Once upon a time, sex was taboo. It certainly happened, but you didn’t talk about it. The pill didn’t exist; condoms were hard to get — actually illegal even for married couples until the 1960s — so there was always the fear of pregnancy. If that happened, you might get married. Or you might get an illegal abortion, and, if you were lucky, survive it.
Today, we live in a very different country. We talk about sex constantly. Birth control has revolutionized sexual attitudes. A 2007 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that 47.8 percent of high school students have had sex. “The Brady Bunch” made headlines for showing a married couple in the same bed, but now it’s not uncommon to show sex on broadcast television. Magazines and movies have followed a similar trend.
But what is still missing is a constructive and realistic engagement in Hollywood with two closely linked sexual issues: teen pregnancy and abortion.
In 2007, then 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears shocked the world when she announced that she was pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. In her post-baby interview with OK! Magazine, she showed off her newborn, shared memories of a “perfect” delivery, disclosed her dream to be a Southern soccer mom and said “Being a mom is the best feeling in the world!”
Beautiful, but dangerous words, Jamie Lynn. Words that glorify exactly what we, as a country, should be working against — more teen pregnancies. America has the highest teen-pregnancy rate of any industrialized country. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly one-third of American girls get pregnant before 20. Thus, there are a lot of young moms, with fewer resources than Jamie Lynn, struggling to raise kids though still children themselves.
Hollywood’s big and little screens add to this glorification. “Juno,” the “Grey’s Anatomy” episode from a couple of weeks ago, MTV’s “Sixteen and Pregnant” and many others depict heartwarming stories of teens getting knocked up and struggling to figure out what motherhood means. Hollywood loves telling these stories — so full of drama, awkward sex and emotions. Clearly, sex (and pregnancy) sells.
But Hollywood usually tells these teen-pregnancy stories by focusing on Michael Cera’s adorable smile and Ellen Page’s banter and skipping or sugarcoating the less fun bits of being a pregnant teen or a young mom.
Few movies depict that many pregnant teens cannot afford to support a child, will be mocked by their classmates, won’t have a partner’s help and will have to forsake many of their dreams.
And though not all mothers decide to keep their babies — “Juno” tells a charming story of adoption — it is striking that Hollywood almost never talks about abortion.
Like sex, abortion is also a reality in this country. In 2006, 846,181 legal abortions were reported to the CDC. Two percent of women aged 15 to 44 had an abortion in 2008.
But this reality is seldom portrayed in film. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is one of the few movies that depicts teens getting abortions in a straightforward, legal way. That was 28 years ago, in the heyday of Roe v. Wade.
Now, on the big screen, women usually conveniently miscarry or decide to keep the baby.
On “Sex and the City,” Samantha and Carrie discuss their abortions, but the conversations only last one episode. Miranda can’t go though with her abortion when she gets pregnant. Katherine Heigl in “Knocked Up” hardly considers the option. Juno barely even makes it inside the doors of the clinic before turning around. In “Private Practice,” 15-year-old Maya makes it to the operating table, but she gets cold feet too. A 16-year-old character on “Party of Five” suitably miscarries after deciding to go to the clinic.
Evidently abortion, especially in relation to teens, is not box-office material.
Maybe abortion is too polarizing an issue to approach in “Grey’s.” Networks risk alienating large portions of potential audiences and sponsors. And in today’s political climate, it may be too dangerous. Abortion clinics are bombed and doctors who perform them are murdered, as the Supreme Court whittles away at Roe v. Wade. And many see abortion as a private issue — a decision women struggle with alone, not something to be talked about by Patrick Dempsey.
Consequently, abortion is like sex 50 years ago: a great taboo. It happens, but no one talks about it.
With women’s reproductive freedoms are under attack, why shouldn’t Hollywood talk about it now? Hollywood grapples with other controversial issues — drugs, race and homosexuality. Why aren’t they willing to tackle abortion as well? And why not talk about teen pregnancy in a way that more clearly portrays the hardship of young motherhood and not just cravings for liverwurst?
If Hollywood continues to manipulate the reality of sexuality, glorifying teen moms and ignoring abortion, we will only hear more stories like the one from Gloucester, Mass. In 2008, 17 teenage girls got pregnant on purpose and formed a “pregnancy pact” — girls clearly unaware that motherhood is anything but glamorous. They made the news and a movie on Lifetime.
The girl who walks in to Planned Parenthood and makes a difficult decision almost never does.
Kathryn Olivarius is a junior in Branford College.