7.11.2010

on tv, pregnancy is fine and dandy, but abortion is the choice that cannot be named

I happened to notice this story in the arts section of the New York Times, which touches on an interest of mine.
Abortion in the Eyes of a Girl From Dillon

By Gina Bellafante

Seated at Tami Taylor’s kitchen table, Becky Sproles wrenchingly lays out her dilemma: The only child of an embittered single bartender who gave birth to her when she was a teenager, Becky is faced with the prospect of recycling her mother’s past and she doesn’t know what to do.

Initially resolved to end her pregnancy, Becky — played with a bracingly na├»ve righteousness by Madison Burge on “Friday Night Lights” on NBC — begins to doubt her choice. Is she seeking an abortion simply to counter her mother’s example? What if she were capable, caring and present as a parent? What if, as an emotionally wounded 10th grader without resources living in Dillon, Tex., with its pageant of grim futures, she could defy sociological prediction?

The tortured expression on Becky’s face tells us how profoundly she would like this to be so and yet how clearly she foresees the bleaker reality. “I can’t take care of a baby,” she tearfully tells Tami, matriarch to Dillon’s lost youth. “I can’t.”

With those words Becky decides to have an abortion. This took place on Friday’s episode of “Friday Night Lights” and was remarkable — abortions have been rare on serial television since the early ’70s. But the effect was particularly resonant this week. On Monday Bristol Palin, America’s most famous teenage mother, briefly appeared as herself on the ABC Family soap opera “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” bringing greater attention to a popular series that for three seasons has performed didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.

I was surprised and very pleased to read about this episode of "Friday Night Lights". I've never seen the show, but the writers and producers clearly have some backbone, and maybe some feminism, too. Abortion is usually invisible on mainstream TV, unless it is raised as a spectre of a terrible mistake that can only lead to pain and regret.

In this Times story, Gina Bellafante mentions a famous TV abortion which many of us over a certain age remember: when Bea Arthur's title character on "Maude" chose to terminate her pregnancy, because she felt that she was too old and didn't have the energy to raise another child. That was 1972. A decade later, Lucy Ewing's character on "Dallas" chose abortion after becoming pregnant from rape. The family members she confided in still found her decision shocking and tragic, but forgivable, because of the circumstances. The abortion upset everyone more than the rape, and Lucy was left feeling empty and lost.

But at least abortion was an option for that Dallas character. As the 80s slid into the 90s, it wasn't long before abortion disappeared from mainstream television. Women who became accidentally pregnant, whether in dramas or sitcoms, simply had babies, as if no other choice existed. Not only was abortion not an option, but having babies was easy peasy - cute and fun.
For years, and especially since Ellen Page’s sardonic young heroine decided to carry her baby to term in the 2007 film “Juno,” television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy. Often the woman confronting a difficult choice is spared having to exercise her will, thanks to the convenient plot device of a miscarriage, deployed as if to suggest that nature remedies ambivalence. Alternatively, she might forge ahead and have a baby, however unrealistically. This was the case when the driven Harvard-educated lawyer Miranda Hobbes, played by Cynthia Nixon on “Sex and the City,” proceeded to become a single mother, having shown no previous interest in family life.

I didn't want to see "Juno," no matter how great the reviews or good (and Canadian) the acting. I didn't think I could stand to see teenage pregnancy oversimplified and glorified. I was right. When I finally gave in, I could barely sit through the movie, not only for its portrayal of teen pregnancy, but for its oversimplified, Pollyanna view of adoption. Although I have never been part of the "adoption triad," as it is known, I have written about adoption, so I've interviewed dozens of adopted people and adoption professionals. The days of imagining adoption as a thoroughly joyous, painless process should be over. But in Hollywood and on mainstream TV, single motherhood and adoption are just grand. Pregnancy itself is no big deal. Just don't present abortion as a positive choice, and all is well.

This is just another example of how far the anti-choice crowd has succeeded in demonizing a necessary medical procedure. Everyone who writes these shows, everyone who acts on them - and everyone who watches them - knows someone who has had an abortion. But for fear of riling the anti-choicers, for fear of sponsor boycotts, for fear of ratings dropping, abortion is invisible. And once something is hidden in shadows, it becomes more and more difficult - more and more daring - to bring it out into the light.

18 comments:

Amy said...

The show did not, however, make it seem that the girl made this decision lightly. She clearly struggled with it, getting advice from others and crying both before and after. No one could dismiss the character as heartless or immoral. She was just making the best decision she could under the circumstances.

Overall, probably a more honest and heart-wrenching depiction of teenage pregnancy than any I have seen on television.

Amy said...

I admit that I watch far too much TV, so I have seen a lot of these storylines, and I agree that it is rare to see a character choose abortion as an option when there is an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. Friday Night Lights is a different kind of show. It portrays the consequences of economic desperation and class and race differences with quite stark realism. The character in this episode is a working class girl whose mother became pregnant as a teenager as well. The girl's father is absent in all ways. The mother works as a bartender at the sleazy bar in town and sleeps around. When the daughter finally tells her mother that she is pregnant, the mother cries out in pain---clearly seeing her own daughter being stuck in the same sad and lonely life that she herself has led. This mother had no ambivalence---her daughter was going to get an abortion. You could also see the pain on the daughter's face when she realized that her mother regretted her decision to keep her 16 years before. It was quite painful to watch.

