“Grandma” and Pro-choice Comedy

Post by Ryan Pumroy

With calls to defund Planned Parenthood heating up, Ryan takes a look at Grandma (2015) and other recent pro-choice comedies to see what lessons they can provide.

While abortion has always been a controversial issue, the debate has heated up in the last few weeks. An anti-abortion activist group released edited videos alleging Planned Parenthood profits from selling fetal tissue, which Planned Parenthood flat-out denies. Several Republican presidential candidates pounced and are using “Defund Planned Parenthood” as their rallying cry. A potential government shutdown is looming, with Planned Parenthood’s funding as the crux. Whether there is an actual shutdown or not is a matter of time and politicking.
It’s an interesting matter of fate when a film comes out and it strikes a cord with what’s happening in popular culture, the zeitgeist, or whatever you wish to call it.
For example, Selma and Straight Outta Compton resonate with the rise of Black Lives Matter and the rioting that took place in the US. At the moment, Grandma is striking a cord with the Planned Parenthood debate, which ultimately is a debate about abortion.
Lily Tomlin stars as Elle, a salty yet loving second-wave feminist and recent widow. Julia Garner plays Sage, Elle’s young granddaughter who is several weeks pregnant. The film takes place over a single day as Elle and Sage try to raise the money to pay for an abortion.
It’s a very charming and funny movie. It successfully avoids becoming melodramatic. The characters are terrific. They are complex, relationships are layered and have history, and with many there is clear pain and joy in their lives and in their pasts. These people have depth.
The film itself gracefully balances the subjects of youth, aging, and family while being a positive message about feminism, sex education, and women’s health.
Grandma reminds me of films such as Juno (2007), Knocked Up (2007), and Obvious Child (2014) – all prominent films about unplanned pregnancies. What stands out about these comedies is their depiction of choice.
In Juno, Juno first plans to get an abortion, but ultimately decides to let an older couple adopt the baby instead. She reveals this to her parents, who support her. Juno is the decision maker.
Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up decides to keep the baby, with Seth Rogen’s character saying he’ll support whatever her decision is.
In Obvious Child, after much thought, Jenny Slate’s character chooses to have an abortion. Events go much the same way in Grandma.
In each of these examples, the woman makes the decision. In actual life, things are usually not that simple.
So what’s the point of all of this?
I think these pro-choice comedies can be instructive on a few levels.
First, there’s the dignity of choice and a recognition of maturity in young women. The women in these films are the ultimate deciders. They get to choose their fate.
Juno is a high school student, yet she makes the individual decision about the pregnancy and adoption. Knocked Up‘s Alison is a mid-to-late-twenties E! News reporter starting her career, and she weighs the decision to raise her child. Donna in Obvious Child is also a mid-to-late-twenties woman beginning her career, and she concludes that the time is not right to have a baby. Similarly in Grandma, Sage states that she wants a family, but not right now.
Second, these types of pro-choice comedies can allow us as viewers to engage in these sorts of conversations. Not only that, but to do so in a respectful way, one that isn’t solely informed by threats of damnation.
Certainly in actual life and the mentioned films, these decisions are not made lightly. These choices weigh heavily on characters. Early in Grandma, Grandma Elle says to Sage, “You’ll think about this every day at some point for the rest of your life.” That line doesn’t come from a place of fear or hatred, but from a place of experience and love.
Adamant pro-life supporters may say those who support choice just don’t value life. That doesn’t seem to be true. There’s great value attached to life on both sides.
What choice gives is just that – choice. There is power in making a decision, controlling your fate and your body. There is dignity in making a decision.
What these pro-choice comedies show us is that, whatever the decision, life goes on. That’s a positive message not just for women, but for all of us.

Grandma is in theaters now.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz
Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, and Sam Elliott
78 minutes
Rated R
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
United States

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