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Female Friendship and the Secret Victorian Life of ‘Obvious Child’

• August 04, 2014 • 8:00 AM

What’s been described as an “abortion rom-com” has a lot in common with Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and other Victorian novels that showcase how female friendship can develop the heroine’s positive qualities.

Obvious Child, a film described by many as an abortion rom-com, is an unlikely candidate for the label “Victorian.” When I ask my students to describe Victorian attitudes about sex, they consistently volunteer words like “prudish” and “hypocritical.” Someone usually cites the anecdote about Victorians finding bare piano legs so shocking that they covered them with doilies.

It’s a far cry from that kind of squeamishness to Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, now in limited national release, which opens with its heroine doing a stand-up comedy routine about vaginal discharge. Not your mother’s romantic comedy, the director and screenwriter are announcing, and certainly not your great-great-great grandmother’s.

Yet in one surprising respect Obvious Child is very Victorian, albeit not in the way we typically use the term. I’m referring to the way that the film links its boy-girl courtship plot to another significant social relationship: female friendship.

For most of its 86 minutes, Obvious Child is interesting not only for how it departs from Victorian prudishness but also for valuing friendship between women almost as much as Victorian novelists did.

Victorian novels about courtship helped to popularize many rom-com conventions still in use today. Although readers now often miss this, the Victorian heroines who make the happiest marriages usually also have a close female friend or strong female network. Jane Eyre, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, Amy in Little Dorrit, Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: each forms close ties with at least one other woman that anticipate the happy marriage she ultimately contracts with a beloved man. By contrast, heroines without true female friends end up unhappily married or not married at all—think of Hardy’s Tess, Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, or Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

It may now seem odd to us now that Victorian novelists made female friendship such a crucial element of novels that were, first and foremost, about male-female romance. We are the heirs of 20th-century frameworks that considered heterosexuality the key to human development. From the 1920s forward, it became common sense to consider intense female friendship an adolescent phase to be outgrown and adult women’s relationships with one another as primarily involving rivalry over men.

Victorians, by contrast, who had yet to coin the term “heterosexuality” (see this book) and rarely worried about sex between women (see this book, and this one), saw little conflict between marriage and female friendship. Indeed, Victorian novels often showcase how female friendship develops the heroine’s positive feminine qualities: sympathy, altruism, loyalty, warmth, even romantic susceptibility.

Amidst the hoopla over how Obvious Child treats abortion, a few critics have also mentioned the importance of the close friendship between Donna (the endearing Jenny Slate), and her roommate Nellie (the charismatic Gaby Hoffman). As Courtney Howard, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it, “I also loved – loved (I clutch my chest and utter it aloud as I type that) how female friendship is portrayed here. It’s unwavering, supportive and genuinely moving.”

Nellie the friend is a major presence in the movie, appearing early and often. Her relationship with Donna is the most stable and emotionally expressive one in the film; their first scene together ends with each telling the other “I love you.” When Donna realizes she might be pregnant from a one-night stand with a sweet guy named Max, Nellie calms her down, saying “I’ll go get a test,” and waits with her for the results. She supports Donna’s decision to get an abortion, shares her own experience of having had one (“I never regret it”), and is in the front row of the comedy club when Donna goes public about her plan.

As in a Victorian novel, the friendship plot and the romance plot work in tandem. In the film’s last act, Nellie and Donna shiver together on the sidewalk on the morning scheduled for the abortion while Nellie tries to get a cab; as she puts it, “we’re aborting in style.” Nellie is the first to spot Max, the male love interest, heading toward Donna with a bunch of flowers, and provides running commentary as he approaches. Her final words in the movie are, “He’s here.” When Max, who only learned of Donna’s pregnancy the night before, asks if he can accompany her to the clinic—this film’s equivalent of the classical rom-com proposal scene—he seeks permission from both women: “If it’s OK with you,” he says, looking at Donna, “and you,” nodding at Nellie.

