LISTEN: Abortion comes of age on TV, from "Maude" to "Jane the Virgin" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

Salon talks to sociologist Gretchen Sisson about the move away from treating abortion as a Very Special Episode

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 10, 2017 4:00PM (EDT)

Gina Rodriguez and Andrea Navedo in "Jane the Virgin"   (The CW)
Gina Rodriguez and Andrea Navedo in "Jane the Virgin" (The CW)

Although abortion has been legal in the United States since the historic Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, television — both scripted and reality — still all but ignored the issue for decades. What is a fact of many women's reproductive lives has been, until just the past few years, a conveniently ignored or glossed-over plot point. But with abortion storylines turning up on shows as diverse as "Scandal," "The Fosters" and "Bojack Horseman," choice has at last entered prime time.

Recently, Salon spoke to Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the leaders of the Abortion Onscreen project, which tracks how choice is depicted on television and film, about what TV has gotten right — and wrong — over the years.

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It's fascinating that we had this moment in the early '70s, where abortion was on soap operas and on "Maude." "Maude" was a really big deal, because it happened in a normal way where there was a conversation. It was a woman who was a mother and was engaged in a life choice that she was making as a mature person. And then that goes away for a really long time. Now in the past few years, we’re starting to see that again where women have abortions because they’re grown up and they make decisions about their lives, and it’s not the sum total of their identity.

I think "Maude" was really important because it was right before Roe. It was when abortion was just legal in New York. It wasn’t even legalized nationwide. It was treated in a very respectful way, that this was clearly the right choice for her. But it still really focused the plotline on her decision-making and this heavy-handed way of thinking about it, except for Maude’s adult daughter, who comments to her that it’s just like going to the dentist. We know now for a lot of women it’s not like going to the dentist; that’s not actually how women who are going to get an abortion experience it, largely due to the social context that we give abortion.

It was a telling example for the time when abortion was just starting to become more legal and more accessible, and this was how we were thinking about it. I think we saw through the '80s and '90s a lot more convenient miscarriage plotlines. They were never the majority, but they’re definitely there. What we noticed a lot was that in the '80s and early '90s you had a lot of these young white women, teenagers — who are still overrepresented as abortion patients on TV — making these choices. The focus is always on this hard decision that they have, and it's a Very Special Episode and it becomes that dramatic choice, no matter what they make.

That was what we saw for a long time. There have always been exceptions. "Six Feet Under" was an exception in how they showed it; "Friday Night Lights" did that and that was a great episode. "Parenthood" did it in 2013. They consulted with Planned Parenthood in the writing of that episode and in having a Twitter session during the episode, for women to talk [about] what they were seeing. Those are good stories but they were all very similar stories. 

What we’ve seen in the past two years is really different — a focus on using abortion in stories that are really about something else. For example, on the "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" episode Paula gets pregnant and she’s just been accepted into law school. She’s been a paralegal forever and this is her moment, and an unexpected pregnancy puts her in crisis to make that decision about her future career trajectory. We see very little of her decision. We don’t learn that she’s decided to have an abortion until after the abortion, and then we learn about it through a joke that her son makes when the doorbell rings and her son is like, “I’ll get the door because you just had an abortion.” 

The story isn’t really even about the abortion; the story is about Paula deciding what she can share with her friend and deciding how important her career is, if being a lawyer is really a calling for her. And when she realizes that she really has an aptitude and passion for this, that’s when the pregnancy is no longer an important part of her future. That’s different from what we’ve seen before. Same on "Jane the Virgin," where we don’t learn that Xiomara has had an abortion until it’s disclosed that she had stomach cramps six weeks ago because she had an abortion and she needs to decide how to tell her mother. Interestingly, I think Xiomara is the second grandmother to have an abortion on TV after Maude. 

Mothers who get abortions are underrepresented on TV in general and there have been more of those recently. Again, there's this shift in the demographics of characters that are getting abortions. Xiomara’s also one of the very few Latina women who have gotten an abortion on prime-time television, the first primary protagonist who’s Latina to get an abortion. What's changing in a lot of ways as far as the demographics is who’s getting abortions and why they are now getting abortions, as well as how the abortion decision is used narratively within the context of the episode. 

It was so unusual to see that in both those shows and to see it depicted as, "If you know these characters and you know their situations, of course that’s what they would do." It’s pleasantly surprising.

We talk about game changers and I think "Obvious Child" was a game changer. I think the other big shift has been Shonda Rhimes. Her increasing commitment to portraying abortion, on "Grey’s Anatomy," on "Private Practice," on "Scandal," has really changed the game in a lot of ways. It’s not necessarily surprising when we see abortion on a show on HBO. It’s not necessarily surprising when we see it on Amazon or Netflix or these more new outlets. They’re becoming a bigger and bigger part of our media content diet, but as far as actually including abortion on prime-time network television, Shonda Rhimes really shifted the way people are thinking about being able to include that.

It’s very unusual for a show's first mention of an abortion to be a character getting an abortion. So "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" has had jokes about abortion in the past; "Jane the Virgin" has had conversations about abortion with Jane’s pregnancy and Petra’s pregnancies in the past. They brought it up as a topic before and laid the groundwork for "This is something that we’re going to talk about and maybe even joke about within the universe of this show, and now here’s a character who’s actually going to have an abortion."

