Watching 70s-era sitcoms when you’re
used to a steady diet of 21st century sitcoms is a disconcerting
experience. Old-fashioned ingredients like the three-camera sound
stage set-up, the laugh track, and the three extra minutes of programming
(instead of commercials) distinguish the experience from watching something
like "30 Rock" or "The Office." But what really shocks
is the humor. A character with a new and
unwanted pregnancy might tell her husband, as he makes a drink, "Make
mine a double. I’m drinking for two now." No matter
how edgy sitcoms are supposed to be in our century, I doubt anyone
would dare put that joke onscreen these days.
Of course, barely anyone would
dare make a joke like that back then, either. After all, the joke
comes from the first season of the Norman Lear-spearheaded sitcom "Maude,"
and Lear prided himself on creating sitcoms that grappled with
the big political issues of the day, starting with "All In The Family."
Envelope-pushing went to another level with "Maude," a sitcom about
a middle-aged feminist on her fourth marriage that starred the marvelously
funny Bea Arthur in the lead role. The occasion of Arthur’s
recent death has instigated some accolades for her many acting achievements,
including the creation of a loud-mouthed, grouchy, opinionated feminist
who, shockingly, was treated like a full human being who gets by just
fine, thank you very much.
In 1972, "Maude" had what
turned out to be a singular event in television history–a major character
deals with an unintended pregnancy by terminating, and it ends up being
okay. (Her character lived in New York State, where abortion was legal
in 1972.) You’d think that something that happens to over a million
women a year would merit more than one portrayal in the 37 years
since Maude terminated her pregnancy, but in TV Land, abortion is rarer than coffee shop employees who can afford enormous Manhattan apartments.
It’s not that abortion is
entirely unknown on TV. Characters that exist for
only one episode and may not have any lines show up to be the dreaded
and foreign Woman Who Aborts. They usually get to be pathetic,
such as the teenage girl who is victimized by holy roller parents and
needs a secret abortion on "Battlestar Galactica." Sometimes
they get to be injured or silenced dramatically, such as the woman in a coma
whose husband tries to abort her pregnancy when he learns that the baby
might be gay.
They get to be undeveloped characters who exist mainly so that male doctors
can wring their hands about the morality of abortion. When it comes to main characters,
if the possibility of abortion comes up, it’s dismissed as a real
option. And we learn
women would sooner die than share a waiting room with the sort of sluts
who get abortions.
When it comes to imagining how women relate to pregnancy, it’s incredibly
obvious that most TV writers are men who dearly wish to believe that
nothing is more precious to a woman than accepting a man’s seed like
it was the touch of God himself.
The only exception I’ve ever
seen in the years since "Maude" was an episode of "Sex and the
City" in which a character contemplates having an abortion. The show had
a unique opportunity to set a new standard, between having
a spot on HBO (where envelope-pushing is mandatory) and having four
characters that often laughed in the face of a prudish, misogynist sexual
norms that don’t really make sense for actual women’s lives.
I give a grade C in courage to the episode "Coulda Woulda Shoulda,"
an episode where Miranda gets pregnant accidentally, decides to terminate
without much fuss, and then, in classic TV fashion, decides to have
the baby at the last possible minute. So why not an F, since the
show relied on the usual cop-out? Well, they did put abortions
in the past of two of the other major characters, Carrie and Samantha.
And in both cases, we learn it was absolutely the right decision for
them, and it’s also implied that it’s unfair that men aren’t expected
to handle the fact of abortion realistically. But they still didn’t
have the courage to show a character making the decision in the here
And then there’s "Maude."
It’s hard to watch the two-part episode called "Maude’s Dilemma"
without a pang of remorse about how no portrayal of abortion on TV since
has been as realistic and sympathetic. (And funny!) It’s not
that Maude doesn’t struggle with her decision to abort, but the reasons
given in the show are refreshingly realistic. Maude isn’t suddenly
struck by waves of guilt for supporting abortion rights or being sexual.
She’s initially uneasy, because growing up in the mid-20th
century, she thinks of abortion in terms of illegal abortion–sleazy,
unsafe, and criminal. That obstacle is overcome when her daughter
points out that legal abortion is comparable to getting a cavity filled
in terms of cost and safety. The rest of the episode is a comedy
of errors, as Maude and her husband Walter dance around each other,
each afraid to tell the other that they really don’t want to have
a baby while in their 40s. The dilemma comes to a resolution when
they speak openly to each other about it, and end up gladly choosing
abortion, and their marriage comes out all the stronger because
they faced up to the need to communicate more openly.
It’s shocking how different
this is than most subsequent portrayals of abortion. Maude isn’t
broken or pathetic. She doesn’t need outrageous extenuating
circumstances to "deserve" her abortion–she’s treated with the
respect accorded an adult who has every right to decide her own fate.
The sanctity of her marriage and her privacy alone justifies her decision.
They even take some time to send up the cult of motherhood and suggest
that not every woman enjoys being surrounded by children at all times.
But nor is it suggested that Maude’s unwillingness to be a mother
at this point in her life means she was a bad mother at the time she
did want it.
In other words, despite the
artifice, the corniness, and the laugh track of a 70s-era sitcom, this
episode of "Maude" was grounded more in a realistic understanding
of people’s actual lives than any show dealing with the abortion choice
has been since. Abortion is presented as a sensible option for
women dealing with unwanted pregnancy, which is exactly how many women
experience it. Too bad TV writers since have been afraid to tell
this basic truth.