The Rumpus Review of Obvious Child

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In the first scene of Obvious Child, Donna Stern, played by the smart and funny actress and comedian Jenny Slate, waxes on about her dirty underwear: how women long for sexy, clean undergarments, but, by the end of the day, our intimates are ridiculous and sad, smeared with bodily fluids. It’s a brazen introduction to a film about the reality of women’s bodies and the cultural standards that dictate how we should feel about them.

Many parts of Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, are genuinely subversive. The film, after all, enthusiastically endorses a woman’s right to choose, as well as de-stigmatizes the actual abortion procedure. In other ways, the fixation on the dirty undies we hear about in the first scene also actively plays into a current obsessive fascination with Millennial women publicly airing their dirty laundry.

While many interesting and important authors share their personal experiences as a means to take back the power in a world that is obsessed with shaming young women, this story has, over the last several years, increasingly become the single narrative we hear about twenty-something 21st century American women. I believe in women sharing their stories, but I am also deeply skeptical of the ubiquity of these tales in a world where the accomplishments of young women are consistently minimized.

The “Lady Neurotic,” as I affectionately dub her, is having a major moment in pop culture, and many people have a hard time conceptualizing any twenty-something female character that isn’t on the brink of falling apart. We see this character throughout Lena Dunham’s Girls, where a slew of narcissistic young women guzzle too much alcohol and make a living telling self-deprecating jokes about their lady parts and lady feelings. We see her on The New Girl, where the simultaneously loved and reviled Zooey Deschanel cries her way into a new apartment. We see her in the film Bridesmaids, where Kristen Wiig’s character Annie has lackluster sex with a boyfriend who treats her like dirt.

The Lady Neurotic is well-educated, white, middle to upper-middle class, and has considerable support from family and friends who really love her. Despite all these things, she still can’t seem to get her act together. I enjoy watching all these characters, all of whom tell us something interesting about the world that Millennial women navigate, but I am also frustrated that the Lady Neurotic seems to be the only portrayal of Millennial women we are allowed to see.

In some ways, Donna Stern is a re-imagining of the Lady Neurotic made famous on Girls, except more likable, less entitled, more willing to be genuinely vulnerable with her parents, her one-night-stand, and her friends. Donna is earnest in a way that the lady neurotics found on Girls, all big eyes and coddled ambitions, aren’t. Obvious Child is sweetness swaddled in a dirty joke. It’s the delicate pastel world of Wes Anderson, where characters are imperfect but want to get better. Where every asshole, in the end, has a really big heart.

Throughout Obvious Child, Donna is kind and warmhearted, but she is also fucking up royally. She binge drinks and blacks out through the first half of the film in regular intervals. She calls her ex and leaves sad, angry, vaguely threatening, and ridiculously funny messages, which the viewer (and sober Donna) knows he will later roll his eyes at, rather than answer. As is the case for many lady neurotics, she is often the punch line to her own jokes, both in planned sketches and in moments when she binge drinks and uses her stand-up as a way to vent about her feelings to a crowd of strangers. She has a one-night stand and forgets if they did or didn’t use a condom. The biggest, most mature decision that Donna makes is to quickly schedule an appointment to have an abortion when she finds out she is pregnant.

In Obvious Child, Donna gets farted on accidentally by her delightfully charming one-night stand and eventual suitor, eats spaghetti with her gentle puppeteer father, and gets rocked to sleep by a tough love mother who softens when she opens up about the abortion she had and didn’t regret. The fantasy of Obvious Child is that Donna deserves to be loved, rather than punished, even as she keeps racking up a laundry list of small and big mistakes. This is, I believe, the ultimate fantasy of the Millennial woman. She has already been told about a dozen times over that she can’t have it all, and, despite having been spoon-fed a diet of girl power and feminist treatises, she has never had any real life experiences that made her feel anything close to empowerment.

Why is the smart, sensitive, yet childish and emotionally inept Lady Neurotic often presented as the symbol of 21st century twenty-something girlhood? The ubiquity of the Lady Neurotic is in some ways bizarre. Certainly, many young men and women have been hit hard by a jobless economy, but, certainly, there are lots of Millennial women doing amazing, powerful, interesting things that do not involve feeling lost and moving to Brooklyn. There are scientists and scholars and writers and artists. There are Millennial women birthing babies and climbing mountains and traveling all over the world. They come in all shapes and colors and sizes, from any number of religious and racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some identify as feminist and some don’t. All are inundated in a culture that pretends to encourage female expression by continuously exploiting it, encouraging us to share our sex lives, personal stories, and selfies with the knowledge that we can and probably will be shamed for it later. The Millennial woman lives in constant fear of exposure and deals with it by exposing everything first. Here, she says. Take my dirty panties. Nail them to the wall. Let everybody see them. The Lady Neurotic’s power comes from knowing she let you hurt her first.

Obvious Child, like all romantic comedies, is a fantasy world, but unlike the fantasy world of most romantic comedies where the girl gets the guy and lives happily ever after, the fantasy here is for a world that actively supports young women and their choices. At times I wanted the film to dig deeper into some of the issues surrounding abortion in this country, but the film’s purpose is not like 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, the brilliant 2007 Romanian film, written and directed by Christian Mungiu, which is filled with cryptic scenes and dark humor that explores the dangerous world where abortion is illegal. In Obvious Child abortion is quick, straightforward. After Donna completes the short procedure we see her in a clean room filled with other young women, and then we see her joining her one-night stand, who had come with her to the hospital with flowers—a Valentine’s Day present for a woman he doesn’t know very well, but also clearly adores.

Obvious Child is a film about how young women should be able to make mistakes and still be loved for who they are, but beneath the romantic fantasy of Obvious Child are harder truths: that the right to an abortion is still under attack, that girls still know that their value as a person is often only as good as having a nice guy to bring them flowers, and that the Millennial girl is encouraged by the media to air her dirty laundry, not necessary because we care about listening to young women, but also because there is something about the story of a woman on the brink of self-destruction that sells.


Arielle Bernstein's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and AV Club. She teaches writing at American University and is working on both a novel and memoir. More from this author →