‘Comediennes’ (III): Abortion Comedies

By Madeline Lane-McKinley |

I was thirty years-old and my mother was still trying to get an abortion.” — Phyllis Diller [1]

Abortions take place everywhere and nowhere, all the time and never. Abortions are ‘private,’ or, unsafely made public. In the United States, it is estimated that 1 in 3 cis-females will have an abortion by their mid-40s. A recent study shows that 95% do not regret their decision. [2] Last week’s vote to freeze federal funding of Planned Parenthood illustrates, as Rosemary Hennessy suggests, that “discursive struggles over woman’s reproductive body in the U.S. now have less to do with women’s ‘choice’ [than] with the maintenance of a social order in which the few still benefit from the work of many.” [3] Besides eliciting liberal feminist outrage, this federal defunding calls for a broader cultural shift.

Nonchalance toward abortion can be a radical gesture, an acknowledgment of the ways in which abortion continues to be the site of feminist struggle. More than obfuscating the contemporary social conditions of abortion, nonchalant humor can assertively undermine the authority of misogyny and sexism in constructing cultural narratives about women who have abortions.

Take the recent Amy Schumer sketch called “I’m So Bad,” in which some Sex and the City-esque gal pals meet for brunch to confess their compulsive eating habits. Schumer confesses:

“Two weeks ago when I was having — well, there’s no term for how late-term of an abortion this was – anywho, I literally ate an entire bucket of wings and chased it with a like 16-ounce lobster. I’m like ‘why am I still eating for two?’ I am so bad! … Wait I am really ashamed that I just told you guys that I ate like that, do you think I’m a monster?”

“Noooo! Are you kidding?” Her friends reply, “Seafood is good for you!” Here, Schumer’s nonchalance about abortion is not moral condemnation – though none of the characters in her comic world go without criticism. To the contrary, abortion is treated, along with compulsive eating, as just one of many ways in which women are made to feel like monsters in contemporary life. At the end of the sketch, all but one of the women (who chooses to order flan instead) cannibalize their waiter. Schumer’s humor, however problematic, more generally performs an anti-moralist critique of ‘femininity.’ As much as Schumer parodies the ‘slut,’ her comedy also disrupts the category of ‘slut,’ just as her flirtation with the abortion taboo seems to ridicule feminine shame.

Wanda Sykes often draws from this problem of shame in her stand-up. While relentlessly mocking pro-lifers, Sykes says in one of her routines to “lie to anybody.” She continues:

“A woman will lie to her gynecologist about having an abortion… ‘Uh, uh… that was an old snowboarding accident… I fell on my uterus… a nasty spill… they said I pulled my uterus or something. That don’t sound right? Oh, uh, a contusion of the uteri? Does that sound right?’”

Distinct from her rant against pro-lifers — which becomes polemical and therein, geared toward legislative policy — this gentle mocking draws attention to the compulsory lie as a site of shame. 


Last year’s abortion comedy Obvious Child fixates on this problem of shame as well – captured in the opening sequence, featuring excerpts from the protagonist comedienne’s stand-up routine:

“I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants, and by the way, what all vaginas do to all underpants. There is no woman who ends her day with like a clean pair of underpants that look like they’ve ever even come from a store… they look like little bags that have fallen face down in a tub of cream cheese and then, like, commando-crawled their way out… They’re not items for anyone to see… But now I’m just like, whaaatever, I have a human vagina.”

Like many other comediennes, Donna – played by Jenny Slate – uses gross-out humor as a way to critique ‘femininity,’ and the socialization of feminine shame. Unlike Bridesmaids – which uses gross-out humor to create a femme “bromance” – Obvious Child explores the hidden grossness of first-trimester pregnancy.

That Donna will have an abortion remains unquestioned throughout Obvious Child, while whether she will disclose her abortion to the man with whom she had a one-night stand provides the necessary tension for the film to adhere to romantic comedy genre conventions. Although it is more or less obvious that Ryan will endear himself to Donna, his presence in the film is otherwise anachronistic.

In Ryan, Obvious Child reflects the ambivalence distinct to what Lauren Berlant calls genres of “female complaint.” As Berlant writes:

The complaint genres of “women’s culture” [tend] to foreground a view of power that blames flawed men and bad ideologies for women’s intimate suffering, all the while maintaining some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place. They also provide tremendous pleasure in their vigilance toward recording how other women manage. One might say that it’s a space of disappointment, but not disenchantment. [4]

Ryan, a blonde business student, is a figure of disappointment — a kind of resignation that is not without enchantment. Rather than the fetus, he is posed as the solution to Donna’s intimate suffering. He is the obvious child, who is unfunny and uninteresting, undefined enough to maintain a fidelity to “the world of distinction and desire” that produces this disappointment.

