More '80s Movies About Abortion

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THE PLANK JANUARY 14, 2008

More '80s Movies About Abortion

I'm coming a little late into Chris and Michael's discussion of this, but I watched Dirty Dancing over the weekend, certainly not for the first time ever but possibly for the first time since puberty, and was struck by how thoughtful and realistic the portrayal of abortion is in that film -- far more so than in any of the other films up for discussion (and, um, a tad bit more realistic than the film's own portrayals of how to resolve class conflict or what it takes to be a show dancer). The movie bends over backwards to avoid judging Penny, Johnny (Patrick Swayze)'s pregnant dance partner, for her state (probably more than would be necessary now -- neither Juno or Katherine Heigl's character in Knocked Up requires this level of justification, which is one sign of progress): she was in love with Robbie, the Ayn Rand-reading asshole who also tries to deflower Baby's sister, and he told her he loved her too. But it also doesn't prettify the stakes Penny would face if she gave birth -- as Knocked Up did, acting as if getting pregnant as a single woman in her early 20s wouldn't just hurt, but would actually help someone's career as a TV anchor. Hard-scrabble Penny has danced her way up from poverty -- giving birth, or even admitting to her boss that she was liable to, would literally ruin her.

 What gives Dirty Dancing its emotional pay-off, however, is the fact that it's set before Roe v. Wade, and Penny's only option is to pay an exorbitant amount of money (borrowed from Baby) for a back-alley abortion. As it did with many women of the time, the illegal and unregulated operation leaves her with dangerous internal injuries, and Baby has to bring in her doctor father to help because Penny is too scared of getting fired to call any other doctor. Baby's father is angry at her for lying to him, but he treats Penny with kindness and respect, and, when he finds out that Robbie was the father of her child, he refuses to give him the end-of-season tip he'd originally offered, putting the responsbility for the pregnancy squarely on his shoulders and not hers. And Penny emerges from the ordeal without any shame -- just the physical trauma from what she suffered.

 I've wondered before, and watching Dirty Dancing only confirmed this thought, whether if the memory of what it was like for women before Roe was more culturally persistent, the terms of the abortion debate wouldn't be entirely shifted -- instead of talking about selfish career women who use abortion like birth control, for example, we might be talking about people like Penny, without the resources either to pay for a safer, more expensive abortion or to continue being pregnant. Juno and Knocked Up are both very much post-Roe films, in that the stakes both for terminating pregnancies and for giving birth are far less dramatic and punishing. It's worth remembering, and Dirty Dancing does a good job of reminding us, that it wasn't always this way.

 -- Britt Peterson

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