Presentation from Panel on Abortion in Popular Culture

by Melissa Silverstein on May 5, 2009

in Events,Politics

Last week I moderated a panel on abortion and popular culture at the National Abortion Federation annual meeting.  It was amazing and humbling to be in a place with people who put themselves on the line each and every day when they go to work because they believe in preserving a woman’s right to her own autonomy.

Some people had to leave early and couldn’t attend the panel and asked me to post my remarks.  Keep in mind that we showed a bunch of clips from TV shows and movies that deal with the issue.  (I’m not posting them due to permissions issues.)

Here is my introduction to the panel:

The objective of this panel is to leave you with some thoughts about popular culture because popular culture is the way that most people outside of this room are exposed to abortion.  Those images reflect choices that are made and values that are formed whether we want to believe it or not.

One of the big questions I wrestle with about pop culture is whether it affects the cultural conversation or reflects it.  As a person who spends a lot of time absorbing pop culture, particularly TV and film, I would venture to say the answer is both.  There are times when pop culture – particularly TV- effects behavior, values and sets an agenda.  Examples I like to use are the 1984 film There’s Something About Amelia that dealt with incest, An Early Frost from 1985 that dealt with AIDS or the 1992’s Doing Time on Maple Drive about a gay teen who tried to commit suicide.  Keep in mind that these examples are from a time when network TV movies were more dominant.  Also think about the cultural conversation that the film Thelma and Louise started several months before the Anita Hill hearing.  It touched a raw nerve and helped create a potent conversation.

The culture has softened and shifted on issues that were taboo only a short time ago and the best example is sexuality.  Until recently gay people were pretty much invisible, and if they were seen they were alone and silent.  But things have shifted on this issue as more people – particularly young people, a much desired demographic in the entertainment business – have grown more comfortable.  While there are very few – if any- shows with gay leads, gay people are interwoven into many shows.  A great example of that is Brothers and Sisters which I call the gayest show on TV.  The gay rights movement has been very smart in how they have used the culture and the pro-choice movement could learn from them.

maudes1But abortion is different.  And as you can tell from the clips you just saw (with film clips to come later in our discussion) we started at the top of the mountain with Maude.  I just want to acknowledge Bea Arthur as Maude and Dorothy from the Golden Girls who died this past weekend for her groundbreaking characters.  Maude aired on November 14, 1972 several months before the passage of Roe v Wade.  CBS was not happy at all that it was taking on abortion in its first season, but Norman Lear threatened to pull the show and the network was forced to air the episodes.  65 million people watched it.  (Remember that there was no cable then and very few channels)

Here’s a recent homage to the show from Entertainment Weekly on the occasion of the DVD release:

“On those rare occasions when TV dares to deal with the volatile issue of abortion, it would be unthinkable to play the subject for laughs. But then, to paraphrase the All in the Family spin-off’s theme song, there was Maude. In its second month on the air, Maude grabbed headlines as the first sitcom that dared to deal with the subject, setting a caustic, politically charged tone for the CBS series that would endure throughout its six-year run.  Creator Norman Lear denies his motivation was political. ”We weren’t trying to make a statement,” he insists today. ”(At first) we asked, what’s a good, funny story and pregnancy was a great comedic idea.…”

When the show was rerun in the summer of 73, 39 of CBS’ 198 affiliates refused to air it and it ran with no ads.  I can pretty much guarantee that Maude as it was written in 1972 would not make it on the air today.

I spoke with a high level network executive who works on standards issues and she told me that her advice to producers (on TV producers are writers) is that if they are going to tackle a topic like religion or abortion they better be ready for the attention.  Just to give you a sense of how the TV business works, in the past TV shows used to have at least a season to gain a foothold and sometimes more.  (Remember Seinfeld took a while to gain its audience)  But now you have one or two episodes and if you don’t get good ratings you’re cancelled.  So unless you’re sure that this is the type of attention you want to get – why bother?  Pregnancy is a very common topic, but not abortion.  Part of the problem is that you can’t produce a pro-choice show like Maude was.  Everything needs to be balanced even though you have the facts and the majority of Americans are pro choice.

