The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once taboo, abortion emerges from the cinematic shadows

Filmmakers are finally beginning to tell the truth about a fact of many women’s lives

Anamaria Vartolomei in a scene from “Happening.” (IFC Films/AP)
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“This story is related to silence.”

The French director Audrey Diwan is speaking from New York, where her movie “Happening” screened at the Museum of Modern Art the night before. Diwan’s adaptation of Annie Ernaux’s memoir, about her experience seeking to terminate a pregnancy as a university student in France in 1963, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, drawing praise for its intimate, rigorously observant eye. “Happening’s” protagonist, Anne Duchesne, played with quiet determination by Anamaria Vartolomei, barely utters a word as her character is driven to increasingly desperate extremes.

Arriving in American theaters at a moment when abortion rights are more tenuous than they’ve been for a generation, “Happening” might seem intended as a cautionary tale — a grim reminder of what’s in store should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, which it is expected to do at any moment.

But Diwan insists that was not her aim. “I don’t like movies to be political manifestoes,” she explains, adding that she wanted to make a film that reflected the cultural silence of an era when birth control was still largely unavailable and it was easier to consign women to dangerous illegal abortions than to talk about sex honestly.

“Men were raised not thinking they’re [part of] the problem, so they don’t talk about it,” Diwan notes. “Women were raised being socially ashamed of their sexual desire. If they get pregnant and they don’t like the idea [of becoming a parent], that’s their punishment.”

“Happening,” Diwan notes, was the one book by Ernaux not to get attention from journalists when it came out in 2000, suggesting that the silence she describes has only grown since the 1960s. “It’s still working on me,” she says, recalling a post-screening news conference in Venice when she was “asking myself whether I would say out loud or not that I had had an abortion. … I worked three years [making a film] against silence and I still hesitated to say it aloud.”

When it comes to women terminating their pregnancies, movies have played a singular role in either stigmatizing the issue or playing into false, hysterically pitched stereotypes. There was a period when the subject was portrayed straightforwardly on-screen, from a famously groundbreaking 1972 episode of “Maude” to movies of the 1980s and 1990s like “Parenthood,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Cider House Rules.” Gradually, storylines involving abortion were erased almost entirely from cinematic narratives. For surprise-pregnancy comedies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up” to succeed, abortion had to be reflexively rejected as an option, reduced to a taboo or a punchline — even though an estimated 24 percent of women will have an abortion during their childbearing years, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

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In other words, the post-Roe rom-com heroines played by Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan were statistically more likely to find economic security and self-fulfillment by choosing when to become mothers (or not), than by becoming a sex worker and running off with a rich businessman or striking up an email flirtation with a bookstore mogul.

The escapist pleasures of fantasies like “Pretty Woman” and “You’ve Got Mail” notwithstanding, the costs of the generational silence that has evolved around abortion are becoming clearer by the day, as access to abortion is being dramatically curtailed in Texas, Oklahoma and several other states, and with the recent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would strike down Roe. “I would never have thought that [‘Happening’] would be timely in the United States,” says Diwan. “That’s the story of women’s rights, unfortunately. Culture responds to the mentality, the consciousness or unconsciousness, of a period of time. … I do think we have to make noise.”

“Happening,” which arrives in theaters on May 13, is one of several recent and upcoming films that are seeking to do just that. In June, HBO will air “The Janes,” a documentary about an underground group of Chicago activists who defied the Mafia, Chicago police and the sexist mores of the era to provide illegal abortions to more than 10,000 women. “Call Jane,” a dramatized version of the story starring Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver, is expected later this year. Together with “Premature” (2019), in which Zora Howard played a college-bound woman navigating an unplanned pregnancy; Eliza Hittman’s “Never Sometimes Rarely Always” (2020), about a Pennsylvania teenager trying to obtain an abortion amid restrictive laws; as well as such comedies as “Obvious Child” (2014) and “Plan B” (2021), abortion and reproductive care in general finally seem to be emerging from the conversational shadows, albeit decades late.

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Activist Eileen Smith admits that when producer Daniel Arcana first asked to interview her for “The Janes,” she demurred. Although she had remained close with her fellow real-life Janes, she had moved on with her life. “I … became a nurse, and then I had kids, and then life was so frickin’ hard,” Smith recalls. “I had done a few interviews here and there, but I was like, ‘That’s in my past, I’m really busy right now.’ ”

Then she saw the stage musical “Hamilton.” “And hearing that song [‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’], I was just like: Whoa,” she says. “Who does tell the story? I remember coming home that night and going, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”

Noting that the Hyde Amendment, barring the use of federal funds for most abortions, went into effect three years after Roe v. Wade, “The Janes” co-director Emma Pildes observes that access to abortion has been “chipped away” since the procedure was decriminalized. “People keep saying, ‘The timing, the timing, we can’t believe the timing of this film,’ ” Pildes says, referring to the Supreme Court hearing the Mississippi case that might overturn Roe in June. “But it isn’t totally shocking.”

“Certainly a lot of the Janes have told us that if it weren’t for what’s happening now, they may not have spoken for the cameras and put their names behind this,” adds co-director Tia Lessin.

Why has it taken so long? Many of her fellow Janes have been busy doing other things. “But people weren’t really interested, either,” Smith notes. Complacency also set in. “We rested on our laurels a little bit with this issue, and got comfortable with the idea that Roe is good enough,” Pildes says.

And there’s no doubt that who was telling the story mattered. While women have made professional gains since the 1970s — thanks in part to being able to decide whether and when to become parents — that progress wasn’t reflected in Hollywood, where women were consistently denied the top jobs. With women only recently beginning to make inroads creatively and commercially, it should come as no surprise that they’re illuminating truths about their lives that male filmmakers have historically deemed uncomfortable, unrelatable or simply uninteresting.

As consequential as that absence has been, Pildes sees reasons for optimism. “It’s pretty heartening that … when women are being given the opportunity to tell these stories, they are,” she says. “And they’re telling them with other women, about other women. It’s a good trajectory.”

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