film and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit about an unplanned pregnancy, in which the word “abortion” is never spoken (“shmashmortion,” yes; “taking care of it,” yes; “abortion,” no). In many ways, Knocked Up is a very funny film, but there is an awful lot of gender stereotyping going on there (bossy, driven woman, man-child stoner, enforcer mom, fun dad, etc., etc., etc.). And it’s a stretch for us to *really* believe Alison (Katherine Heigl) would actively pursue a relationship with a very ill-advised hook-up, Ben (Seth Rogan), upon discovering her pregnancy. It would be one thing if she’d decided to keep the baby and go for it as a single mother. The push for romance here is contrived – as often happens in contemporary romantic comedies. And the premise that both Alison and Ben need to (and do!) change to make the relationship happen pushes my capacity for suspended disbelief. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is far more realistic. Twenty-something Donna, coming of age in the twenty-first century is certainly savvy enough to a) realize her own level of immaturity and ill-preparedness for raising a child; and b) have a sense of the success rate of partnerships based upon an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is the best decision for her, and she is capable of making and facing it.

Beyond thinking about Obvious Child’s relationship to other films and to the present-day extreme politics of Anti-Choicers, I was struck, too, in thinking about the film in the context of Katha Pollitt’s recent New York Times op-ed “How to Really Defend Planned Parenthood” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/opinion/how-to-really-defend-planned-parenthood.html?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0). In rejecting the claims asserted by their Anti-Choice opponents, Pollitt argues, Pro-Choice supporters should be adamant about the importance of reproductive freedom, regardless of the root of the unplanned pregnancy. Rather than defending women getting abortions based on the parameters of the Anti-Choicers’ shaping of the debate, Pro-Choice activists should seize on the realities of women’s lives and the right to choice they ought to possess as human beings, full stop. She writes,

“We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.

…[T]oo many pro-choice people are way too quiet. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause. I suspect most of those women had someone who helped them, too — a husband or boyfriend, a friend, a parent. Where are those people? The couple who decided two kids were enough, the grad student who didn’t want to be tied for life to an ex-boyfriend, the woman barely getting by on a fast-food job? Why don’t we hear more from them?”

Part of the power of Obvious Child is that it does what Pollitt is asking in its very vocal and very unapologetic discussion of abortion, and a woman’s right to have one and move on. And it is a smart film to make direct reference to abortion’s history – when Donna’s mother discusses her own illegal abortion, to which her mother had driven her “in the family station wagon” and after which she had danced at a cousin’s Sweet Sixteen party, it is a moving moment for both mother and daughter. Even after that abortion, her life had turned out pretty great. She didn’t celebrate the memory, but she didn’t wallow in regret. In our current political climate, that’s radical. And her view is the view shared across the characters of this film. Abortions, we know, are not new; they have a long, long history. Making them harder to come by, making them illegal and unsafe, won’t make them go away. And keeping them safe and legal doesn’t make them easy, just humane.

Here and elsewhere (the classroom, the bar, my house, etc., etc., etc. ), I’ve argued against the idea of popular culture as throwaway culture. An advertisement is not just an advertisement. A song is not just a song. And a movie is never just a movie. All of these cultural forms (and countless others) are shaped by and/or in response to political, social, and economic factors of their time and place. And of course, recognizing that, and then seeing everything coming at you with that understanding can be (is) exhausting. But when you see a source, and for me, Obvious Child is that kind of source, that provides a perfect example of the power of popular culture to communicate messages that are in dire need of being communicated and to make visible experiences that are often relegated to private life, it’s also pretty incredible.

 

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Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

In spring of 1951, during the semester at whose end she would graduate from George Washington University, Jacqueline Bouvier competed in the Prix de Paris contest put on by Vogue magazine. This competition was no joke. Contestants submitted a personal profile, four papers on various fashion-related questions, an outline for a full issue of Vogue, and an essay on three people the applicant wished she had known. The winner’s prize: a yearlong trainee position at the magazine – six months in the Paris office, followed by six months in the New York headquarters. Bouvier, fresh from a junior year in France, which had inspired, for all intents and purpose, a growing interest in fashion, culture, and writing, submitted the winning application. Out of nearly 1300 applications, hers was the best.

Historians love the Prix de Paris application materials. As Jacqueline Bouvier became Jacqueline Kennedy (and then Onassis), she was not a figure known for her transparency. But in these documents, she is forthright and open. She recalls, as a child, pretending to sleep when in reality she was reading the Chekov and Shaw she found upon the shelves in the room appointed for napping. She suggests an advertising campaign to link perfume with wine, given that “both are liquids that act upon the closely related sense of taste and smell to produce an intoxicating effect.” She wishes she’d known, among others, Oscar Wilde, revealing an admiration for the power of his wit: “with the flash of an epigram,” she wrote, he could “bring about what serious reformers had for years been trying to accomplish.” She reveals, in this personal writing, something of the “real” Jackie.

prixdeparispictureJacqueline Bouvier’s picture as winner of the Prix de Paris competition.

