Nagy: Call Jane (2022)
Directed by Phyllis Nagy, and written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, Call Jane is a remarkably resonant look at the Jane Collective, the underground women’s organisation that provided safe abortion in the years before Roe v. Wade was passed. We meet the Janes, and their leader Virginia, played by Sigourney Weaver, through Joy, a suburban housewife played by Elizabeth Banks, who is forced to look outside the traditional medical establishment when she develops an ectopic pregnancy. Just as she balances her instinctive aversion to abortion with the cross-section of women she meets in the Janes, Nagy evokes and inhabits the space between pre-war and post-generations, along with the unexpected and improbable overlaps between those generations, making for one of the most dynamic periods pieces about the 1960s that I have seen. Building on Schore and Sethi’s screenplay, Nagy also presents feminism as a direct intervention in labour (pun intended) in the fullest sense, situating abortion within the broader landscape of women’s lives at this moment in time. By the end, Call Jane gestures towards two futures beyond the Janes. The first is medium-term, and refers to the neo-conservatism of the present, in which many women are reliving or about to relive the events described in the film. Yet Call Jane still holds open the possibility of a longer-term future in which pregnancy is understood more frankly and literally as labour, and in which surrogacy is more widespread and remunerated – what Sophie Lewis has described as feminism beyond family, feminism that has reckoned with pregnancy as a distinctive labour.
Part of the strength of Call Jane is that it is not predominantly about Virginia, the leader of the Janes, but about Joy, a woman poised between two worlds. The film opens on this threshold, by way of a tracking-shot that follows Joy’s brilliant blonde bob as it travels through a hotel foyer, aligning her with the melancholy pre-war generation that Kim Novak personifies in Vertigo. Yet when this shot takes us outside, we’re immediately immersed in an empty street, a pregnant vacuum that is about to be flooded with hippies, who we can hear but not see, engaging in a march that is converging upon the hotel. The Vertigo bob now changes from an emblem of a particular era to a vertiginous collapse of different eras, a spiral between past and present that lead Joy to observe that “you can feel a shifting current” in the cultural zeitgeist. Her ectopic pregnancy seems to arise straight from this dissonant milieu, becoming acute in her first cross-generational gesture of the film – taking a Velvet Underground album from the bedroom of her daughter Charlotte, played by Grace Edwards, and dancing to it while she prepares dinner for her family. When Charlotte comically observes that “nobody cooks to the Velvet Underground,” Joy only intensifies these dance movies, whipping herself to a frenzy, and then fainting for the first time under the pressure of her ectopic pregnancy.
From here, Joy soon discovers just how disposable her body is, both to her husband Will, played by Chris Messina, and to the wider medical establishment. Will’s first reaction is to think about how this might affect his career as a criminal litigator, insisting to Joy that “I don’t cut corners – I’m not a rule-breaker.” You also sense that he wants a son, and that this momentarily trumps his care for his wife. Similarly, when Joy discovers that there is only a 50% chance of her surviving the pregnancy, and so asks the local hospital board to approve an emergency “therapeutic termination,” she’s shocked to discover that the chance of her baby living outweighs the chance of her dying. The board, composed entirely of men, speaks dispassionately, in her presence, about the statistical possibility of her dying, and then votes on it. Joy’s last option is to plead insanity, and suicidal ideation, to have a shot at the therapeutic termination, since not risking her life for a baby is literally considered to be madness. Yet this also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at least drives her to suicidal-adjacent behaviour, most dramatically her attempt to “fall down a staircase” in order to self-abort. Pulling herself back from the stairs at the very minute, she makes the primal decision to save herself, and in doing so glimpses that unwanted pregnancies are a national epidemic.
This epidemic remains largely unknown, however, as Nagy evokes the total absence of proper abortion care through a tactile silence that wraps every scene of the film in a different kind of velvet underground. Most of the suburban tableaux subsist on vacant spaces, looming voids that make Joy speak sotto voce by instinct, as if to conform to the white noise that hangs over everything. So powerful is this ambience that Joy never quite leaves her suburban self behind, and is certainly not radicalised overnight. Virginia pegs her right away as an efficient housewife, a woman who gets home in an hour even when she’s had an abortion, and gives her the nickname “Jackie O” in a tongue-in-cheek tribute to her immaculate fashion style. When Joy joins the Jane Collective as a driver, she can’t admit to the first woman she picks up that she too had an abortion, and it takes her a while to accept that there might be a place for abortions beyond ectopic emergencies. Even in the midst of being mollified, she brings snickerdoodles to her first meeting with the Jane collective, a housewife through and through.
By positioning Joy on the cusp between these two worlds, Schore and Sethi’s screenplay works brilliantly to present abortion as a quotidian medical necessity as much as a radical political act. There’s surprisingly little agon on Joy’s part about her abortion, while the moment of deciding to have an abortion is elided from the film, deflected into a scene in which Joy takes out money from her husband’s bank account, scrutinised all the while by a suspicious bank clerk. Call Jane thus suggests that abortion has always been domesticated, and has always been a part of the fabric of American life, and that the conservative backlash is more about women taking ownership of it, much as the bank teller seems to question Joy’s very presence in the bank in the first place. With that pragmatic approach comes a peculiarly unsentimental vision of the Jane Collective, as Virginia extols them to treat the organisation as both a charity and a business, to work both within and outside the system, and to accept small advances, as well as compromises, as a matter of course, while staying firmly on track.
