Back in 2014, I wrote that ‘In a World‘ was the first truly feminist romantic comedy I’d ever seen. The fact that there was a female protagonist with sexual and career-oriented agency, who’s main focus was not how her hair looked when her crush walked by, but that she liked him…and he liked her. There’s a fine line there, I know. What exactly do I mean, even? I mean that she wasn’t just laughably frowzy, she was unabashedly, purposefully unkempt because she had better things to do, and she still got the guy. There was much more solid plot and life behind this female lead. The romance was secondary because it IS in life, no matter how strongly we love, we also must live. This female protagonist was the first I’d seen who didn’t need her bra and eyeliner in place to walk up to the guy she wanted and, further, she made time for it after she took a big step into her personal goals…and shockingly the world didn’t crumble because she prioritized. She got “it all”.
So, what does that mean for rom-coms in general? Women need to keep making love comedies and need to keep pushing their own stories, in general. For if they do, they will surely changed the expectations of the romantic order people lovingly giggle over with popcorn in their teeth at theaters, with dates.
That said, ‘Obvious Child’, The first feature film by Gillian Robespierre, is indeed the second feminist romantic comedy I’ve seen, to date. Now, I have to say before I get deep into explaining the why that the what isn’t useful beyond this post. I don’t think these films should be labeled “Fem-Rom-Coms”, no. I just want to put this progress in perspective so people can keep doin’ it! Because it’s working. So, ‘Obvious Child’, starring Jenny Slate (as Donna), who I fell head over heels for with Marcel the Shell, and Jake Lacy (as Max), is a fem-rom-com a la ‘In a World’, but it is different in that the story actually circles back from independent womanhood / a leading lady, making a life for herself to an even braver area where shame is often placed and independence questioned: accidental pregnancy as a result of drunken casual sex. Uhoh- watch the judgments fly by like darts for this protagonist…
But every rom-com has a problem to be solved! In this case, the problem for the protagonist, Donna, is honesty and building a trusting relationship. She knows that she cannot support a child…she can barely pay for the abortion itself. She’s a stand-up comedian by night and works in a bookshop, which is about to close, by day and her one-time sex partner, Max, is a business student. Young parents have done worse, but should they have to? The mistake leads to a super awkward but, shall we say, highly naturalistic relationship test for these two independent contemporary lovers. They are forced to confront their mutual mistake and continue on a better foot or run fast from each other as a result because eeeek it all started with sex they can’t really remember that led to Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic 5 weeks post… so, because I’m a theorist and not a critic, though I am trying to sell this feature (TWO THUMBS UP) I have to spoil the lovely ending, below. Stop here if you don’t want to know what happens. And go see the movie.
Regardless of what the characters chose to do, what would be noble or silly or heartwarming, the decision before them is timeless and the shame of all the others in their place proceeds them like a swamp of muck you just land in when you make basic mistakes that remind you, modern man, that you’re human and biology doesn’t pause for your desires because iPhones exist. So, the pressure of history is there. The question is does that matter? Yes, but not in that it must be followed.
She gets the abortion. He goes with her. They talk like any guy and girl who just met each other in an I like you situation a few weeks ago would talk, only in a clinic. It’s all strikingly responsible and sweet. But maybe it strikes me that way because I see no point in “progress” if its trappings leave behind romance, so the romantic element is not choice, no, but the reaction and attitude surrounding the choice to be together after this strange beginning. This is the antithesis of ‘Knocked-up’. OC romanticizes the freedom to choose, not the results of senseless obligation. It reaches out to something much better and more stable than most other films, because it takes the good with the bad without martyring freedom with guilt or passion with absolute consequence.