When I read Bouvier’s materials, they communicate the time and thought and care put into the application. They reveal a keen but also pragmatic mind, showing an understanding of the need to blend one’s esteem for the arts with the practicalities of publication. I imagine there are those who would dismiss Vogue as not a site of serious publishing – but those people are wrong, especially about Vogue in the 1950s. There was the fashion, but the publication was also a bastion of high culture, publishing essays by and about great artists of varying fields. When I imagine Bouvier taking this opportunity at Vogue, I wonder what the experience might’ve meant to her.

But I can only imagine Bouvier in Paris at the Vogue offices. She turned down the prize, later noting “I guess I was too scared to go to Paris again. I felt then that if I went back, I’d live there forever. I loved Paris so much. That’s such a formative year when you get out of college.” The inside scoop – or at least the theory that is most often bandied about – is that her mother and stepfather dissuaded her from accepting the Vogue position, afraid, indeed, that Jacqueline would become an expatriate and live forever outside the United States. And so in Washington, D.C. she remained, becoming the Inquiring Camera Girl at the Washington Times-Herald in 1952 and marrying Senator John Kennedy in 1953. And so on.

I’ve now spent a decent amount of time thinking about a) American women at mid-century and b) Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And I now here declare that the Prix de Paris turn of events make me mad. Admittedly, it’s impossible to test the veracity of the “we remember Jackie when” sentiments that came in the years after the American public “knew” Jackie, but across the board, the reminiscences of friends, of classmates, of teachers identified in Bouvier intelligence, wit, curiosity, and, possibly most importantly, potential. I want her parents to get out of her way. I want her to take a chance, rebel, and GO. Who knows what she might have done? All I can think: what a missed opportunity. These feelings are not for my professional consideration of the past, but they are there, and I’m grappling with them.

To that end, I communicated my indignation to the other historian of the household. From him, I get a decent amount of the devil’s advocate, and I’m pushed (Intentionally? For fun?) to defend my points of view. When it comes to regretting historical figures’ missed opportunities, I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton in this way, too, and I brought this up. Years ago, I read the early chapters of William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. In those early chapters about Hillary Rodham, the underlying sentiment is “Holy shit. This woman.” She was a force, and people saw it. But then there was the relationship with Clinton and her efforts to support him and what this meant for her own ambitions. When they moved to Arkansas for his political ambitions, I had to stop reading. In thinking about Bouvier and Rodham (eventually Kennedy and Clinton) my devil’s advocate suggests I’m fighting an uphill battle in suggesting they deserve sympathy or indignation at opportunities missed and paths not taken. The fame, the wealth, the privilege as a whole – and for HRC, obviously, the political power outside her time as FLOTUS. In so many ways, and in comparison to so many women (in the US and around the globe), they win. And I know that. (Sidenote: there are so many opportunities to talk about the personal sacrifices these women made inside their marriages – but that’s a topic for another time. I just want people to know that I know that’s there.)

But then I also think about how, even in their privileged positions, they faced and in many ways capitulated to the social and cultural expectations of their times and places. Back specifically to Bouvier here – she had the education and the connections and the status (the money was more complicated) enough that she might have achieved cultural and intellectual and professional success outside the confines of her link to any man. But the expectation of the link to a man was THE expectation – even for someone of her elite standing (and maybe especially for someone of her standing?). In many ways, I think her giving in to her parents’ wishes, staying stateside, finding a man, and marrying well speaks volumes about the powers of convention on women during the 1950s – and the limits of alternative possible roles they imagined for themselves. Do I wish that she would have bucked the trend, accepted the prize without parental approval, and found out what she could do on her own? YES (as previously noted). But I am (big time) of the post-Port Huron generation, where fulfillment of personal desire is of the utmost importance. In 1951, that was not the norm, and particularly not for a person of Jackie Bouvier’s station.

I know as I wonder what sort of voice and what sort of influence Bouvier would’ve developed I’m asking for people to remind me of the influence she had as First Lady. And then as National Widow. And as cultural icon. And as publisher. Etc. Etc. Etc. And again, to remind me of the power and the privilege of her many roles. Am I privileging too much the idea that the development of voice and influence on one’s own and by one’s own merit is more natural or more satisfying? Is it wrong to speculate that she may have enjoyed her position more were it to come from her own efforts? And even if she’d not become “A Voice,” would it have been more satisfying to have followed personal predilection? Am I projecting too much of here and now onto the past? I don’t know. Maybe? Could be.

In the course of working through this (thank you for your patience), I maybe end up here: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is a famous case, a person who was and is known. So privilege is definitely going to be there. For me, when I think in terms of the famous and the known (a limited population), I think, too, about all those many more unnamed and unknown people of the past. For women’s historians, there are many, many unknown figures. Perhaps it is best for me to frame my indignation at the missed opportunities of one who ultimately had so many opportunities in this way: the power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of her time limited even Jacqueline Bouvier, someone who had so much. If that’s true, than what of those without? The power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of their time, not to mention the factors of their race, their religion, their class, their region, influenced so many unknown women – and who knows what they might have been and done?