TV Land: A World Without Choice


Since “Maude” was before my time, I watched the decision scene in the abortion episode, excerpted on last week’s CBS Sunday Morning, with no foreknowledge. I saw the visual cues more than I heard the lines spoken: woman looks worried, man takes hold of her shoulders and looks her square in the face, man and woman hug, relieved. In my experience as a TV viewer, there’s only one thing that means: woman has decided to have her baby, man supports her, and the two of them are going to figure it out somehow.

But then I realized what Bill Macy, playing Maude’s husband, Walter, had said before the final embrace: “In the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”

I still didn’t quite get it. “Does she have an abortion?” I asked my mom, confused.

Ginia Bellafante points out how the television outcome of the unplanned pregnancy has changed so much since that episode aired. I can attest to that. I think about reproductive rights on a daily basis, and yet the only unplanned pregnancy TV narrative I can conceive of is having the baby. (There’s also the plot device of the miscarriage, as both Bellafante and Lynda Waddington point out.)

This is hard to swallow when television has always been a medium for discussing social issues. We’ve seen lesbian and gay people on TV, first as a novelty but later as fully-formed people. We’ve seen divorce, unwed mothers, and (to a small extent) interracial couples. There have been characters with HIV, first as victims and then as real people, and even—in the case of a character on General Hospital—as people with sex lives. Television has mirrored social change (if in a cautious, delayed fashion).

Does the surge of the pro-life movement after the seventies account for the exclusion of abortion from TV? I feel like there’s something else at play here. As Lynda Waddington says in a comment on her RHRC story:

I do think the political climate plays a role, but, more than that, I think real-life abortion — i.e., how women think, discuss and come to decisions concerning abortion — just isn’t as sexy (for lack of a better word) as television needs it to be.

It’s true that television almost fetishizes the unplanned pregnancy: woman submits to passion in sex, doesn’t use protection, becomes glowingly pregnant, gives birth, everyone cries. On the other hand, there’s something unseemly about women taking control of their fertility. 

Of course, we’ve come along way in terms of the way women are presented on TV and in the movies, and the way real women are talked about in the media. But the stagnancy or even regression of abortion’s role in television is a reminder that when it comes to some things, fictionalized women are still stuck in an old dramatic narrative. Things happen to them; they don’t make things happen.

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  • invalid-0

    Kathleen,

    I totally agree; this is something that perpetually bothers me. I’ve been really pleased with the treatment of bioethical issues in general on the ABC drama “Private Practice,” and they engaged with the issue of abortion in a way that I thought was pretty good– reflecting the moral complexity, but the necessity of giving women the choice, and demonstrating how tensions over moral judgment on abortion can unduly affect a woman’s medical care. (http://tvwatch.people.com/2008/12/04/private-practice-abortion-debate-comes-to-ocean-wellness/)

    Abortion’s also been mentioned on Sex and the City in a surprisingly candid way, though in past tense (both Samantha and Carrie had had abortions) and of course, when Miranda goes to a clinic planning to abort, she ultimately opts against and carries the pregnancy to term (which buys into your fetishization of the unplanned pregnancy thesis!).

    I brought this up at a dinner party the other day, and how appreciated shows like Dawson’s Creek which actually showed a couple making a safe sex decision (you see a condom wrapper when Pacey and Joey have sex for the first time), and I have to say, my dinner companions thought I was being ridiculous. I’m glad you’re bringing this to people’s attention, Kathleen! :)

  • progo35

    Honestly, I think that’s because abortion does not engender the same “warm fuzzies” as birth does.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • invalid-0

    This bothers me as well, but yeah, flat-out, having a baby makes for better television than abortions. Abortions are one-episode-and-done, and pregnancies and babies can be dragged out for months in various storylines, mostly culminating in hilarity when a woman is a raging bitch when she’s 8 – 9 months pregnant. (Something I fail to find all that funny, or terribly accurate.)

    Kristin, I think that that is the one exception when it comes to abortions on television: they always take place in the past. That happened on the original “90210” as well, when Kelly’s mother becomes pregnant at about age 40, when Kelly is a junior in high school: she chooses to go through with the pregnancy, and tells Kelly that she had an abortion “once.” Likewise, when another main character, Andrea, becomes pregnant a few years later, she is, like Miranda, about to have an abortion, but changes her mind at the last minute. (Though not quite as last-minute as Miranda.) If memory serves, toward the later seasons of 90210, Kelly decides to have an abortion, but then ends up being saved from having one when she miscarries instead.

    It’s like it’s always part of the conversation, but the character never chooses to go that way. Like I said…having a baby is better for drama than abortion.

  • invalid-0

    I agree with you, Anonymous…television seems to have the idea that more women choose to carry a pregnancy than abort. I have, however, seen three TV shows where the character does opt for an abortion, and she has no regrets afterwards, even though all around her are upset at her making the choice that is right for HER. On “Degrassi High,” back when it was on PBS, one teenage girl chooses to have an abortion after her boyfriend dumps her and she finds out afterwards that she’s pregnant unexpectedly. Her sister, who is vehemently anti-choice, tries to talk her out of it, but ultimately decides to accompany her to the clinic. In “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” Manny is faced with a similar decision, but also opts for an abortion and is accompanied to the clinic by her mother, whom she had been initally afraid to tell both of the pregnancy and the fact that she wanted an abortion (her family is deeply Catholic). On “Third Watch,” Faith Yokas is also hit with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. Her husband, however, is thrilled about having a third kid, despite his chronic drunkenness and the fact that they can barely make ends meet even with both of them working! Fortunately for her, she is assaulted by a criminal she is chasing on the job, which allows her to lie to her husband and claim it caused a miscarriage, which allows her to go to the clinic a day or two later and have the abortion she wants.

    Those examples though, are in the minority. More often than not, women and girls on TV faced with an unplanned and/or unwanted pregnancy opt to go through with the pregnancy, which allows writers to plan all sorts of scenarios for the following scripts. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds this disturbing and far from reality!