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.

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