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Abortion conversations show how TV reflects our culture and can also shape it

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Television reflects our culture, right? But it can also shape it, which may be especially true when it comes to abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCRUBS")

ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Dr. Kim Briggs) J.D., we have to talk about all of our pregnancy options, even if they make us uncomfortable. There's one way of dealing with this that no one's mentioned yet - the A-word.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JANE THE VIRGIN")

ANDREA NAVEDO: (As Xiomara Villanueva) Oh, remember when I had the stomach flu a few weeks ago?

ANTHONY MENDEZ: (As narrator) To clarify, Xo didn't have a stomach flu a few weeks ago. She had a medication abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VEEP")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion in an ATM. Let's state the obvious.

MARTIN: Shows like "Scrubs," "Jane The Virgin," "Veep" and many others have tried to find a way to address the topic. Tanya Melendez is a doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois, and she's been studying how TV narratives around abortion have influenced our national debate, often not for the better. She wrote a piece for Vox last year about this, in which she describes three kinds of abortion plotlines.

TANYA MELENDEZ: There is the both sides plot where an abortion is considered by a main character, and then "both sides," quote-unquote, are shown through all of the other characters. So the very famous "Cagney & Lacey" 1985 episode "The Clinic," for example - Cagney and Lacey, investigating a clinic bombing, essentially go from character to character and get an opinion on abortion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CAGNEY & LACEY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I don't know when it's murder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Abortion is not murder. It's not even a person yet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Well, tell that to your belly.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) My belly is my business.

MELENDEZ: And by the end of the episode, there are three characters who are pro-abortion and three characters who are anti-abortion.

MARTIN: How convenient.

MELENDEZ: And it's a very - yes, it's a very balanced issue.

MARTIN: So easy.

MELENDEZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: Right.

MELENDEZ: And unfortunately, what that does is tell you that the people seeking to oppress the rights of women are equal to the rights of a woman seeking an abortion. And that is just not reality. There's also the baby makes drama plot, as I call it, which is - babies do make drama - right? - even in...

MARTIN: They do.

MELENDEZ: You know, in real life, they make drama. They change lives. And so what a great storytelling trope for writers who are seeking to put their characters into situations. The problem is it can actually not show the way that abortion takes place in real life. For example, in my piece, I talk about the "Roseanne" episode about her last pregnancy, where they find out that there is an unusual amniocentesis. They're going to have to do a second one to confirm whether or not the fetus is developing correctly. At this point, the married couple discuss whether or not they would abort an abnormal fetus. Now, Roseanne, the main character and the mother, is going back and forth on whether or not she should and feeling differently about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROSEANNE")

ROSEANNE BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) Alls he thinks about is himself, you know. He's worried that a sick baby might be an inconvenience to him, so he's trying to hint around that I should have an abortion.

LAURIE METCALF: (As Jackie Harris) Oh, I'm sure he knows it's your decision. I mean, he must respect your right to choose.

BARR: (As Roseanne Conner) Yeah, long as I choose to agree with him.

MELENDEZ: This trope can sometimes position - and this is the key - they position motherhood and abortion as binary opposites. It emphasizes the idea that abortion is the enemy of a woman's natural desire to be a mother. And that binary is not an accurate representation of abortion. Most people who seek abortions in this country are already mothers. They're seeking medical care for a pregnancy that they do not want.

MARTIN: OK, so baby creates drama, for sure. And then the last narrative you describe is - well, you say it.

MELENDEZ: Whew, that was close.

MARTIN: Yes, that was close. OK, talk about this.

MELENDEZ: Sure. This is where a character weighs the pros and cons, comes to the decision that they are going to get an abortion, but before they go through with it, they are saved either by a miscarriage or a false positive. So they were either never pregnant, or they have a miscarriage that's beyond their control. This is a particularly toxic trope. I find it as a storytelling device to save the character from alienating the audience, rather than having that main character then become for the audience a person who chose an abortion.

MARTIN: We can still love her because she didn't have to make this decision.

MELENDEZ: Exactly. So their relief is still framed with guilt in certain cases, but also, more importantly, it strips the woman of her agency to make the choice.

MARTIN: And you write that these narratives, in turn, have shaped us, have actually shaped American public opinion.

MELENDEZ: Absolutely. The power of television is that it is a meaning-making medium, and it is the most powerful one we have in our culture. For the past 60 years, television shapes what we think about every major social issue, because when we absorb a narrative and they are characters that we are invested in and they are plots that we follow over years, in some cases, those stories give us a viewpoint of the world, and they reinforce what is normal, what is acceptable, what is moral or amoral, what is good or bad. And it gives us scripts that we then play out in the way we talk about these social issues.

MARTIN: So I think I know how you're going to answer this next question. I mean, there will be those TV executives who push back and say, that's not what we're supposed to do. We provide an escape. We are not, you know, going to get our fingers into social issues. It's not our job. It's not our responsibility. But now here we are with this huge decision by the Supreme Court, overturning federal abortion rights protections. What is the role of television, moving forward? Is there a responsibility for entertainment and TV in particular to reflect what this reality is going to be?

MELENDEZ: I think what's important to remember is that it's not whether or not we're saying everybody has a moral responsibility. It's that they're telling stories about women. And you cannot tell stories about women within a certain age in modern America without talking about reproductive choice at some point or another. So if you're going to have characters who are having sex, who are getting pregnant, who are unfortunately being assaulted, if you're talking about women who live in particular states versus other states, if you're talking about college-age women, if you're talking about working women, poor women, Black women, everybody - if you're writing stories...

MARTIN: All the women, all the people who can get pregnant, yes.

MELENDEZ: Yes, all the people, I should stress - all the people who can get pregnant. If you're talking about those people, if you're writing stories for them, this issue cannot be ignored, and how writers choose to integrate that - whether or not it's a full-blown plotline or tossed aside in a conversation with another character - those choices matter.

MARTIN: Tanya Melendez is a doctoral fellow at the University of Illinois. Thank you so much, Tanya.

MELENDEZ: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.