Can a Reality Show Find the Elusive “Common Ground” on Abortion?


Eventually, we will all be on a reality show. There will be a military-style draft instituted, as there are simply too many shows that need bodies. Currently, “real” people starve themselves, get cut open, parent octuplets, seek a spouse, turn car parts into couture and show us a slice of life from prison. So ubiquitous has it become you might wonder, is any topic off limits? The answer is yes. Abortion has necessitated a new genre — the based-on-a-reality-show show.

This show is Bump+ – “an attempt to see if one story can succeed where nearly four decades of rhetoric and political posturing have failed.” Actors playing characters on a reality show, complete with fake producer, visible camera crew and confessional interviews, decide whether to carry their pregnancies to term.

Bump+ is the first offering from Yellow Line Studio, which “exists to develop, produce, and distribute quality entertainment that engages and influences the culture in positive ways.” And if I had any idea what that meant, I might agree it was good.

But obfuscation turns out to be integral to the show and the studio that spawned it. The obvious example of this is the conflation between creator and viewer. The audience is encouraged to “participate” — giving commentary on the episodes, offering advice to the characters and telling their stories to help shape the outcome.

In response to Fox News labeling Bump+ an “abortion game show,” producer Lauri Deason was quick to refute the idea that viewers are voting. The line between yea or nay and influencing what happens, however, is pretty blurry. Each episode ends with the words “their choices are up to you.” So, to be fair, it’s not a game show; it’s an abortion-themed choose your own adventure.

When I asked Executive Producer Chris Riley why viewers’ comments would influence the narratives, he responded: “because that’s the nature of our web culture…. People are more apt to tell their story if they feel it has a chance to influence. I understand that can raise concern that this choice is being taken out of the hands of these women, our characters. Each of these women will make their own decisions — [the viewers’ comments represent] a wider circle of friends who offer advice.”

This explanation seems to contrast one of Deason’s objectives:

I hope we’re functioning in some small way as a cultural mirror reflecting the dark side of the reality show phenomenon…I’m relieved and hopeful for our culture when I read in the press that people are outraged and offended by the concept of a show like the fictional one we’ve created. Part of what drew me to this project was my own sense of horror at the idea that anyone (the women or the TV crew) would even think to exploit such a personal and private decision; and yet, three of the first ten comments we got on the trailer were inquiries about casting for the show. (We immediately removed those comments.)…A few people have raised some good points about the consequences of allowing what should be an intimate decision to be shared by millions of strangers – and how the current atmosphere that seems to characterize some of the actual abortion debate looks suspiciously like a real world parallel to that at times. If nothing else, the outrage over Bump+ proves that there are people from both perspectives who actually agree on one point that suggests they share a fundamental respect for women.

If you are seeking to criticize the genre, it hardly seems effective to profit off of one of its key elements — audience participation. As Audre Lorde wisely counseled “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

But most troubling is the lack of clarity in the motivation behind the show itself. Despite multiple attempts to get at what constitutes success in this endeavor, I remain unsure of what Deason means when she says she wants to “influence the culture in positive ways.” Deason’s written response on this is hard to dislike: “I’ll feel successful in terms of the company’s mission if viewers walk away with new or renewed confidence that they don’t have to compromise or abandon their own convictions to listen and respond with compassion to someone else.”

And Riley wrote similarly encouraging things, saying “I think in particular that we’ve already seen evidence in the conversations unfolding on the Bump+ website that the audience…is gaining compassion. They’re listening to people with whom they disagree. They’re trying to understand. And anytime people can have meaningful conversations around a topic that has been as polarizing and even taboo as abortion, a subject we’ve proven ourselves virtually incapable of talking about, I think that’s a plus for our culture.”

If this “experiment” is one of finding common ground — an endeavor Riley commended as represented on this very website — it seems the question of its success should revolve around whether this is possible and how it ought to be attempted. Riley maintains that “if we can tell the stories honestly and fairly, [if] you can conclude that this was paid for by the Pope or Planned Parenthood” than they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

But is intentional ambiguity about your own beliefs the necessary starting point for civil debate?

Common ground is not a clearly demarcated space. Do we reach this mythical country by wearing our views on our sleeves and fighting it out till we find — Venn-diagram style — the intersections? Or do we, instead, hold back on our existing beliefs and biases?

The latter approach is the one Yellow Line is taking. Riley refuses to disclose his views on abortion. Other key people do the same. However, he maintains — as have others on the show’s website — that the folks involved come from a variety of backgrounds. They would have us understand this to mean they hold a variety of viewpoints.

