Posted by Isha Puntambekar
CW: Spoilers ahead
A knocked-up teenager. Her estranged childhood best friend. A spontaneous weekend road trip. What could go wrong?
Released in early September 2020, Rachel Lee Goldberg’s Unpregnant is an interesting take on one of the most controversial issues of the global socio-political landscape; abortion. The road trip comedy starring Hayley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferraira, is based on a novel by the same name written by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan.
The story follows a 17-year-old Veronica Clarke, a conscientious goody two-shoes with straight As and ivy league aspirations, who discovers that she is pregnant in a chaotic school bathroom. Ever the perfectionist, she meticulously plans a trip to the nearest clinic that does not require parental consent for minors seeking an abortion, which happens to be three states away. When her simpleton boyfriend and gossipy friends prove to be of little help, Veronica in her desperation for a means of transport, is forced to knock on the door of an estranged childhood friend. Enter Baily Butler, a former bestie and something of a social pariah, Bailey is aware of Veronica’s predicament (having walked in on her in the bathroom earlier) and agrees to drive her from Missouri to New Mexico to get an abortion. Their clandestine quest takes them on a series of unexpected detours, encountering friends and foes alike.
From nasty high schoolers to absentee fathers, Unpregnant is riddled with all the clichés of an American teen drama. What makes it noteworthy, however, is that the film goes beyond its (already woke) central theme of restrictive abortion access and touches upon some of the least talked-about concerns related to women’s reproductive rights.
1. Abortion stigma
Veronica: Look I’m not like the type pf person that’s just supposed to go and get an abortion!
Bailey: Veronica. You are exactly the kind of person who gets an abortion and then doesn’t tell anyone.
The taboo around abortion is evident from Veronica’s inability to confide in her orthodox catholic parents or the scandal caused by the discovery of a positive pregnancy test in the school dumpster. In fact, it is not until a moment of catharsis on a carnival ride, 50 minutes into the film that we actually hear Veronica utter the dreaded word for the first time; until then, she insists on euphemising it as ‘the procedure’.
Abortion stigma stems from the stereotypical perception of womanhood as functionally confined to childbearing and domesticity. When a woman seeks to terminate an unwanted pregnancy for whatever (perfectly valid) reason, she threatens at least three essentialist feminine ideals; the relegation of female sexuality solely for the purpose of procreation, inevitability of motherhood and instinctual nurturance.
In order to deal with this threat, women who abort tend to be condemned as heartless, murderous, deviant from the norm. This fear of judgement and perhaps even social exclusion prevents women from speaking out about their abortion experiences. Women may even internalise these negative stereotypes to varying degrees and feel ashamed about their abortions, thereby giving rise to a mutually reinforcing cycle of silence.
2. Reproductive abuse
As we progress in the film, it is revealed that the biological father, Veronica’s (rather clingy) boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) was aware that the condom had broken during intercourse but chose not to disclose this during or after. When Veronica breaks the news of the (not-so) accidental pregnancy, he proposes marriage in the hopes that it would keep Veronica from breaking up with him and going off to college.
Kevin is horrified to learn of her intention to get an abortion and tries to sabotage her plan on two separate occasions, going as far as to tracking her down and threatening to tell the whole school about her abortion. Kevin’s actions add up to reproductive abuse, an event or a pattern of behaviour whereby a person tries to control the reproductive choices of their partner in order to control their life. Reproductive abuse may involve coerced sexual activity, birth control sabotage or the pressure to get pregnant, remain pregnant or terminate a pregnancy against the will of the partner. While Veronica initially seems dismissive of his questionable behaviour, Bailey Butler, ever the voice of reason, makes it a point to calling a spade a spade.
3. Normalisation of abortion
Abortion is a normal aspect of reproductive healthcare services and the film treats it as such. As a 17-year-old travelling halfway across the country with only a former friend for support, about to undergo surgical procedure, it is hardly surprising that Veronica is scared. To add to her growing apprehension, an ominous bloody syringe emoji that her friend keeps texting her by accident, foreshadows her impending surgery. When Veronica finally makes it to the clinic and past the reception, she is made comfortable while her nurse walks her through all the steps involved in the process and assuages her fears.
In stark contrast to the Sunday school horror stories of dilation and curettage, the film provides a much realistic depiction of a typical first trimester abortion procedure sans histrionics. Moreover, the film neither glorifies nor condemns teenage pregnancy in any way. The story could have just as easily turned into an inspirational tale of a struggling young mother, juggling academic responsibilities with the needs of her infant against all odds, or a cautionary tale about the dire consequences of premarital sex. It was neither. Kudos to the writers for that.
4. An unflinching pro-choice message
In a refreshing change of pace, Unpregnant completely bypasses the moral dilemma associated with getting an abortion. Based on the satirical depiction of a nosy anti-abortionist couple essentially kidnapping the two girls, it is abundantly clear that the film will not be entertaining any pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. Veronica does not suddenly have a change of heart and decide not to go through with the abortion (looking at you, Juno) or even second-guess her decision at any point. While that would have been a perfectly plausible scenario, it sends a problematic message; that motherhood is an inevitable reality of a woman’s life and any resistance in that respect is not only futile but also frivolous. That women are irrational, incompetent decision makers who cannot be trusted to make painful moral decisions concerning their well-being, much less live with their consequences. Moreover, the fact that her conservative mother respects her choice despite claiming not to understand it herself, is a cherry on top of an already progressive cake.
Unpregnant bravely treads into some of the most politically charged waters without ever losing its light-hearted comedic nature or trivialising the issues it seeks to address. In a world where women continue to struggle for basic reproductive rights, the film does an excellent job of advocating for young women to explore their sexuality and have autonomy over their bodies.
Isha is a psychology major with a keen interest in neuroscience and a passion for academic research. She spends her free time writing, binge-watching procedural crime shows and fuming over casual sexism in pop-culture. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.