I wanted to see what an R rated abortion looks like

There was a small furor a few weeks ago when members of the Christian Right, including the slimeball my local newspaper insists on paying to syndicate even though they have perfectly good opinion writers on staff, were up in arms about the Motion Picture Association of America giving Pureflix’ new movie Unplanned an R rating.

I love it when partisan politics injects itself into my specialist subject. That’s just my favorite thing in the world.

Unplanned is Pureflix’ new anti-Planned Parenthood propaganda piece based on the memoir of Abby Johnson, who left Planned Parenthood after eight years and became an anti-abortion activist overnight in 2009 when she says she helped with an ultrasound-assisted abortion and saw a 13-week old fetus struggling to get away from the vacuum tube. Johnson’s account is somewhat questionable – the instinct to factcheck all of this is strong, but that’s not what we’re doing here.

The adaptation is rated R, officially for disturbing/bloody images. The punditry has spun this both ways, painting it as both an admission of the violence involved in abortions and as an attempt to censor the truth about abortions by liberal Hollywood. Star Ashley Bratcher said herself in an interview with Fox News

“Abortion is R rated, and for the MPAA to give us that rating, we don’t have nudity, we don’t have sex, we don’t have language, so the only thing they could give us an R for is violence. That means they agree that abortion is a violent and disturbing act.”

Unfortunately, there very much is another reason. While I had hoped Unplanned would be R rated because of some cartoonishly graphic abortion scene, I was extremely sad to discover that Unplanned is R rated because of the MPAA’s own longstanding misogyny.

Unplanned is rated R for one specific scene – fairly early on, Johnson (Bratcher) has her own medically induced abortion, taking what is commonly known as the abortion pill. The pill can carry with it side effects that resemble a nasty period, including cramping and heavy bleeding.

In the scene, Johnson is shown suffering with her bare legs covered in blood. Eventually, she drags herself to the shower, where what appear to be several large blood clots fall out of her, which she desperately puts in the toilet. The scene ends with a long shot of her curled up on her bathroom floor, still bleeding, surrounded by her own faded bloody footprints, with the toilet bowl still bloody. She describes cramping that lasts for several months afterward.

This is exactly the kind of scene that has historically resulted in an unexpectedly harsh MPAA rating – a graphic depiction of a woman’s body as something other than an object of male pleasure.

The MPAA rating system evolved out of the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code, which it replaced in 1968. The Hays Code was one of strict censorship – plot elements that the code listed as indecent were either not filmed or cut before the movie’s release. A reflection of the society it was made for, several perfectly normal things were listed on the code as indecent. The biggest flashpoint in hindsight was its outright ban on homosexuality, but other subjects such as interracial marriage and the Holocaust were also forbidden ground.

Instead of simply not allowing certain things to hit screens, the MPAA stratifies movies by content, rating which audiences they’re appropriate for. While the MPAA does not engage in outright censorship, it does push back strongly on taboo topics, and like the Hays Code, it reflects a society that is still intensely homosexist and misogynistic. As such, there’s a long history of gay sex scenes being rated more harshly than nearly identical scenes between heterosexual partners – you can find more detail in the wonderful 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which is available on Youtube.

While most of the prejudice here has historically affected the LGBT community, the MPAA has also had many problems with straight sex scenes. The documentary mentions movies that are threatened with an NC-17 rating over visually displaying a woman’s pubic hair or having too long of an orgasm or, in a particularly famous example, showing a man wiping his mouth after performing oral sex on a woman.

Sex is OK onscreen, as is discussion of male sexual health, but acts and positions associated with female pleasure, or any depiction of female sexual health, are rated much more harshly.

So what you have in Unplanned is essentially two different barrels of the virgin-whore complex shooting at each other.

Unplanned, and its Christian Right audience, hates women, and doesn’t want to see any part of them other than their reproductive capacity. For as many times as it paints itself as a real story and not something that’s scripted, the propaganda piece makes a point of oversimplifying everything. Not only does it not mention a broad swath of the services Planned Parenthood provides – which include various forms of birth control, sex education, cancer screenings and STI treatment among many, many others – it doesn’t mention any reasons why a woman would want an abortion, other than simply not wanting to carry the pregnancy to term. “Rape,” “incest,” “non-viable” and “danger to the mother” aren’t anywhere in Unplanned’s vocabulary.

It does not see women as whole human beings who are worried about their own health, or about navigating family or social lives while having to answer questions about their pregnancy, or for whom that pregnancy may be the lingering affect of the darkest moment of their lives. And in order to express this vision, it portrays the “abortion debate” as an ideologically pure exercise, where the question of whether or not the baby is alive is the only one that matters and the only one that is even asked.

The MPAA also hates women, and doesn’t want to see any part of their reproductive capacity. Women are often portrayed as objects of male desire and pleasure, but it is extraordinarily rare over the history of film to see women as actors of female desire and pleasure. It is perhaps even more rare for a film to portray women’s sexual organs as having any kind of change in behavior, be it menstruation or arousal, instead of as static orifices for male use, often with the woman herself as nothing more than the person-shaped thing attached to it.

It does not see women as whole human beings who crave, or who even experience, sexual pleasure, or who have to deal with a monthly menstruation cycle. And in order to express this vision, over several decades, it has consistently rated films that portray women masturbating or receiving oral sex or having sex with another woman, or that portray them tending to their monthly cycle — or in Unplanned’s case, tending to heavy bleeding resulting from the abortion pill — very harshly.

Conservative pundits are the ones who’ve been angry about Unplanned’s rating, mostly because they’re the only ones who want to talk about this propaganda piece at all, but the cruelly ironic fact is the R rating they’re railing against is a result of the same misogyny that birthed Unplanned in the first place.

***

Unplanned was conspicuously released at a time when abortion rights are at extreme risk. After forcing Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court last year, Republican-controlled states have been making a concentrated effort to pass particularly outrageous anti-abortion laws in the hopes that they will be challenged and result in an opportunity for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade. I would urge anyone unfamiliar with the situation to watch John Oliver’s piece on the strategy from 2016, which was before President Donald Trump’s election, as well as his piece on crisis pregnancy centers from 2018.

There is overwhelming evidence that outlawing abortion does not result in fewer abortions, it simply makes them less safe. The best way to reduce the rate is to provide easy access to birth control, which is Planned Parenthood’s primary purpose, and the ability for women to control their reproductive health is strongly tied to overall health outcomes.

Planned Parenthood, despite abortion only accounting for a small fraction of the services it provides, and despite the measurable impact Planned Parenthood has in reducing the abortion rate, has consistently drawn the ire of the anti-abortion movement, with activists and politicians often calling for its complete closure. You can donate to the organization here.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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