But “variety” itself seems ill defined. As Mary Elizabeth Williams reported, all of Bump’s top folks teach at John Paul the Great Catholic University. However, you wouldn’t know this from their bios, which read “[Iocco] serves as a university administrator and faculty member” and “[Riley] teaches screenwriting and other media classes at the university level.” Deason doesn’t mention a university connection at all but is an adjunct professor at JP Catholic.

Why all the secrecy about their day jobs? Possibly because this university boasts the motto “Impacting Culture for Christ” and declares “the Catholic influence on the media is near rock bottom, but is enjoying a small but passionate resurgence in Hollywood. New media, which is evolving and maturing daily, is poised to radically change the landscape of the media industry.”

While it’s possible to interpret this as the ‘loving-kindness, accept-people-as-they-are’ version of Catholicism — it’s difficult to credit the school with such a view. In fact, they have proudly taken up Pope John Paul’s directives for Catholic universities, including “offering a convincing witness, within a pluralistic society, to the Church’s teaching, particularly on respect for human life, marriage and family, and the right ordering of public life. As most of us know, “respect for human life” in a dogmatic Catholic view means prohibiting abortion.

While Riley side-stepped potential conflict between the school’s directives and Bump’s+ objectives, JP Catholic states quite clearly: “All teaching faculty commit to harmony with Catholic Church teachings (the pope and bishops) in speech and action. Faculty, staff, students or volunteers who knowingly in public speech or actions take positions against the Catholic Church compromise their relationship with JP Catholic.” (Emphasis theirs) And “public speech” clearly extends beyond the classroom.

This connection to JP Catholic is the norm among Bump’s+ cast and crew. Sixteen out of the 27 people in the show’s credits work for, attend, or have graduated from JP Catholic. All of the show’s writers have studied there including Matthew Salisbury who came up with the idea for the show in a course at — you guessed it — JP Catholic. Two cast members not affiliated with the school clearly identify with the anti-choice movement.

While the top level folks, as their aforementioned bios attest, are circumspect in revealing their personal views — the younger members of this endeavor could learn a bit about Facebook privacy settings. For example, Emily Von Sydow, the associate producer who writes the show’s blog is a Facebook fan of The Not So Silent Majority among other anti-choice organizations. Regarding the Salon.com charges of secrecy, she asks: “Should artists be required to label their art with their religious and political affiliations? Does a writer, director, or producer (or even a doctor, pilot, or journalist) have a responsibility to explain exactly what they believe to everyone?”

One viewer responds: “if the producers had done a web series (sic) on football or dog-sledding or making a cheesecake, I would argue that their political and religious affiliations are completely irrelevant. However, abortion is *the* polarizing religious, moral, and political issue of our age. When considering a web series (sic) dealing with abortion, knowledge of the point-of-view of the producers is not only of interest to the viewer, I would argue that it is *critical*, particularly if you hope to engage your viewer in honest dialogue.” Perhaps there is something to be said for encouraging viewer responses.

Riley offered, unasked, that he isn’t Catholic. Not surprising, given he’s a graduate of Oral Roberts University where “a Christian worldview is central to everything we do.” Similarly, Lauri Deason graduated from an evangelical center of higher education — William Tyndale College. It’s safe to assume she isn’t Catholic either.

I spoke with the only member of this production who is neither silent about nor right wing in her personal politics. Lauren Holiday, who plays a nurse at the clinic where most of the story takes place, is a lesbian activist who is married to her partner despite California’s schizophrenic attitude toward equality.

Holiday was quite clear that she felt absolutely no bias among Bump’s+ creators, nor hostility from her fellow cast members. In fact, because auditions were held at JP Catholic (surely a dubious practice for a show that professes to have no institutional relationship to the university) she insisted she was on alert for any bias — “I just wouldn’t have been involved in it if I thought they were trying to preach a certain message.”

In contrast to her colleagues, she offered up her views on abortion, stating “I’m pro-choice to me it’s really an issue of privacy…So I’m surprised that people feel like they can weigh in on somebody’s personal decisions, it’s almost a throw back to the old days when women were property.”

What to make, then, of this professed attempt at dialogue? Is it in earnest or the best-ever propaganda?

Turning to the show itself, the answer is still not obvious. There are hints of anti-choice tactics like forcing the women to not only have but stare at the screen during their ultrasounds — as part of their contractual obligation to the reality show. And while the doctor is willing to waive this requirement, in defiance of the producers if necessary, there’s also this exchange between him and Katie, one of the pregnant women:

Katie: Does it hurt?

Doctor: It can be complicated, but I’m not sure I can honestly answer that question.

