How TV Portrays Abortion

BlogHer Original Post

I know that the Golden Age of TV is supposedly long over, but what makes me really sad is how the boob tube literally continues to treat women and desire to control our fertility with rose colored glasses. The inability of network television to portray anything but women who "make the right choice" when faced with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is depressing. Since the only show I ever watch is CSI (they make sure that only the guilty go to jail; if that isn't escapist fantasy TV, I don't know what is!), I hadn't been as aware of this latest trend until BlogHer CE Nordette Adams pointed out that an episode of this season's Desperate Housewives flirted with the idea that Lynette, a stressed out mother struggling to juggle everything already on her plate, might have an abortion. Interesting, I thought.

But of course it is not interesting. No network would allow a person to make a "controversial" decision for herself. There'd be complaints and boycotts and maybe a loss of advertising revenue. So, as Stefanie Lee wrote at

Oh, Desperate Housewives. You came so close to making a statement. Standing out. Being different. Your Season 6 premiere re-introduced a weighty topic -- abortion -- but by the second episode, the issue was moot... Her husband Tom's (Doug Savant) guilt-ridden facial expressions and Susan's passive-aggressive pleading were enough to control the situation -- and enough to cement Desperate Housewives' place in the boundless field of shows that say: "Abortion is wrong."

...This isn't a question of Pro-Life or Pro-Choice -- it's a question of the responsibility of television. Shouldn't we expect something fresh, new, and real? Shouldn't we expect the characters to take risks and encounter challenges? And, most importantly, shouldn't we expect female characters to decide things for themselves?

What? Expecting something challenging from TV? Pshaw. At least not network TV. One of the other shows that Lee mentions in her post that cheerfully depicts a single woman unexpectedly finding herself pregnant and deciding to continue the pregnancy is Accidentally on Purpose starring Jenna Elfman. Let's not even go into how much the title annoys me because it brings to mind the idea of women trapping men in relationships by getting pregnant accidentally on purpose. (Not that this doesn't happen; I even know someone in that situation, and shockingly [!], it does not have a fairy tale ending.) To some extent, it is harder to criticize the show because it is based on the memoir of Mary Pols, a film critic for the New York Times. Instead, let's focus on Pols' own criticism of the show. Melissa at Women and Hollywood did the hard work of actually watching the first episode, and offers the following insight:

Pols wrote an interesting piece in XX about how the show left out her real life considerations of whether to have an abortion or not before deciding to keep the baby.

Billie is a movie critic, so she should, in theory, do some critical thinking in regard to her own life. It also seems reasonable to expect that a journalist would be able to use the word “abortion” in relation to her own situation. As in, “Should I have an abortion?” She does not ask that question, at least in this first episode. I, however, most certainly did.

Or maybe portraying abortion in more than a simplistic light on a network show is a curse in these conservative times. Consider Defying Gravity, a science fiction show on ABC. It aired starting in August 2009, and Maria V at The Hathor Legacy summed up the show, including its exploration of abortion:

The first eight episodes of this series dealt with abortion (or at least keeping a baby) — this familiar not-America makes explicit the pressures facing a woman when she’s unfortunate enough to face an unwanted pregnancy. The issue of Zoe’s abortion — and the kind of options women have in regards to their reproductive freedome — acts as one of the foundational questions of the show. What I like about this is that it is surprisingly nuanced. While Zoe has dreams about crying babies, and had a traumatic abortion, she’s not presented as longing for a child....There’s a lot of regret in this scene, but no blame. There’s also a lot of happiness — while Zoe and her friend are both sad about the might-have-beens revealed in this picture exchange, neither seems to regret her day-to-day life. Also, Ajay delivers a surprisingly touching monologue making it clear that this was the best decision Zoe could have made. He says that her abortion freed both herself and her potential child to find lives in which they could both find happiness.

Ah, nuance! Something severely lacking on TV's successful programs. No wonder that the show has already been canceled. Heh.

Fortunately, there are more realistic considerations on TV, but one must have cable. Way back in January 2007, a character on The L Word decided to have an abortion. This interests me for several reasons. The discussion between the character and her partner is not shown, so we don't have any idea why the decision is made or how the characters feel about it. I like this because, as in real life, it is actually no one else's business why someone decides to have an abortion. Another interesting aspect is what happens when the character goes to have the procedure. Vanessa at Feministing explains:

Kit, played by Pam Grier a.k.a. Jackie Brown, goes to a "clinic" to get an abortion and finds herself trapped in a "pregnancy crisis center." While it was pretty terrifying to see a depiction of what they put these poor women through, it was dope to see Grier go buck wild on their deceving asses. After all, she is Pam Grier.

Another woman, Laura G., sums up the scene:

It just reassures my own personal feelings of abortion... I don't agree with it... But I also feel that Kit's rights were extremely violated... I don't feel that anyone needs to have the additional trauma...

The accurate depiction of how women are treated at these supposedly women-friendly fake clinics is so critical. This is an experience that hundreds, if not thousands, of women have been subjected to, and it receives far less attention than it should.

I could go on and on, but all the bloggers linked here already cover the pathetic situation, so why reiterate what has already been more eloquently said? Ultimately, if we want to see TV that offers compelling, balanced, and interesting versions of the reality faced by millions of women, we have to get cable. The days of Maude, as Amanda Marcotte wrote, are sadly long-gone:

It's shocking how different this is than most subsequent portrayals of abortion. Maude isn't broken or pathetic. She doesn't need outrageous extenuating circumstances to "deserve" her abortion--she's treated with the respect accorded an adult who has every right to decide her own fate. The sanctity of her marriage and her privacy alone justifies her decision. They even take some time to send up the cult of motherhood and suggest that not every woman enjoys being surrounded by children at all times. But nor is it suggested that Maude's unwillingness to be a mother at this point in her life means she was a bad mother at the time she did want it.

Well, we might as well enjoy our free fetus cupcakes as contemplate the situation, because these bakers are in charge of what we get to view. OMG! Wait! Wouldn't it be great to have a show that's a cross between Ace of Cakes and Top Chef in which anti-choice activists compete to see who can make the best anti-choice cupcake?!?! I would totally watch that! Maybe TV isn't doomed after all...

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants.


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