On being misled

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Abortion and suicide. Hollywood – meaning American films made now – is fascinated with both, but it skews them. It makes out that killing yourself is a much easier decision than in reality it is; and that having an abortion is a much harder one.

The Ides of March bills itself as a political thriller, but an abortion-and-suicide storyline is key (and yes, here be spoilers). Political intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is twenty (possibly slightly younger, an opaque and throwaway line suggests). She is beautiful and confidant, the daughter of a political family and a keen worker on the Democrat trail.  She confidently and beautifully beds the campaign manager Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and the two have a brief relationship, until he discovers that she had a one-night liaison with his boss, the formerly untouchable Governor Morris (George Clooney).

At this point Molly’s confidence (and with it her character) evaporate in the heat of Stephen’s disbelief and horror. All Victim, Molly weeps that she couldn’t ask her well-known political father for the $900 she needs to … (the word “abortion” is never mentioned, perhaps deemed too shocking). Now a wall-eyed machine, Stephen finds her $1800 from campaign funds, tells her to spend some on a plane ticket home and book an… The next day he drives her to the clinic, leaves her there, forgets to pick her up for hours and hours. We see her being given two bottles of pills by a faceless nurse. She gets back to her hotel room by foot and taxi and by the time Stephen gets there later in the evening, she’s dead. In the car park he listens, behind a rain-chastened windscreen, to a series of messages that she left him over the course of the afternoon.

Now there are two possibilities. Either Molly killed herself. Or the abortion pills killed her.

The Governor tells the media of a “prescription drug and alcohol” combination. An accident or not? thrills around the room. There may be other drugs involved, of course, but this is never hinted at and when Stephen sees the neatly fallen corpse, he also pointedly spies those two bottles of medicine that the orderly gave Molly.

The “thriller” element of the film wants to preserve this ambiguity, and it trades on any latent distrust of abortion to do so.

Is this scenario possible?

First, I was incredulous about the $900. Surely it can’t cost that much to get a legal abortion in Ohio? I checked and I was wrong; it really – frighteningly – does.

But second, what are the two bottles of pills?

Medical abortion is a term that refers to abortion induced only by medicines, rather than by any surgical procedure. In the UK women are not allowed to take these at home, but in America it is possible, since it is deemed perfectly safe (in the UK the restriction is politically, not medically, founded). The drugs are mifepristone and misoprostol and the highest dose usually prescribed would be four tablets of each.

According to the International Consortium of Medical Abortion, there have been a total of six deaths of American women linked to medical abortion since 2001. All were the result of infections and not directly related to the abortion medication. Figures on the risks of abortion from the Guttmacher Institute show that in the first eight weeks of pregnancy there is an average of one death per million abortions. As far as I could find out, no one in America has died as a result of taking medical abortion pills. There’s no getting away from the fact that, in the Western world, having a legal abortion is an extremely safe thing to do. (Much, much safer than having a baby, for example).

There is a second possibility in the Molly story; that she had a surgical abortion and the pills are painkillers or antibiotics. Enough to kill oneself with? Maybe, for a very careless or very determined person.

Up to the point where she dies, however, Molly has not seemed careless; she’s been portrayed as an able and driven young woman. There is very little evidence that she is suffering from despair or a lack of self worth. What reason are we supposed to see for suicide?

Inescapably, it all comes back to the abortion. If this woman, who was really just fine the day before, is now a potential suicide, where else are we to look for the reason? No matter that there is no evidence to suggest that abortion has a detrimental psychological impact (and there are plenty of studies). The filmmakers make do not make a moral judgement (except perhaps of Stephen for being heartless and the Governor for being lascivious). But they don’t have to. Because they’ve set up an apparently believable situation in which a young women, driven to have an abortion, has paid for it.

And if suicide is a massive undertaking, unlikely to be the way out of choice for a smart, successful young women? Well, there’s always the accidental death option.

And if accidental death could not, logically, result from the scenario that has been set up? Never mind. You can always rely on a latent fear of abortion – that word too frightening even to be uttered – to make that little piece of fictionalisation credible.

I didn’t like The Ides of March. It’s stylish but thin, ultimately depressing in its meanness of imaginative scope. All the characters – not just poor cipheric Molly – are cobwebby, blown apart by the gale force requirements of the plot. The abortion story is worse than sloppy, though; it’s misleading, designed to play on our fears and dependent on our ignorance.

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Asking for less

November 8, 2011 § 7 Comments

David Cameron has been making lots of supportive noises about female membership of executive boards. Last week, hit by the news that executive pay saw a sharp increase last year, Cameron suggested that the “women on boards” plan could also help to address excessive pay. The boys club atmosphere of senior executive circles allowed men to keep on paying men more, he suggested, and a larger female presence would somehow cut through this and help to restore measure and balance.

But how exactly does the Prime Minister think the presence of women will curb pay?  The Financial Times, looking for experts, found little expert evidence and one person who was willing to say that “women ask for less than men.”

Is this the way the curbing will work? Because women have been trained to ask for less than their male colleagues, their influence will mean everyone gets a bit less greedy?

There are some real problems with this. Though many people might agree that (mainly male) top executives demanding very high pay is wrong, it doesn’t follow that women demanding less is right. Women asking for less money is not an indication that women are less acquisitive or more measured than men, but that they have been trained – really, throughout our entire financial history – to think they should have less. Women have always been paid a smaller amount than men; they still are. They ask for less out of habit, fear, lack of self-esteem – but mainly because that’s the way it has always been and it is difficult to break through in every area, and to fight all the time. Women may have agreed to do top jobs at lower salaries because, in trying to achieve equality, status is more important than money. That doesn’t mean money isn’t important to women.

There is a second possibility. It is possible that with more women on boards, the average pay will go down: because the women will be paid smaller salaries than male colleagues doing a very similar job. Since this currently happens in almost every arena of professional life, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that it continued even after more women entered boardrooms. David Cameron’s plan might work in this way – will that be a triumph?

David Cameron seems to think he’s giving women a compliment, by propounding the idea that they will morally shame or wisely advise their greedy male colleagues. What he’s actually doing is counting on a historical inequality to solve a problem he should be addressing via policy.

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