Katie: Haven’t you…performed…

Katie: Why not?

Doctor: I’m a coward.

Why was this physician selected if he has no real knowledge of this procedure? And then there’s his answer — is it a question of courage to provide a medical service your patient requests? I guess it can be argued that in today’s political climate, bravery is essential.

Complicating any assessment of whether this show comes with an agenda and, if so, what that agenda entails is the intense criticism it has received from the anti-choice crowd. Besides the Fox News beating, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker charges “there are so many unappealing facets wrapped into this one package, it’s difficult to identify the core offense.” On her radio show Dr. Laura tore into Yellow Line CEO and Bump+ Executive Producer Iocco.

The vast majority of the comments on this show — I would estimate 75 percent but haven’t actually counted — are anti-choice. The standard story offered is of abortion regretted; the most frequent refrains are about the unborn. But this is precisely because the show has received much more — almost entirely negative — attention in the “Right to Life” camp. The over-riding sentiment from these folks is: how dare they make a show with decision-making in the foreground — the unborn baby always deserves top-billing. They’re contending, in a sense, that the show cannot foster dialogue and bring down the temperature because its very premise goes against their side’s worldview.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with people whose political objectives I abhor. I too believe the basic premise of the show is at odds with its purported intentions. For me this means, for an issue that — according to the legal logic in Roe v. Wade — is about privacy, the very notion of encouraging input from strangers is antithetical to legalized abortion. On the other side of this debate, I would guess this irreconcilable conflict would sound thus: for an issue involving life, which begins at conception, the circumstances surrounding termination of pregnancy may be meaningful but are never worthy of consideration above life.

The length the producers have gone to hide their affiliations indicates it might not be possible to present stories about abortion without an agenda. They obviously feel it’s necessary to avoid mention of the school where the idea was born and all of the executive and writing staff work or study. This indicates one of two things (1) they are hiding a secret agenda or (2) they fear people will suspect they are hiding a secret agenda.

Either way, highly suspect as the foundation for a civil and meaningful conversation. It is, at the outset, an attempt rooted in obscuring personal truths, and perhaps even outright fabrication.

Treading the middle ground is not just the intent of Bump+ but also the metaphor behind Yellow Line Studio’s name. In this, Riley remarked rather off-handedly that “driving down the middle” you are very likely to get hit by traffic from both sides. Especially, I would add, if you try and conceal yourself from view.

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  • crowepps

    In contrast to her colleagues, she offered up her views on abortion, stating “I’m pro-choice to me it’s really an issue of privacy…So I’m surprised that people feel like they can weigh in on somebody’s personal decisions, it’s almost a throw back to the old days when women were property.”

    Isn’t the whole POINT of the show that the women involved have opened their lives up for inspection and judgment by strangers, and that they have contractually agree that they and their pregnancies ARE the property of the producers?  It would sure be interesting to read one of those contracts!

  • mechashiva

    After reading this article, I went and watched all the episodes up to this point. I really got the impression that the show has a pro-life bias, mostly from the portrayals of the pro-choice characters. The medical professionals push way too hard toward abortion as the solution to all the problems in the woman’s life. The pro-life characters in the show seem far more moderate in that they separate the issue of keeping the pregnancy from the issue of ending abuse, even though they push for keeping the baby. In reality, pro-choice people do not treat abortion as the fix-all for life’s problems.

     

    I wouldn’t be surprised if none of the protagonists choose abortion, particularly if the show is influenced by the commenters. Most of the comments are pro-life stories or suggestions. It would be great to see more of a pro-choice perspective in the comments, but I think the ingrained biases of the show’s creators leaks through to the point of making this into fodder for pro-life propoganda. I’m really quite surprised that Fox didn’t pick up on that, but I can also see them just trying to take the ultimate moral highground by attacking the premise of the show. Afterall, it’s better if we just don’t talk about those kinds of things, according to them.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Crowepps,

    I wavered throughout the research and writing of this piece about the point of the show. Was it the best snow job ever? Did they ask their anti-choice buddies to write hit pieces to make it look neutral as part of the scheme? or was it a genuine, if imperfect attempt to suggest a new way to have conversation?

    I thought talking to Lauren — the clear lefty on the project — would clear things up, but as I said — it didn’t. 

    Just to clarify — this isn’t a real reality show — the people on it are acting as if they are pregnant and deciding whether to carry to term. Thus the “contract” is — like everything else, a fiction. However, the producer shared with me that there were people who — confused about this — wrote in asking to be on the next run of the show! So clearly someone out there desires to televise themselves in this situation.

