In 1972, just a few months before the Supreme Court’s seminal ruling on Roe v. Wade, television audiences were scandalized when Bea Arthur’s 47-year-old character on “Maude” decided to get an abortion. They were just as scandalized in 1992 when Candice Bergen, playing journalist Murphy Brown, gave birth to a baby out of wedlock.
Much has changed both on and off TV since ‘92 and ‘72, but on the brink of a Trump presidency, women are still fearful about the future of access to safe reproductive care. In the last month alone, Ohio has moved to ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, and Texas passed a measure stipulating that women who have abortions must cremate or bury their fetuses. The current political climate means that the way pop culture tackles the choices women make about their bodies is more important than ever.
In recent years, TV shows have tackled pregnancy, birth control and abortion in more frank and nuanced ways. In 2015, “Scandal” included a powerful abortion scene featuring lead character Olivia Pope, while “Girls” took a matter-of-fact look at the aftermath of getting an abortion through the arc of supporting character Mimi Rose. And in 2016, depictions of abortion and pregnancy on TV have continued in their poignancy, showing an even wider array of women making decisions on their own terms.
Take “Shameless,” for instance. In season six of the Showtime series, which follows the lovable but dysfunctional Gallagher family, eldest daughter Fiona and her little sister Debbie butt heads after it is revealed that Debbie, still a teenager, is pregnant. Debbie is determined to move forward with the pregnancy, while Fiona urges her to go to an abortion clinic.
“I’m finally almost free from raising you kids, and I don’t intend to do it again!” Fiona yells at her sister.
But Debbie doesn’t back down on her decision, a choice Fiona must ultimately live with. In the scene above, Fiona tells her sister: “I do support you Debs, I just don’t support all of your choices.”
“I am my choices, Fiona. Why don’t you see that?,” Debbie responds.
Ultimately, the ability for women to make their own decisions ― regardless of what those decisions are ― is what reproductive care and choice are all about.
While “Shameless” showed audiences the complex emotional drama that can come out of teenaged girl passionately making the choice to move forward with her pregnancy, on the other side of the spectrum, two hit comedies chose to depict prominent female characters choosing to have abortions without much ― or any ― emotional fallout.
FXX comedy “You’re The Worst” featured Lindsay, BFF to lead character Gretchen, conspire to get pregnant in the most bizarre of ways (she artificially inseminated herself with a turkey baster), and then decide that she wanted an “a-bo-bo” in the most matter-of-fact way.
“It’s not to say that abortion is something that doesn’t have ramifications emotionally for the people involved,” showrunner Stephen Falk told The Hollywood Reporter after the episode aired in November. “But sometimes it doesn’t, and we’re trying to show that side.”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” approached its portrayal of abortion with more poignancy than “You’re The Worst,” but a similar lack of emotional agony. The most revolutionary part of the storyline was that it simply didn’t make abortion a thing. In the fourth episode of season 2, which aired in November, lead character Rebecca Bunch’s best friend Paula learns that she is pregnant just as she decides she wants to go to law school. Already a mother of two, she decides to end her pregnancy in order to focus on her career. At the end of the episode, she considers telling Rebecca, but decides not to ― “I just, you know, I had a thing. I figured it out,” she says.
The reason seeing a story like this is so important is that depicts the fact that there are many ways for women to feel, react, and deal with pregnancy at different stages of life. Plus, seeing a middle-aged mom with two kids make that decision is a refreshing change ― and one that’s quite true to life. After all, the majority of women who get abortions already have children.
“Jane the Virgin” also showed a woman who was already a mother choose to get an abortion. After three seasons revolving around unplanned pregnancies, in 2016, the sweet, soapy CW comedy finally tackled abortion. Titular character Jane’s mother, Xiomara, had Jane at a very young age, the result of an unplanned pregnancy. Now in her 40s, Xo learns that she is pregnant after a one-night stand, and decides to terminate the pregnancy.
Xo makes a single-minded, clear decision for herself, one that she later discusses openly and honestly with both her mother and Jane’s father. It’s significant for so many reasons, not least of all because the storyline makes her the first Latina character to have an abortion on American TV. For so long, abortion storylines on television have disproportionately revolved around young, white, middle-class women. A 2015 study by the Abortion Onscreen Project found that between 2005 and 2014, 87 percent of fictional women who get abortions on TV were white, while in reality the number is closer to 36 percent. Xo’s story helps, in a small way, to shift that prevailing narrative.
Anther part of expanding the way the culture views abortion involves challenging the power structures that seek to control women’s bodies. Some of the loudest anti-abortion voices are of people who will never have to consider having an abortion: men. In July, the scrutiny and hysteria that abortion sparks was lampooned in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed animated series “Bojack Horseman.”
When writer Diane accidentally tweets that she’s getting an abortion from the official Twitter account of Sextina Aquafina, the pop star she helps manage, Diane thinks she needs to do some serious damage control. Surprisingly, the accidental tweet makes Sextina hotter than ever, and the pop star releases a horrifyingly absurd music video that both makes light of and celebrates abortion.
The satire of the episode works on several levels, skewering not only society’s attitudes towards abortion, but the way that we talk about it in pop culture. Perhaps the most spot-on part of the episode is the all-male panel invited to a cable news show to discuss Sextina’s controversial video, and whether the “concept of women having choices has gone too far?”
”This is not just a women’s issue,” says one expert. “I’m a man, but if I got pregnant would I put my life on hold for a child I didn’t want? Yes I would. And I can say that with confidence because I’ll never have to make that decision.”
Lest we forget, all-male panels on reproductive rights are not just a thing of fiction. Ohio’s 20-week abortion ban bill was advanced, after all, by an all-male congressional panel.
What “Bojack Horseman,” “You’re The Worst,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” and “Shameless” all articulate is that reproductive health care isn’t about statistics; it isn’t black and white. Every woman who does or doesn’t decide to have an an abortion, every woman who seeks out birth control in the form of pills or an IUD, every woman chooses to freeze her eggs, or decides children aren’t for her, or struggles with fertility issues ― each and every one of those women is an individual, with a story and a perspective unique to her.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to telling complex, diverse stories onscreen about pregnancy, abortion and reproductive care. But hopefully 2016 gave us a small glimpse at what lies ahead ― more inclusive, compelling explorations of a complex and personal choice.
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