Stephanie Rothman was one of the most prolific, if underrecognized, woman directors of the late 1960s/ early 1970s. Working ambivalently in the “second wave” of exploitation cinema, she produced a cinema of not of “social problems” but of “social solutions”. Her box office hit The Student Nurses (1970), from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, features four young roommates during their medical training exploring their sexuality, independence and desires. When one of them gets pregnant, her roommates and a doctor from work give her a DIY domestic abortion. Casual, homey, and comfortable, it is part of a minor tradition of sociable abortion media yoking labour, pleasure, sexuality and kinship as forms of anti-social reproduction: think of Agnes Varda’s 1976 “abortion musical” One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1976) or the 1971 experimental documentary from Carole Roussopoulos, Just Don’t Fuck!
Abortion scenes in social worlds, versus individual’s private experience with perhaps their loved ones, or the sterility/ filth of the clinic, are few and far between. Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is one recent example, folding a young servant’s (Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) attempts to abort into a budding lesbian affair, cross-class conviviality, and the witchy seaside parties. The abortion itself gently witnessed by young children, and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), when Marianne (Noémie Merlant) turns away at Sophie’s discomfort, commands her to “look”. Here, abortion’s onscreen visibility is not scopic, prurient, sombre or shaming, but part of a tender and sensual circuit of care through the professional and the personal that powerfully repudiates the public/ private distinction. In “Wages Against Housework,” (1975), Silvia Federici wrote: “Wherever we turn we can see that the jobs women perform are mere extensions of the housewife condition in all its implications. That is, not only do we become nurses, maids, teachers, secretaries--all functions for which we are well-trained in the home--, but we are in the same bind that hinders our struggles in the home: isolation, the fact that other people’s lives depend on us, or the impossibility to see where our work begins and ends, where our work ends and our desires begin.” Rothman’s The Student Nurses sensitively explores what it would mean not to disentangle work and desire in search of personal liberty, but to practice forms of social dreaming that can resist that deadly double bind.
One of the nurses, Priscilla (Barbara Leigh), gets pregnant during her first acid trip, after her lover Les tells her that drugs are everywhere and as a nurse “you gotta know something about them”. Making love on the beach, Priscilla starts to trip, envisioning herself as the object of attention for a growing crowd of people: a policeman, a surfer, a family, her roommates and finally a fully clothed Les. The edges of private pleasure are crowded by normative judgement, and the responsibility to expand her mind. In voiceover Priscilla enjoins, “stop looking at me”, and she awakens on the beach, fully clothed. When Priscilla finds out she is pregnant, she seeks a legal abortion, requiring approval by a hospital board if her mental health seems at risk. “When you go for the interview, wear a bra”, her roommate Phred shrewdly suggest. We never see the psychiatrist assessing Priscilla, only hear his “voice of god”. Priscilla’s responses (“What are your feelings about the baby?” “I wished it weren’t there”) are a series of jump cuts refusing the reverse shot, underscoring the violence of this intrusive gatekeeping, and keeping us firmly centered on Priscilla. The scene displaces conventions of abortion angst into a wider consideration of pleasure, self-knowledge and desire. The board refuses her request; Priscilla gets the news at work. Her supervisor suggests a private clinic; when Priscilla replies that she can’t afford it, she helplessly tells her, “Get yourself a safe one or don’t get one at all”. Abortion’s “problem” is not the drama of choice, but the pragmatics of access.
The very next scene remains a radical depiction of abortion even today. In Priscilla’s shared bedroom, her roommates and fellow student nurses Sharon and Lynn prep for surgery and editorialize on the board’s decision, remarking “what do you expect from a bunch of men?” and comparing Priscilla to Joan of Arc. Phred freaks out, especially when her boyfriend Jim arrives to perform the abortion, screaming at him to “Do your butchering somewhere else”. But the professionalism of the bedroom is key to how abortion’s sociability goes beyond family or friendship. Jim risks his licenses for this illegal activity, but that choice is utterly dedramatized. All attention is on Priscilla’s comfort. As the anesthetic takes hold, she starts to hallucinate, merging the bedroom with her previous vision on the beach, working through her experience of vulnerability.
Priscilla’s abortion is also intercut with Phred’s revenge sex with Jim’s roommate. This crosscutting and Priscilla’s wide smile at the end of the procedure insistently make abortion inseparable from the politics of pleasure and care. Later that evening, Priscilla asks Phred if she always has pleasure during sex, admitting that for her it has never been good. They snuggle as Priscilla wonders if she should try something different. Phred side-eyes her and suggests they get back to studying. But this flicker of queer desire animates Rothman’s commitment to a pragmatism of how else things could be. Instead of being punished, shamed or losing her job because of her abortion, Priscilla’s experiences expansively reframe sex, labour and pleasure. Priscilla’s ultimate head trip is less about drugs, and more about what kind of experiences can connect her to her desire.
1. Fortunately Alicia Kozma has a book coming out in 2022 from the University of Mississippi Press dedicated to Rothman: Radical Acts: The Labor of Filmmaking and the Cinema of Stephanie Rothman.
2. Terry Curtis Fox and Stephanie Rothman. “Fully Female.” Film Comment 12, no. 6 (1976): 46–50. 46.
3. For an excellent account of this film and Roussopoulos’ collective Les Muses s’amusent see the 2021 retrospective at Another Screen and the companion text by Ros Murray: https://www.another-screen.com/the-practice-of-disobedience.
4. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle, PM Press, 2012, p. 20.