This same pragmatism extends to the depiction of abortion itself, and the doctor performing it, a medical dropout named Dean, played by Cory Michael Smith. Dean isn’t performing abortions as a radical act, but as a way of making a living – he’s neither a monster nor an ally, and while he doesn’t have any bedside manner, he’s no more or less exploitative than the board of directors at the medical centre either. In a way, his sheer procedurality is a kind of non-judgement in itself, and Virginia responds in kind, courteously firing him as soon as she gets a chance to have women perform the operation themselves. The actual abortion is also as unpleasant and grating as an invasive medical procedure, but there’s a kind of radicality in that very banality, that neither exactly liberates or violates Joy – she just has to get it done.
Such a matter-of-fact approach to the procedure of abortion gives the film room to situate abortion within the broader policing of women in public space. One of the first challenges for the married Janes, like Joy, is accounting for their time out of the house, and their husbands’ disorientation at coming home to an empty house, or a house that doesn’t reflect a full day’s labour of cooking, cleaning and shopping. Dean is genuinely shocked to find that Joy may be keeping the same hours as him, or radically different hours – he frames it in both ways – namely, that she might inhabit a temporal sphere that doesn’t exist to supplement his own. Conversely, for all the discretion of their operations (or because of it), the Janes invade public space in a way that we might now describe as viral. Joy is alerted to them by a series of stickers she sees plastered on a street corner, a mailbox, and a bus stop, all as the blaring rock music of the counterculture finally seeps into the score proper. Nagy then pointedly shifts to the quietest scene in the film, Dean in the extreme foreground and Jane in the extreme foreground, with nothing left to say about a situation that has exceeded suburban discourse.
As this junction of corner, mail box and bus stop might suggest, the Janes move beyond mere public space to create something closer to what we might now call networked space (“Just make sure that Jane gets this message”). Joy first enters this network with her own abortion, when she is given instructions to go to another neighbourhood, and wait to be picked up by one of the Janes, Gwen, played by Wunmi Mosaku. She misreads even this networked situation, mistaking the Jane network for the taxi network, and Jane etiquette for taxi etiquette, leading Gwen to insist that she joins her in the front seat, where she has to cover her eyes so that she doesn’t learn the exact location of the headquarters, at least on this first visit. This whole sequence beautifully captures abortion care as an institution that couldn’t be fully visible, or fully visualised, at this point in time. It also resonates with what might be described as Joy’s proto-networked gazes, moments in the film when she scans and caresses all the objects in a particular space, much like Greta Garbo in Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina. These scanning scenes, which range from her exploration of all the countercultural objects in her daughter’s bedroom, to her first time in the abortion operating theatre, play, retrospectively, as so many inchoate yearnings for the feminist network the Janes represent.
Much of the dynamic of Call Jane stems from this network, which balloons over time, both around and through Joy. Virginia makes first contact, ringing her the day after her abortion, and disguising herself as “Fran from the PTA” so that Will doesn’t grow suspicious. Soon, Virginia enlists Joy as a driver, gives her the Jane passwords, and eventually allows her to become an assistant to Dean, the surgeon, at which point Joy realises her true vocation is to become a nurse, or even a doctor, and so sets out to master the abortion procedure herself. As all this is going on, Joy tells Dean that she’s attending an art class, a lie that tells the truth, since she’s mastering the art of surgery, but also expanding her aesthetic sensibility to accommodate the cross-section of women she meets at the Janes, light years from suburbia.
For all Virginia’s power and presence, the most transformative of these is probably Gwen, the Jane who picks up Joy for the first time, and the main African-American woman in the film. Jane, as Joy encounters her, is first and foremost a black woman, much as abortion anxiety is peculiarly bound up with the expectations and ideals of white woman. Nagy, Schore and Sethi deal with Gwen and Virginia’s conflicts with remarkable dexterity – specifically, Gwen’s point that black women can’t afford abortions, and that Virginia is remiss for not building better alliances with the Panther Sisters or with black feminists more generally. Virginia’s response feels like an object lesson for white people in how to respond to these intersectional claims – she doesn’t get hostile, she doesn’t insist too much on allyship, but instead puts her own body on the line, embraces the messiness of allyship, and takes the pragmatic approach, flirting-bribing Dean to perform another ten abortions a week, so that the Janes can afford to have more free surgeries, which will then be allocated to black woman as a matter of urgent priority. In an era of slick corporate Marvel intersectionality, it’s powerful to see such a messy and yet committed vision of what it takes to make a change across different identity groups.
