Ridgemont High and the Changing Cultural Treatment of Abortion

When I got home from work last night, HBO West was showing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I hardly ever miss a chance to see this classic, which I believe came out in 1983. (For anyone who has been living in a cave for the last 30 years, the basic storyline is a year in the life of a group of teenagers at a typical American high school, learning how to be adults one youthful mistake at a time.) I’ve always thought it was a pretty good representation of that era, as best as I can recall (I was 10 at the time). Every time I see the movie, I can’t help but ponder the societal differences between then and now.

It struck me last night that the society of the 1980s, in some ways, was simultaneously more naive and less sheltered than today’s society. To wit: Stacy and Damone never gave a second’s thought to using birth control when they had sex—and yet, when Stacy became pregnant as a result, she immediately owned and took charge of the situation in a decisive, clear-headed way that I don’t think some adults could do today.

And that brings me to a related point which I think also demonstrates a major societal change in the last 30 years: confronted with an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 15, Stacy decides to have an abortion. The movie conveys that this is just a matter-of-fact thing: She’s 15 years old; of course she’s going to have an abortion. End of story. She has the abortion and goes for ice cream. There’s no long, drawn-out, agonizing decision-making process, no wailing, no seeking out of counseling, no crisis of conscience—either before or after the abortion.

Does anybody think that situation would be dealt with in the same way on screen today? I think it is clear that it would not. In most TV or movie productions we see today, characters who face unplanned pregnancies do not even consider abortion except obliquely and momentarily (such as in Juno, Knocked Up and Fools Rush In, to provide three cinematic examples), and then, they dismiss the option almost immediately. In fact, it seems the very word “abortion” can’t even be used. The most outlandish circumventing of the word comes from a character in Knocked Up, who hints that the procedure the Katherine Heigl character should consider “rhymes with shmashmortion.” Seriously?

Even more interesting is the fact that when abortion is summarily dismissed as an option in these films, it always results in a positive and “ideal” outcome. Let’s examine the three movies I’ve cited:

  • In Juno, the title character is “saved” from her appointment at an abortion clinic by a well-meaning protestor, and she ends up finding the perfect person to adopt the child she will bear. Of course.
  • In Fools Rush In, two total strangers, connected only by the fetus they conceived during a one-night stand, magically overcome tremendous cultural differences and fall in love.
  • Worst of all, in Knocked Up, a successful career woman’s pregnancy, resulting from a one-night stand with a perpetually stoned slacker, causes said stoner to straighten up, overnight, and fulfill his responsibilities.
So this is what the American cinema is selling—just have the kid, ladies, and everything will work out? Yeah, sure, because that’s realistic.

I wonder if anybody in 1983 thought we would be at a point today where we can’t even hear the word “abortion” in a movie, much less see a female character actually decide that abortion is the most appropriate choice for her. What’s next? Are we going to get to a point where we cannot view a movie about Charles Darwin in most American theaters because it focuses on his Theory of Evolution?

Oh, wait.