I don’t keep it much of a secret that I watch a lot of television—I frequently write about television’s portrayals of teen sex, abortion, STDs, and other issues related to sexuality. I have written about Lifetime Movies, TLC Reality Shows, and soap operas but it seems that I keep coming back to Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, two shows created by Shonda Rhimes. It’s not just that I watch these night-time soaps religiously (in my defense lately I’ve been watching them while on the elliptical, I swear); it’s that these shows deal with sexual and reproductive health issues almost every week.
As medical dramas that combine patient-of-the week storylines with the life dramas of a cast of beautiful and horny regulars, there are ample opportunities to look at these issues. Sex is played for drama, for laughs, for education, and some might say for political pontification. There was the first season outbreak of syphilis among the doctors and nurses who seem to sleep exclusively with each other, the chairman of the board with an odd river fish lodged in his penis, the woman who came into the ER having spontaneous orgasms, the divorced couple who were stuck together because his penis ring got caught on her IUD string (their daughter walked in on them during their MRI), and Dr. Mark Sloan’s broken penis.
Then there was the episode in which the writers planted important health information into a story line so that the Kaiser Family Foundation could track whether viewer’s knowledge increased after watching. In that episode, Dr. Izzie Stevens explained to an HIV-positive woman who thought she had to terminate a pregnancy that with the right drug treatment during pregnancy there was a 98 percent chance that her baby would not be born with HIV. “The study found that the audience’s awareness of this information increased by 46 percentage points (from 15 percent to 61 percent), a four-fold increase among all viewers. This translates to more than eight million people learning correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates from watching the episode.”
Both shows also deal with abortion on a regular basis whether it’s the fifteen year old who doesn’t want the same thing as her mother, the Down’s syndrome young woman who doesn’t understand termination, or the woman who had a late-term abortion after an earlier one failed. And these shows are rare in the world of television dramas because some of their main characters have had abortions off-screen and on.
In fact, the last time I wrote about this topic it was to discuss this season’s premier of Grey’s Anatomy in which Dr. Christina Yang chose to terminate an unintended pregnancy because she knew that she did not want to become a mother, now or in the future. In the piece, I applauded the writers for what I saw as a gutsy storyline. Not only did they allow a main character (not a guest star who had just been introduced) to go through this, but they did not give her any extenuating circumstance that could “justify” her abortion to skeptics of reproductive choice. She was employed, married, financially stable, and healthy. She just didn’t want to be pregnant. That episode ended with Christina having the abortion while her husband, Owen – who really wanted a child – held her hand in what I saw as a positive sign of his accepting both her right to decide and the decision she made.
After praising the show’s scribes for that episode, I have to admit that I was a little disheartened by where the storyline went next. Christina and Owen are having marital problems this season. They’ve ignored each other, spent an episode in couple’s counseling, and it’s possible that he’s been cheating on her (I’m one episode behind so forgive me if this has already been cleared up). Though they have other issues only suited to television (he had her operate on her mentor’s husband without telling her who it was), the big issue in their marriage appears to be the abortion. As he said loudly in one recent episode: “You killed my baby.” Whoa. That seems like a total 180-degree turn from the well-articulated, pro-choice arguments the writers have gone out of their way to make numerous times.
I was tempted to be annoyed at this turn of events, the cynical part of me even started to wonder if they were trying to appease those viewers who felt the show had gotten too pro-choice or too political. But I’ve decided to give them the benefit of the doubt for a couple of reasons.
First, because they have such a good track record on sexual and reproductive health issues. Just last week, the show’s spin-off, Private Practice, gave us a lovely portrayal of parent-child communication about sex. New character, Dr. Jake Reilly is a fertility doctor who continues to raise his step-daughter even after her mother’s death. This episode introduced us to Angela on her 18th birthday. A college freshman, Angela announces that she lost her virginity to a boy named Ethan, that she liked it, that she’s happy, and that she felt her step-father would want to know. Jake is initially taken aback, a fair reaction, but recovers and later in the episode shows up on campus with a supply of condoms and some encouraging words.
I also understand that while the writers are responsible enough occasionally to use their shows as educational and political platforms, in the end these are night-time soaps in the spirit of Dallas, Dynasty, or Knots Landing and as such they thrive on melodrama. While I don’t like Owen’s words (especially the use of the term baby to describe an early pregnancy), I choose to look at this less as a debate about reproductive rights and more about a couple grappling with the fundamental question of whether they can stay together if they disagree about something as important as having children. And, I do think there is room for a show like this to explore how a man would feel in Owen’s situation. Women have the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term but her decision does affect her partner and one cannot really blame the writers for milking that for some pretty tense and emotional scenes.
So instead of being annoyed or cynical, I will once again thank Shonda Rhimes and her team for these guilty pleasures that occasionally make viewers think. And since I’m in a generous mood, I will even forgive them for the ridiculous storyline in which Izzie had mind-blowing sex with ghost.