TV Land: A World Without Choice

Kathleen Reeves

Abortion's absence from TV shows is hard to swallow when television has always been a medium for discussing social issues.

Since “Maude” was before my time, I watched the decision scene in the abortion episode, excerpted on last week’s CBS Sunday Morning, with no foreknowledge. I saw the visual cues more than I heard the lines spoken: woman looks worried, man takes hold of her shoulders and looks her square in the face, man and woman hug, relieved. In my experience as a TV viewer, there’s only one thing that means: woman has decided to have her baby, man supports her, and the two of them are going to figure it out somehow.

But then I realized what Bill Macy, playing Maude’s husband, Walter, had said before the final embrace: “In the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”

I still didn’t quite get it. “Does she have an abortion?” I asked my mom, confused.

Ginia Bellafante points out how the television outcome of the unplanned pregnancy has changed so much since that episode aired. I can attest to that. I think about reproductive rights on a daily basis, and yet the only unplanned pregnancy TV narrative I can conceive of is having the baby. (There’s also the plot device of the miscarriage, as both Bellafante and Lynda Waddington point out.)

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This is hard to swallow when television has always been a medium for discussing social issues. We’ve seen lesbian and gay people on TV, first as a novelty but later as fully-formed people. We’ve seen divorce, unwed mothers, and (to a small extent) interracial couples. There have been characters with HIV, first as victims and then as real people, and even—in the case of a character on General Hospital—as people with sex lives. Television has mirrored social change (if in a cautious, delayed fashion).

Does the surge of the pro-life movement after the seventies account for the exclusion of abortion from TV? I feel like there’s something else at play here. As Lynda Waddington says in a comment on her Rewire story:

I do think the political climate plays a role, but, more than that, I think real-life abortion — i.e., how women think, discuss and come to decisions concerning abortion — just isn’t as sexy (for lack of a better word) as television needs it to be.

It’s true that television almost fetishizes the unplanned pregnancy: woman submits to passion in sex, doesn’t use protection, becomes glowingly pregnant, gives birth, everyone cries. On the other hand, there’s something unseemly about women taking control of their fertility. 

Of course, we’ve come along way in terms of the way women are presented on TV and in the movies, and the way real women are talked about in the media. But the stagnancy or even regression of abortion’s role in television is a reminder that when it comes to some things, fictionalized women are still stuck in an old dramatic narrative. Things happen to them; they don’t make things happen.

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