    If the creators are in earnest — the only way they can illustrate these stories in order to personalize this issue and bring women considering abortion out of the shadows of stereotyping is to broadcast their dilemmas. As I said, I too believe the mere act of doing this violates a founding principle of legal abortion.

    What’s fascinating to me is that many among the opposition also feel the premise of the show violates their core notions.

    So perhaps Bump has achieved its mission — we agree with the opposition on something.

    –Anat

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    MechaShiva,

    You bring up an excellent point and I completely agree. The ever more pro-choice doctor is a completely inconsistent character who clearly only knows the slogans and not what motivates them. He went from refusing to provide his personal views, to admitting he’d never done an abortion out of fear to quoting sound bytes about when life begins. The other characters are more consistent and have a more nuanced approach to this issue.

    Perhaps I’m being charitable but this might be unintentional. The creators, as I reported, are clearly much more steeped in the anti-choice world and presumably know that logic and those arguments best. Even in believing they are “walking the yellow line” be tipping toward one side unconsciously.

    I asked Chris Riley about this very possibility and he said they were guarding against that by having diverse view points and the show and allowing comments. As I noted, not clear how diverse those view points are since they’re determined to keep personal views quiet. And, as you noted too, the vast majority of comments are from the other side.

    So — do we charge en masse to their site and start commenting? It feels against our own beliefs to attempt to persuade writers who give dialogue to fictional characters played by actors pretending to be real people. Even this much removal from reality seems like interference.

    For what it’s worth, they’ve changed the wording at the end. It no longer says “their choices are up to you” but rather “share your stories.”

     

    Anat

  • crowepps

    They’re not even women who actually are pregnant? This ‘entertainment’ sounds more bogus by the second.

    Personally, I am incredibly offended by the idea that people who are pretending to be pregnant are being taped interacting with people who are pretending to be filming them being really pregnant, and anonymous internet commenters will weigh in on the fake decisions they are acting as though they are making, and that somehow out of all this pretense some ‘truth’ will be revealed and a consensus reached on what real women who are actually experiencing real pregnancies ‘should’ do.

    Garbage in, garbage out.

  • crowepps

    If the creators are in earnest — the only way they can illustrate these stories in order to personalize this issue and bring women considering abortion out of the shadows of stereotyping is to broadcast their dilemmas.

    But they are not bringing “women out of the shadows of stereotyping” — instead they are WRITING SCRIPTS about what they IMAGINE it would be like to be in that situation, which, from what I have seen so far, contains stereotypes like the “ProLife doctor” and attempting to act in a way that would help the viewer understand what real women in real situations feel when they “view ultrasounds” even though the actresses may never have actually done so.

     

    Has anyone involved in this show ever: been pregnant – considered abortion – had an abortion — decided not to have an abortion? That person might have something useful to contribute to the discussion. People who are IMAGINING how that person MIGHT feel don’t seem to me to be able to make much of a contribution.

     

    If they want to “broadcast their dilemmas” they need to tell actual factual stories of real women, not just make stuff up based on their preexisting beliefs about what ‘those women’ feel or SHOULD feel. And frankly, if I personally was a pregnant woman in that situation, I wouldn’t trust a bunch of people from a religious college to give me unbiased advice, or for that matter, to know what my name was or where I lived.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    As I hope my article made clear, I feel conflicted at best about the show. I don’t think the show can set out what it aims because its determined to conceal in order to reveal.

    This said, I think the fake reality show or just a plain old scripted drama is the only way this could get made. The notion of having real women offering themselves up for prime time judgement I would venture is more offensive to most people. It intrigues me that you find it more offensive that they are actors.

    The creators’ contention is that they are incorportating the lived experiences of “real” women both because people making the show have experience with abortion (not clear what that is, of course) and because people write in their experiences. And these, in turn, influence the writers (again, not clear how this process happens.)

    It would be interesting — if you have the time and inclination — to see what response a comment like the one you’ve crafted above would garner on the Bump site itself.

    Thanks for reading and finding the time to “chat” about this with me.

    Anat

     

    • crowepps

       It intrigues me that you find it more offensive that they are actors.

      While I certainly have a great deal of respect for the craft of both writers and actors, I certainly don’t think it’s possible for either to be accurate in this situation because of selection bias.  An actor who is pretending to be a pregnant woman, but who has never been one herself, is going to be able to present only what she has in the past perceived from the outside as something which fits with her own previous beliefs about the matter.  A writer, especially a male one, but even a woman who has never been pregnant, is also going to be able to present only what he or she has in the past perceived from the outside and has retained because it fits his or her own concepts of what’s involved.

