In the season premier of Grey's Anatomy, a main character has an abortion because she does not want to become a mother. This is good news for reproductive rights when we think of television as both a reflection of current attitudes and means of moving them forward.
Last season, I wrote about how well I felt Private Practice handled abortion when one of its main characters agreed to perform the procedure on a patient who found out that she was still pregnant (19 weeks along) after an earlier abortion failed. That show deals with abortion quite often and I give the writers a lot of credit for the way they have portrayed the debate. They touch on different aspects of the issue by weaving a variety of stories into the medical drama; in addition to the woman requesting a second-trimester abortion, they’ve written about couples who disagree on termination, teens and their parents, as well as a young pregnant woman with Down’s Syndrome who didn’t quite understand the situation. The dialogue is often predictable and melodramatic, but the writers let characters express both sides of the issue. In the end, though, it’s clear that they use the show as a platform to illustrate why the right to safe, legal abortions, without judgment is so important.
For premier night, however, it was Private Practice’s sister show Grey’s Anatomy, also created by Shonda Rhimes, that dealt with abortion. When we left our characters last season, Dr. Christina Yang, a hard-edged surgeon in her fifth year of residency, found out she was accidentally pregnant. She and her husband Owen, also a surgeon, argued bitterly because he wanted a child and she did not. When we picked up this season, the two were living apart and not speaking. Though she still intended to have an abortion, she had not done so yet.
What I thought was so bold about this story line was that there were no extenuating circumstances. There was no suggestion that there was anything wrong with the fetus. There was no suggestion of any medical reason she could not or should not carry to term. Moreover, she is well educated, employed, and in a (relatively) stable relationship. She clearly has the resources to raise a child. Her only reason behind this decision was that she does not want to be a mother.
And the writers did good job, in my opinion, making the argument that every baby should be a wanted baby. In one scene Christina’s best friend, Meredith, says this to Owen:
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“Do you know what will happen to Christina if she has a kid that she doesn’t want? It will almost kill her. Trying to pretend that she loves the kid as much as she loves surgery will almost kill her. And it will kill your kid….My mother was a Christina. And as the child she didn’t want, I am telling you don’t do this to her because she’s kind and she cares and she won’t make it. The guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.”
It is certainly not the most sympathetic of stories. The woman who doesn’t have the urge to be a mother is not a character you are automatically meant to like. The steely woman who doesn’t want children specifically because they will get in the way of her career is often the villain in movies and television. When that character gets pregnant she is almost always expected to soften at the thought a baby and change her mind. Not doing so is only proof of her cold heart or villainous ways.
Not Christina Yang; she knew what she wanted and an accidental pregnancy did not change her mind. But it also did not make us, the viewer, stop liking her. In the end, Owen came back in a scene of understanding and tears and took her to her appointment.
We’ve come a long way from the days when these issues were only dealt with in “a very special episode;” this story actually took a back seat to someone elses’ marital problems and a giant sinkhole in downtown Seattle. We’ve come a long way from when only secondary characters could have an abortion and it was handled off-screen; the story ends with Christina on the table and Owen holding her hand. We’ve come a long way from the days when any main character who accidentally got pregnant had a convenient miscarriage before her clinic appointment; think Julia on Party of Five. And, we’ve come a long way from the days when all abortions needed to be clearly “justified.”
Popular media is a reflection of current attitudes; the fact that the producers of the show and the executives at ABC were comfortable with this storyline suggests that they realize that a majority of their viewers think abortion should be safe, legal, and available. Media is also a vehicle for moving attitudes forward. I’ve always felt that shows like Will & Grace are at least partially responsible for some of the state laws that allow same-sex marriage as viewers who grew up around gay characters are more open to such relationships.
So even though she’s fictional, who knows how many women Christina Yang just helped acknowledge and perhaps act on their right to choose.
Now if only we could get Dr. Yang—who got accidentally pregnant in the first season as well—to start taking birth control more seriously…
Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.
Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.
Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.
Rewire: How did this novel come about?
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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”
My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.
That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?
So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.
Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?
CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.
Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?
CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”
Rewire: They called it aspirational?
CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”
When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.
I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.
Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?
CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].
Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.
Rewire: How so?
CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.
I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!
And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn't limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.
“I’ve been in Litchfield for a while now,” says Piper Chapman (actress Taylor Schilling) in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, “and I’ve started to feel unsafe lately.”
