Joss Whedon tells stories about heroes, whether they’re California teenagers slaying vampires, a misfit band of smugglers saving the galaxy, or a group of superheroes repelling an alien invasion. No wonder Planned Parenthood was eager to sign him up for a short film lauding their services. But Whedon’s “Unlocked” tells a more complicated story about sex and abortion than he and Planned Parenthood must have intended.
The first half of the movie plays out in rewind. Three women move backward through the consequences of an unspecified cancer, an STI, and a pregnancy. A woman gets off her deathbed, tears fall up into eyes, a pregnant girl uncrumples her college acceptance letter. Time keeps moving backward until we get to the pivotal scene: the three women standing in front of a Planned Parenthood with a “CLOSED” sign on the door.
But then, Whedon shows us an alternate world. The music brightens, the lights get warmer, and the women shift from rewind to fast forward. Now they walk through the doors of the clinic, and we see how their lives change. The girl in the STI story becomes a peer educator, and prevents another girl from getting infected. The woman with cancer gets the disease caught in time, and celebrates her birthday with her family.
As I watched the video, I had trouble anticipating what the new timeline would show for the expectant mother. Would Whedon show her receiving an abortion pill, and going through a deliberate miscarriage at home? Even in time lapse, it was hard to imagine the triumphant music playing out over days or weeks of bleeding.
Would he pick the more final option—not a long process of the baby leaving the body but the surgical solution of a dilation and curettage or vacuum aspiration? The camera could pan, Ken Burns–style, over the girl receiving the abortion, whether fully sedated or awake, as the doctor worked.
Instead, Whedon chose to roll the clock far enough to prevent the pregnancy from ever happening. Instead of coming to Planned Parenthood for an abortion, the girl is shown arriving before she ever conceived, and receiving a clamshell pack of contraceptive pills.
This was a solution I hadn’t anticipated. After all, per the CDC’s statistics on typical use, nine percent of women using the Pill become pregnant every year. The risk is even higher for women relying on condoms: About one in six girls relying on condoms become pregnant every year. It hadn’t occurred to me that Whedon’s protagonist’s problem was a lack of access to birth control. With typical use rates like that, even if the girl was only coming to Planned Parenthood for a prescription, it was a certainty that some of her classmates who came for contraception would find themselves considering whether to return for an abortion.
Refusing to show abortion as one of the services Planned Parenthood provides seems oddly prim for a video ostensibly celebrating the clinics’ work. Perhaps Whedon couldn’t figure out how to shoot the procedure in an upbeat way. Or maybe, when he tried, he noticed that this choice compelled him to make further storytelling choices, which complicated his narrative.
Whedon started to tell a story he didn’t manage to finish. In his “bad” timeline, the girl finds out she is pregnant, and she tells her mother immediately. Their wordless scene is shot with the positive pregnancy test between them, while the girl hangs her head in shame and the mother begins crying and yelling. In the “good” timeline, he erases the pregnancy. Otherwise, when he ran the tape forward, any scene that followed would have had to answer the question: Is her mother there?
If the girl had gotten an abortion, would her mother have driven her to the clinic? The mother’s absence would be conspicuous, if the girl went alone or with a friend. Or, if the mother were present, what camera operator would neglect to show her face, tracking her expression as she holds her daughter’s hand, knowing that her grandchild’s life is ending?
Making contraception the solution keeps the mother, and all other loved ones, out of the story. In Whedon’s timeline, the girl’s choices don’t affect anyone else. Contraception lets her be an atomized individual, whose sexual choices have no broader repercussions, not for her mother, and certainly not for the boy who fathered her child. He is never shown, any more than the baby whom, if the “World Without Planned Parenthood” timeline kept spooling forward, we would see open its eyes.
In the story Whedon tells, contraception doesn’t just prevent pregnancy, it makes sex a purely private decision. In the Planned Parenthood timeline, Whedon shows us the mom only when she helps her daughter unload the car at the start of college—she has no place, positive or negative, in her daughter’s sexual choices.
In the story Whedon tells, abortion and contraception are a choice for a woman and her doctor. And only those two people. It’s a harder world to believe in than any of the fantastical ones he’s created.
Image Credit: Screenshot from Joss Whedon's “Unlocked,” cropped and darkened for use as header.