Avoiding Abortion on the Small Screen

Hearing the actual word "abortion" come out of my TV set–when it's not dialed to HBO–would be enough to jolt even this most determined couch potato out of her seat. But during last week's finale of "Friday Night Lights" not only was the word mentioned flat-out, it was followed by a cogent, passionate speech from a woman standing up to the show's (suddenly unpleasant) hero and arguing for her freedom to choose. I actually stood up and cheered, and then immediately started dreading what was to come.

Abortions just don't happen on network TV. There would either be a miscarriage or a change of heart before the clock struck ten. Watching the rest of the episode was like waiting to be betrayed.

But before I get too depressed about the inevitable timidity of broadcasting networks, I'll start with the accolades. The critically beloved, ratings-challenged show really does an amazing job of scrutinizing at the American cult of masculinity and the often devastating effect it has on both women and men, and this episode was no exception.

Quadriplegic former quarterback and earnest Dillon, TX, hometown hero Jason Street finds out that his one night stand, a waitress named Erin, is pregnant. A friend chastises him for not using a condom–sadly, compared to other high school dramas, that earns FNL some points–and Jason explains that "this wasn't supposed to happen." After his accident, his doctors told him that he would be essentially sterile.

Hyped up and convinced that it's a miracle, Jason stays up all night long researching his condition and arrives at Erin's restaurant. He wheels up to her with a manic grin, accosts her, and tells her that the pregnancy is God's gift, demanding that she see the significance in the fact that "my boys can swim" and this is "my only chance."

And then the unexpected happens. Erin, a hitherto very minor character, delivers some lines that reveal Jason's behavior for what it is.

"You need to stop," she says. "You do not get to put that on me. I'm not some experiment for you to prove your manhood, Jason. I am nineteen… This is my body. I am going to make the ultimate decision."

It's a great moment for a show that already offers the most honest depiction of teenagers (somewhere between children and adults, not mini-grownups) since "My So-Called Life." "Friday Night Lights" has taken care to portray gender and sexuality, if not totally realistically, then with a genuine attempt at fairness. Some teenagers on the show like having sex, a lot, and some confess that they aren't ready yet. When two kids have a scandalous relationship, the guy is punished one way by his peers, the girl in a much more insidious, damaging way, shamed by the entire community. The one storyline that involves sexual assault demonstrates that rape is about control and violence, not unbridled sexual desire.

Erin's speech fits in with this realism. In her few sentences, Erin pinpoints the way women's bodies are so often used as battlegrounds for men trying to advance an agenda, personal or political. Jason's injury has made him so desperate for a chance to be strong and important and yes, masculine again, that he loses any sense that she is a person, too. Jason can't control his own body, so he wants to control hers. For many men out there, some of them our lawmakers, it takes far less than a spinal cord injury to get that kind of notion.

Because Jason is so beloved in Dillon, and his paralysis is the crisis that begins the entire series and pervades its atmosphere, to depict him acting so awfully to this woman is necessarily painful for the audience.

Later in the episode, Jason gets set straight over dinner by his coach, who tells him, without giving direct advice, that he needs to rely on "trust and communication" if he wants Erin to understand him.

So Jason sits Erin down, apologizes profusely for his behavior, and then starts waxing sentimental about the "little baby" in her belly with hands and feet–a speech that's clearly there to counterbalance Erin's previous one. Pro-choice rhetoric? Check. Pro-life rhetoric? Check. NBC has its bases covered. That's the cynical view at least.

But Erin counters this again, asking him with a sad smile if he is the kind of person who, like, "blows up clinics." He assures her he doesn't, and says that he knows that the decision is ultimately hers. But, he adds, if she keeps the pregnancy he will more than be there for her. He lays the charm on so thick that she chokes up and seems to give in–and then the show goes to credits, potentially for the last time ever.

Is it possible that Jason could so easily overturn Erin's conviction, or is the show just copping out? What convinced me that her caving might be realistic on some level is that he is selling her a dream of a stable family with, most importantly, a loving, supportive father. In a town marked by absent dads–four or five main FNL characters and counting don't have fathers around–Erin watches Jason struggle to overcome his masculine aggression and humble himself, swearing that he dreams of being a family man. He offers to be her partner and her helper unconditionally, and she is clearly someone who is very much vulnerable, a lone woman in a patriarchal society.

Is it so surprising that in the face of Jason's new approach, Erin might momentarily be charmed into forgetting that neither of them has a college education? That any dreams of leaving Dillon and venturing into the wider world must be deferred by their decision to have the child?

Watching her waver is like watching a tragedy in the making. You can see these two in fifteen years, the parents of a sophomore on the Dillon football team, struggling with their finances, diminished hopes and mixed feelings about each other (think Bruce Springsteen's "The River"). They'll be perpetuating the kind of small-town life that has caused them both so much angst and sadness, victims of Jason's inability to accept his injury.

We may never know whether Erin goes through with the pregnancy or not. I hope that's not the case, the show gets picked up, and the plot arc comes to a more definitive conclusion. And we can also hope that if FNL ends up depicting young people having a child, it does so with the same unflinching perspective we're used to from the show's creators, network honchos be damned.

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  • harry834

    And I thought Smallville left me hanging.

    I hope Erin chooses to abort.

