From dramas like ‘Scandal’ to documentaries like ‘Abortion: Stories Women Tell,’ the hot-button topic is evolving on TV
In an episode of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” that aired days after the election in November, Paula, a middle-aged mom played by Donna Lynne Champlin, is lying in bed looking slightly peaked, when the doorbell rings.
Her teenage son hollers from somewhere off-screen: “Mom, I’ll get it, since you just had an abortion.”
This is how viewers of the CW musical dramedy found out that Paula, whose unplanned pregnancy threatened her dream of enrolling in law school, had opted not to have another child — not with a tear-streaked confession or an anguished scene in a clinic waiting room.
It also happened to be the second show on the CW, whose audience skews young and female, to tackle the subject in matter-of-fact fashion, following a similar story line on the telenovela spoof “Jane the Virgin.”
Once prone to portrayals that were wishy-washy or moralizing, TV and its storytellers are increasingly treating abortion as a simple reality for many women. In the last two years alone, shows ranging from ABC’s prime-time soap “Scandal” to the surreal Netflix animated comedy “BoJack Horseman” to the AMC computing drama “Halt and Catch Fire” have shown characters opting to terminate pregnancies with little guilt or equivocation. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of these episodes were written by women.
TV is also diversifying its portrayals. On Monday, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” a documentary that takes a sympathetic look at women affected by stringent abortion regulations in Missouri, will run on HBO. The women range in age, race, marital status and motivation, undermining the idea that abortion is something for carefree twentysomethings or, as Paula jokes on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “teenagers the month after winter formal.”
Nearly 45 years after Norman Lear’s controversial sitcom “Maude” first tackled the subject in prime time — sending sponsors and affiliates running for the hills — a creatively vibrant television industry has grown comfortable with the “A” word. If abortion is still not exactly commonplace on the small screen, particularly when compared to the statistics — there are roughly 1 million abortions performed a year in the United States — it is clearly no longer the taboo it once was.
For Aline Brosh McKenna, co-creator and executive producer of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and her female-dominated writing staff, Paula’s decision grew organically out of conversations about character development.
Choosing to put her ambitions first, after subsuming much of her identity to her husband and children, represented a breakthrough for Paula.
“We didn’t have any conversations about the politics of it,” says McKenna, who sees these abortion story lines as a natural byproduct of more women like her running shows. “If you’re writing about women’s lives, it’s a pretty hard thing not to write about.”
Unplanned pregnancies are nothing new to “Jane the Virgin,” an emotionally grounded, if implausible, tale about Jane (Gina Rodriguez) a chaste young Latina accidentally inseminated at her gynecologist’s office. Jane chose to continue with the pregnancy, delighting her devoutly Catholic grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll).
But Jane’s fortysomething mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), made a different choice in a plot last fall, opting to terminate an accidental pregnancy conceived in a more traditional manner. “In the interest of balance, of exploring different women’s relationship to their bodies and their reproductive rights,” says creator and show runner Jennie Snyder Urman, “we owed the other side.”
As on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the abortion was casually revealed after the fact, as Xiomara struggled with whether to share her secret with Alba. The focus was not on the decision itself, which was relatively easy for Xiomara, but on how it affected her personal relationships, particularly with her religious mother.
Snyder Urman, who, like McKenna, received no resistance from the CW about the story line, says: “I wanted to tell a different kind of abortion story.”
To abortion rights advocates, these understated portrayals help destigmatize a misunderstood procedure; to opponents, they downplay the gravity of what should be a monumental decision.
“Even progressives must be willing to acknowledge that abortion is serious — not a momentary annoyance or trivial act,” writes Gracy Olmstead, a blogger at the conservative website the Federalist.
At least demographically, these portrayals are closer to reality, says Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. Paula and Xiomara are already mothers, like 59% of women who have abortions. Xiomara, like 25% of women who have abortions, is Latina.
Historically, Sisson has found that women of color, lower-income women and those who already have children — groups more likely to have abortions in real life — are underrepresented in small-screen depictions. While this has begun to change, television still has some catching up to do.
“There’s so much misinformation and social myth about abortion,” Sisson says. “People believe it’s less common and riskier than it really is. They don’t have a good sense of who’s getting it, or for what reasons. A lot of what we see on TV reflects those social myths and perpetuates them, and that has political consequences.”
There’s so much misinformation about abortion. A lot of TV reflects those social myths and perpetuates them, and that has political consequences.
Even through a modern lens, “Maude” stands out for the humor, sensitivity and empathy with which it handled the subject of abortion (and, lest we forget, also acknowledging a 47-year-old grandmother as a sexual being).
But the provocative two-episode arc represents something of an anomaly in the annals of pop culture. For many years, it was rare to see a main character on a television series follow through with an abortion. More typical were pregnancy scares that turned out to be false alarms or pregnancies that resulted in narratively convenient miscarriages.
Characters who did have abortions were often racked with guilt or driven to madness as a result. The soap “Another World” introduced daytime TV’s first abortion story line in 1964, as a young woman left infertile by an illegal procedure shot her boyfriend out of rage.
