Is Hollywood Pro-Life?

It’s official: American pop-culture is not going to hell in a hand basket. So declares no less of an expert on societal damnation than former Senator Rick Santorum. “I can sympathize with parents who are increasingly tempted to gather their children and retreat to the catacombs,” Santorum writes this month in his Philadelphia Inquirer column. “But don’t head down there yet.” Not long ago, the right-wing culture warrior proudly occupied that very subterranean real estate, offering broadsides against Hollywood and home-schooling his own kids, lest they be exposed to contemporary society’s toxins. What changed? Apparently, Santorum’s been won over by a spate of movies in which women forgo abortions. “The recognition of the life in the womb is going mainstream,” he declares.

Santorum is not alone. The politics of films like Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up have become new turnbuckles in the wrestling ring of the culture wars. Befitting the binary nature of the abortion debate, they also serve as something of a civic Rorschach test: For every conservative celebrating Juno as what Pro Life Pulse blogger Jill Stanek calls “the movie pro-aborts will hate,” there’s a pro-choicer declaring that the real power of the movie lies in their autonomous lead characters’ ability to make their own decisions. “The flick is pro-choice in the most literal sense of the term,” The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein wrote of Knocked Up. “She has a choice; nothing is forced on her.” But critics on both sides of the debate imply something new and dramatic is afoot, even if no one quite agrees on what it means.

In Santorum’s telling, it’s
generational. The films, he says, are “chronicles from the children of our divorce- and abortion-oriented culture. There is lived experience, emotional understanding, hard-earned authenticity at the heart of these scripts. And pain.”

Unless Rick Santorum was paying closer attention to pop-culture than I was during the years when he was Capitol Hill’s fiercest crusader against moral depravity, there’s something wrong with this picture. Juno’s choices, or non-choices, are nothing new on either the big screen or the little one. Just as Hollywood tends to give its characters unusually large New York apartments or unusually clean suburban kitchens, it manages to give them unusually fertile wombs. Whatever the case may be in the culture at large, abortion has long been a rarity in celluloid life, where all kinds of improbable moms bear all kinds of inconvenient children in order to produce all kinds of plot lines.

Take an example from the mid-1990s, when Clinton was in the White House, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named to the Supreme Court, and a certain senator was busily inveighing against Hollywood. That would also be the time when one Andrea Zuckerman, known to millions of Wednesday-night television viewers as the strident, liberal, nerdy high-school newspaper editor from Beverley Hills, 90210 got herself knocked up—and, despite the culture of death then ruling the airwaves, decided not to, as Joanna Kerns’ character in Knocked Up says, “get it taken care of.”

In fact, the improbable and inconvenient pregnancy is a staple of popular culture in the post-Roe v. Wade era. Kerns, who as Katherine Heigl’s mother in Knocked Up played a cheerleader for appropriately-timed childbearing, oughta know: She first became famous playing family matriarch Maggie Seaver in Growing Pains. Her character, who had gone back to work as a reporter once her kids were adolescents, suddenly got pregnant late in the series. Ditto Family Ties’ Elyse Keaton, Roseanne’s Roseanne, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Vivian Banks. In fact, film and TV feature a lot more unlikely pregnancies—would a typical mainstream single Manhattan career gal like Friends’ Rachel Green really have carried that baby to term?—than terminated ones. There’s a reason that the abortions in Maude or Fast Times at Ridgemont High stand out: They were so unusual.

Of course, it’s no
easier to draw political conclusions about this longer history than it is to project politics onto 2007’s spate of pregnancy flicks. Particularly in the case of TV shows, it may well have been that the producers cower in fear of a backlash against any non-traumatic depiction of abortion. It’s far more likely, though, that producers engage in a simpler calculation: Drama. Most surprise television babies show up as a kind of childbearing analogue to the Cousin Oliver Syndrome—the shows have gotten boring now that the other kids are looking at college; it’s time for some new drama.

Just as we suspend disbelief about an action hero’s physical abilities in order to script an awesome chase sequence, so too do we suspend disbelief about the likely family-planning decisions of Katherine Heigl’s twentysomething E! reporter (or Meredith Baxter Birney as a fortysomething ex-hippie attorney) in the name of on-screen excitement. No pregnancy, no zany Lamaze episode, no dramatic race-to-the-hospital sequence, no cute little kid to push the narrative along for a few more lucrative episodes. I guess that’s an embrace of life, after a fashion—just not Santorum’s fashion.

So, unfortunately for the culture warriors of the right, on-screen childbirth says little about our national progression towards hell in a hand basket. But it does indicate that we can look forward to excellent onboard entertainment.

Michael Currie Schaffer is working on a book about the pet industry.

By Michael Currie Schaffer