Female friendship in Victorian novels often bolsters their female protagonists’ sense of self and helps them to question the ways that society limits women. In Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, for example, the bold title character befriends the shy Caroline Helstone and together they coin a feminist myth about the first woman that celebrates spontaneity, curiosity, and power—all qualities that their relatives and guardians object to in women.

obvious-child-2Obvious Child. (Photo: A24)

Nellie similarly boosts Donna’s ambitions and decisions, albeit in more mundane terms. She tells Donna that what makes her “so great” at stand-up is that she is “unapologetically” herself, and urges her to consider the decision to abort entirely her own. Nellie also names the social forces that make that difficult: “We already live in a patriarchal society where a bunch of old white men in weird robes legislate what we should do with our cunts.” Indeed, supporting Donna seems to be Nellie’s primary function; we don’t know, for example, whether Nellie is in a relationship or what she does for work, and I had to check the credits to learn her name.

The fact that the film doesn’t develop Nellie’s character more signals how things have changed since Victorian days, and not necessarily for the better. In Victorian novels, the female friend usually sticks around after the husband comes on the scene. Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, which is all about marriage, actually ends by showing two female friends ensconced together, cooing over a baby, their husbands offstage.

When I ask my students to describe Victorian attitudes about sex, they consistently volunteer words like “prudish” and “hypocritical.” Someone usually cites the anecdote about Victorians finding bare piano legs so shocking that they covered them with doilies.

In Obvious Child, by contrast, once the male-female romance reaches its denouement, the female friend gets whisked away. When Max appears and offers to take Donna to the clinic, we see a medium shot of Nellie, Donna, and Max together. Next, we cut to a close-up of Nellie alone. That solo shot showcases Nellie, underscoring her importance, but it also isolates her, suggesting that for Donna and Max to become a twosome, Donna’s best friend must step aside. That shot is the last we see or hear of Nellie. It would take only a few seconds and provide better continuity were Donna to say to Nellie, for example, “See you later,” or text her after the procedure. And while it’s difficult to interpret an absence, Nellie’s total disappearance from the story implies that once the romance plot starts to hasten toward its conclusion, even the closest friend becomes narrative clutter.

The fact that we don’t see Donna thanking Nellie or contacting her later in the day fits with Donna’s character; she’s more than a bit self-centered. But stories also mirror general social values, and Nellie abruptly handled exit reflects a tendency to see romance and friendship as competing with rather than complementing each other. One might conclude from the movie’s last minutes that women can’t have romance and friendship but must choose between them.

Nonetheless, for most of its 86 minutes, Obvious Child is interesting not only for how it departs from Victorian prudishness but also for valuing friendship between women almost as much as Victorian novelists did.

What does it mean that such a quintessentially contemporary film resuscitates a plot device associated with 19th-century fiction? It may indicate that as we start to move beyond some of the 20th century’s more reductive ways of thinking about sexuality and relationships, we can start to recover the richer social universe of an earlier era.

Our society no longer takes it for granted that everyone will marry or that those who do will be with the same person all their lives. We no longer presume that marriage is always heterosexual or that friendship is always same-sex. As a result, we can start to tell different stories about how we define and value friendship and romance relative to each other. Films as varied as Her and Frozen have paid close attention to friendship this past year, with Her giving us a rare look at male-female friendship and Frozen making love between sisters central to a fairy-tale romance plot.

In the last moments of Obvious Child, Donna is resting on Max’s couch, post-procedure, and they decide to watch a movie. It’s Valentine’s Day and there are nothing but romance films on TV. They choose Gone With the Wind, which offers an interesting cautionary tale about romance and female friendship. Scarlett O’Hara has no real female friends; she feels disdain for most women, steals her sister’s fiancé, and never genuinely reciprocates the affections of Melanie Wilkes, whose husband she covets. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Scarlett also fails to experience true romance and ends up with neither Rhett Butler nor Ashley Wilkes. If the budding boy-girl relationship with which Obvious Child concludes is to be a happy one, I recommend that Donna crack open a few Victorian novels. They will teach her, as they can all of us, that friendship and romance have much in common, and that we stand to benefit from making room for both in our lives.

Sharon Marcus
Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature and incoming dean of humanities at Columbia University. She is also a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.

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