The industry’s ambivalence was most vividly (and absurdly) embodied by Erica Kane, the legendary bad girl played by Susan Lucci for 41 years on the daytime soap “All My Children.” In 1973, Erica became the first TV character to have an abortion on television post-Roe vs. Wade. But decades later, it was revealed that she hadn’t had an abortion at all. Instead, a doctor had actually removed the fetus and implanted it in another woman, and Erica now had a grown son. To some, the ludicrous plot twist also felt like backpedaling.
Networks had good reason to be skittish. In 1989, NBC lost a reported $1 million in ad revenue when sponsors declined to buy time on “Roe v. Wade,” a made-for-TV movie about the landmark case starring Holly Hunter.
Sympathetic portrayals of abortion were a safer bet for networks not dependent on advertisers, like HBO. In 1992, the network aired “A Private Matter,” a docudrama about Sherri Finkbine, who fought to obtain an abortion in the early 1960s after taking thalidomide while pregnant A 2001 episode of “Sex and the City” also revealed that protagonist Carrie Bradshaw had had an abortion after a one-night stand when she was 22. The second-ever episode of “Girls” in 2012 was set in the waiting room of an abortion clinic.
Like Carrie, Tara Rose, a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer, had an abortion as a young woman. While she never regretted the decision, it was something she couldn’t talk about openly for many years.
“In the past, if a character did go through with an abortion, she had to be really sad about it and really tortured. More recently, what we’re seeing is that people are talking about it a lot more, characters are going through with it and are not beating themselves up about it.”
Mega-producer Shonda Rhimes has arguably done more to destigmatize abortion than just about anyone in the modern network TV business, working it into at least three of her prime-time ABC dramas — “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal.”
In a groundbreaking 2015 episode of the latter series, protagonist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), D.C. fixer and girlfriend to the president, underwent an abortion that was depicted on-screen, rather than merely implied — a rarity for a broadcast network. Meanwhile, her longtime nemesis, Republican Sen. Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), filibustered on behalf of Planned Parenthood.
What might have caused a boycott a decade or two earlier led to an angry tirade from Rush Limbaugh, but not much more in the way of backlash.
Another major tipping point was a Season 4 story arc on the NBC/DirecTV series “Friday Night Lights” involving a high school student whose abortion becomes a local controversy in her small West Texas town.
Once the domain of tawdry soaps or earnest made-for-TV movies, abortion now turns up in sitcoms — albeit nontraditional ones, like “You’re the Worst” on FXX. In a recent subplot of the irreverent rom-com, a character treated herself to a decadent meal before having an “a-bo-bo,” as she called it.
It’s even become a trope on period dramas, including “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” “Mercy Street.” ”Good Girls Revolt” and “Call the Midwife,” which tend to highlight the danger and desperation faced by women in the era before Roe vs. Wade (or in Great Britain, the Abortion Act of 1967).
Whether television is simply catching up with the American public, 69% of whom oppose overturning Roe vs. Wade, or the rise of cable networks and streaming services being less dependent on advertisers has enabled riskier storytelling, is unclear.
It also seems possible that TV writers are responding to a growing activist movement to remove the shame of abortion — embodied by the Twitter hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
Whatever the reason, these narratives have become more commonplace over a period of renewed intensity in the battle over abortion and funding for Planned Parenthood. Between 2011 and 2015, states enacted some 288 restrictions on abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates for reproductive rights.
“You can’t discount how much the election and what was going on politically was infecting and scaring people in the writers room,” says Snyder Urman, who included a caption reading “#supportplannedparenthood” in a post-election episode of “Jane the Virgin.” “You want to react in whatever corner of the Earth you have some control over.”
Later this month, a heavily anticipated — and, to some, uncomfortably timely — series adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will premiere on Hulu. Recently, in Texas, opponents of a proposed abortion bill turned up at the state Senate in the red robes and white bonnets worn by the enslaved breeders in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. (The protest also felt like guerilla marketing.)
But because so many shows have urban, blue-state settings, scripted TV doesn’t necessarily do a great job of illustrating the restrictions faced by an increasing number of women across the country.
That’s where nonfiction storytelling comes in.
Launched last year, the topical comedy show “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” has made access to reproductive health a focal point of its coverage. According to a report by Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, the TBS comedy series has devoted twice as much time to the subject as any of the network news broadcasts.
Directed by Tracy Droz Tragos, “Abortion: Stories Women Tell” chronicles the experiences of women at an abortion clinic in Illinois, just over the state line from Missouri, in wake of a new law mandating a 72-hour waiting period.
Tragos’ previous film, “Rich Hill,” examined poverty in small-town America, and she says it made her more aware of “the cycle of poverty perpetuated by not having access to education, birth control and abortion.”
In a bid to “bust the stereotype,” Tragos gathered as many abortion stories as she could. While many women were reluctant to appear on-camera, others were eager to recount their experiences — with poverty, with domestic abuse, with the discovery of a fetal abnormality.
“Many of them found some personal solace saying I’m not a bad person,” Tragos says. “It speaks to the power of storytelling.”
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