The show also depicted the reactions of the teenage father. He was not portrayed as a creep, but as a decent kid also overwhelmed and trying to do the right thing. His parents, fundamental Christians, see no option other than keeping the baby. When the boy calls the girl to tell her he will help raise the child, she tells him that it is too late. You can see the relief on his face as well. Apparently, however, his parents (in future episodes) are going to go on a rampage against the high school principal who helped the girl find an abortion clinic.

They also depicted the doctor at the clinic who was compelled by state law to discuss the age and development of the fetus with the girl before proceeding with the abortion. The mother's outrage at the law was well-depicted.

(more follows)

L-girl said...

Amy, thanks very much for the plot and theme summary! I much appreciate it.

It sounds like the decision was handled very straightforwardly and realistically.

I would never expect any TV show to depict abortion as an easy or light decision, that would be absurd. Yet so many do depict having a baby that way, a decision made on a whim, pure joy, no problem - which is equally absurd, IMO.

I've heard very good things about this show, nice to know it lives up to them for you.

Your second comment came through 3 times. I deleted the others, thinking they were all dupes. If I've trashed something of yours by mistake, I apologize! Blame Blogger.

L-girl said...

"They also depicted the doctor at the clinic who was compelled by state law to discuss the age and development of the fetus with the girl before proceeding with the abortion. The mother's outrage at the law was well-depicted."

Excellent! I'm very encouraged by this.

I also wanted to note that on TV, there is almost never an unwanted pregnancy. Unplanned, yes. But once discovered, everyone adjusts and joy abounds.

Amy said...

You got it all. I kept getting error messages when I tried to post. Guess Blogger thought I went on too long!

It is one of the best shows on TV. Two other storylines last night depicted how the cost of health care for the uninsured forced two different characters---a man trying to pay for his wife's high risk pregnancy and a boy trying to get his mother into rehab---to resort to crime in order to get the money they needed to care for their loved ones. None of this was done in the usual "afternoon special" heavy handed way. By depicting characters we care about in these heart-breaking situations, the writers did not need to do any more than tell the story itself.

Amy said...

It's true. Especially with married or well-established couples, TV always depicts the unplanned pregnancy as a no-choice situation. Perhaps one of the parents expresses concern about the financial ramifications, but in the end they always continue the pregnancy with joy. I think that is as unrealistic as the idea that teens always keep their babies joyfully. Certainly even married adult couples have times when they decide to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

L-girl said...

None of this was done in the usual "afternoon special" heavy handed way. By depicting characters we care about in these heart-breaking situations, the writers did not need to do any more than tell the story itself.

That is so incredibly hard to do. Sounds excellent.

I used to dream of writing those afternoon specials... or that my book or story might be made into one. *sigh*

I disagree with Blogger, your comment was not too long!

L-girl said...

Certainly even married adult couples have times when they decide to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

The majority of women who have abortions are married and already mothers.

L-girl said...

Some basic stats on abortion in the US

I was incorrect about the marriage stat, it was the "already have children" stat I was remembering. 61% of US women who have abortions already have children.

L-girl said...

I love linking to Guttmacher. Several of my old friends from Haven work there or have worked there at some point.

Amy said...

But NO ONE ever admits to that, at least not publicly. I know of one woman who had two abortions after having three children and not wanting any more. She would NEVER talk about it publicly.

L-girl said...

I know many women who talk publicly about their abortions, but they are all pro-choice activists. They do it purposely as a political statement, to try to combat the culture of shame that persists around abortion.

When I was growing up, people didn't talk about breast cancer. It was considered shameful. Most women still don't speak publicly about sexual assault, even though they know it was not their fault. Incest is incredibly common, so much moe than most people know, but never discussed.

Abortion is hidden in that same kind of shame - so unnecessary and so useless.

Btw, I know lots and lots of moms who have had an abortion.

L-girl said...

Abortion is hidden in that same kind of shame - so unnecessary and so useless.

I mistyped. I meant "so unnecessary and so dangerous".

Amy said...

Yes, the culture does a very good job of inflicting guilt. If you decide to terminate a pregnancy and you are married, healthy, not raped, not destitute, then you must be an awful, heartless person.

Like I said, I only know of one person who has admitted to this, and she would not want it known publicly.

L-girl said...

OK, let me try leaving this comment on the right thread!

Pardon me if I seem nitpicky... Lots of people don't talk about these things publicly because of other people's attitudes, because of fear of public condemnation and negative reactions - not because they themselves feel guilty. The woman can feel completely fine and at peace with her decision, and still not talk about it publicly. It's not guilt, IMO.

Amy said...

Good point. It's not inner guilt, it's concern that others will think they SHOULD feel guilty.

L-girl said...

Well said! And thank you for understanding my need to make these distinctions.

Amy said...

Hey, I agree with the need to be precise. Thanks for making that distinction!