Episode 48: Shifting Media Representations of Abortion (Part I)

Citations Needed | September 5, 2018 | Transcript

Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogan in 2007’s ‘Knocked Up’ (Apatow Productions/Universal Pictures)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Thanks for listening everyone. We are now in Season Two of Citations Needed. Very happy to be back. Happy September. I hope everyone’s summer was lovely. You can follow the show of course on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and all your help through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson is so appreciated. It has sustained us through our first season. So please do contribute to that. If you’ve been thinking about it, but haven’t done it up until now. Now is the time: Season Two.

Adam: Don’t make us do an NPR beg-a-thon. We will do it. We will bring out Garrison Keillor. We will bring out Dan Davies. It’ll be very very ugly.

Nima: That’s our threat.

Adam: Yeah. You don’t want that. You don’t want that. So today we’re going to be talking about how the media from the news to pop culture covers the subject of abortion. From the shame inducing, “safe, legal and rare” framing of the 1990s to normalizing efforts of late in the Shout Your Abortion campaign and an uptick in abortion plotlines and mainstream TV and film, dialogue surrounding abortion has shifted in recent years from one of, we could say apologism and soft pedaling to a more frank and unapologetic approach. These efforts, largely animated we believe by Republican attacks on reproductive health since the Tea Party wave of 2010, they seek to take back the moral high ground on an issue that high status Democrats abdicated 25 years ago.

Nima: Today we’ll explore the history of how pop culture and the news have framed the issue of abortion from the ‘othering’ of those who have abortions to treating the issue like a shameful seedy affair to the overreliance in TV and film on deus ex machina endings, which get out of tackling the issue altogether by using mistaken pregnancy diagnoses or miscarriages as the endings to their plot lines.

Adam: How we talk about abortion in the news and in pop culture shapes how everyone from rural white teenagers in Maine to Latinx 40-year-olds in El Paso view themselves and their relationship to reproductive health.

Nima: To discuss this issue and how it’s presented in both the news media and pop culture we’re going to do two episodes. So this is a two parter to begin our second season. This week we will be joined by Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a qualitative sociologist who heads up the Abortion Onscreen project at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, or ANSIRH, at the University of California, San Francisco.

[Begin Clip]

Gretchen Sisson: Everybody knows someone who’s had an abortion. They just don’t know that they know somebody who’s had an abortion. And given the sort of secrecy and stigma and silence around abortion in our actual public spaces I think that’s where the importance of fictional stories becomes really important, especially on television because these are characters that you follow and people feel connected with and that can really impact how they think about these stories and these characters and abortion and what it means and who in their life might have been in similar circumstances at some point.

[End Clip]

Nima: And in next week’s episode when we delve into the more political language surrounding the abortion debate, we’re going to hear from Cait Vaughan, a community organizer with Maine Family Planning, an independent abortion provider.

[Begin Clip]

Cait Vaughan: Reproduction has always been political and in this country reproductive policies have in very powerful in controlling certain populations, but also I think because the mainstream feminist movement has done a disservice in talking about abortion as isolated from the rest of people’s lives and their reproductive lives and certainly leaders in the reproductive justice movement have addressed that for years and years and years.

[End Clip]

Adam: So it’s not just a matter of the political discourse or the religious discourse surrounding abortion. As we’ve mentioned on the show many times, we think pop culture matters more than pretty much all that combined. Pop culture is how we ingest the vast bulk of our ideology and representations of abortion on television and film I think are super important. They not only signal where the culture is at in general, I think they’re both a response and a cause of, of the trajectory of these things.

Nima: Exactly. I think that pop culture can be both showing the way forward sometimes it can blaze the trail, but it also is very reflective of where we’re already at and can entrench a lot of sometimes negative narratives in our society, in our culture, that then just get replicated again and again and again and therefore can never actually advance.

Adam: So let’s start by doing a quick recap of the history of abortion in film and television.

Nima: Abortion has has been present in movie plot lines basically from the beginning of movies themselves. There’s a 1916 silent film called Where Are My Children?, for instance, which actually wound up giving some very mixed messages about the procedures you would imagine for a silent film in 1916, there’s a lot of eugenics infused into the plot line. It’s not very, uh, I wouldn’t show it in an educational class now, however, it goes to show that this is not a new issue. Since the beginning of film, this issue, this very human issue has been readily discussed. There’s a film called Men in White from 1934 starring Clark Gable and Elizabeth Allan that has a abortion plot line. A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in 1951, uh, has abortion as part of the plot line where Shelly Winters has to make a decision that I think we see that a lot in film and TV, about the decision making of whether to have an abortion or not, whether to then keep the baby. We see that in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High of course in 1982 where Jennifer Jason Leigh actually does have an abortion and Dirty Dancing in 1987, where abortion is a key part of that plot. Obviously, that movie doesn’t take place in the actual Eighties, so it’s more a kind of nod back to when abortion was not legal in the United States and where it had to be done really, kind of, in back alleys, it foregrounds the idea of, uh, complications in abortions.

