How Abortion Narratives Are Changing in Hollywood

Amazingly, encouragingly, the subject is suddenly everywhere.

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Aidy Bryant on "Shrill." Photo: Allyson Riggs.

We’ve known that since TV and film generally reflects a society’s values and culture, the portrayal of and attention given to an issue can tell us something about where we are. Look at abortion, for example. At a time when the procedure was still illegal and socially unacceptable, abortion features as a central plot point of Phillips Smalley’s 1916 film Where Are My Children. You could compare it to Reefer Madness, but for abortion.

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A collaborative research group out of the University of California, San Francisco, Advancing New Standards In Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), compiles “American film and television depictions in which a character obtained an abortion, or disclosed that they had had one in the past.” ANSIRH’s Abortion Onscreen program lists Smalley’s film as the first to focus on abortion, and it sure does seem like a radical topic for 1916. In fact, the film’s extreme anti-abortion sentiment served as a propagandistic push to market birth control “for wealthy white women to avoid child-bearing.” Despite being made over 100 years ago, the plot of Where Are My Children still feels too close for comfort, especially at a time when our conservative politicians are crafting new restrictions on abortion and spewing myths about it:

While prosecuting a physician for the death of a client after an abortion, a district attorney discovers that his wife helped others get and pay for for abortions from the physician. He discovers that his wife has had abortions too, resulting in her infertility. The film argues for birth control from a racist, eugenicist standpoint and against abortion as a way for wealthy women avoid childbearing…

In 2019, meanwhile, Hollywood is increasingly responding to the conservative agenda with strong doses of reality, portraying it in a sympathetic or outright positive light — something unthinkable in decades past. Hollywood is further emphasizing that when performed by a medical professional, abortion is a relatively safe procedure. Rather than making abortion seem deviant, Hollywood is making abortion seem normal, as it should be.

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According to ANSIRH, the number of TV shows and films that fit their criteria stands at 19 for the first seven months of 2019. Dr. Gretchen Sisson, lead researcher for the Abortion Onscreen program, predicted last month in the New York Times that 2019 will outpace the 2017 record of 34 depictions. More important than the frequency of depictions, of course, is the context in which these depictions are being made. In other words, abortion is no longer the taboo of Smalley’s era. Women on screen today are portrayed having greater agency — and yet in a ordinary way, too, challenging the life-threatening, destructive connotation of abortion long held in the popular imagination. It makes a big difference when abortion can be treated as it should be treated: as something normal, giving peace of mind.

Consider Lindy West’s new sitcom, Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant of Saturday Night Live. West (who also started the #ShoutYourAbortion movement and hashtag) has Bryant’s character, Annie, get an abortion. There is discussion and contemplation over what to do and support from her roommate, yet never judgement; it amounts to a “this is what happened, this is how we’re taking care of it” episode. In what the Times article describes as an accurate depiction of what it is like to get an abortion, Annie is talked through a less-than-five-minute procedure, free of gruesomeness or discomfort; it is portrayed as clean, calm and professional. Afterwards, Annie returns home free of worry and without regret; she even admits to feeling empowered by her decision. The sense of confidence that Annie feels because she made this decision herself is eye-opening, and confirms that questioning a woman’s right to choose is sickening.

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If Annie’s story on Shrill in no way encompasses every woman’s abortion experience, it is nonetheless important for audiences to witness that abortion can have positive outcome on a woman’s life. Rather a grim, touchy, shameful subject, the normalization of abortion on screen powerfully de-stigmatizes it. I say let’s hear more from women who know this experience, and less from angry old white men who have never had to live through it themselves. (Mistresses don’t count, sorry.)

As ANSIRH has noted, Shrill is not the only normalizing factor out there. Primetime shows like Veep, Girls, Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Fight, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Scandal have all addressed it as well, along with popular streaming shows like Big Mouth, Glow and Working Moms. Amazingly, encouragingly, it’s suddenly everywhere — like the deep breath of relief you never knew you needed. Good: this shouldn’t be hush-hush anymore. A woman’s right to choose has got to outweigh anyone else’s opinion or discomfort.

For the fact is: one in every four American women has or will have an abortion; three in 10 American women will have one by age 45; and serious complications occur less than 1% of the time. Revisiting and repeating the topic in film and TV will expose these truths. Women have a right to feel less scrutinized and more safe.

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No, this does not mean that the battle for women’s health and reproductive rights is won. Of course not — not even close. Women continue to face all kinds of adversities when they want to terminate an unintended pregnancy, and our media continues to fail them too often — especially women of color. Indeed, the characters that typically fit ANSIRH’s criteria are among the least likely to be affected by restricted access to abortion. It’s good that representation is up, but shows that overwhelmingly address the white experience of abortion isn’t good enough.

You can, if you look, identify some strides being made, including such shows as Empire, Insatiable, Dear White People, Claws and Insecure. Yet even those programs lack an acknowledgement of the greater issues that women of color encounter with unintended pregnancies. The abortion rate for Black women is almost five times that of white women; this is largely due to unequal access to contraception. It’s no secret that the right-wing desire to restrict abortion has a racist agenda. We need to be more explicit, then, about how to protect and care for all women.

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One can also evaluate the work of ANSIRH in a different way. In 2019, it appears that most instances of abortion onscreen have a neutral and/or positive ending, suggesting support for a pro-choice narrative. In fact, pro-life rhetoric in TV and film is hardly non-existent. Films like Unplanned and Gosnell, both released in the past year, portray the experience of abortion as dark and regressive; they are quick to try and re-ingrain all stigmas around it.

Still, I find it encouraging and reassuring that Hollywood is empowering female writers and allowing at least some of these stories to be told. We want more of them. The effect is sure to be cathartic and liberating for all women.