Jess’s Choice: How ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) Responsibly Addresses Abortion And Bodily Autonomy
Black Christmas (1974) changed the horror landscape. Bob Clark’s holiday horror laid the foundation for the slasher craze, featuring a twisted killer with hyperviolent tendencies. It flipped to the proverbial script on what to expect from a scary movie. But Black Christmas wasn’t just revolutionary in its portrayal of a horror villain and its effective scares. It was also extremely politically progressive, speaking directly about abortion and reproductive rights with its main character Jess. Released only a year after the historic ruling of Roe V. Wade, the film made a strong political statement about a person’s bodily autonomy and how easily it’s threatened by patriarchal power. And unfortunately, after the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, this film’s statement remains more prescient than ever.
At the beginning of Black Christmas, Jess goes to see her boyfriend Peter who’s practicing piano for an upcoming recital. She’s already told him there’s something she needs to talk about, but she hasn’t revealed any details. When she walks into the room, a pink beret atop her head, she quickly tells Peter that she’s pregnant. Before he can get too excited, she quickly says “I’m getting an abortion”. The explicit use of the word abortion here is key. Jess doesn’t allude to it or say something like “I’m taking care of it.” Instead, she addresses the procedure directly and without shame. Abortion is not a dirty word. She is strong in her stance and doesn’t deliver the news as a question. Rather she is merely telling Peter that she has made the decision.
Yet, in this moment of establishing her bodily autonomy, Peter becomes livid, making the situation about him. Peter asks Jess, “Don’t you ever consider anyone but yourself?” He adopts manipulative and abusive language to weaponize Jess’s own decisions against her. Then he asks, “how could you do this to me today?” centering Jess’ experience on himself. He doesn’t care about Jess, but about how this affects him and his own personal goals. These questions snarled through his curled lips drip with cruelty and accusations, telling Jess she isn’t allowed to, or capable of, making this choice. To Peter, Jess’s body is his, especially since it’s bearing his seed.
After Jess storms out of the practice room, Peter comes crawling back with a new plan. This time, he comes to the sorority house. He calmly walks in, cool as glass, and tells Jess that he’s going to quit the conservatory and they’re going to get married. He does leave out that he had a temper tantrum in front of his professors. So he decides it’s time to drop everything and does something else. Which is great, but not when you want someone else to follow you.
In response to Peter, Jess tells Peter a speech about how he can give up his ambitions, but he can’t ask her to abandon hers. In the face of patriarchal power, she refuses to change her mind.
No matter how much Peter throws his rage around, breaks Christmas lights, and screams, Jess won’t back down. Peter may cruelly accuse her of thinking abortion is as simple as getting a wart removed, twisting words to portray her as a callous murderer. But she won’t listen to him. This is her life, her body, and she’s not ready to let go of her dreams. This is another rather revolutionary statement in terms of portraying abortion in film. There is no big tragedy surrounding the abortion. Jess is (was) in a stable relationship with a consistent partner. It’s implied that, technically speaking, she is set up to have a baby. But, she’s simply not ready to settle down and wants to be able to achieve her dreams. That’s reason enough for someone to get an abortion.
Even more, her abortion doesn’t define her. Jess isn’t just a character undergoing the procedure whose every action and motivation revolves around pregnancy. Instead, she is the final girl, a survivor, and a fighter not just against Peter but against all the men that refuse to listen to her, including the police. Jess’s very existence is an act of rebellion, living in spite of murderer Billy’s worst intentions or Peter’s own selfishness. She will never, ever be sorry for being herself and knowing what is right for her own body.
As a person with a uterus, I have experienced Jess’s pain at the hands of a man who believes he has ownership over her. So many of us have. Peter’s rhetoric echoes that of abusers, fathers, preachers, and government officials who believe that they know what’s best for us. They believe people with uteruses should simply bend to the will of those that refuse to see abortion as a human rights issue. We don’t know better, after all.
Black Christmas (1974) is proof that horror is, and always will be, political. That’s why we’re raising money to help provide access to abortion and reproductive care to those who need it regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. From today until Monday, May 10, we’re asking our readers to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds, either to an individual state’s fund or the organization at large. We’re matching all donations up to $1973, in honor of the year of Roe v. Wade’s ruling. And, for a $10 donation and up, we have a few rewards. Send us your donation receipt via Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll receive a shoutout in the next episode of Dreadlines, as well as a film recommendation based on your favorite subgenre.
If you can’t donate, then please share. Help us protect human rights and ensure everyone has access to safe reproductive care.