October Baby Gets Modern Womanhood All Wrong

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 3 2012 3:50 PM

What October Baby Gets Wrong About Modern Womanhood

The movie’s self-involved, career-minded biological mother doesn’t reflect reality, but she fit a pro-life stereotype.

October Baby still.
Rachel Hendrix in October Baby

Photograph © 2012 Samuel Goldwyn Films. All rights reserved.

October Baby is, on its surface, the tale of a young woman who survived a failed abortion and sets out to find her birth mother. But the movie, which has garnered surprisingly good box office results for a Christian film in limited release, goes beyond a cultural critique of abortion. By offering a portrait of modern womanhood with its priorities all messed up—women choosing careers over family, aided and abetted by abortion, contraception, and sexual licentiousness—it meshes neatly with what we’ve been hearing from certain Republicans lately.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

The film’s protagonist is Hannah, a college student with an array of physical and mental problems who discovers her birth mother (Shari Rigby) attempted to abort her at 24 weeks. Salon described the unlikely circumstances of this botched procedure as akin to “being struck by lightning and eaten by a shark at the same time,” and the same could be said for the events that then lead Hannah to track down her biological mother. They involve her arrest by a kind and exceedingly helpful cop, and her tracking down the nurse who remembers with remarkable precision the details of Hannah’s birth almost two decades earlier. But equally unbelievable is the film’s two-dimensional portrayal of Hannah’s biological mother, a tough-minded striver who sought a late-term abortion at 18 because, as the abortion nurse recalls, “she had to go to school, she had to have a career.”

Hannah (Rachel Hendrix) confronts her biological mother, now a successful lawyer who seems to have nearly forgotten she ever attempted an abortion. Just then, the woman’s husband walks in, and in a show of cruel self-protection, she denies her daughter’s existence. “I don’t know what you’re referring to,” she says, before hopping off to a luncheon in her Mercedes with her husband and no-doubt-exquisitely-timed baby daughter.

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The message is perfectly of-the-moment and demonstrates how anti-abortion and anti-woman messaging often overlap. We have a presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, who a few years ago warned about “radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade” to force women to work “outside the home.” We have Rush Limbaugh slut-shaming the uppity, suit-wearing Georgetown law school student who dared argue health insurance companies should be required to pay for contraception. We have, in other words, October Baby’s false argument writ large and very real—the idea that abortion and family planning are made necessary by women’s unfortunate progress, instead of being needs as old as humanity.

Set in the context of other political pushes—the Blunt Amendment, state fights over making vaginal ultrasounds mandatory before abortions, Santorum’s view of contraception as “a license” to sexual behavior that’s “counter to how things are supposed to be”—it’s tempting to see the GOP’s latest handling of sexual politics as an effort, as Frank Rich has put it, “to turn back the clock to that supposedly halcyon time when Ralph Kramden was king of his domestic castle.”    

Female ambition is the red herring in our culture war over family planning and sexual autonomy. As if to prove the point, the Wall Street Journal ran a series of essays on the sexual revolution, including one succinctly titled “Has the Sexual Revolution Been Good for Women? No,” suggesting that the problem with the last 50 years of “advances in the work force and education” is that it’s given women too many darn options. (Too much choice gives women a perpetual sense that “the grass is greener elsewhere,” argues conservative Mary Eberstadt.) Such arguments inevitably set women’s professional and personal ambitions against child-rearing, as if the two things preclude one another.