Why Chelsea Handler Matters
by Tamara Watkins
I never thought I would write those words. I am not a huge fan of Chelsea Handler's work. I think her show on E! is boring. I do not find her entertaining enough to read her books. However, Handler is very open about the fact that she had an abortion, and for this reason she is incredibly important to American political dialog. We live in an era in which women's access to birth control and abortion are debated, myths and outright lies about abortion abound, and anti-choice themes appear in secular Young Adult literature. Although Handler is not the only comedienne who openly discusses the fact that she has had an abortion, she is currently the comedienne with the largest cultural presence to do so. Handler's refusal to conform to cultural pressure and be ashamed of her past actions makes her a contemporary pop culture feminist heroine and role model.
On October 31, 2012, Handler appeared on Conan and, among other things, discussed the fact that she got pregnant as a teenager. During the interview, she implies that she had an abortion. She does not go into much detail, merely stating, "So in real life, I would've had a 20-year-old or something—but I don't [laughter]." Handler has discussed the matter more explicitly in other interviews. She obviously has no problem with publicly discussing the choices she has made, and it is clear that she does not regret them—contrary to popular myths that state women inevitably regret getting the procedure. I refuse to give anti-choice sites more traffic; if one Googles "women regret abortion," websites that promote this lie can be found. (One wonders how much of this "regret," if it manifests in women post-abortion, is due to cultural pressure to feel bad about having had an abortion, but that's another matter for another essay.)
Predictably, Handler's frank and flippant treatment of the subject of abortion has earned her the ire of the conservative blogosphere. Declaring Handler "vile" and "disgusting" (I refuse to give conservative blogs traffic, so I linked to the Jezebel article), conservatives apparently cannot fathom how someone could think it is ridiculous that, in an alternate universe, one's life would be competely different if she made a different decision. Furthermore, having a child, and all its attendant responsibility, is contrary to Handler's party girl image. While I am neither a psychologist nor a friend of Handler's, I assume that this is why she laughed while on Conan. She thinks it is ridiculous that she would be in her 30s and have a child who is in her or his 20s. And, if you think about it, that is pretty funny for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, Handler's public persona is built on the idea that she is irresponsible and irrepressible, two traits American mothers are not expected to have. Also, it is funny because it points to fate's capricious nature. One decision determined the rest of her life. One decision enabled her to pursue a career in entertainment, not a lifetime of parenting. I doubt conservatives think in terms of women's futures and potential destinies, though. They live in a world in which fetuses are babies and women who choose to have abortions, in the words of my fundamentalist Christian former colleague, "would not be good mothers anyway." This one choice defines who a woman is for the rest of her life—and it defines her in a manner that is irredeemably disgusting and unworthy of sympathy and consideration.
Handler's open and frank discussion of her abortion forces us to confront our conceptions—every pun intended—about reproductive rights. We live in a country in which abstinence-only sex education is widespread (not to mention an abject failure). We live in a culture in which anti-choice "abstinence porn" (an apparent contradiction in terms, yet the genre exists) tops the New York Times Best Seller list for Children's Chapter Books list. One of the most popular YA series of the past ten years, The Twilight Saga is not only poorly written, but also philosophically problematic because it promotes antiquated views on sexuality and relationships. However, Twilight would not have been so successful if it had not been produced and consumed in a culture that is marked by an obsession with teenage (female) chastity. Good girls do not have sex. They do not attempt to assert power over their own lives, especially in the case of sexuality and reproduction. As Jessica Valenti notes in her wonderfully insightful book The Purity Myth, "Abstinence-only education…is chock full of lessons like these that tell students that female sexuality is a 'gift,' 'precious,' and something to 'save'" (32). We live in a culture that does not welcome frank discussion of female sexuality and the biological outcomes of sex. Although Fifty Shades of Grey is currently being read by women across the country, it is hardly a feminist text and actually began its life as Twilight fan fiction, demonstrating how deep its antifeminist roots run.
Handler's ability to blithely discuss her medical experience reflects her dismissal of the idea that having a sexual and reproductive history makes her somehow tainted or undesirable, contrary to cultural expectations. Valenti observes, "Sex-as-dirty and women-as-tainted messages are central to the virginity movement..." (32-33). Handler's multiple frank public discussions about her abortion are threatening to anti-choice individuals because any hint that women do not assign social primacy to their reproductive, sex-based (both in the sense of the sex act and biological sex) roles undermines the anti-choice world view. To achieve the goal of disseminating and reinforcing their world view, anti-choice individuals and groups claim that abortion leads to sterility, suicide, birth defects in future children, and even eternal damnation. A woman who flaunts such warnings is a threat to the patriarchy and good heteronormative folks everywhere.
Handler's existence and place in American popular culture also forces Americans to reconsider what a pro-choice feminist looks like. Individuals who deviate from the accepted script regarding female sexuality and reproduction are often portrayed as militant radicals. In the eyes of Rush Limbaugh and others, radical feminists (which, it seems, every feminist is in the eyes of these troglodytic big mouths) are unattractive women hell bent on getting abortions and becoming lesbians in order to get back at the patriarchy. Handler, however, is a white, blonde woman who fits our cultural definition of "attractive" who openly discusses the men she dates. Handler treats her abortion as something that just happened during her teenage years, like having a tonsillectomy. She's not a grieving woman; she's not an ugly lesbian with designs on establishing a matriarchal culture and eliminating all men. I suspect that this more accurate version of feminism terrifies Rush and his anti-choice pals and disciples.
A woman who spits in the face of cultural conventions and the patriarchy is dangerous. They defy the cultural order, instead opting to forge their own destinies through their own effort rather than relying on established institutions and expectations. Women who refuse to consider discussing abortion taboo are especially threatening to the patriarchy and its sympathizers because their mere existence works to subvert deeply ingrained cultural myths. They refuse to be victims. "Another kind of paternalism that's surfaced in the abortion debate is the idea that women who have abortions are victims—of the men who impregnated them, of abortion providers who are just in it for the money. From this standpoint, anyone is responsible—except the woman getting the abortion. This line of reasoning serves several purposes: First, it enables the woman-as-moral-child model that's so pervasive in virginity-movement thinking..." (Valenti 134). This is why Chelsea Handler matters.
Perhaps one day all women who have had abortions will be willing to discuss them openly, honestly, and without shame. Until then, hopefully Handler will continue to be outspoken and brash.
Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth. Berkeley, CA: Seal, 2009. Print.
Tamara Watkins is a doctoral student in Media, Art & Text at Virginia Commonwealth University.