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Our Bodies On-Screen: The Criminalization of Choice

June 24, 2022. A date that will go down in history as the day we lost modern freedom over our bodies and our choices. Upon months of prior speculation, the US Supreme Court dropped the final blow by overturning Roe v. Wade, the ruling decided in 1973 that affirmed the constitutional right to abortion. An uproar of devastation and disgust swept the nation as a result of criminalizing what American citizens can and cannot do with their bodies. After decades upon decades of fighting for that freedom, it was snatched away from us in an instant by a board of individuals who lack empathy or regard for the physical and mental safety of the people of this country. Before and after this announcement, I felt compelled to watch two films about this topic to further educate and familiarize myself with what would become our new reality.

When comparing these two films, the context in both stories play equally large roles. French director Audrey Diwan’s film Happening (originally L'événement in French) follows Anne, a young college-aged girl on track toward following her dream of becoming a literature professor in early 1960s France. When she discovers that she is three weeks pregnant, a series of life- threatening challenges manifests. In addition to being both a social and religious taboo, abortion was flat out illegal; anyone who assisted in the procedure itself or helped someone get access to the surgery would be jailed immediatlely. The similarities between the conflict of this film and our reality today are bone chilling: to think we’d feel the same fear of breaking the law to protect our own bodies as people did in the ‘60s.

A more modern take on a similar story is demonstrated in Never Rarely Sometimes Always, directed and written by Eliza Hittman, in which the protagonist Autumn is a disillusioned 17-year-old trying to make it through the tribulations of high school and a dead-end part time job. Upon learning she is more than several weeks pregnant, Autumn becomes pressured yet ostracized by those she turns to for help. Enlisting the help of her cousin Skylar, she escapes to New York seeking honest and safer medical assistance. Hittman’s film felt nostalgic, like watching a coming-of-age movie with a myriad of unsettling scenes. I was intrigued about the time period until I saw the girls using laptops and smartphones. I thought with the way they dressed, how things were decorated, and the outdated mindsets of the doctors they consulted, that it had to have been set decades ago. Then I remembered what it’s like living in a small town with indoctrinated religious views. It can often feel like you’re stuck in the past when you’re surrounded by a close-minded community.

Art by Lyvie Scott

One of the aspects I find particularly interesting in both films is the multifaceted portrayal of men and what roles they play in the stories of these two girls carrying literal and emotional burdens. These patriarchal archetypes are especially expressed in Hittman’s film as demonstrated by: a school bully who targets Autumn and loudly calls her a “slut” during her performance at the school’s talent show, the innuendo-spewing boyfriend of Autumn’s mother who shows an outward dislike towards Autumn, the creepy and manipulative manager of her grocery store job who’s been caught fondling and kissing female employees, the “nice guy” stranger the girls meet on the bus who promises to help them get back home if Skylar goes out with him first, and a subway pervert who pleases himself while staring at the girls on their trip. Though these depictions of men can seem stereotypical, they reflect how women feel preyed upon by simply existing in the same spaces as men and the feelings of discomfort that creates.

In a less obvious way, the men of Happening serve as examples of how men don’t see themselves as responsible in situations of pregnancies and/or abortions. When Anne tells the father of their unborn child that she is pregnant and planning an abortion, his reaction is self-serving and unsupportive of Anne’s wishes. His concern stems more from reputation and the consequences that could come with being affiliated with a forbidden practice. Anne also confides in her close male friend, who uses her moment of vulnerability to make a move on her, even going as far as to say sleeping with him wouldn’t be a big deal since she’s already pregnant.

A factor that contrasts the two conflicts is the accessibility and resources of medical technology between these two time periods. In a male-dominated field where male doctors lacked any kind of rapport towards patients seeking abortions, people like Anne had no choice but to find other unsafer options. At one point, Anne is entrusted to a doctor who insists that a shot will terminate her pregnancy. To her horror, she finds out what the doctor had given her was intentionally strengthening the embryo instead.The moment this information was revealed, a giant collective gasp permeated the theater. She ultimately turns to her last resort: an out-of-commission nurse who performs secret procedures at the expense of Anne selling her most beloved possessions to even afford it. After Anne undergoes the painful process to no avail, the nurse must administer the procedure a second time which puts her patient at an even higher risk of not surviving. Anne’s desperate persistence convinces her to go through with it, leaving the consequences of their choices up to fate.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Meanwhile, Autumn is approached with an eerie (and deceptive) sense of kindness. Upon arriving at a pregnancy clinic in small-town Pennsylvania, and expressing her feelings of not wanting to be a mother yet, the seemingly sweet employees attempt to coax her into keeping the child. Their deception is further revealed when Autumn flees to New York for the abortion, and learns from the doctors there that she’s further along than she was previously told. The new doctors also care to ask about her sexual history and whether there were any instances of abuse in her life, which gives her a small outlet to verbalize her trauma. Though the access to abortion care is better in New York, Autumn and her cousin still faced an aggressive mob of religious protestors holding images of the Virgin Mary and singing catholic hymns.

Though neither of these films touch on the other issues affiliated with this matter including disclosed instances of rape or incest, or lack of resources available to low-income workers, people of color, and the trans community, they do express the liberation of taking back control of your own body. I appreciate that the two situations alluded to consensual sex and exemplified how the freedom of choice is in mass jeopardy. Neither women were portrayed as shameful for having sex in the first place, despite what onlookers thought or said. They found their pride in choosing what was best for themselves.

I strongly recommend watching both Happening and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, with a caution of warning for a few graphic scenes in Happening that depict the intense procedures. I was thankful to catch Diwan’s film in a theater the month before Roe v. Wade was officially overturned, back when it was just a harrowing speculation of a daunting step backwards in the 21st century. It was a riveting experience to be surrounded by others who were curious about the plights of these young women. After the showing, a panel of women from NYC for Abortion Rights discussed their fears, their hopes, and their solutions for the long road ahead of us. I didn’t catch Hittman’s film in a theater, but I was affected just as strongly in viewing it from my own home. As stated in a previous Blossom article, What Roe v. Wade Means to Us, there are multiple funds and resources at our disposal that allow us to contribute to those in need.

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