This Film Series Wants to Normalize Abortion Stories

In light of the Roe v. Wade news, Metrograph's "It Happens to Us: Abortion in American Film" has taken on a new meaning.

It's surreal to think that a little over a week ago I was scrolling through Met Gala tweets when news broke of a Supreme Court leak reporting that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling protecting a woman's right to a legal abortion, was on the precipise of being overturned. It's since been said that the leak wasn't final, but as of yesterday, the Senate blocked the Women's Health Protection Act, which could have helped to codify Roe.

Abortion has always been a confusingly divisive issue in our country, and that ends up being reflected in our media. Older films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing openly have abortion in their storylines but are never necessarily considered "abortion films." More recently, television shows like Euphoria and the teen film Unpregnant have addressed the right to choose with nuance, empathy, and a lack of regret. But even as recently as 2004, the US station syndicating Degrassi: The Next Generation wouldn't air an episode dealing with abortion until two years later because of its "controversial nature."

In light of the gobsmacking Roe news, the recent release of Audrey Diwan's Happening, a French abortion drama that won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year, has taken on a whole new meaning. The same goes for "It Happens to Us: Abortion in American Film," New York City cinemetheque Metrograph's series examining abortion in cinema. Running from May 6th to May 21st, the program features films from as early as 1916 to Eliza Hittman's 2020 abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It's a lineup that guest curator, Emma Myers, has been working on for years and never expected to have this kind of timing. With 13 films in the series and 50% of ticket sales going to NARAL Pro-Choice America and other US-based reproductive rights organizations, Myers has recalibrated the series for herself to a degree. Thrillist talked to Myers about her original inspiration for the program, the importance of normalizing abortion stories, and how the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade changed everything.

Thrillist: What was your original inspiration for the program?
Emma Myers: Four years ago there was—now with everything, I can't even remember the specific legislative threat that was happening. I was thinking about it and then happened to be revisiting some of these films Dirty Dancing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and even seeing it mentioned or addressed in a lot of other films that we couldn't include. Something like Girlfriends or One Sings, the Other Doesn't, and I just started seeing it in so many older films and how it was addressed pretty openly in these films, especially from the '70s and '80s.

Yeah, which is surprising.
Myers: Which is surprising, given the current state of things. The key first core titles were Dirty Dancing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Saturday Night Fever—these are box office successes or beloved favorites that people think of as super fun movies, but really have some darkness. These are movies that people want to see, but they're not "abortion issue" films. It's just part of the story—as it should be because it's part of so many women's lives and that it would be interesting to group them all together. It was originally going to include international titles as well, but we focused on all American titles for this particular program.

You mentioned you had the idea several years ago. Why was it something that took so long to get together?
Myers: It was hard to sell. It was rejected by a few people, which was always surprising that it would seem to be so controversial. People would be like, "Oh, god." Then I would say, "Okay, but these are the movies. Dirty Dancing's in it. It's not that controversial." And people would be like, "Oh yeah, I love these movies, but surely we can't just package this as 'abortion films' because no one will want to come." I'm very grateful to Nellie Killian programmer at Metrograph, who was super enthused about the idea. This was obviously in the works way before the most current news broke. She helped me shape it and whittle down the selection and have the US-specific focus.

Were there other films that were US-focused that you had to cut that you wish could have still included?
Myers: We wanted it to be a digestible amount. So we thought focusing on American films and having pretty much one per decade from the last hundred years so we could really see how representation has changed, how it hasn't changed, how it's progressed, how it's sometimes regressed, how it's been integrated in stories or made into an issue. Our earliest selection is from 1916, and then we go right up to 2020 with Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which certainly feels all the more timely. But even something like Where Are My Children? which is by Lois Weber, who was actually the highest paid director working in 1916, male or female, which is insane. Even that example that seems obscure—that was a mainstream movie. It was Universal's highest grosser for the year.

