At a recent conference outside Los Angeles, a national women’s rights lawyer stood before a select group of Hollywood heavyweights to issue a demand and a plea. With a woman’s right to choose in jeopardy, the lawyer, Fatima Goss Graves, said, more abortions should be portrayed in narratives on screen. “The stories on abortion do not match our reality,” she said.
The attendees — agents, celebrities and producers at an invitation-only diversity summit held by the talent agency CAA — took Goss Graves’ message in stride. As it turns out, the industry has already begun shedding one of its longest-held taboos. In recent years, abortions are taking place or being talked about on television at record levels, often on shows created or written by women.
“You’re definitely seeing more of the matter-of-fact ‘I am pregnant, I don’t want to be, I’m going to have an abortion,’” said Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at University of California, San Francisco whose research includes tracking how abortion is characterized on screen. “And it’s gone way up in 2019.”
So far, halfway through the year, nearly two dozen characters in streaming shows, movies and television have had or talked about having abortions, many unapologetically, a development that would have been a unthinkable a decade ago — and one that has angered some abortion foes.
In the pilot for Shrill, Abby, the single millennial played by Aidy Bryant, professes to feel “powerful” after having terminated her unplanned pregnancy. On one of the final episodes of Veep Anna Chlumsky’s pregnant political aide lays into abortion opponents protesting outside a clinic, hollering, “I even prayed a little, and here I am.” On She’s Gotta Have It, the ambitious Clorinda, played by Margot Bingham, defends her decision to the baby’s father, saying anything she does with her body is her choice. Nine of the 11 people credited with writing those episodes were women.
These portrayals, like others on the series Glow and Dear White People, are a marked departure from how abortion was depicted, or not, in storylines from the ’80s through the early aughts. Characters facing unplanned pregnancies then usually agonized about what to do or, if the show was set in the past, weighed back-alley procedures. Babies were often carried to term or lost to miscarriage. Terminations led to psychological or physical problems or death. It’s not that today’s characters come to their decisions without deliberation, but that they are decisive and forthright, like Becky, the music executive played by Gabourey Sidibe in Empire. “My situation is not getting any easier,” she says at one point, “but I have decided to terminate.”
Sisson focuses on television and streaming series that air and run in the United States, along with movies, though some small indie films, she said, might not hit her radar. For 1987, a time of far fewer shows, she counted three depictions of abortion in TV and film: One on St. Elsewhere, another on Dynasty that led to infertility, and the botched procedure in Dirty Dancing that left the dance instructor played by Cynthia Rhodes gravely hurt.
But for 2018, Sisson found 18 instances of characters having, disclosing, considering or mentioning abortions. A little more than halfway through 2019, that figure was already at 21, and Sisson expects this year to match or outpace her tally from 2017, when the figure hit a high of 34.
That more characters are having abortions with fewer regrets jibes with research in the United States. Women who have had abortions overwhelmingly say they made the right decision, according to a study released in 2015. In another example of art beginning to imitate life, more onscreen characters of color are opting for the procedure. Sisson pointed to the effect of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, having an abortion a few years ago on Scandal. (Shonda Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that she was pressured by ABC to cut the scene but held firm; ABC would not comment.) “Shonda Rhimes opened it up so it can be on network prime,” Sisson said.
Still, the recent surge in abortion storylines tends to be clustered on cable and streaming shows, and with the explosion of new series, it is unclear how much the percentage of depictions has changed as a whole.
“In terms of narrative broadcast prime time, over four years, it’s been pretty thin,” said Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society, an initiative at the University of Southern California promoting accurate representation of health issues.
In addition, Sisson said that the use of Plan B contraception is not widely portrayed, and that adverse outcomes are still depicted on shows that are set before Roe v. Wade. There are also scant shows that focus on abortion providers, though a movie is in the works starring Michelle Williams as an underground abortionist before Roe vs. Wade.
Lara Shapiro, a writer whose credits include The Americans (she is also an acquaintance of this reporter), said producers repeatedly passed on a television pilot she wrote about a fictional ’60s-era Roman Catholic doctor who reluctantly performs an abortion; the script itself opened the door to other jobs. “People like to read something that’s provocative, but when it comes to putting themselves on the line, they have advertisers and politics and subscribers to answer to,” Shapiro said.
That might change. Sisson found that the number of portrayals on television ticked up as more states and politicians sought to limit women’s access to abortion and birth control.
For some creators and writers, the connection with current politics is explicit. Lindy West, a creator of Shrill (she is also a contributing op-ed writer to The New York Times) has said that normalizing abortion was of foremost importance; she also started the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
Yet Rachel Axler, a co-executive producer on Veep, said she and the other writers had been prompted to write in an abortion not because of the news cycle, but because it made most sense for Chlumsky’s character. “For this character, this was absolutely the right thing to do,” Axler said.
A 2018 episode of Claws similarly turned the tables on abortion opponents while also delving into competing perspectives. After Virginia, the nail technician played by Karrueche Tran, gets pregnant, characters weighed in via a Brady Bunch-style split screen. In the end, Virginia is accompanied to a clinic by her loving boyfriend. On the way out, the boyfriend tells gathered protesters, “We’re getting married, everybody!” eliciting cheers. One abortion protester cries, “God is good; he heard our prayers!” But Virginia snaps back, “We still D-and-C’ed that.”
Janine Sherman Barrois, the Claws showrunner, said the writers wanted to show Virginia making the decision and getting on with her day. “Maybe it’s part of the zeitgeist, but I think it came naturally out of a room of writers who’ve grown up seeing how we’ve progressed,” Barrois said.
West, Axler and Barrois all said they received no pushback from the networks and studios producing their shows.
Hollywood’s apparent normalization of abortion has aggravated but not surprised abortion foes, among them Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, who wrote and directed the 2019 feature Unplanned, based on the memoir of a clinical director at Planned Parenthood who became an anti-abortion activist.
“Hollywood’s run by the left,” said Solomon, “You won’t see pro-life stories on TV.”
Solomon and Konzelman said they did not bother approaching Hollywood financiers or studios to make Unplanned, which they produced in secrecy. They said that TV networks refused to run ads for the film, which was initially listed as “propaganda” on Google.
Unplanned has since earned more than 18 million dollars in the United States, and is enjoying brisk ticket sales in Canada despite meeting resistance there. “A vacuum has been created, and those people that believe other than what the left believes are outraged, and they feel like they’re being silenced,” Solomon said.
Another filmmaker, Nick Loeb, who directed the forthcoming Roe v. Wade, echoed the notion that Hollywood was neglecting swaths of anti-abortion Americans at its economic peril. Loeb, who is also known for his legal fight with his former partner Sofia Vergara over frozen embryos, said distributors have already made offers, sight unseen, for his film, which stars Jon Voight, Stacey Dash, and Loeb as the anti-abortion activist Bernard Nathanson.
“Nobody’s speaking for us, Hollywood doesn’t speak for us,” Loeb said of those who oppose abortion, “But when people make movies for us, they’re loved and they’re adored.”
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