She told jokes about the trials and tribulations of having your period, including a hilarious bit on inserting a tampon for the first time. The women in the audience were on the verge of rolling in the aisles. A lot of the men squirmed uncomfortably.
That was a very liberating moment. Women were not only capable of being funny, they could tell great jokes about female lives.
It came back to me as I watched the opening scene in the new movie Obvious Child.
The main character, Donna Stern (played by Jenny Slate), is doing her stand-up routine in a dive in Brooklyn. And she’s telling jokes about what a vagina does to underwear.
I’m happy to report that the men in the on-screen audience were laughing (though not the boyfriend who was about to dump her).
Obvious Child is a very liberating romantic comedy even before we get to the abortion part of the story. But the fact that an abortion is at the heart of the story is a powerful statement.
The movie is set in the present day, but the life it depicts is not a major jump from the life I was living in the 70s. Casual sex was common back then, no matter what your parents tell you. And abortion was legal; Roe v. Wade came down in 1973. Much of the story could have happened to me or friends of mine. (That it didn’t happen to me is a tribute to my mother. She started preaching the gospel of always using birth control when you have sex when I was about seven or eight and it took.)
But while the story Obvious Child tells wouldn’t have surprised me in the 70s, seeing a movie back then that reflected my life and feminist ideals would have amazed me. Movies didn’t do that in those days. I can’t think of any movies from that period that truly reflected women’s lives. The most feminist movie I can come up with from the 70s is Alien. And it’s only feminist because Sigourney Weaver played a role that had been originally written for a man.
Actually, I can’t think of a lot of movies nowadays that do a great job of depicting women. I mean, we’re still talking about the Bechdel test, which is pretty damn minimal (there must be two women who talk to each other about something other than men). Gravity wasn’t as liberating as Alien, Sandra Bullock’s great performance as an astronaut notwithstanding.
I have seen a couple of indie foreign films lately that do justice to women’s lives – Ida (about a young woman about to take her vows as a nun who learns that she was the daughter of Jews killed during the war) and In Bloom, about young women coming of age in Georgia. We’re getting more women filmmakers and they’re doing stories that come out of female experience.
But the best ones tend to be films with limited releases. I know we have “chick flicks,” but an awful lot of those are movies from a male-approved female point of view. They don’t have anything to do with my life or my knowledge of women. And much as I love a story with a kick-ass women in it, few of those are really satisfying. There is a reason why I spend a lot of my screen time re-watching Buffy (the TV series, not the movie).
Obvious Child is a great exception: a romantic comedy that gets women’s lives right. It’ll be nice when movies like it are the rule.