I don’t see that many movies these days. Whether it’s because movies have gotten dumber or my free time has gotten more scarce, I’m not sure. But more than movies themselves, reactions to movies tell us a lot about the zeitgeist. They can also highlight great gulfs between the chattering classes and, you know, normal people.
Greenberg, an indifferent movie starring Ben Stiller, isn’t particularly worthy of note. This essay on it, though, is fascinating, at least for those of us who don’t buy the party line that abortion is the gynecological equivalent of having an ingrown toenail excised. The writer’s point seems to be that Greenberg is subversive because it shows a character having an abortion without much reflection or angst. It’s subversive, he implies, because the Powers That Be don’t like depictions of abortion because they stir up controversy.
But there’s a much simpler explanation why protagonists in movies and TV don’t have abortions: most people, including many who self-identify as pro-choice, find abortion to be distasteful, immoral, and less than admirable. It’s hard to care about fictional characters who can be described this way. It’s also, despite attempts to portray it as something less, a life-changing experience – a character whose abortion is part of their story arc will be identified with that abortion rather than with other traits.
In short, movies and TV don’t refrain from portraying abortion because their advertising overlords tell them not to. They avoid it for the same reason they don’t create protagonists who drive while drunk, or adult siblings involved in a romantic relationship. It’s repugnant, on a visceral level, and people aren’t entertained, diverted or edified by things they find repugnant. Given how liberal the coasts skew, the absence of abortion from mainstream entertainment isn’t the triumph of a clique of prudes over the masses; on the contrary, it’s a concession to the sensibilities of the great majority of the population on the part of those who hold radically different views.
Greenberg grossed $4 million. Gigli grossed $6 million. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that people are more likely to watch Jennifer Lopez’s and Ben Affleck’s single biggest embarrassment than yet another self-indulgent movie about shiftless underachievers.