The Year Abortion Was Destigmatized On TV


Although abortion has long been considered something of a taboo
on television, four shows debuted normalized, even humorous
abortion plotlines in 2016, making it a landmark year for
unwavering abortions. Notably, all of these episodes were
written by women who work in gender-balanced comedy writers
rooms. That’s particularly striking in a year when prominent
male politicians weighed in on women’s reproductive health care
— often loudly and inaccurately.

BoJack Horseman, Jane the Virgin, You’re the
Worst
, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend all featured
abortions that were not framed as tragic endings, but rather as
hopeful beginnings. Women behind the shows all told BuzzFeed
News that they wanted to portray a “different” type of abortion
story — one where the female character knew exactly what she
wanted and felt good about her decisions. These stories were
told by women who could view abortion as a welcome option, not
a burden. Two of the characters on the aforementioned shows
didn’t even consult their male partners. On You’re the
Worst
, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) said with a shrug, “My
body, my choice.”

It’s a clear break from the habitual equivocation around
abortion on TV. Writers rooms tend to be liberal on many issues
(see Orange Is the New Black for “the humanity of
transgender people”); nonetheless, they’ve been remarkably
skittish in the way they write about ending pregnancies. A mere
two years ago, Mindy Project creator and star Mindy
Kaling, whose show is literally about a female OB-GYN, told

HuffPost Live that abortion “doesn’t strike me — and
I don’t think this is controversial — as the funniest of
areas.” In 2010, Fox declined to air an episode of Family
Guy
that dealt with ending a pregnancy. Television has
erred on the side of “let’s keep the unplanned pregnancy”:
Recent examples include a 2006 episode of Scrubs that
focused on the male protagonist J.D.’s (Zach Braff) feelings
about what he calls the most difficult decision of his
life (they decide to have a baby), and even Miranda Hobbes
(Cynthia Nixon) on Sex and the City had a change of
heart in the abortion clinic in 2001.

Lindsay (Kether Donohue) eats pre-abortion pie.

FXX

Lindsay (Kether Donohue) eats pre- and post-abortion
pie.

ID: 10201236

But in November 2015, Scandal set a new standard when
its protagonist Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had a drama-free
abortion. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes saw abortion as a simple
fact of life: “A woman made a choice about her body that she
legally has the right to make,” she told an audience
during a panel discussion in March. The dramatic series
offered a preview of the equanimity to come.

In July, BoJack Horseman led the way for comedies with
Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) quickly and confidently deciding to
terminate her accidental pregnancy in the cold open of “Brrap
Brrap Pew Pew.” In October, Jane the Virgin saw Xo
(Andrea Navedo) worry that her Catholic mother would judge her
for ending a pregnancy she didn’t want; Xo stands by her
decision anyway. In November, You’re the Worst showed
Lindsay finally nixing her very-bad-idea pregnancy, which
allowed her to strike out on her own. And later that month,
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin)
decides an unintended pregnancy shouldn’t derail her law school
plans. Xo and Paula already have children and want to forge
ahead without a baby; Diane and Lindsay have no children and
want to keep it that way.

These characters are not making a difficult personal
decision
— a common way to characterize abortion that can
undermine women’s ability to make the choice without
interference. Rather, Xo, Paula, Diane, and Lindsay are making
clear-cut personal decisions with eyes trained on their
futures. And as more women rise to positions of power in
television, more female characters are seeking abortion with
certainty — and without histrionics. Writers on the series
intentionally tried to tell normalized stories about abortion
that had been underrepresented in pop culture.

View this image ›

Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin)
resting after her abortion on Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend
. The
CW

ID: 10201158

Aline Brosh McKenna, the showrunner and co-creator of Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend
, said Paula’s abortion was “best for her
happiness” and called her dilemma relatable. “Paula’s closer to
my age, and I know a lot of women who have gone through this,”
she said. Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman
wrote in an email that guilt-inducing abortions are not “the
only story that should be told.” Alison Bennett, who wrote the
You’re the Worst episode in which Lindsay gets an
abortion, said in an interview, “It’s specifically important to
the female writers of the show that it’s done in a way where
it’s almost casual, and not this big dramatic decision that
could potentially ruin people’s lives.” And Joanna Calo, who
wrote the abortion episode of BoJack Horseman, hoped her
work would speak directly to women in abortion-hostile
situations. “I love the idea that someone who is going through
something like this — thinking about getting an abortion in a
town where it’s hard to get, or not accepted, or in a family
where that’s not something they’re supposed to talk about —
that it might make them realize that there are other people
that feel differently,” she said.

On BoJack in particular, telling Diane’s story meant
“saying the word ‘abortion’ out loud a lot, and walking her
through the procedure,” said Calo. There is a long history of
tiptoeing around the topic: A 1991 episode of Murphy
Brown
about a pregnancy dilemma discussed abortion without
naming it; the show’s creator
told the New York Times at the time that the word
itself was too “inflammatory,” and she wanted the show to speak
to everyone. (The character did not get an abortion in the
end.) Now, You’re the Worst calls them “abobos” — and
the abortion plotline speaks directly to women.

The dour aversion that has long been tied to abortion also
exists in the political sphere. In October 2016,
then–Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
displayed a grave misunderstanding of late-term abortion
but nonetheless expressed horror at what he imagined it might
be. “In the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby
out of the womb of the mother,” Trump incorrectly
said, raising his eyelids in shock. Female TV writers
resisted this national resurgence of ignorant revulsion: Where
Trump saw unfathomable darkness, the writers saw something they
recognized. McKenna, whose Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writers
room has more women than men, noted, “Somebody said that our
show was the most gynecologically in-depth TV series.”

View this image ›

Diane (Alison Brie) and her
husband at the Planned Parrothood clinic on BoJack
Horseman
. Netflix

ID: 10201053

For these writers, their work is part of the opposition to
politicians who want to limit — or eliminate — women’s right to
choose abortion. “The rhetoric, especially now, especially in
that third debate, was so horrific, divisive, inflammatory, and
false — that I feel like it’s absolutely the right time to
counterbalance that hate and fear,” Urman wrote in October.
Bennett said, “There’s been such a backlash against abortion,”
referencing in particular Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike
Pence, who has a legislative
track record of restricting decisions women can make about
the contents of their uteruses.

“I think that once a woman’s fundamental right to choose gets
threatened, artistically, people are interested in addressing
that,” Bennett added. “For joke weirdos like ourselves, we’re
gonna do it in a comedic way.”

The increasingly uncompromising depiction of bodily autonomy on
TV spawned sputtering responses from conservatives online: One
right-wing site
said BoJack “grotesquely and callously advocates for
unapologetic abortion on-demand while bashing pro-lifers.”

Another criticized Jane the Virgin for Xo’s lack of
remorse: “Any larger hurt — any guilt or fear or regret —
associated with that decision was swept under the rug, in the
name of tolerance, acceptance, and ‘choice.’” The conservative
Media Research Center’s
blog took issue with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, saying the
show was “working the subject into casual conversation like it
is nothing unusual at all.” Which is true. The
Guttmacher Institute found in 2008 that one in three women
would have an abortion, so abortion is nothing unusual
at all. More than anything else, the hand-wringing is over the
absence of hand-wringing for these characters. “What morally
truncated human beings,” a mystified
LifeNews writer wrote, referring to Lindsay’s
abortion on You’re the Worst and those who praised the
depiction. The writer summed up Lindsay’s decision sadly: “And
she felt fine about it.”

That’s correct — Lindsay, Xo, Paula, and Diane all felt fine
about getting abortions, because women controlled the
narrative. And there was no room for moral panic.

With additional reporting by Alanna Bennett.



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