  • invalid-0

    T.V. doesn’t show abortions because they are a vile and disgusting thing that no one wants to watch. Showing abortions would hurt the “pro-choice” crowd because people would be ashamed to fight for such a procedure (the right to drill through a babies skull). I laugh at people that say they agree to womens right to “Choice”. Question: If you believe women have a right to kill a baby in the womb, do you also believe a women should be able to kill a baby the day before it would come out of the womb (9 months old)? She had a choice when she decided to allow herself to be penetrated and sperminated by Jason without a condom, without the pill, without a diaphram. That was her choice. With the advances in baby imaging, abortions will be a disgusting thing of the past soon.

  • invalid-0

    that is why so many people turn off their brains and mindlessly point fingers. Even if the doctors had told him he was infertile, he could have worn a condom. But then, we wouldn’t have a had a cliffhanger if the writers had done that.
    Personally, if she chooses to go to term, I hope it is because the would-be father stepped up and honored his promise to support and help her, not because rhetoric swayed her. We will have to see if the FNL writers go for the warm ‘n fuzzy feeling, or more drama.

  • harry834

    "kill a baby the day before it would come out of the womb (9 months old)"

    Any evidence of how many women do this? Late term abortions are typically done when something has gone terrible wrong with the pregnancy. Women don't just carry willingly for 9 months and just abort on a whim. But if you believe women are heartless, callous, and thoughtless, then I'd see why you'd imagine an epidemic of women aborting the day before birth just for the fun of it.

    Have you met these hypothetical women? Where can I find them? There must be thousands in your mind, so they must be out there…

    The majority of abortions happen in the early stages of pregnancy. Then there are other countries that condemn abortion, even if the women has to die to get one.

  • harry834

    Jason was very impressed that he got an erection and that his sperm could swim. That is cool. Does it give him the right to demand Erin stay pregnant if she doesn't want to? I think not.

    Her job is waitress, not an incubator for his own aspirations.

  • harry834

    That women are human, and thus have diverse human desires as a group. They encompass one-half of the human race, so they are very large in number and thus have a might range of human desires.

    But what human desires are we talking about?

    The hope of finding a likeable career. The hope of being a business leader. The hope of going to law school and fighting ofr what's right. The hope of caring for her children that are already there, that are long past the stage of birth. The hope of living on her own terms. The hope of enjoying her single life. The hope of marrying a man who won't forget that she has these hopes. The hope of studying physics. The hope of marrying a woman. The hope of living a life that is not defined by her single/relationship status. The hope of being a poet. The hope of helping others. The hope of having children when she is ready, instead of when everyone around her wishes she was. The hope of joining Habitat for Humanity. The hope of integrating both her interest in herself and her interest in others. The hope of doing all of this on her own terms, without submitting to the nice-sounding rhetoric of those who claim to "affirm life". The hope of being left alone. The hope of seeing the great national parks. The hope of spending the night with good friends.

    These and many more are the hopes of women and of men too (with the adjusted pronouns). This is the life that pro-choicers hope to affirm.


  • harry834

    since women have such diverse human hopes, such as other humans do, we shouldn't assume that her highest prirority is to be pregnant and have a child now. We wouldn't assume that for men, would we? So lets not stereotype.

    Anyone who cries "adoption" is making an easy answer out of complex situation. When a woman is pregnant, still has a human right over her body, her destiny, and her hopes.

    Let's affirm her life for a change


  • invalid-0

    Hopefully, they’ll let Erin terminate the pregnancy. That’s what she wants to do. She doesn’t need to marry a “one night stand” and possibly ruin her life–and his. She’s not ready to have a baby and he’s not ready to be a father..or husband either. But it’s so easy to turn on the smarmey music and get all caught up in the warm fuzzy of non-reality.

    Babies deserve so much more.

  • harry834

    the reality that tv doesn't want to show. Friday Night Lights, please!, break the mold!

  • invalid-0

    Concerned, I think you need to actually learn what a first trimester abortion is before you go off on the obvious propaganda that you have been fed. I totally agree with Harry though (Go Harry!) about women’s rights and late term abortions. I couldn’t of said it better myself. I don’t watch FNL but I did hear of the storyline. I am in the process of writing for my own blog, a history of abortion in pop culture. It is amazing how many shows have at the last minute chickened out so to speak and chose to go with the miscarriage. I just hope if FNL goes with the abortion they handle it with utmost rational consideration.

    • invalid-0

      I saw it on a satellite TV channel so maybe it counts. It was called “Citizen Jane” and the “heroine” was a pregnant drug addict who was fought over by activists on both sides of the abortion debate. She miscarried, but never got the chance to tell anyone because the woman who was sheltering her was too busy “strategizing” to listen. In the end, Jane sneaks out a window while at the abortion clinic and makes her escape while both sides are preening for the television news cameras. Great celluloid snark.

  • http://www.poppolitics.com invalid-0

    First, thanks for the link to my PopPolitics post …. And thanks for capturing the complexity of a show like FNL. I did the same cringing during the last half of the episode — knowing what would have to happen. I actually do a lot of cringing during FNL this season. But somehow the show is, nevertheless, still doing something special with the way it gives voices to desires that aren’t spoken very much in mainstream culture.