Season four of OITNBhas taken on prison overcrowding. Viewers may recall that, in the last season, the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary was taken over by a corporation, transforming it from an already underfunded state prison to a private facility whose sole purpose is the bottom line. That means each woman inside Litchfield has become a commodity—and the more commodities locked inside, the more profit the corporation receives.
In both the Netflix series and real life, overcrowding has serious ramifications for those behind bars. But the issue isn’t limited to privately run institutions; public prisons have been overflowing in many states for years.
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In the latest season of OITNB, viewers see some of the potential consequences of prison overcrowding: It is accompanied by increased threats of violence and abuse, as people, packed like sardines, step on each other, jostle each other, and can’t get away from each other. Supplies, such as soap, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper, are never in abundance in a prison setting; they become even more scarce as the number of people clamoring for them soar. Even food, which prisons are required to provide in the form of regular meals, becomes in short supply.
A scarcity of resources isn’t the only problem in Litchfield. Again and again, we see long lines for the bathrooms and showers. When the prison installs “porta potties” in the yard, there are long lines for those as well. “Too many people in here, everybody getting on each other’s nerves,” remarks Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), another of the show’s long-term characters. Conflicts emerge as women struggle to navigate daily living in a narrow room with multiple other women. Some of these may seem small, like the nightly snoring of a new bunkmate keeping another one awake all night. But these seemingly inconsequential issues lead to larger ones, such as sleep deprivation. In the show, women resort to comic measures; but these conflicts, especially in a closed and cramped environment, can quickly erupt into violence.
This is the case in Litchfield as well. Conflicts quickly turn into threats or actual attacks. While prison socializing has always been racially segregated, some of it now becomes racialized and racist. Some of the new white women, noting that they are in the minority among the large numbers of Latina and Black women being shuttled in, are unwittingly pushed by Piper to form a white power group. They hurl racist epithets at the women of color and, when they spot a lone Dominican woman on the stairs, move together to attack her.
Prison staff perpetuate the violence, using their authority to do so. They begin their own version of “stop and frisk” in the prison’s hallways, targeting the growing Latina population. While the body searches in and of themselves are humiliating, the (male) guards also take advantage of the additional security measure to grope and further abuse the women. They even force women into fighting, which they then bet on—a nod to the actual allegations of guard-instigated gladiator fights in California’s prisons and the San Francisco County Jail.
Although not everything in OITNB is realistic, the problems the show portrays in this respect reflect the frequent results of overcrowding—and some of its causes. As OITNB notes repeatedly throughout the season, private prisons receive money per person, so it’s in the company’s interest to lock up as many people as possible.
In 2014, for example, private prison contractor GEO Group contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to open and operate a women’s prison north of Bakersfield, California. Under the terms of the contract, California pays GEO Group $94.50 per person per day for the first 260 women sent to that prison. The contract also includes an opportunity for the company to expand its prison by another 260 beds—although, if it does that, the state only pays $86.95 per person per day. But even at that lower rate, doubling the occupancy increases the private prison’s overall four-year revenue from roughly $38 million to $66 million. (As of June 8, 2016, that prison held 223 people.)
California, for instance, is one of the most egregious examples of such legislation leading to prison overcrowding. Years of extreme overcrowding ultimately led to Brown v. Plata, a class-action lawsuit charging that the state’s severely crowded prisons prevented it from providing adequate medical and mental health care, thus violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered California to decrease its state prison population from 180 to 137.5 percent capacity.
To do so, the CDCR took several actions: It began shipping thousands of men to private prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. In addition, it converted Valley State Prison for Women, one of its three women’s prisons, into a men’s prison, and transferred the approximately 1,000 women there from Valley State Prison for Women to two other prisons—the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and the California Institution for Women (CIW). It also opened the 523-bed Folsom Women’s Facility in January 2013.
Even before the influx of women from Valley State Prison, though, the numbers of people packed into CIW had led to reports of violence from inside. In 2012, Jane, who has been incarcerated at CIW for several years, wrote in a letter that was later reprinted in Tenacious, “When eight women of widely disparate ages, social backgrounds, ethnicities and interests share a 246-square foot cell, there are bound to be conflicts, and there is little tolerance for any behaviors that are different.” She recounted a woman named Anna who spoke little English and was mentally ill.
“Little Anna has spent the last several weeks being alternately beaten up by her cellmates, who don’t understand her behaviors, or drugged into a drooling stupor in the Specialty Care Unit,” Jane wrote. According to Jane, housing staff ignored the violence. When Anna tried to complain to a higher-ranking staff member, Jane said that correctional officers, “angry at her inability to follow directions, threw her to the floor, cuffed her hands behind her back and twisted her arms until she screamed in pain.”
