Avoiding Abortion on the Small Screen

Sarah Seltzer

Friday Night Lights’ unplanned pregnancy plot ducks and dodges as expected, but does hold on to realism when it comes to the damage caused by conceptions of masculinity.

Hearing the actual word "abortion" come out of my TV set–when it's not dialed to HBO–would be enough to jolt even this most determined couch potato out of her seat. But during last week's finale of "Friday Night Lights" not only was the word mentioned flat-out, it was followed by a cogent, passionate speech from a woman standing up to the show's (suddenly unpleasant) hero and arguing for her freedom to choose. I actually stood up and cheered, and then immediately started dreading what was to come.

Abortions just don't happen on network TV. There would either be a miscarriage or a change of heart before the clock struck ten. Watching the rest of the episode was like waiting to be betrayed.

But before I get too depressed about the inevitable timidity of broadcasting networks, I'll start with the accolades. The critically beloved, ratings-challenged show really does an amazing job of scrutinizing at the American cult of masculinity and the often devastating effect it has on both women and men, and this episode was no exception.

Quadriplegic former quarterback and earnest Dillon, TX, hometown hero Jason Street finds out that his one night stand, a waitress named Erin, is pregnant. A friend chastises him for not using a condom–sadly, compared to other high school dramas, that earns FNL some points–and Jason explains that "this wasn't supposed to happen." After his accident, his doctors told him that he would be essentially sterile.

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Hyped up and convinced that it's a miracle, Jason stays up all night long researching his condition and arrives at Erin's restaurant. He wheels up to her with a manic grin, accosts her, and tells her that the pregnancy is God's gift, demanding that she see the significance in the fact that "my boys can swim" and this is "my only chance."

And then the unexpected happens. Erin, a hitherto very minor character, delivers some lines that reveal Jason's behavior for what it is.

"You need to stop," she says. "You do not get to put that on me. I'm not some experiment for you to prove your manhood, Jason. I am nineteen… This is my body. I am going to make the ultimate decision."

It's a great moment for a show that already offers the most honest depiction of teenagers (somewhere between children and adults, not mini-grownups) since "My So-Called Life." "Friday Night Lights" has taken care to portray gender and sexuality, if not totally realistically, then with a genuine attempt at fairness. Some teenagers on the show like having sex, a lot, and some confess that they aren't ready yet. When two kids have a scandalous relationship, the guy is punished one way by his peers, the girl in a much more insidious, damaging way, shamed by the entire community. The one storyline that involves sexual assault demonstrates that rape is about control and violence, not unbridled sexual desire.

Erin's speech fits in with this realism. In her few sentences, Erin pinpoints the way women's bodies are so often used as battlegrounds for men trying to advance an agenda, personal or political. Jason's injury has made him so desperate for a chance to be strong and important and yes, masculine again, that he loses any sense that she is a person, too. Jason can't control his own body, so he wants to control hers. For many men out there, some of them our lawmakers, it takes far less than a spinal cord injury to get that kind of notion.

Because Jason is so beloved in Dillon, and his paralysis is the crisis that begins the entire series and pervades its atmosphere, to depict him acting so awfully to this woman is necessarily painful for the audience.

Later in the episode, Jason gets set straight over dinner by his coach, who tells him, without giving direct advice, that he needs to rely on "trust and communication" if he wants Erin to understand him.

So Jason sits Erin down, apologizes profusely for his behavior, and then starts waxing sentimental about the "little baby" in her belly with hands and feet–a speech that's clearly there to counterbalance Erin's previous one. Pro-choice rhetoric? Check. Pro-life rhetoric? Check. NBC has its bases covered. That's the cynical view at least.

But Erin counters this again, asking him with a sad smile if he is the kind of person who, like, "blows up clinics." He assures her he doesn't, and says that he knows that the decision is ultimately hers. But, he adds, if she keeps the pregnancy he will more than be there for her. He lays the charm on so thick that she chokes up and seems to give in–and then the show goes to credits, potentially for the last time ever.

Is it possible that Jason could so easily overturn Erin's conviction, or is the show just copping out? What convinced me that her caving might be realistic on some level is that he is selling her a dream of a stable family with, most importantly, a loving, supportive father. In a town marked by absent dads–four or five main FNL characters and counting don't have fathers around–Erin watches Jason struggle to overcome his masculine aggression and humble himself, swearing that he dreams of being a family man. He offers to be her partner and her helper unconditionally, and she is clearly someone who is very much vulnerable, a lone woman in a patriarchal society.

Is it so surprising that in the face of Jason's new approach, Erin might momentarily be charmed into forgetting that neither of them has a college education? That any dreams of leaving Dillon and venturing into the wider world must be deferred by their decision to have the child?

Watching her waver is like watching a tragedy in the making. You can see these two in fifteen years, the parents of a sophomore on the Dillon football team, struggling with their finances, diminished hopes and mixed feelings about each other (think Bruce Springsteen's "The River"). They'll be perpetuating the kind of small-town life that has caused them both so much angst and sadness, victims of Jason's inability to accept his injury.

We may never know whether Erin goes through with the pregnancy or not. I hope that's not the case, the show gets picked up, and the plot arc comes to a more definitive conclusion. And we can also hope that if FNL ends up depicting young people having a child, it does so with the same unflinching perspective we're used to from the show's creators, network honchos be damned.

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