A show like Grey’s Anatomy which is so progressive on many topics and is populated by strong independent working women was created and is run by Shonda Rhimes one of the few African American women executive producers and showrunners around dealt with the issue when Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh, got pregnant she immediately wanted an abortion and was indignant for having to have gone through counseling.  But they still skirted the issue by having it resolved through an ectopic pregnancy.  But Rhimes is flexing her muscles (she’s my generation’s version of Norman Lear) and on her second show Private Practice this season she had an entire episode that dealt with the issue and two of the female doctors even talked about their own abortions.

Another interesting note is that daytime TV which has more hours to fill each week is definitely ahead of the curve.  Part of it is that daytime is still seen as the women’s domain.  Abortion on daytime TV goes back to 1964 on Another World, and in 1973 Susan Lucci as Erica Kane had the first legal abortion on daytime TV and I heard there was an abortion on General Hospital last week.

Abortion has also been touched on in other TV shows including:  Murphy Brown, The Facts of Life; Cagney & Lacey; China Beach; Beverly Hills 90210; Sex and the City; Felicity; One Tree Hill; Army Wives; Battlestar Galactica and The Secret Life of an American Teenager.

I want to finish up with a quote from Robert Thompson who is professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University to get a sense of where we are on the abortion debate in popular culture:

“In the 21st century, abortion is at the top of the taboo heap.  Abortion is not only at the top of it, but it’s climbed higher, where other taboos have fallen off the mountain.  The entertainment industry has elected to silence the discussion on abortion.  It’s an issue fraught with moral and ethical challenges and Hollywood has been almost silent on it for the past 20 years. It has been the one controversial subject matter that has not only not progressed, but has totally retreated from popular culture. If you’d watch TV or films in this country, you’d never guess that abortion is such a big issue.”

One of the pieces of the discussion was about the impact of Juno and Knocked Up.

Here’s my intro to that conversation:

Juno is a small movie (in Hollywood terms) written by a first time screenwriter Diablo Cody that caused a stir at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.  It was interesting because it had a female protagonist who didn’t fit into the typical Hollywood girl role.  She was quirky, tomboyish, and opinionated.  The movie opened at the end of 2007 and became a huge success propelling it to an Oscar win for Cody for best screenplay and a domestic box office take of $143 million.

Knocked Up is one of the long line of Judd Apatowian comedies where women are virtually absent and the world revolves around the stunted existences of stoner boy men.  It opened in the summer of 2007 and became a huge hit taking in $148 million in the US.

These two movies have been defining the recent pop culture abortion conversation because both pro choice and anti choices have each found parts to champion and because they both are filling a vacuum because there is so little dialogue about the topic in popular culture.

Slate film critic Dana Steven wrote this about the film Knocked Up:

“Just as abortion has become a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, the treatment of abortion in Knocked Up seems to be emerging as a litmus test for the politics of its viewers. At the National Review Web site, Kathryn Jean Lopez writes approvingly that “in Knocked Up abortion is presented as an option whose time has come and gone,” while lefty blogger Ezra Klein sees Knocked Up as “pro-choice in the most literal sense of the term.”  It’s the big, fat white elephant in the room that has critics, activists, historians and moviegoers all wondering: 30 years after Roe v. Wade, is abortion still a dirty word?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Georgia Kral May 5, 2009 at 9:01 AM

It’s true that abortion, even though it’s been legal for more than 30 years, is still considered taboo in popular culture. Perhaps the reason why abortion is still not discussed openly is because the abortion conversation revolves around the idea that fewer abortions are what’s needed. The issue thus shifts 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.

Also at On The Issues Magazine is an article by Margot Mifflin,
“Teaching Daughters About Lollipop Politics,” which takes a different stance on popular culture than is usually seen.

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