Two years later, after women from Valley State Prison were moved to CIW, Jane wrote in a second letter published in Tenacious, “What this overcrowding has created in terms of living conditions is continued horrendous health care and failed mental health care.”
The situation seems to have persisted. As noted earlier, women have also reported a pervading sense of hopelessness, exacerbated in part by the inability to access mental health care. CIW has a suicide rate that reportedly is eight times the national rate for women behind bars. In 2015, it had two suicides and 35 attempts. As of June 16, 2016, there have been two successful suicides and nine attempts. “A lot of us are only hanging on by hope alone. In a hopeless place, most don’t make it,” one woman told Rewire one month before her friend’s suicide this past April.
In many men’s prisons, overcrowding is even more severe. Valley State Prison, now a men’s prison, is currently at 172 percent capacity. The vast majority of the state’s other male prisons operate at over 100 percent capacity.
But it’s not just California that suffers from prison overcrowding. Oklahoma, which has especially harsh sentencing laws—particularly for drug offenses—has the country’s highest rate of incarceration for women. And the number of those behind bars continues to rise: In 2014, the state imprisoned 2,979 women, a 9.3 percent increase from the 2,702 women imprisoned the year before.
Mary Fish has been incarcerated at Oklahoma’s Mabel Bassett Correctional Center (MBCC) for the past 15 years. She told Rewire that prison administrators recently added 40 more beds to each unit, increasing its capacity from 1,055 to 1,291. (As of June 13, 1,250 women were incarcerated at MBCC.) This has led to competition, even for state-guaranteed items like cafeteria food (especially fresh fruit, which is infrequent in many prisons). “This overcrowding is all about who can get up there and bull dog [sic] their way to the front of the line,” she wrote in a letter to Rewire. She said that two days earlier, the prison’s cafeteria was serving bananas with lunch. But, even though each woman only received one banana, by the time she reached the window, all of the bananas were gone.
“It really gives new meaning to overcrowded,” Fish reflected. “Bodies rubbing in passing, kind of space-less, boundary-less environment. I’ve never had so much human contact in the 15 years I’ve been incarcerated.”
The state’s medium-security women’s prison, the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center (capacity 988) currently holds 1,010 women. “There are huge overcrowded dorms crammed with bunk beds and steel lockers,” wrote “Gillian” in a letter to Rewire, later printed in Tenacious, shortly after being transferred from MBCC to Eddie Warrior. “The population is young, transient and the majority are disrespectful. They have no clue how to live successfully in a crowded communal environment. The dorms are filthy, loud and chaotic for the most part. There is no peace.”
The situations in Oklahoma and California are only two examples of how state prison overcrowding affects those locked up inside. Institutions in other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, and Nebraska, have also long been overcrowded.
On OITNB, the private corporation in charge plans to bring even more women to Litchfield to increase revenue. But in real life, as state budgets grow leaner and prison justice advocates continue to press for change, local legislators are beginning to rethink their incarceration policies. In California, a recently proposed ballot measure would change parole requirements and allow for early release for those with nonviolent convictions if they enroll in prison education programs or earn good behavior credits. If the ballot garners at least 585,407 voter signatures, it will be added to the state’s November ballot.
In Oklahoma, meanwhile, where the state now spends $500 million a year on incarceration, former Republican house speaker and leader of the coalition Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Kris Steele is pushing for two ballot measures—one that allows reclassifying offenses like drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors, and another that sets up a new fund that would redirect the money spent on incarceration for low-level offenses back to community programs focused on rehabilitation and treating the root causes of crime.
Still, these changes have been slow in coming. In the meantime, individuals continue to be sent to prison, even if it means more bunk beds and less space to move (not to mention the devastation caused by breaking up families). “Last week, Oklahoma County brought a whole big RV-looking bus to deliver a bunch of women here to [Assessment and Reception],” Fish, at MBCC, noted in a May 2016 letter to Rewire.
The following week, she told Rewire, “They keep crowding us. There’s no room to even walk on the sidewalks.” Fish regularly reads the local newspapers in the hopes of learning about pending legislation to ease overcrowding and allow for early release. Though the senate recently passed four bills that may reduce the number of people being sent to prison, she feels that the new laws won’t help those currently trapped inside. “It’s getting pretty awful, and it looks like no bills passed to help us so there’s NO END IN SIGHT.”