[Weber] was certainly known for addressing social problems of her day, including prostitution and the death penalty, and she really approached these things head on. We see a birth control pamphleteer on trial for distributing information about birth control to poor women. He seems to be condoning birth control amongst working class women. And meanwhile, we see wealthy women being shamed for getting abortions, and they are the ones that know and have access to the doctors that perform them. So [Where Are My Children?] certainly hasn't aged well in many respects, but it's just pretty astounding to see women openly talking about getting abortions amongst themselves in 1916 and these issues of who is going to have access to illegal abortions. If Roe vs. Wade is repealed, obviously women below the poverty line and Black and brown women will suffer the most. And I think these issues are clearly addressed even then. It's just pretty astounding for how long this has been in mainstream movies and yet…

How has the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade changed the original scope and goal of the series?
Myers: The original goal was to show this is not something that should be shamed. This is something that we should talk about openly. This is something that is so common for so many women that it's in this huge list of films that most people have seen. So the original idea was, really, perhaps this isn't supposed to be a necessarily heavy topic. Something like Obvious Child, something like Dirty Dancing, these are stories that include abortion as part of their plot lines, but they're not about abortion, which is not something to take for granted. It's not morally fraught in many of these stories, and some of them, it is, but since the news, it has certainly felt like it's taken on a more serious and urgent tone.

Some of these movies certainly have serious elements and they certainly show us dangerous situations women are put in when abortion was illegal, which was supposed to be a thing of the past that we were moving forward from. So now that we are in a position in which it very much feels like we're sliding back into these dark ages like these earlier examples, instead of feeling like time capsules that we were fortunate to have moved on from, they now feel like warnings of things to come, which is just super alarming and awful.

As you mentioned, when you first put this program together, you wanted it to be more about normalizing these stories and talking about abortion, and I was just listening to the Karina Longworth podcast last week and she talks about Fast Times At Ridgemont High in a totally different context. And I think, obviously, these two things can be true at once. What are you hoping that audiences get from the program now?
Myers: It's super important to normalize these experiences. On the flipside we see women being put in incredibly dangerous situations when abortions are illegal, which happens in a number of these films, to even something like Just Another Girl On The I.R.T., which I don't want to spoil for readers if they haven't seen it, but we see the way that this character's decision, or lack of decision, is incredibly informed by the way that systems are failing her.

We see females over a span of a hundred years being failed by education, medical, legal, and political systems. But I do think it is super important to see something like Obvious Child or even in Dirty Dancing, the bad things that happen are because her doctor is no good, because it's illegal but she doesn't have a moral qualm about having an abortion. It's not a debate. This is clearly something that she needs to do for her life. So she's going to do it. I didn't want to show traumatic abortion scenes in particular.

There's one '70s example, End Of The Road, that was on my initial list, that I didn't want to include. It has a really grisly scene in it. But now, given how dire things are, maybe people need to see how awful things can be when abortion is not safe or legal because it doesn't have to be this way. Happening is a good example of something that's pretty graphic about what happens to a woman when she can't get an abortion. I think people have a limited understanding of the fact that it can be such a small procedure, but if it's not handled correctly and a woman is not given proper medical care, it can be pretty traumatic physically and psychologically. I do think even just saying the word aloud, even having a series titled "Abortion in Film," is important because one in four women get abortions.

Are there any films in the program that are highlights that you'd urge people to check out?
Myers: Love With The Proper Stranger is a great one. I think it's a good theoretical double feature with Obvious Child. Citizen Ruth holds up very well. I honestly can't believe that movie exists. I think it scores both sides of the debate and just captures that time in the late '90s when there were just so many in-person protests outside of abortion clinics that got really rampant.

Detective Story is a really interesting one. It's from a male perspective, but basically it's a '50s noir by William Wyler. Kirk Douglas plays a New York detective that has a pretty bad temper. He's investigating an illegal abortion doctor and then finds out that his wife may have visited said doctor in the past. And I think it's a very good example of male hypocrisy and sexual double standards. So I think that's pretty relevant right now.

Yeah, it's seeing the lack of men speaking about the potential of Roe being overturned.
Myers: Something like Saturday Night Fever, which is going to be on the virtual platform, is also interesting, and perhaps the rare example in which we see how this affects the man. We never see the character's girlfriend that is pregnant, but basically it's the really sweet young friend of this group of macho dudes who got his girlfriend pregnant and he's really stressed out about it and is trying to turn to them for advice. No one will take him seriously or listen. And the results are very dark. So I think it is a good example of something that shows that perhaps men also aren't ready to be fathers and could benefit from open discussions and access to abortion. And I don't think people consider that often.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Kerensa Cadenas is the editorial director of entertainment at Thrillist. You can follow her @kerensacadenas.