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No One Puts Penny in a Corner

By Kelsey Trueblood

On a recent stormy evening, I found myself facing an Econ problem set, a short paper and an imminent midterm. So I did what any bonafide senior girl enjoying post-comps season would do: poured a glass of wine, curled up in bed with my laptop and tracked down a website that would let me stream Dirty Dancing for free.

I must have watched Baby dance her way into Sexually-Liberated Womanhood 101 times by now. For whatever reason, a different character captivated my attention during this particular viewing. Penny, Johnny’s ill begotten dancing partner, has little in the way of character development; yet her plotline might provoke more controversy today than when Dirty Dancing was released over 25 years ago. This enduring cult classic arrived in theatres in 1987, just a few years following the historic Roe v. Wade decision. When our generation debates Roe today, we’re often unaware of the context in which that decision was made. In 1983, the conversation turned on a woman’s welfare; in 2013, it more frequently turns on that of the unborn fetus. Penny’s story reflects the earlier discourse, and in doing so, challenges the way we’ve come to think about abortion. Misled, impregnated and abandoned, Penny is undoubtedly a victim. Her abortion liberates her. In the film’s last shot of Penny, she looks at ease for the first time. This passing moment takes up less than 3 seconds of screen time in grand total. Yet, according to a groundbreaking new study, it speaks more truthfully to the experiences of real-life women who seek an abortion than almost any other mainstream Hollywood film produced in the last 25 years.

The Turnaway Study, conducted by ANSIRH at the University of California, is an examination of how unintended pregnancy affects women’s lives. In designing this study, researchers sought to assess the claims about abortion made by ideologues engaged in the choice debate. While data collection continues, researchers presented preliminary results at various medical conferences. These findings struck me as a glaring departure from Hollywood’s typical depiction of unintended pregnancy.

For example, women who are denied an abortion based on gestational limits are more likely to stay in abusive relationships. Ever watched that tearjerker Ryan Gosling flick Blue Valentine? Critics hailed the 2010 film for its realistic portrayal of what happens to love over time. But Cindy, the female lead, has a character arc that is hardly typical of most women in her situation. When her abusive partner impregnates her and she chooses not to have an abortion, Cindy readily escapes his denigration by marrying Ryan Gosling’s character, Dean. Now, any movie that involves marrying Ryan Gosling is arguably fostering unrealistic expectations based on those grounds alone; but movies that use abortion to move along a plot in an unrealistic way are perpetuating all the misinformation that continues to charge the endless debate over choice.

Take Knocked Up as another example. For starters, the Turnaway Study has found that continuing an unexpected pregnancy doesn’t make fathers any more likely to stick around. Yet, the movie’s central conflict resolves itself when Seth Rogan’s character Ben transforms into great dad material, thereby justifying career-oriented Alison’s decision to have their baby. The narrative glorifies unwanted pregnancy as a blessing. Meanwhile, abortion is derided as an illegitimate option favored by women who are too controlling. Therein lies the real crime of misinformation committed by the producers of Knocked Up. Findings from the Turnaway Study tell us that women who are denied abortion services are less financially secure a year later. Careers often stall, as these women are less likely to hold a full-time job. A year later, a staggering 65% regretted carrying their unintended pregnancy to term. Contrary to the popular myth that abortion brings about PTSD, women who are denied this service are far more likely to suffer physical and mental health complications than those who are not. In Knocked Up, Alison’s unintended pregnancy sets her on a transformative journey that ends in spiritual fulfillment; abortion is the easy way out for cold-hearted women who are too obsessed with control. Neither of these lessons hold true when we look at the data from the Turnaway Study. Instead, they help fuel the cultural obsession with pregnancy that results in shows like MTV’s Teen Mom, while more and more women and their children are trapped in poverty because the onslaught against Roe v. Wade is based in myth, rather than fact.

Obviously, movie characters are more likely to choose pregnancy over abortion because without the pregnancy, the plot doesn’t happen. But the misinformation about how women really make decisions about abortion gives moviemakers license to address the issue in ways that totally depart from reality. Like the politicians and activists who engage in today’s debate over choice, Hollywood has lost sight of the centrality of women’s welfare when the drama of unintended pregnancy unfolds in real life. As women, we need to start appreciating how the artistic portrayal of this issue compares to what scientific data tells us about reality. Being informed is the only way to make the right choice.

In Dirty Dancing, having an abortion released Penny. In keeping with the results from the Turnaway Study, terminating her pregnancy empowered her to escape Robby’s disparagement, remain financially independent, and freed her from the anxiety that weighed down her character for the majority of the film. That’s a story that needs to be told more often today. But when we remember women’s welfare, it cannot be to victimize them. It must be to empower them.

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