In 2019, a cursed time to be alive, abortion features in TV and movies only occasionally, generally accompanied by some form of hype or bluster whenever it does. That a common medical procedure, one an estimated 24 percent of U.S. women will have by age 45, garners so much attention in the course of any character’s story line has everything to do with polarized political debate. But 40 years ago, you could portray abortion onscreen as the totally regular occurrence it is, apparently without anyone getting buried in an avalanche of outrage. Imagine!
Take Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a 1982 movie about teens doing teen stuff, including but not limited to terminating an unwanted pregnancy. In an interview with Yahoo, Cameron Crowe (on whose book the film was based) mused that the abortion scene — low-key and unfussy and authentic — would be “outrageously controversial” today.
“It would be protested, and there would be a mess over it,” Crowe said. When Fast Times released, he added, only one critic had anything to say about the scene: Roger Ebert, who reportedly “felt that it was tough for a young girl, that we had perhaps been tough on a young actress,” Crowe recalled.
The actress in question was Jennifer Jason Leigh, then 20, who played 15-year-old Stacy Hamilton. In the movie, Stacy has sex for the very first time — with a fuckboy named Mike Damone (played by Robert Romanus), who gets her pregnant. He’s supposed to take her to her abortion appointment, but stands her up, leaving Stacy’s supportive brother to drive her instead. The scene mostly serves, as Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd put it, to highlight “what a complete asshole Damone is,” and to set us up for a satisfying revenge scene in which Stacy’s friend Linda Barrett (played by Phoebe Cates) spray-paints “prick” and “little prick” on Damone’s car and locker, respectively. The abortion itself is not a big deal; it’s Damone’s dickish behavior that gets the spotlight.
That, Crowe told Yahoo, remains “the one thing about the movie that I’m probably happiest about at this point.” Director Amy Heckerling read the scene and said, “‘You know what? This is life. I want to shoot this like life, just like life,’” Crowe explained. “She just quietly did it, and in an almost European way, she put this young girl’s life onscreen in a way for you to judge: This is just how life is. It meant a lot when she did it at the time, and it still means a lot. It was a very courageous thing to do,” especially in an age where next to no women got to direct.
These days, depicting abortion onscreen still feels courageous, chiefly because of the current climate around reproductive health care. Sure, you can have a movie like Obvious Child — a 2014 romantic comedy catalyzed by a woman’s decision to get an abortion after a one-night stand, thereby melting many conservative brains — and you can have a television show like Shrill, in which abortion functions almost as a footnote (and again, underscores the shittiness of the main character’s partner). But then you’ll also get the grisly and wildly unrealistic feature-length film on abortion’s evils, selling out across the country and reinforcing exactly the brand of misinformation that puts abortion providers in real danger. Wild how far we’ve managed to backslide, no?