       

      While I agree this is an intriguing idea, it seems to me the way to do it right would be to find women who have actually had the experience of unwanted pregnancy and let THEM write the scripts without censoring the truths they tell.

       

      The way they have this set up just strikes me as backwards and circular – like John Wayne taking a script written by someone who has never been a soldier, being directed by someone who has never been a soldier, using soundstages and fake bullets and fake mud and fake deaths to present the myth of the ‘warrior’ in a convincing manner as though it were reality, and then the screening of the illusion to the warriors themselves causing them to incorporate this multi-pronged ’wish we’d been there’ into actual reality in their beliefs about ’what soldiers are really like’.

       

      I can understand why something like this would be useful as propaganda — women who are exposed to this framing and then have unwanted pregnancies are primed with the vocabulary of ‘moral choices’ outlined in the show as something they ‘should’ consider, but I don’t see where it is particularly valuable as a way to find the truth.

       

      When dealing with history, primary sources are always the most valuable.   For example, conventional historical framing about “The Way The West Was Won” is turned upside down when reading “Women’s Pioneer Diaries” and discovering actual events like women psychotic with loneliness burning the homestead down and killing their entire family or children becoming lost in the buffalo grass and never being found.  Sure never seen any of that in the movies.

       

      Inviting real women who have actually had the experience to come on in later and critique what has already been presented in an open forum which will expose them to being savaged by those who already think they’re damned, not only seems unlikely, but doesn’t seem to me sufficient to salvage the concept.  Particularly when those critiques are on the internet, which as we all know is rife with people who have ‘adopted 12 children all with Downs’, ’nearly died 10 times during my pregnancy but all seven babies lived’, and all those 14 year old boys who assert they are really truly a jet pilot/lawyer/surgeon/sex god - etc.

  • anothersweetoldlady

    Anat – this is super research and great journalism. You did your homework. What excites me most is that you are open to the possibility that the BUMP people are sincere.  As I grow older, I tire of righteous opinions. I see hope in this discussion – pro-life and pro-choice people open to listening and loving. My sympathies are for those caught in the middle, struggling to make the best decision in a bad situation. Those women need our love not our judgement. Your thorough work and openness is refreshing. If the show producers are open – some of the women will choose life, some will choose abortion – such is real life.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    ASOL,

    I’m very happy to hear that the sincerity of my endeavor came through in the delivery. I am, as you say, open to the possibility that these folks are sincere. 

    This said, there’s a difference between an earnest attempt and success. It’s very hard for me to imagine Bump meeting its own goals when it approaches them shrouded in mystery. We all — myself included — come to this debate with our experiences and biases, our assumptions and beliefs. These prime us in ways we can’t even recognize and I think it’s imperative we do our best to be aware, and make other aware, of these. This is the honesty that is the basis of genuine comprehension.

     

    –ASO

  • catseye71352

    Shades of the loathsome Lila Rose.

    • anat-shenkerosorio

      Catseye,

       

      Can’t say I know that reference. But, regardless, I’m not sure why the fact that these actresses are pretending to be pregnant is so loathsome. They are also pretending to have different names, be married or dating other actors, have different professions, etc. That’s what acting is.

      Please don’t mistake me — there’s plenty to criticize here. I’m just hoping you can elaborate on why it’s the fact that this is a scripted drama and not a reality show that’s so problematic. I would think a reality show with this premise would be far worse.

      But — I would love to understand your point of view.

      Anat

  • crowepps

    I would think a reality show with this premise would be far worse.

    I agree.

     

    Actually, I think the core of my unease is the ’audience participation’ thing because I’m well aware that people get actors mixed up with real people, and it bothers me that some of the anonymous commentors really do not seem to be talking in general but as though the specific character is real.

     

    If the ‘audience’ thinks the characters are real, and really pregnant, then isn’t what we have actually a reality show?  Isn’t the whole crux of the abortion controversy that some people think these are personal, private decisions people should be able to restrict only to those actually involved and other people think everybody in town ought to be able to pore over the salacious details and get a voice on what other people do ‘deserve’ to do with their uterus?

     

    These guys may honestly be trying to do something worthwhile to illuminate this issue, but I don’t think this format is going to reach the goal for which they claim they are trying.  I’m not much of a TV watcher, and so I’m not spending a lot of time going through each episode, but so far I think I’ve sorted out the characters as ‘cheating wife’, ‘girl with poor self esteem’ and ‘single mother/slut’ – none of whom, in my opinion, are ‘typical’ of women who get abortions.