As a cultural phenomenon, the ‘abortion comedy’ articulates this distinction between disappointment and disenchantment, critical to Berlant’s discussion of the complaint genre as an “aesthetic structure of affective expectation, an institution or formation that absorbs all kinds of small variations or modifications” and that also “[promises] that the persons transacting with it will experience the pleasure of encountering what they expected, with details varying the theme.” In the case of the abortion comedy, such pleasure does not, by necessity, derive from a humorous encounter with the theme, but rather locates “real life in the affective capacity to bracket many kinds of structural and historical antagonism on behalf of finding a way to connect with the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however aesthetically mediated.” Still, these “small variations and modifications” to the abortion comedy, as a genre of the female complaint, should be distinguished in terms of their particular capacity to make such connections — and by means of how they set aside structural and historical antagonism.

Regina Barreca has argued since the 1980s that “nearly all women’s humor is in some way feminist humor” because “anytime a woman breaks through a barrier set by society, she’s making a feminist gesture of a sort, and every time a woman laughs, she’s breaking through a barrier.” [5] This conception of feminist humor points us to the convergence of liberal feminism with neoliberal capitalism — resulting in the ‘equal opportunities’ gimmick which continues to proliferate in various ‘glass-ceiling’ fem-coms. It would be a mistake, however, not to differentiate between the feminist gestures of Obvious Child and the sentimentalist stranglehold over abortion comedies like the 2007 film Juno. In its tokenistic depiction of a pregnant teenager, Juno’s ultimate aim is to manage and contain the teenager’s ability to choose. To the contrary, the film was promoted as a celebration of talented women — in both the ‘prodigy’ actress Ellen Page, and the ‘amateur’ screenwriter Diablo Cody.


The recent graphic novel Not Funny Ha-Ha, by Leah Hayes, takes as its focus what most of these abortion comedies leave out: abortion itself. Whereas Obvious Child merely builds up to this event — and Juno avoids it completely — Hayes’s novel actively works through the problem of unrepresentability, so structural to the ‘abortion plot.’ Carefully narrated, the novel follows two women through their experiences with abortion, and provides detailed accounts and information about the process. What’s most significant about the text is this unrelenting engagement with the embodied and social dimensions of abortion, while the whole time treating the issue as “not funny ha-ha.” The very idea of this barrier, however, subverts the critical capacity of feminist comedy.


During the late 1980s and early 1990s, theorists of ‘feminist comedy’ reached a general consensus that, as Jill Dolan writes, “At last, women have turned comic perspective outward, away from dingbat and self-deprecatory humor, toward comment on their world.” [6] What drove this earlier ‘feminist boom’ in comedy was a general distaste for the type of humor exemplified by Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers — an earlier generation of women who had to make themselves legible to an all-male audience. Diller’s humor about housework and child-rearing, however, represents some of the most radical comic material of its time. Against the claim that Diller’s “comedic style [is] formulaic, artificial, even anti-feminist,” Susan Horowitz argues that “both her subject matter — sex appeal and domestic competence — and the manner in which she handles it — self-deprecation — are Diller’s comedic take on the stereotypical 1950’s woman.” [7] As Horowitz demonstrates, self-deprecation should not be dismissed in its entirety, but rather historically situated in the especially misogynist context of 1950s-60s American comedy culture.

The rejection of self-deprecatory ‘feminist’ humor has not only been to “comment on the world,” as Dolan suggests, but to resort to an antidote of self-affirming humor, which continues to haunt us in ‘fem-coms’ with happy-go-lucky protagonists who fail to recognize their conditions of precarity and always just want a boyfriend after all. Yet one of the best ‘abortion comedies’ came out of this ethos, precisely as a re-working of self-deprecating humor in feminist comedy. The 1996 film Citizen Ruth stars Laura Dern in what remains her best performance, as a pregnant drug-addict who decides to con a group of pro-lifers, as an alternative to having an abortion. Through various instances of self-deprecation, Dern plays ‘Ruth’ as a caricature of feminine irresponsibility — while Ruth is a clown, she is also quite cunning, and aware of the ways in which she is being politically instrumentalized. Though it risks a tone of moral judgment, Citizen Ruth instead delivers a persistent critique of the politics of abortion and the status of ‘feminism’ in this cultural moment. A dark and often painful satire, the film is not so much pro-choice propaganda as the sustained study of a woman’s struggle to survive in a world that has altogether degraded her.


