Abortion and “The Fly”

2 Sep

Recently I watched “The Fly” (the 1986 version) for the first time. I have had this film on my shelf for almost two years now; my reason for avoiding it was that I am obsessed with Jeff Goldblum and I was afraid that seeing him all gross and decomposing would make me love him less. I know how ridiculous that sounds.

The thing about being completely in love with Jeff Goldblum is that, unlike many other stars to whom I am attracted, he tends to, in general, make pretty good movies. I think this must be difficult as an unconventionally attractive person, particularly one with a very distinctive cadence, so it is all the more admirable that the Goldblum ouevre has very few misses. So I was fairly confident that “The Fly” would be good.

For those who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it – but I also recommend staying away from this post until you have seen it; I know it’s ridiculous to post spoiler warnings for a 25-year-old film, but I do plan to discuss a plot point that I did not know about before watching and I just want to make sure you’re prepared. Also I find it tiresome to do plot summaries so if you haven’t seen it and want to keep reading, better start googling.

“The Fly” has been understood in some circles as a cinematic metaphor for AIDS, although David Cronenburg was reportedly surprised by this interpretation as he had intended the film to be about disease, aging and death in general. In the cultural context of the 1980s, though, even an unintentional reference to AIDS makes a lot of sense and the interpretation has stuck – even I thought that was what it was about, going in. What I didn’t know was that this film deals unflinchingly with the abortion issue and more generally with bodily autonomy.

What I loved about the abortion theme was that there was no hemming and hawing over the politics of it; it was simply a choice that Veronica needed to make, and once she made it even the slimeball ex-boyfriend was fully ready to help her out. If this film was made today I am certain that either the pregnancy storyline would have been cut altogether, or there would have had to have been some obligatory consideration of the “pro-life” viewpoint before she could ultimately go ahead with it. How dreary it is that we have regressed so much.

There are moments in the film that were so real, I felt as if Cronenburg (and Geena Davis) must have spent some time hanging out in the counselling offices of abortion clinics. When Veronica sees Seth in the last stages of deterioration and decides she needs to go ahead with the abortion immediately, Stathis reminds her that it is the middle of the night. “I need it out of me! Now!” she screams. What clinic staffer hasn’t seen that level of desperation before? I know this is Goldblum’s star-making role but I think Davis was note-perfect. Her whole story is a woman who falls in love with someone who changes, and becomes something different than she thought – whether from disease, or obsession – and when she finds herself pregnant, she has to decide how much of that man she wants in her life through the potential child. Also it might end up being a giant maggot. We’ve all been there. And Seth’s fear that the child might be all that is left of the pre-disease him…I have a friend whose partner died, and at the funeral his mother said to her (my friend) that she had hoped she might be pregnant, that her son might have left her with a part of him to carry on. This is a real thing in the world.

I was thrilled to find this plot in “The Fly” – it’s not unlike going back to rewatch “Dirty Dancing” and finding the abortion part, that I didn’t understand as a child, is actually amazing and realistic and integral to the story and themes. It’s not so much about films showing abortion as it is about them portraying it realistically. Everything about “The Fly” is a total mind fuck (this is Cronenburg after all), so finding this ridiculously straightforward, unquestioned abortion plot is such an unexpected gem.

Of course, after Veronica decides to have the abortion, Seth kidnaps her from the operating table and brings her back to the lab, where he wants to fuse himself to her and the baby, creating “the perfect family”. Holy social commentary, batman! At this point I may have been reading too much into it but I really think there is a lot going on here regarding not just Veronica’s immediate physical safety and that aspect of bodily autonomy, but also the idea of the nuclear family and gross antichoice dudes who won’t “let” their girlfriends have abortions. And the idea of marriage as a solution for unintended pregnancies. It’s 1986. There is a lot going on, friends.

Obviously there are a lot of themes interwoven throughout “The Fly” and it is not just a straight up horror movie, but I think bodily autonomy is one of the main ones and it manages to deal with a lot of complex issues around that, possible because it buries them in horror. It’s like Frankenstein! Or more contemporarily, it reminded me a lot of “District 9” (upon which it was clearly a huge influence). But it really can be viewed as a complex narrative of the abortion decision: the feeling of violation, the uncertainty about who the baby might be if it is born, the complicated emotions of the men involved, the urgency – it was all there.

Nothing delights me more than when I consume some pop culture that is unexpectedly feminist. And best of all, the makeup effects were so good I could barely even tell it was Jeff Goldblum under there, so my undying love emerges undamaged. Good movie night.

4 Responses to “Abortion and “The Fly””

  1. Marie September 2, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    I love that subplot so, so hard. The alien pregnancy trope is usually so crass and, I don’t know, disingenuous. It feels like it’s coming from guys who are like, “You know what would be awful is to have something implanted in your body that you can’t escape, oh my god, so scary, this thing I just came up with” and it’s like, guys? That happens ALL THE TIME, in the real world, with real people. It doesn’t really need your extra AND IT’S AN ALIEN IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE twist to make it actually scary, you’re just kind of slumming it there.

    While this is still the alien pregnancy trope in a way, Cronenberg’s underlying theme in all his work is some kind of body horror, so this isn’t some unique subplot he crafted just to get creepy with the ladies — it comes off to me more like he is including “unwanted pregnancy” as an intense kind of body horror that’s comparable to all the other illustrations of body horror he has in his movies, as horrific as head-explodey or Brundlepod.

    I also really felt like Cronenberg was centering Veronica’s experience of the pregnancy, and keeping her as a forceful, active and three-dimensional participant. I love that through all this, she never denies her real and strong feelings for Seth, but at no point does “I still love this man” necessarily mean “so I guess I’ve got to have his maggot baby.” She gets to have feelings for Seth, but Cronenberg has no problem with the idea that a woman can love a man very much and not at all want his baby, even if he wants her to have it, and that her feelings and her knowledge about what she needs for her life do not contradict each other.

    I was just really gratified that Cronenberg didn’t toss out her entire character up until that point, because I love Veronica so hard. She’s presented as a no-nonsense, independent woman who knows her own mind, and she approaches her pregnancy the same way — she doesn’t suddenly get confused or instantly maternal or dependent because, I don’t know, baby, that’s why. She gets to be depicted as a lover and a friend and a career woman — basically, as a whole person — and I was so glad that Cronenberg didn’t just paint “mother” over all that and have that become her only defining characteristic.

  2. Sophia September 2, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    Excellent, now I must rent this movie. Thanks for putting it all together for us!

  3. Sophia September 2, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    also, any media outlet presenting women as HUMAN with HUMAN NEEDS gets my vote, because far too often we’re confronted with images and media that argue women are somehow just “incubators” for the future viable human, aka, fetus’ .

  4. Steph L September 3, 2011 at 11:50 pm #

    I can’t contribute much as I haven’t seen the movie “The Fly” – but somehow I did manage to catch the beginning of the sequel – “The Fly II” – when Veronica is giving birth. Let me just say that Veronica was right – what came out of her gave me nightmares for weeks.

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