Critic’s Notebook: Abortion a muted matter on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
Caught between a bunny and a new girl, the talk of TV this season has been double-X, as in chromosome.
What’s up with all the women? They’re saying “vagina” and going all Count of Monte Cristo! “New Girl” is adork-able (or is she?), “Pan Am” is a female-centric “Mad Men” (or is it?), “The Playboy Club” glamorizes sexism and “Charlie’s Angels” is even more ridiculous the second time around! After the 2010-11 season proved dismal for non-males, women came back with a vengeance.
We were all so busy talking about the Big Trend that we missed the revolution. During the recent eighth-season premiere of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) had an abortion.
It was not the first abortion for a character on network television — that would be “Maude’s” in 1972, just before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal nationwide — but it was the most culturally significant since then. Because unlike virtually every character who has ever had, or contemplated, an abortion (and on TV, fewer women have abortions than have brain surgery), Cristina is not a teenager, or a rape or an incest victim. She is not poor with eight kids and an abusive husband or suffering from mental illness. She does not have a rare disease that makes pregnancy a physical risk. Unlike Maude, she isn’t an “older” woman with mid-life concerns. Cristina is married, healthy, financially stable and of prime childbearing years.
She chose to have an abortion because she did not want to have a child.
Watching, it was difficult to believe she, and “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes, would go through with it. Television traditionally acknowledges the fact of abortion by having a character contemplate it, then either decide to have the baby, as on the first season of “Glee” and last season’s “Private Practice” (another Rhimes creation), or be “spared” the decision by miscarriage, which is what happened to Cristina on the first season of “Grey’s.”
Part of this is politics. Abortion evokes an emotional response, often bordering on hysteria, from both sides of the ideological divide that other issues— tax reform, immigration policy, healthcare — do not. Only gay marriage comes close, and that is not nearly so narratively problematic — love is intrinsically celebratory, but no matter how you frame it, abortion is a downer. It has no happy ending.
And, given its rarefied status, abortion typically demands a high level of emotional drama, not to mention center stage. On last year’s “Friday Night Lights,” Becky (Madison Burge) had an abortion, but only after she suffered the requisite amount of soul-searching and angst. And she was in 10th grade, which made her agonized confession that she was not prepared to have a baby fairly self-evident.
Cristina, on the other hand, did not seem particularly agonized. She seemed, as she said she was, scared and sad, but she knew that she did not want to have a baby. She was offered the traditional narrative pullouts — the children of colleagues surrounded her with adorableness on their way to the hospital’s on-site daycare. (Look! Daycare! On site!) Her husband, Owen (Kevin McKidd), did not agree with her decision; her best friend, Meredith (Ellen Pompeo), was coping with motherhood issues of her own. But when Meredith seemed about to give The Speech, the one in which the mother persuades the pregnant friend that she can’t afford to miss the joys of child-rearing, Cristina says simply: “I need you to get this.”
Indeed, it is Meredith who finally explains, in a speech that circumvents the tar pit that is the having-it-all myth with breathtaking brevity, that if Cristina has a child, she will not be able to become the surgeon she has worked so hard to be and the guilt from resenting her own child will practically kill her.
Owen finally gets it too and accompanies Cristina to the operating theater where we see her actually in the stirrups saying yes to the doctor who asks, one final time, if this is what she wants. The two hold hands, and the episode moves on.
Because, miraculously, the abortion was not the focus of the premiere — a more pressing story line revolved around a giant sinkhole in the middle of Seattle. Its secondary status may help explain why the ACLU was one of the few organizations to even acknowledge the event, which it did by posting a congratulatory note on its website. There were a few small articles online — New York magazine interviewed Rhimes — but no flood of outrage from the religious right or conservative groups, no high-fiving among supporters of abortion rights or feminists; both sets seemed more concerned about the message NBC was sending with the now-canceled “The Playboy Club.”
Some of the relative quiet can be attributed to its advancing years. “Grey’s” is entering its eighth season and is holding a cultural currency that has never quite recovered from past internal and narrative scandals (Isaiah Washington’s homophobic slurs, Denny’s ghost). Which is a lesson in itself — after its premiere, TV critics and industry watchers anointed the series, and Rhimes, a game changer. “Grey’s Anatomy” had more women than men in its writers room, and it had more people of color in lead roles than almost any other show on television. The show’s big numbers seemed to herald a time when others might follow suit. (They didn’t.)
A smaller but still significant seismic event occurred on the season premiere of “The Good Wife.” After two seasons of juggling work, kids and a very troubled marriage, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) learned of one betrayal too many and decided to consummate her long-roiling relationship with her boss and friend, Will (Josh Charles). The ad campaign for the new season featured Margulies in a black slip and pillowcase hair, but the premiere was (mercifully) much more sophisticated.
Yes, there is a new spring in Alicia’s step but she didn’t spend the next day dreamily twiddling her hair and speed-dialing her friends — the only friend she had was involved in the above-mentioned betrayal and they didn’t have that kind of ghastly “Sex and the City” friendship anyway. Instead, Alicia is still very much focused on her work, her kids and what remains of the relationship with her finally-kicked-to-the-curb husband.
It didn’t have the same punch of “Grey’s” Cristina story line, but the underlying theme is similar — female characters do not need to follow well-worn templates that some have claimed are writ by biology: She gets pregnant, she has a baby, she figures out how to be a working mom; she breaks up with the bad guy, falls for the good guy and realizes that the only thing that really matters is following her heart. Women, like men, can take two steps forward and one step back, then two steps forward again. They can reject television’s traditionally narrow definitions of love and responsibility and still be lovable and responsible.
In television, as in life, real change is not big and new and flashy. It’s not about how many women are on TV. It’s not about the “Bridesmaids” effect or Whitney Cummings having two shows on competing networks.
Real change is slow and persistent, and often overlooked and occasionally irritating. It’s about what women are doing on TV, and why they are doing it. It’s about Alicia Florrick having great sex and then showing up at work in the morning, dealing with parental issues and getting her daughter a tutor.
And it’s about Cristina Yang exercising her legal right to an abortion because she doesn’t want to be a mother, and nobody really noticing.
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