This openness to intersectionality, and the compromises and self-searching that come with it, also makes Call Jane open to situating the invisible labour of pregnancy within a broader gendered division of labour. We learn that the opening hotel scene, which positioned Joy on the threshold between generations, was a celebration for Will being made partner, while Will’s first private scene with Joy involves him asking her to edit his legal brief. Joy is clearly a silent partner in Will’s career, and as much as he flatters her intelligence, and suggests that she continue her studies, it’s clear he’s primarily invested in her as householder and mother. Above and beyond its abortion mandate, the Jane Collective thus becomes a form of employment, a substitute for all the jobs that women can’t have, and for the surrogate communities, almost secondary families, that men form at work. As a housewife, Joy reasons, she’s virtually destined for unremunerated work, but at least the Janes also provide the collegiality and solidarity that come with labour, rather than the wasteland of an empty house. Ironically, it’s Will who starts to experience this vast suburban vacancy, as he comes home night after night to quiet, dark, still rooms, left abandoned by Joy’s many “art classes.”
The Janes don’t just offer work, however, but a fundamentally different kind of labour from that which structures suburban normalcy. For one thing, the Janes are collectively owned. For another, they don’t insist on the sharp distinctions between professional and personal spheres that is so critical for differentiating male and female work in middle-class America. Finally, they thrive on self-training, resorting to autodidacticism in lieu of traditional educational pathways. All in all, the Janes are perhaps closest in spirit to the profession of teaching, at least as it stood at the time, explaining why Joy asks her first abortion patient to imagine her first-grade teacher during the trickiest part of the procedure, which, incidentally, she taught herself without any formal medical training. While the reversal of Roe v. Wade certainly hangs heavy over much of Call Jane, it also gestures towards the future that Sophie Lewis envisages in Full Surrogacy Now – one in which the work of pregnancy is outsourced from the vagaries of the fertile heterosexual couple to a female-led form of collective labour.
In its broadest sweep, then, Call Jane imagines an entirely new form of social organisation, one organised around collectivity rather than family – or collectivity as family. Virginia tells Joy that “the service is my daughter,” and Joy starts to empathise with her, as her husband and daughter retreat from the second half of the film, and the whole tissue of suburban family life starts to dissolve. In its place, women congregate at the fringes of bourgeois space in the name of a new collectivity, most beautifully when Joy, Virginia and their youngest client to date huddle on a porch, hiding in plain sight, against an empty street, as Virgina gives a crash course in female anatomy. The oldest character in the film reaches across – and despite – the strictures of suburbia to help the youngest character, breaching generations in the name of a new kinship that defies family ties. And the most radical aspect of Call Jane is that this kinship doesn’t exactly replace family, or assume an antagonistic relation to family, so much as absorb family into itself, as if to present abortion as a critical ingredient of American family existence.
We see this element of the film emerge in a series of beautiful modulations between generations that together bring the third act into focus. For example, when Dean teaches Joy the surgical procedure, she practises on pumpkins at home, embedding the textures of abortion back into the quotidian routines of her suburban life. Similarly, Joy’s actions clarify that abortion rights were one of the pre-war generation’s main points of entry into the counterculture, forcing her daughter Charlotte to face the full alterity of the counterculture, and momentarily retreat from its bracing force: “I don’t want to know about babies dying, or people getting shot, or periods, or Vietnam.” Conversely, Joy also reminds Virginia that you can be radical without the affectation of radicality, leading Virginia to distance herself from aspects of the counterculture too, especially all those “guys yelling Marxist theory at City Hall and forcing all the women out,” men who made her realise that often “the rads are bigger pigs than the pigs.” Rather than fire Dean as a statement, Virginia dismisses him as peremptorily as he treated the job, at the same moment she announces the purchase of the Janes’ first answering-machine, so cutting-edge that they all scream the first time it goes off.
In this moment, the last bastion of male authority within the Janes is deflected into a new networked feminism, paving the way for the most powerful modulation of the film – that of Joy’s husband Will, who is faced with the primal unconscious horror of the suburban man at this point in time; namely, discovering that his wife has not only “abandoned” his family for a profession, but is performing abortions upon other women, and so further undermining the bourgeois infrastructure of middle America. His cognitive dissonance peaks when Joy informs him that “I’m the doctor,” and yet he comes around surprisingly quickly, first with some unease, then with some reservation, and then in a more matter-of-fact way, like a condensed version of Joy’s own trajectory. Call Jane is thus a tribute to how quickly abortion can be normalised, reminding me of a simple thought-experiment that has cropped up time and again on social media: that surely, if men needed abortions, they’d be legal on every corner.
True to herself, and to the film, Joy thus stays on the threshold between generations, and worlds, to the very end, intuiting that this is where her labour is most pregnant. She promises to remain with the Janes for as long as it takes to teach them the abortion procedure before returning to her suburban life, but even then she continues to fundraise, bails Janes out of jail, and enlists Will as their pro bono defence lawyer. It all ends with the passing of Roe v. Wade, and Virginia reflecting incredulously “did I ever think I would publically thank seven men for anything?!” before noting that the next hurdles for women should be comparatively easier. Certainly, there’s a dark irony here, a reproach to our post-Roe v. Wade present, but the film also contains a future that’s bigger and more supple than our present too, reigniting a feminist labour horizon that Nagy, Schore and Sethi, and the Janes themselves, turn back directly upon the audience: “You know who makes that possible? You and you, and even you.”
Leave a Reply