At the beginning of the film “Obvious Child,” 27-year-old Donna (Jenny Slate) tells her best friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) that she looks like “a lez who just got back from Birthright.” She was clearly talking about me and my friends, although the look is not actually about sexual orientation or sexual identity, and some of us have complicated feelings about Birthright. But there’s something in this movie about Jewish femininity, Jewish women’s sexual bodies and, ultimately, sexual politics.
I spoke with several women who felt themselves and their loved ones reflected in this basically lovely—although very white—romantic comedy affectionately known as “The Abortion Movie.” Some small spoilers are below, but I promise that many pleasant surprises still await you if you haven’t seen it yet.
“As someone who is Jewish and has had an abortion, it was a powerful film for me beyond the incredible humor. I was just so moved by the way Jenny Slate played a real person who relates to her Judaism, sort of, but also doesn’t allow her faith to impede her decision-making. Her choice was one that she felt free to make—I imagine some of that came from her Judaism/Jewish background. The way I looked at her, particularly her relationship with her mother, was informed by my own relationship with my Jewish mother. While we were so scared our mothers would be disappointed or angry in our choices, I think we both knew deep down that they had instilled in us the value of trusting ourselves and valuing our own independence.”
I also went to see the movie with my parents. In the car ride home, it was my dad who pointed out that making Donna a Jewish character also made it relevant that Max (Jake Lacy) was Christian. “He’s so Christian, it’s like he knows Santa personally,” Donna protests after she first meets him.
Becca, 24, wants to be friends with Donna. (And no, following Jenny Slate on Twitter doesn’t count.) She says:
“I felt like, in a really great way and to its credit, the movie doesn’t deal at all with the question of, ‘Oh, no, should Donna date Max if he’s not Jewish?’ It’s somewhat similar to the way Donna doesn’t feel obliged in any way to consult Max about her decision to end the pregnancy. It’s her pregnancy, it’s her life, and she is independent. Whether or not she ends up with Max at the end is totally incidental, even though he’s cute and sweet. He really grew on me—at first I was like, who is this vanilla businessman bro, but he totally won me over. The movie is intentionally and consciously, I think, not about settling down for life and choosing a potential life partner and whether that person should be Jewish or not. It’s far more about the messiness of life and not having your life together.”
Having Donna and Max represent such different religious perspectives gets to the heart of the Christian family values anti-choice policies sweeping the country, without actually lifting a political finger.
Maryse, 26, found this aspect quite compelling. She says:
“The movie sets up Max to be a really square, potentially conservative foil to Donna’s other friends. I almost feel badly for judging him so much. His haircut, his clothes, the fact that he was in business school all seemed really opposite to Donna’s grungy, hipster, liberal friends. When he walks out of her comedy show toward the end of the movie, I wasn’t sure if it was because he was upset that she was having an abortion or what. I thought he’d be so conservative.”
In the end, perhaps the movie helps create space that’s more complicated, or perhaps hopeful, for Christians and Jews alike.
Stephanie, 28, got nervous at the beginning of the film. She says:
“I was wary, though laughed hard, when Donna says about Max, ‘He’s like a Christmas tree, and I’m the menorah at the top that burns the whole thing down.’ For me, this joke conjured the stereotype of Jews as flaming baby killing, sexually free liberals and Christians as the opposite. I think the ‘hippie Jew and conservative Christian’ juxtaposition is silly and tired because it overlooks the fact that many Christians are pro-choice, pro-sex and pro-birth control, and that Jews are not de-facto liberal. But Max proved to be much deeper than this particular Jew expected, and so I think ultimately the movie challenged the stereotypical Jewish versus Christian positioning with regard to abortion.”
The writer and director Gillian Robespierre and her shining star Jenny Slate are both Jewish themselves. Jenny Slate is actually from Massachusetts! She grew up in Milton and went to Columbia College, just like me, and we were on campus together for the 2003-04 school year. (Here’s a recent JewishBoston.com interview with her that features more insights into the film.)
But back to the movie for one more minute. The title track is also from a Jew—Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” repeats the question, “Why deny the obvious child?” In a surprisingly apolitical film about a highly politicized issue, here’s a subtle message that I personally find subversive and appealing: Why deny Donna her abortion? It’s so obviously what she wants.
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