Unpregnant Photo Credit: HBO

Editorial: Body Autonomy and Choice in Film

By Morgan Roberts

Quarantine and pandemic have made it easier to consume smaller films, perhaps because of streaming services snatching them up. Some of those films have focused on seemingly taboo topics. There are movies every year that touch on unwanted pregnancies like “Juno” (2007) or unwanted pregnancies leading to termination like “Obvious Child” (2014) or even female sexual pleasure like “The To Do List” (2013). But what has been unique about films in 2020 is that we are seeing multiple movies touching on each subject rather than a single body autonomy film for the year.

“Obvious Child” | Photo Credit: A24

Recently, HBO Max released Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s “Unpregnant” (2020). After the trailer, many people noted that they had already seen that film in the form of Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020) earlier in the year. However, I was struck by the way the reaction was more of a “I’ve already seen this” rather than, “Oh, good, another film about the realities young women face.” (Side note: I know that it’s not just women who can get pregnant, but both films tackle pregnancy and termination in a heteronormative/cisgender fashion, so that’s the lens we are going to use.)

It is important to show as much truth and the variety in the spectrum of truth to normalize abortion and choice. 

When comparing these films, the only similar thread is that they show two women seeking to terminate their unwanted pregnancies, and they have to travel to get the procedure. The depths that both films cover are completely different and necessary to explore. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is terminating her pregnancy for a lot of reasons. She’s not only too young to have a baby but also experiencing inter-partner violence. Autumn also trusts her local clinic, which turns out to be a crisis pregnancy center. It provides skewed and unscientific information about pregnancy to pressure women to not choose pregnancy termination. (John Oliver did a segment about it that you can see here.) 

Meanwhile, in “Unpregnant,” Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) comes from a religious family and has an older sister who had an unwanted pregnancy. Veronica is very sure about what she wants and how she wants to handle things. She has to travel across several state lines, like many living in the Midwest and South in America have to do, and frequently vocalizes her frustration in state legislation that impedes a woman’s ability to choose what she does with her body.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” | Photo Credit: Focus Features

Autumn represents young women who are sadly pressured and influenced and do not know any better. They get taken advantage of before finally being educated on their options. Veronica is very studious, did a whole lot of research about her options, and made a calculated decision. These two characters represent just some of the reasons women choose to terminate their pregnancies. It is important to show as much truth and the variety in the spectrum of truth to normalize abortion and choice. 

Body autonomy is not solely about how women choose to handle their pregnancies. It can also be about pleasure and sexual experiences. We saw this in Karen Maine’s “Yes, God, Yes” (2020) with teenage Alice (Natalia Dyer) learning more about her body and pleasure. Seeing a young woman in a religious setting unlearn the shame of her body and wants and desires is truly powerful. And it is not uncommon. Maine wrote the film with some personal truth. 

In “Mean Girls” (2004), there is a very famous line from health class where the teacher says, “Don’t have sex. Because you will get pregnant. And die.” Sure, it is funny, but at the same time, many people are taught sex education in that manner. I went to a public high school, and we still had abstinence-only education, which we know is ineffective. So, seeing a film like “Yes, God, Yes” not only pokes fun at the absurdity many Americans experience in their sex education as teenagers but also cathartic to strip away some of that shame you were taught to carry. 

“Yes, God, Yes” | Photo Credit: Vertical Entertainment

And not to point out the obvious, but all of these films were written and directed by women. It’s almost like we should listen to women about their bodies. Wild. If it had been any other year, only one of these films would have been noticed and put on a pedestal to talk about choice or pleasure. Instead, the one silver lining of 2020 is that these varied and important stories are all being told and all are being enjoyed. So, the next time you feel inclined to say, “I’ve seen this,” maybe get excited to support another person telling an important story.

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