Adam: Except for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which has a very, uh, I think for lack of a better term, progressive attitude about abortion. It sort of happens and it’s, it’s not trivialized, but it’s also not the worst thing in the world. All these movies that we’ve mentioned, paint abortion as a kind of tragic or traumatizing event that has psychological scars and is seen as a kind of condemnation or a stain on the person’s character. Then as we kind of merge into the nineties and eighties, there was an increase, as our guest will discuss, in contrivances to avoid the conversation of abortion. Uh, movies like Knocked Up, Juno and Waitress from the 2000s, hinged on people thinking of abortion, and they sort of, they sort of touch on it, but they never do it. They end up having the kid.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Now, you could argue that those movies were about people raising a kid at a young age or in an unfortunate situation and that makes it more dramatic, but it was kind of skirted, right? It was the way of kind of getting out of it. This is something we also saw on television from the Nineties up until the 2000s as well.

Nima: There’s a lot of decision making and then ultimately keeping the fetus, not getting an abortion, making that decision to move the plotline forward by having the kid.

Adam: Yeah, and so this was reflected on television as well in soap operas, which had a similar, they reflected the film at the time. There’s a soap opera by the name of Another World in 1964, which like contemporaneous films at the time, had an abortion plot line, but it was seen as something that was damaging and traumatizing. The NBC soap opera at the time, there’s a teenager named Pat Matthews, she gets pregnant and has an illegal abortion that leaves her sterile. Her boyfriend who was sort of offended by this is so distraught, he, he says he’s never going to marry her because of this, uh, Pat who had the abortion, shoots her lover in a blind rage and she stands trial and ends up marrying her defense attorney.

Nima: Because it’s a soap opera. It’s like the best soap opera plot.

Adam: Let’s not read too much into it, but it’s important to note that this soap opera was consistent with the culture at the time that you could have abortions, but there always had to be consequences. It was similar to the sort of the Hays Code and film around the forties and fifties and early sixties where you couldn’t show someone committing a crime and getting away with it.

Nima: Right and just like you, you couldn’t show like a married couple in bed together, which is why there were like separate beds.

Adam: Yeah. So like you can have an abortion but you have to suffer some moral consequences to do it.

Nima: Right. But the first instance of abortion in a, in a network sitcom, so that’s, you know, very different from a soap opera, very different from a dramatic film or the more serious views of abortion, there was a network sitcom by Norman Lear called Maude starring Bea Arthur as Maude. In an episode of Maude in 1972, the issue of abortion was addressed in a comedy in a way that was much more human, far less condemnatory and much more complex, much more realistic then I think had ever been seen before, and it was wildly controversial at the time.

Adam: So we’re going to listen to this clip. This is a composition of all the references to abortion in this episode, and I want you to note how shockingly progressive the language is. In my opinion, this would, I don’t believe this kind of thing would never happen on network TV today in the year of our Lord 2018, I think that would be very, very unlikely. How frank and how matter of fact and how, for lack of a better word, clinical it is.

Nima: So here we go. Here’s Maude from 1972.

[Begin Clip]

Carol: You know, I’ve been thinking, there is no earthly reason for you to go through with this at your age. You know it. I know it. Walter knows that.

Maude: I don’t want you to talk, just don’t talk about it Carol, please.

Walter: I didn’t want to say anything but now that you mentioned it, it’s legal in New York now, isn’t it?

Carol: Of course it is Walter. Mother, I don’t understand your hesitancy when they made it a law you were for it.

Maude: Of course! I wasn’t pregnant then! (Laughter)

Carol: Mother it’s ridiculous my saying this to you. We’re free. We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own body.

Maude: Alright then will you please get yours into the kitchen. (Laughter)

Carol: You’re just scared.

Maude: I am not scared!

Carol: You are, and it’s as simple as going to the dentist.

Maude: Now I’m scared. (Laughter)

Carol: Mother, listen to me. It’s a simple operation now, but when you were growing up, it was illegal and it was dangerous and it was sinister and you’ve never gotten over that. Now you tell me that’s not true.

Maude: It’s not true. And you’re right, I’ve never gotten over it.

Carol: It’s not your fault. When you were young abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore. You think about that.

Walter: You know Maude, you’ve got one hell of a daughter.

Maude: Oh Walter, it’s so silly. It’s really dumb. I mean it’s not just that I’m scared. It’s like deep down inside me, there’s a teeny part of me that feels guilty for even thinking about it.

Walter: Well, I’ll tell you this Maude, whatever you decide is gonna be alright with me.

Maude: Thank you Walter.

Walter: I’ll tell you something else too, to make sure this doesn’t happen again, I’m going to have that vasectomy.

Maude: You really mean that Walter?

Walter: Why not? It’s a simple operation.

