No Cop-Outs: 37 Years Ago, “Maude” Got the Abortion Experience Right


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
that decent
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 now. 

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.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on Twitter: @amandamarcotte

To schedule an interview with Amanda Marcotte please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    Get a life. Write something relevant.

  • invalid-0

    Um… Amanda has a life, thank you very much, and what she wrote here is as relevant as anything else on this site.

    ObOnTopic: They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they? :-(

  • invalid-0

    And to think that besides getting poor representation in entertainment media, abortion-seeking women also have to live with that dastardly increased risk of breast cancer.

    October, 2007–”The Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons published a study yesterday entitled, “The Breast Cancer Epidemic.” It showed that, among seven risk factors, abortion is the “best predictor of breast cancer,” and fertility is also a useful predictor.”

    And, of course, anti-abortionists ARE what they are simply because they enjoy being perennially surrounded by children.

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

    Actually this is very relevant and she is really using TV as a metaphor for our society in a way. Our society does not want to cope with the truths and reasons behind an Abortion. It’s not just TV not willing to deal with it, it is our society as a whole.

    So read into the article a little more before you make rude comments and sound uneducated.

    Very good article, I Liked it and the things you say are very true…

    Will

  • invalid-0

    You might mention that Claire on HBO’s six feet under had an abortion as well. It wasn’t handled with as much aplomb as Maude’s (I’m guessing, having never seen Maude). But it was done with a certain amount of respect and sensitivity for the difficulty of the situation.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I know you want to believe that, but god isn’t punishing women who have abortions with breast cancer.  You are either lying out of ignorance or malice.  If it’s the former, please educate yourself—there’s no connection between breast cancer and abortion.  Now that you know, you have no excuse to continue to spread this misinformation.  Unless you don’t put much stock in honesty.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I think that the most common surgery for half the human population is relevant. I fail to see how the needs and lives of women aren’t important and worth addressing.  As a woman, I fail to see how I can get a life unless I believe that women’s lives are relevant.

  • invalid-0

    Your responses assume facts not in evidence (e.g., that I believe that breast cancer is a punishment for abortion, rather than a natural consequence–such as lung cancer from smoking). I wonder whether you would EVER acknowledge such a connection. You are so “married” to abortion that you just don’t seem to be able to think straight. Why is it your life’s mission to talk about this constantly, try to convince people that it’s wonderful, necessary, etc.? It seems that whatever your history, you will NEVER get past abortion. You wake up thinking abortion, think about it all day long, go to sleep thinking abortion. Do you ever wonder if that’s healthy? Or if YOU are healthy? Do you ever wonder how some people get through life completely without and unscathed by abortion and are fine and happy about it? What other surgical procedures do you find so edifying? I notice others on this website seem to have severe problems with their parents. Do you ever consider whether you are one of the traumatized children of poor, distant, overbearing, selfish parenting? Do you want to perpetuate the cycle? Are you afraid to love, to trust? Do you realize that the Catholic church, which I believe you villify, predicted dire consequences from cheapened sex, and perhaps you are Exhibit A for the consequences that were predicted in Humanae Vitae?

    I have been away from this website for almost a year, and you are still harping on and on, making a religion out of something that is really unfortunate for all involved.

  • colleen

    I wonder whether you would EVER acknowledge such a connection

    Look, there’s no causal connection between breast cancer and abortion.  the only people who believe there’s a causal connection between breast cancer and abortion are right wing religious wackos. It’s become an article of Faith in the anti-choice movement.

    One major problem with the religious right is your tendency to try to force reality and scientific method to conform to your remarkably unattractive belief systems.

  • invalid-0

    Your responses assume facts not in evidence (e.g., that I believe that breast cancer is a punishment for abortion, rather than a natural consequence–such as lung cancer from smoking). I wonder whether you would EVER acknowledge such a connection.

    Yes, if and when a preponderance of scientific evidence and the opinions of mainstream medical organizations (who actually know a thing or two about cancer) affirm such a connection. The incessant bleatings of pro-life and social-conservative organizations, and people like you, just isn’t going to cut it.

    You are so “married” to abortion that you just don’t seem to be able to think straight. Why is it your life’s mission to talk about this constantly, try to convince people that it’s wonderful, necessary, etc.? It seems that whatever your history, you will NEVER get past abortion.

    Because pro-lifers made it an issue. If you are so concerned about Amanda’s mental well-being, then please convince all the major pro-life organizations and churches to cease their attacks on women’s reproductive health, including abortion. And I guarantee you, everyone on this site will move on to bigger and better things.

    Do you realize that the Catholic church, which I believe you villify, predicted dire consequences from cheapened sex, and perhaps you are Exhibit A for the consequences that were predicted in Humanae Vitae?

    I thought Exhibit A was the pedophile priests, and Exhibit B was the bishops who kept them in contact with children. Oh, and that Exhibit C was Bernard Law (also included in Exhibit B), who now lives in the Vatican courtesy of the Pope, out of the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities.

  • invalid-0

    What other body mutilating procedure would you consider healthy? Isn’t surgery something utilized when something is diseased, with a list of risks to be considered? Would you avoid gall bladder surgery if you could? What about heart surgery? Why do you champion a way of life which creates scenarios that “necessitate” surgery? You people really relish drama. And it is actually YOUR approach that is a threat to the reproductive health of women. But, carry on! You can churn and gyrate and create problems where there are none. Hope it makes you happy. (If you want to be honest with yourselves, psssst…READ the studies…all of them…not just the ones that say what you want to hear. It’s too bad that it’s the poor, abandoned women who will turn in desperation to your message, so they, too, will suffer the same misery.

