To quote Gloria Feldt, “Media portrayals, real or fictional, don’t merely inform us — they form us.” In this series, I will be examining five films – classic, mainstream, independent, foreign, and pre-Roe – and five television shows – daytime soap, drama, pre-Roe, critically lauded, and teen-oriented – that address unexpected pregnancy, to examine how past portrayals can influence and reflect society’s view of abortion.
Released in 1962, The Shame of Patty Smith sounds like a classic exploitation flick: cheaply made, poorly written and acted, and full of lurid images of young girls led astray. Which, honestly, is why I wanted to see it – I do love Reefer Madness-style cult classics. Imagine my surprise, then, to see a staunchly pro-legalization message repeated throughout this tale of Patty’s rape and desperate search for an abortion.
Patty, a young Catholic woman who recently moved from her home in Kansas to Los Angeles, and her boyfriend Allan are involved in a minor car accident with three thugs (one of whom is rocking a truly impressive unibrow). There is a brief confrontation, and then Patty and Allan continue on to the beach. Their romantic wave-watching is interrupted by the thugs; one holds a knife to Allan’s throat while the other two rape Patty. Six weeks later, Patty is pregnant and needs an abortion; the search for an affordable doctor leads her to the Valley, where an unemployed pharmacist does the procedure. Infection sets in and Patty dies, but not before her loyal roommate, caring physician, and square-jawed policeman raid the “clinic” and save another young girl from Patty’s fate.
What’s most interesting about all this is how casually myriad characters – the doctor, the emergency room physician, the detective – decry the anti-abortion laws of that time. The case is made over and over that these laws only harm women, and that doctors in particular felt constrained by the regulations and couldn’t properly treat their patients. The ease with which women can obtain abortions in other countries, specifically Sweden and Japan, is also discussed, and the film’s narrator breaks the fourth wall early on to list off grim statistics regarding the thousands of women who died each year from illegal abortions.
Patty Smith was a low-budget, independent film, which may have given the producers the freedom to craft such a direct pro-choice statement. There is little talk about the morality of abortion, save for when Patty turns to a priest for help and instead receives a fire-breathing sermon about the evils of abortion. Instead, the focus is on what illegal abortion meant for women and their families, and the repercussions that such restrictive laws had on actual lives. Patty Smith is unabashedly pro-woman, pro-choice, and pro-legalization. It’s an amazing, forgotten gem.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.