Bunk Documentaries (1 of 2): The Right to Confuse
What's wrong with this picture? (Hint: it's not the competing fonts.)
This still, taken from the trailer of the film South Dakota: A Woman's Right to Choose might be the first time I've seen "a woman's right to choose" accompanying an in utero photo. Those are both articles of rhetoric from opposing sides of the abortion debate. Could this be a movie aiming to "edify, inform and not take sides?" Yes, according to director Bruce Isacson. But after reading Robin Acabin's assessment of the movie in the L.A. Times ("Creators of abortion film say they want honest debate"), I'm going to go ahead and say that it's not only unbalanced, but entirely pro-life.
The movie is about two young women who have unplanned pregnancies. Barb is a track star whose boyfriend seems to have a LOT of issues, only one of which is denial of his girlfriend's pregnancy; Chris is homeless, pregnant from rape, and seeking a late-term abortion. And while I'm glad they're trying to depict more than one woman's experience with abortion, they could have tried a little harder to move away from the woman-of-color-from-the-street vs. white-blonde-who-has-everything-going-for-her archetypes.
But how is the movie anti-abortion? I mean we see Barb in a hospital gown at a clinic, which is more than we could have said for Juno. And in the trailer we hear Chris say, "I don't think it's right to bring a child into the world...I can't have this baby," letting the viewer know that she has very real doubts about carrying her pregnancy to term. Well, let's dig a little deeper!
• Here are some of the players behind the movie:
-The film features songs by Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries, who in the past has made anti-abortion statements. She is moderates all-girl discussions at screenings.
-It's promoted by Motive Entertainment, the company that also promoted for The Passion of the Christ and Ben Stein's Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
-Its Executive Director is Howard Kazanjian, named "Hollywood's Most Powerful Christian" by Christianity Today magazine in 2007.
• That screenshot at the end of the trailer isn't the only time they show a developing fetus. Apparently the movie features "evocative videos of 16- to 22-week-old fetuses floating in utero." Gestational photos or videos are visual rhetoric for pro-life organizations, serving to humanize and personify the fetus. Anyone attempting a balanced look at abortion would not include these purposeful images.
• But the filmmaker interviews pro-choice activists, that's balanced, right? You read what's described in the LA Times piece and tell me if it sounds representative of pro-choice voices:
In one scene, feminist attorney Gloria Allred speaks of her own rape at gunpoint, subsequent abortion and lifelong commitment to abortion rights. She also describes the fetus as "a parasite" because it requires the mother's body to survive. At another point, an abortion doctor tearfully describes the death of her friend from an illegal abortion in Africa and later unemotionally describes how she might wrap an aborted fetus and leave it to die, even if it showed signs of struggling to take a breath.
Hmm, something about how feminists describing babies as parasites or abandoning a living aborted fetus (the extremely rare partial-birth abortion, introduced in anti-choice legislation in 1995) really makes me think that viewers are not going to be taking any worthwhile messages home from abortion rights advocates.
• And finally, spoiler alert, it appears that Barb's boyfriend "rescues" her from the abortion clinic, which I assume is framed in terms of "Aw, he finally came around and we are so in love!" dangerously reinforcing the idea that if you are having trouble with your boyfriend, that having his baby will bring you closer. I'm not sure if Chris gets an abortion or not, but regardless, I'm pretty sure she represents the "only in extreme cases" clause of abortion legislature of women who are pregnant by rape or incest (which by the way, has to have been properly reported--something I'm sure Chris as a homeless youth is happy to add to her list of hoops to jump through before the procedure), so if she does end up getting an abortion, it will still be in a pro-life frame.
And could someone let Isacson know there's no genre called "dramumentary"? A movie does not a (half) documentary make even if you do insert interviews with real people (which apparently includes well-known reproductive rights experts like...Bill Clinton! and Mother Teresa!). But besides the laughable nature of the genre, I think by aligning itself with the documentary genre (however weakly) re-enforces its perceived credibility on abortion.
We're used to seeing anti-abortion messages in popular culture, like Knocked Up, and I'm not entirely surprised by this one. What I do find troublesome is that it's being presented as balanced. Its very title falsely co-opts pro-choice rhetoric, which could be potentially misleading to people unfamiliar with the details of the debate (people like teenagers, the target audience). And with pro-life activism getting some bad press coverage after Dr. Tiller's murder, it's apparent that they're going to have to try new tactics beyond photos of aborted fetuses.
Thanks to Maya for the tip!
Stay tuned for a second installment of Bunk Documentaries later this week!
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