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The One Four-Letter Word You Won't Find in Obvious Child

06/05/2014 05:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014
  • Leora Tanenbaum Author of "I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet"

The new romantic comedy Obvious Child is about Donna, a young bawdy comedian who has a one-night-stand and becomes pregnant. Unprepared for parenthood emotionally or financially, she has an abortion at Planned Parenthood. Although Donna and her friends live and breathe four-letter words, there's one they never mention.

Slut.

Slut-shaming has permeated our milieu so deeply that its absence indeed is remarkable. In real life, girls and women are labeled sluts every day. We see sexual assault victims (like the girl who went to the Steubenville, Ohio party in 2012) pilloried as "loose drunk sluts"; girls who commit suicide (like Audrie Pott and Rehteah Parsons) after they are raped and naked photos of them documenting their supposed sluttiness appear in their classmates' phones; and the victims of the murder spree of Elliot Rodger, who vowed to "slaughter every blonde slut."

Despite these tragic outcomes, many people believe that slut-shaming is a necessary deterrent to keep young women's sexuality in check. When I researched my 1999 book Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, and when I conducted follow-up research recently for my forthcoming book on slut-shaming in the age of the Internet, repeatedly people said to me that if a girl looks like a slut and acts like a slut, what's the problem with calling her a "slut"? It hadn't occurred to them that this was sexist thinking, since boys are permitted and even encouraged to be sexual, and that besides, "slut" is a slippery word with no fixed meaning, so essentially "sluttiness" is in the eye of the beholder.

In Hollywood movies, sexually active women insist they're not really sluts. In What's Your Number?, the character played by Anna Faris is terrified that being perceived as a "slut" means she'll never marry. In Easy A, the Emma Stone character at first likes the attention she gets for being known as the school "slut," even though she's not sexually active, until she's accused of spreading an STI. Then she reverts to her non-slutty identity and gets a boyfriend. In Walk of Shame, the Elizabeth Banks character, wearing a tight dress and desperately trying to be taken seriously the day after a drunken one-night-stand, repeatedly defends herself as a "good girl" who is not a "whore." These movies suggest it's unfortunate that the sexuality of girls and women is policed through slut-shaming -- but slut-shaming is part of life, so what can you do?

Obvious Child shifts the conversation, demonstrating that we can talk about women's sexuality without judgment.

Feminists are chattering about Obvious Child as a groundbreaking movie because it presents abortion without apology. And they're right. Until now, we've never seen an honest, nonjudgmental portrayal of abortion in a Hollywood romantic comedy. We've also never seen abortion portrayed as the safe procedure it truly is. In this movie, it's a given that access to safe, legal abortion is necessary. Despite her scatological humor, Donna is a girl-next-door type; if the girl next door needs an abortion, then surely abortion must be easily accessible. The health care providers at Planned Parenthood are portrayed as compassionate people who treat their patients as intelligent and capable of making the best decision that suits their health and their lives. (Disclosure: I work for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.)

But Obvious Child is also pioneering in its utter lack of judgment against Donna for having sex with a near-stranger. We see that she's been depressed -- her boyfriend broke up with her in a humiliating way, she lost her job, she's been drinking -- and we're on her side. The one completely stupid thing she does is to drunkenly forget to use a condom. But even on that point, no one in the movie shakes a finger in her face. It's understood that she absolutely should have used birth control, but it's also understood that everyone makes mistakes -- and that drunkenness and unpreparedness do not a slut make.

Many feminists want to reclaim "slut" and turn it on its head from a word of stigma to a badge of honor -- to show that we are sexual without apology. The intention is admirable, but the strategy is flawed. Once you call yourself a "slut" -- meaning it in a good way -- you open up the possibility of others calling you a "slut" -- but in a bad way. The brilliant, forward-thinking tactic chosen by writer/director Gillian Robespierre, on the other hand, is to sidestep "slut" completely because the word is irrelevant.

If Donna were called a "slut" or thought of herself as a "slut," there's a high likelihood that she would not take charge of her sexual health. In the absence of slut-shaming, she does the responsible thing and gets an abortion, vowing to be more careful in the future with birth control. Because he does not live within a culture of slut-shaming, the guy she sleeps with does not denigrate her; to the contrary, he pursues her romantically and accompanies her when she gets the abortion.

By showing us what life is like without the word "slut," the obstacles created by slut-shaming are spotlighted. Slut-shaming poses a mental barrier to sexual health care, since girls and women who worry about judgment may be reluctant to use birth control and even to see a health care provider. Slut-shaming also materially obstructs access to health care: politicians who want to control women's sexuality are actively restricting access to abortion in an increasing number of states around the country, so that only women with financial resources are able to safely and legally abort; and the Supreme Court will decide this month if bosses can restrict their employees' access to birth control in their health care insurance plans. A world without slut-shaming, then, is a world with healthier girls and women.

So go see Obvious Child not only because it's funny and romantic, and not only because it dispels myths about abortion. You should also go see it because it is a huge step forward in re-orienting our thinking about women's sexuality.

The message is: Being sexual is okay, and sluttiness has nothing to do with it.