The University’s recent decision to postpone the screening of a movie that tackles a controversial subject provoked conversation among students and community members regarding censorship on campus.
On September 22, the Sewanee Union Theater announced that the showing of Obvious Child was set for September 25-28. Instead, Fahrenheit 451 was the feature film of the weekend. Two weeks later, students, faculty, and staff received an email from Dean of the College Terry Papillon on October 15 explaining the switch: “Just before the movie’s run at the SUT, the Dean of Students offices received a few complaints about the movie saying that a comedy about a decision concerning an abortion was not appropriate for the theater, and especially not before election day when abortion is an important issue in TN.” Obvious Child tells the story of a twenty-something comedienne whose unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time. The plot addresses abortion in the larger scheme of a woman’s life, a controversial issue, particularly in Tennessee, where voters are considering a constitutional amendment on the issue. With the vote coming on November 4, Tennesseans are debating abortion as one of the four potential amendments to the Tennessee Constitution. Presently, the Constitution does not give the government the power to regulate abortions, as such regulations would violate Tennessee’s right to privacy laws, but Amendment 1 would give lawmakers such power.
Katherine Telford (C’15) shared her views with the Sewanee Catholic Community, a 64-member public group on Facebook: “As you may know the college selected an abortion-themed movie as entertainment for the campus this weekend. Presenting abortion in a comedic light is inappropriate… on such a controversial topic.” Although the movie was canceled after similar complaints reached the Dean of Students office, Dean Papillon’s email explains that Obvious Child will, in fact, play at the SUT after the November 4 election. He says, “But academic communities also thrive through art forms that ask us to think seriously—and comedy can be very serious—about issues that are hard to confront. As Dean of the College, I made the determination that the movie should still appear at the SUT, but after the fall elections. The movie will be on the schedule for later in November.”
In light of the movie’s timing and connection to the upcoming vote, interested viewers saw the initial cancellation as ironic, as it came during Banned Books Week, an annual event that shines a light on the effects of censorship. Fleming Beaver (C’15), co-president of the Sewanee Democrats, says, “Abortion, despite its controversy, is one of the most widely practiced medical procedures…That a comedy about a twenty-something year-old women in the 21st century, over 4 four decades after Roe v. Wade, would feature a character having one of the most common women’s health procedures in the country should not have been surprising, nor should it have been seen as controversial… I fully plan on seeing it when it is reintroduced to the SUT this semester. To this movie abortion is only a small part. Those who did oppose its showing? They effectively censored art.”
Dr. Andrea Mansker, Chair of the Women & Gender Studies department, says, “Women’s & Gender Studies supports Dean Papillon’s decision to air the film despite objections made by a small number of students. We consider his public resolution to be a victory for freedom of speech and action on campus and we hope that it provokes additional discussions about free expression at Sewanee.”
Dr. Melody Crowder-Meyer, Chair of the Politics department, says, “I am fairly certain that I have seen movies at the SUT that have rape in them, that have war, and weapon-related violence — and a lot of things that are arguably fairly controversial or political. Maybe there wasn’t any referendum about these issues, but I think it’s difficult to imagine that we could have a SUT that only played apolitical, noncontroversial content. It’s intriguing that issues like abortion seem to have a greater level of controversy than other issues that are important on our campus, like rape… I think that a good middle ground has been found in that [Obvious Child] is not being completely removed from the SUT.”
Dean of Students Alexander Bruce says, “The SUT’s feature films are picked to provide entertainment, not to advance any perceived agenda. Some groups on campus have approached me about showing the movie at some point, so I expect it will be shown on campus, most likely in a manner that more easily allows for discussion.”
On November 3, a panel discussion on Amendment 1 hosted by the Women’s Center will focus on students’ differing views on government limitations on abortion. The discussion will be held at 4:30 p.m. in the Mary Sue Cushman Room.