That happened the same way on "Grey’s Anatomy." Christina has a pregnancy where she plans an abortion. She schedules one; it turns out to be an ectopic pregnancy. She has the ectopic pregnancy removal, then several seasons later she gets pregnant again and actually goes through with the abortion. Then we see Addison Montgomery as the provider on "Grey’s Anatomy" and then even more prominently as a provider several times in "Private Practice." She even makes several speeches about how important it is for her to be a provider and how there are only 1,700 abortion providers in the United States, and she's one of them, as she’s walking to the operating room.

Then we see on "Scandal"— first Olivia helps a character get an abortion and then Olivia herself gets an abortion. And these abortions were both shown on screen. Some of the first times the abortions procedure has been portrayed on screen; usually it was cut away. There was an abortion shown on "House" several years ago but it was shown as an abdominal surgery, almost like a C-section, whereas on "Scandal" it was portrayed pretty accurately. It was set in an ambulatory surgical center not a clinic where most abortions happen. She had the hair net and she was in an operating room, but they showed the aspiration machine. You saw the doctor at work. That’s really notable stuff that we saw in 2015 that we hadn’t before, and that that broke a lot of barriers for some of these new types of stories.

It makes me think a lot about shows like "You’re the Worst" or "BoJack," where they’ve talked about abortion in the past and they’ve joked about abortion in the past. It still felt really radical to have these characters who we knew, who we liked, who we were sympathetic to, go through an abortion. It seems there’s that level of getting the audience on board with these ideas. And that first level is, Can characters even have conversations about abortions?

When we studied the demographics of characters getting abortions, our sample for that was 2004 to through the end of 2014. We were still seeing that trend towards younger, more financially secure, particularly white women that were actually the ones getting the abortions, which doesn’t, of course, represent the real American women who are seeking and obtaining abortion care. If you think about who’s a sympathetic abortion patient — apart from women who are raped and sexually assaulted — teen pregnancy and teen parenthood is still also so highly stigmatized that even people who are uncomfortable with abortion, well maybe that 16-year-old getting an abortion, maybe we’re OK with that.

You see that on "Friday Night Lights," you see it on "Parenthood," lots of teenagers, high schoolers getting abortions because those are kind of more palatable in a way. We have seen that changing in the past two years. [There] have been more mothers, more married women getting abortions.

I look around at how under threat our rights still are, and yet there are these conversations happening in prime time and they’re happening with characters that we like, that we see and we see as very human. They come into our homes; it’s a very intimate relationship. Is that going to change people’s minds?

My research hasn’t studied audience impact; we’ve really just examined on-screen content. There are researchers that are starting to pursue that and are studying in detail, and I’m excited to see what they find. They’ve just started that work, and they have plenty to work with right off the bat. Anything that we talk about as far as what this means as a cultural shift or changing people’s opinion is a little bit speculative at this point, but it’s really hard to change people’s minds about abortion. People have really closely held beliefs about abortion and they might say, "Well, it’s OK that Paula got an abortion; it’s OK that Xo got an abortion, but maybe those circumstances don’t apply to other women or to real women."

It will be interesting to see the extent to which that changes. That being said, it has to have some impact if we continue seeing this trend and new types of plotlines in more prominent shows. There has to be some change. These shows are popular; they’re still popular. Even if it’s not necessarily changing people’s beliefs, it is in some ways correcting misinformation. A lot of people believe things that are true about abortion that are not factual. They believe that abortion is very dangerous, they believe that abortion contributes to breast cancer, they have misunderstandings about medication abortion, in just as far as the medical truths of the procedure.

Even if they are offended or taken aback or not sure how what they feel about seeing an abortion on their favorite show "Jane the Virgin," they still see that Xo got a medication abortion, and she’s fine. She’s healthy; nothing bad happened to her. That’s an accurate portrayal and the extent to which a fictional portrayal can correct misinformation will be interesting to study. On the other hand, though, we still see a lot of dangerous abortions on TV.

We see dangerous abortions, for example, on "Call the Midwife." It focuses very squarely on women both as mothers and as part of their community, and as professionals at that moment in history, which is postwar London. It shows a lot of dangerous abortions at a time when abortion probably was pretty dangerous, but how does that get translated into people’s current understandings of what abortions look like? There are repercussions for that, even if the content creators may be trying to build a commentary or a narrative around how dangerous illegal abortion is. For some viewers the message might be "Well abortion is dangerous," and stop there.

We don’t know what the impact will be and whether the impact will match what the creator’s intention was. I’m not too hopeful just because I know how difficult culture change around abortion is, but it’s still exciting to see. We haven’t had the opportunity to look at that before because there hasn’t been this diversity of stories out there, so now that it’s out there at least it gives us something to look at in more detail. The content that’s on screen doesn’t necessarily stop on screen. When we look at abortion access, we’re anticipating taking a lot of steps backwards over the next several years, and this gives us one area where we have a reason to believe we can make additional progress. If nothing else, it gives us that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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