Nearly twenty years old, Citizen Ruth somehow averts the sentimentality of many abortion comedies, including the most recent iteration of this genre, the Lily Tomlin vehicle Grandma. In Grandma, a pregnant teenager asks her tattoo-covered lesbian-feminist-poet grandmother — vaguely if not explicitly inspired by Eileen Myles — to lend her the money for an abortion. Tomlin is exquisite as Ellie, a woman in the later years of her life, who tries to pass on what knowledge she can to her struggling granddaughter. For much of the film, Ellie carries around a paper bag with first editions of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. To reinforce this rather remarkable dynamic, the film often resorts to a kind of lyrical sentimentality that otherwise accompanies contemporary ‘indie’ romantic comedies.


In some ways staged as the anti-Juno, Grandma has in common with Obvious Child that the choice to abort does not provide a source of conflict. Rather, the main source of conflict throughout the film is the teenager’s decision not to talk to her mother. Temporarily broke, Ellie tries to find money for the abortion, but must eventually reconnect with her daughter, on behalf of her granddaughter. Without ever questioning the abortion itself, the film focuses on this intergenerational relationship of three women, navigating a world in which men present nothing but obstacles. Once the intermediary generation is included — Judy, a high-powered business woman played by Marcia Gay Harden — it is on the one hand as simple as going to an ATM machine, but on the other hand, a matter of enduring the kind of feminine shame that many of these abortion comedies try to resist. Although Judy at first blames her daughter for her “irresponsibility,” and resents her mother for her pridefulness, she later shows up at the clinic to apologize and lend her support.

Intergenerational experience is a critical feature of many abortion comedies, which enables these films to diverge from the dominant tendencies of the ‘abortion plot,’ as an often tragic or cautionary tale. The 1948 classic Street Corner, for instance, begins with a teenage girl’s sentence to ten years in prison, and through the trial and later, a lecture by her doctor, the crime of her abortion unfolds. In this case, intergenerational experience is criminalized — as in the middle-aged woman in the neighborhood who nearly kills the girl in the procedure. Toward the end of Grandma, Ellie reveals that she had an abortion once — a dangerous procedure, before legalization. The procedure was very painful, she explains to a doctor at the clinic, but she wants to protect her granddaughter from that.

While decentering the abortion from the ‘abortion plot,’ these comedies remain somewhat unimaginative in their dealing with the experience itself. Most build up to the abortion, but don’t know what to do with it. They are primarily concerned with the decision that leads to an abortion, rather than the experience of living with that decision. Most of all, the potential traumas of abortion have to be concealed to make comedy possible.


What would it mean to take this further, and radically encounter abortion on these terms through comedy? These comedies seek to escape the racial and economic gap of abortion rates in the United States — that African-American women are five times more likely, and Latina women are twice as likely to have an abortion than white women. The figure of the pregnant white teenager, in this sense, distracts from the correlation between abortion and poverty, and the reality that six out of ten women who have an abortion already have at least one child. [8] In Grandma, Ellie’s temporary brokeness is a precise specimen of this cutesy and impermanent sense of precarity at work in many of these films: she cut up her credit cards to make them into wind chimes, in a rather grotesque indie-touch, while she waits on some checks from some lectures she “did up in Santa Cruz.” Whatever insight these comedies can provide into the social, economic, and working conditions which characterize most abortions in the United States, this must be deflected from the shining cherubesque figure of the pregnant teen, whose “irresponsibility” is merely a stage in life.


Read the other installments of this series: III, & IV


Works Cited

[1] Diller, Phyllis. Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

[2] Rocca CH, Kimport K, Roberts SCM, Gould H, Neuhaus J, Foster DG (2015) Decision Rightness and Emotional Responses to Abortion in the United States: A Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE 10(7)

[3] Hennessy, Rosemary. Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (RLE Feminist Theory).  London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

[3] Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

[4] Barreca, Regina. Last Laughs: Perspectives on Women and Comedy. Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1988. Print.

[5] Hayes, Leah. Not Funny Ha-Ha. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2015. Print.

[6] Dolan, Jill. “In Defense of the Discourse: Materialist Feminism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and Theory,” TDR 33, Spring 1989. Print.

[7] Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, and the New Generation of Funny Women. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

[8] Jones RK and Kavanaugh ML, “Changes in abortion rates between 2000 and 2008 and lifetime incidence of abortion,” Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2011, 117(6). Print.


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