Abortion stories depicted on TV are becoming increasingly diverse
Between the confirmation of anti-choice Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and the victories of anti-choice legislation in the midterms, 2018 was not a great year for abortion rights in the United States. Media representation of abortion this past year, however, was a different story. According to a new study, there was an encouraging increase in diverse fictional depictions of abortion last year.
The study, conducted by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), found that 18 television show plotlines featured a character who has an abortion, discloses a past abortion, or considers getting an abortion. While this total amounts to slightly fewer plotlines about abortion than were depicted in 2016 (23 plotlines) or 2017 (22 plotlines), the plotlines over the past year told more complex and humanizing stories about how women of color in particular experience abortion, according to ANSIRH. “This year’s depictions often portrayed Black women having abortions with the support of friends, partners, or ex-partners, debunking the myth that people have abortions in isolation from those they love,” the report stated.
On the FX show “Empire,” Becky, a music executive, is supported by both friends and her ex-boyfriend when she opts to get an abortion. Netflix’s “Dear White People” shows college student Coco Conners think through her decision to have an abortion after she gets pregnant with care and consideration. “Instead of having characters conform to stereotypes of Black women as angry, callous, irresponsible, or being manipulated in their reproductive decisions, these characters were complex, thoughtful, and approached their abortions,” concludes ANSIRH.
The study also noted that in 2018 these abortion plotlines appeared in comedies more frequently than they did in other genres of television. While in the past, “fraught medical and legal dramas” were “the traditional genre” for abortion plotlines, this past year shows including Netflix’s “Insatiable” and HBO’s “Insecure” all included plots about abortion. On the Netflix cartoon “Big Mouth,” a young teen named Andrew learns that his mother had an abortion right before she met Andrew’s future father. What bothers Andrew isn’t that his mother had an abortion, but that he has to confront the reality that his parents have a sex life. When abortion is depicted in a comedic context, the ANSIRH report suggests, it’s treated as a reality but not something that must be discussed in a hushed tone.
Finally, the report noted that medication abortions had not been depicted at all on TV shows in 2018, which was a significant change from years prior. The report calls this “an important omission,” since about a third of all abortions in the United States are induced through medication instead of surgery.
All in all, this report shows a positive shift in the depiction of abortion stories — a shift that, as the report puts it, “represents a step towards including new ways of incorporating abortion stories for television characters, rather than a shift towards avoiding and averting abortion stories.”
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