  • on-the-issues-magazine

    It’s true that abortion, even though it’s been legal for more than 30 years, is still considered taboo in popular culture. But what feminists and pro-choicers want is not for
    abortion to be just considered in popular culture, but considered along the lines of individual choice. Much of the abortion conversation revolves around the idea that fewer
    abortions are what’s needed. The issue thus moves away from a matter of individual choice, which is what the reproductive rights movement is all about.
    On The Issues Magazine published an editorial by Merle Hoffman, "Higher Ground, Not Common Ground," which discusses the need for feminists to not compromise on their beliefs.
    http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/2009spring/2009spring_publisher.php

  • invalid-0

    Lies, lies lies, and a nasty attitude. Get lost again, will you please? You ignore FACTS of Scientists that say that there is absolutely no correlation between breast cancer and abortion. I belive scientists over you, or your nutty right wing “studies”. Anyway, you don’t care about women, just about finding gullable idiots like yourself who would believe the lies you spew. Go away, and don’t come back. It will save us the trouble of ignoring you!!

  • invalid-0

    I remember the 2 part episode, but was happy to see it again in rememberance of Bea and all that her charachter did for us as women. It was very well done, and I believe that we need to have more episodes such as that one. The problem with today’s TV is that people are too afraid of the right wing nuts boycotting them, then they are about giving us quality TV that acts like a tool and shows us people’s reality, using fictional charachters. I call it the dumbing down of America- everything sanitized and nothing of quality. I am glad for Maude’s reruns, but we need to create a new culture where these things are discussed, and shown. The right wing has films about abortion on TV, filled with lies and all kinds of garbage. Why don’t we boycott THEM?? Why are they allowed to put their outright lies and fact distortions on TV, and we aren’t allowed to tell the truth?

    • http://showbusinessman.blogspot.com/ invalid-0

      Similarly, I consider, that administration, having carried out consultations of current and former Israeli politicians, considers such measures, as boycott of the prime minister, blocking of deliveries of arms to Israel and the termination of practically unconditional support of Israel from the USA in the United Nations.

  • invalid-0

    because I have a life and don’t have time to live on here. Also, it’s a bit depressing to see such effort made to develop an underclass among the sisterhood. Best wishes.

  • amanda-marcotte

    I’ve never had one, because I use contraception.  Abortion—like getting a cavity filled—is always the back up.  But yes, brush your teeth.  But should you get a cavity, denistry should be legal.  You’re implying that it should be banned to keep people from eating.

  • invalid-0

    Do you actually think women want abortion?

    I’ve always wondered how pro-lifers imagine the abortion procedure. It would probably be like a bad porno flick, where the doctor pulls out a huge, buzzing dildo attached to a hose, and says, “All right, my dear, let’s get that baby out of there… with some MEGA ORGASMS!!”

    (I know, it’s silly, but given how gung-ho they think pro-choice women are on having an abortion, they must have something pretty raunchy in mind!)

    (Oh, and to Lucille: Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!)

  • amanda-marcotte

    I’m pro-science and evidence.  If abortion had even a minor relationship to breast cancer, I’d admit it.  I’ll happily "admit" that abortion causes discomfort and has minor risks associated with surgery.  (The risks are much smaller than childbirth, something I imagine you won’t admit.) 

     

    But even if abortion did have a relationship to breast cancer—and it doesn’t—I don’t imagine that changes anything.  Being pregnant when you don’t want to be is so horrible, so impossible for so many women that they will take enormous risks to change that fact.  A small increase in your chances of breast cancer is tiny compared to what women will do if they can’t get a safe, legal abortion—mutilating themselves with coat hangers, douching with bleach, throwing themselves down stairs (I actually know a woman who did that one).  

     

    Why do I suspect that you believe it’s supernatural punishment?  Because you’re hostile to the evidence, and you’re an anti-choicer, both evidence that you belong to a faith that links disease to god’s will.  Am I wrong?  

  • amanda-marcotte

    It does feel like an individual choice.  I dislike any implication that we further erase women’s individual autonomy and reactions from a discussion that already discounts them.

  • invalid-0

    The willingness to take enormous risks should be a BIG tipoff that you’re not thinking rationally about things.

  • invalid-0

    The willingness to take enormous risks should be a BIG tipoff that you’re not thinking rationally about things.

    I guess everyone who gets into an automobile isn’t thinking rationally, then.

    Anyway, Lucille, what are you still doing here? I thought you had a life to get on with, from your comment just up the page. Did it turn out to be the case that you don’t have a life, after all, and you’ve got nothing better to do than troll on a pro-choice site?

  • invalid-0

    Amanda does not believe that circumcision prevents STDs and the spread of AIDS. So why should this dumb bunny believe any other scientific evidence? She just writes the same article championing abortion over and over because she lacks the intellectual rigor and scholarly energy to do something more useful with her time.

  • invalid-0

    Apparently you also have no life, if you feel the need to comment on it. Personally I read the blog to learn things I might not otherwise, but you seem to have enough time to come to a place where you obviously disagree with everyone and fling insults, without giving any information or offering anything positive.

  • http://adebtset.info invalid-0

    Abortion is a delicate thing and people will never stop lock horns discussing positive and negative aspects. Just live them alone, if you want to interrupt your pregnancy it’s all in your hands including your own responsibility.