Maude: Like going to the dentist. (Laughter)

Walter: Well, maybe I ought to think about it. (Laughter)

[End Clip]

Adam: This episode aired in 1972, just months before Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in the entire country and just a few years after abortion was legal in the state of New York where the show ostensibly takes place in 1970. So it was pretty woke for its time.

Nima: Yep. As is much of Norman Lear’s work. Yeah.

Adam: Then there was a pretty large gap from 1972 to 1984 where there was not a major character who had an abortion on an American sitcom until 1984, it was a show called Buffalo Bill, entitled “Jo Jo’s Problem Part I and II” starring Dabney Coleman as, as Bill.

Adam: Starring Dabney Coleman of Short Time. Um, and so that was, um, that show’s sort of obscure and now forgotten, but it was actually a fairly interesting and I think somewhat risky plot line that you can’t watch it online, but we can read you the synopsis, quote, “Talk show producer Jo Jo White learns that she’s pregnant as a result of her on again/off again affair with the show’s egotistical host [played by Dabney Coleman]. When Bill overhears her confiding her predicament to a coworker, he soon informs the entire backstage crew. Though she has no interest in raising a child, he haughtily grants her permission to have his baby. Frustrated and angry, Jo Jo lies to Bill, telling him he isn’t the father. She has her abortion, but not before Bill punishes her with an on-air tirade about promiscuous women.” This was, the man’s sort of domineering prick. She makes her own decision. It’s pretty woke. And, um, NBC got a lot of flack for that at the time because this was right when the, the emergence between religion in the Republican Party, which was really nonexistent until about the early mid eighties. And then they became a real political force, not to make excuses for, for, for weak kneed liberals who kept giving them what they want, but it’s no, it’s no coincidence that just as the politicized right, the kind of network of people making angry phone calls and writing letters emerged that there was no mention of abortion again until on a, on a sitcom until 2007. And it was only in a cable show, it was a Comedy Central show where there was a main character had an abortion on a sitcom and it wasn’t really on network TV until 2015 and 16. So you really had this 33, 34 year gap —

Nima: Where there’s really not much. I mean, we’ve looked at the record here and you know, there’s a, there’s an All My Children episode here, you know, like in 1973, right after Roe, there’s, you know, a brief tertiary plot line in a Facts of Life episode in 1982.

Adam: So then in 1991 Murphy Brown’s titular character was pregnant and she considered an abortion, but ultimately decided to carry that pregnancy to term. Now, this itself led to a major backlash including protests of CBS and the Vice President Dan Quayle literally blamed Murphy Brown for the Los Angeles riots later that year.

Nima: Oh yeah. This was gold. Let’s hear that.

[Begin Clip]

News Anchor: Told the Commonwealth Club luncheon the LA Riots happened because of disintegrating family values.

Dan Quayle: It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.

[End Clip]

Nima: So by the mid-’90s were in the full blown culture wars and this emergence of “third way” Democrats, primarily President Bill Clinton, his first lady Hillary Clinton and other kind of major figures in the in the Democratic Party, decided to really punt on this issue. They relinquished the moral high ground to the right-wing, to the talking points to the religious right, um, agreeing in their framing and their language that abortion was so undesirable, was this negative thing and really vouching for this compromised position of saying abortion, yeah, it was morally suspect, but ultimately should remain both safe and legal and you get the advent of the term “safe, legal and rare,” which Bill Clinton used all the time on the campaign trail for the 1992 presidential election and then that was repeated again and again throughout his presidency and so you even saw Hillary Clinton kind of acting as his surrogate using this in a speech in 1996.

[Begin Clip]

Hillary Clinton: We can support a woman’s right to choose that makes abortion safe, legal and rare, and reduces the number of abortions.

[End Clip]

Adam: This dark period lasted from the mid eighties to about 2015, 2014 things started to change. In 2007 there was a character on, on, as we mentioned on the Sarah Silverman Show, had an abortion. And then in the latter half of the 2010s there was a meaningful uptick. So there’s HBO’s show Girls and the CW’s Jane the Virgin both had, um, what our guest Gretchen Sissons refers to as “abortion averted storylines” where they talked about abortion but ultimately got out of it through some deus ex machina. Now, both of those shows went on to actually have abortion plots in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Then the 2014 movie Obvious Child was a bit of a watershed in that it was the first kind of semi mainstream comedy film that dealt with the issue of abortion head on in a kind of funny and sort of non-shamey manner. In 2016 there were four comedies that depicted abortion, Bojack Horseman, You’re the Worst, Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Uh, in the 32 years proceeding there had been only one abortion plotline on a sitcom TV. Then in the span of four months, as our guest Gretchen Sissons notes, there were four more. This, quote, “represents a profound shift in our cultural understanding of humor and abortion.”

Nima: So, these examples serve as just one data point in a whole culture of data points about how we treat abortion as a society. The near total omission of such a common procedure in some, you know, something that, that affects so many people in our society and also abortion is a inherently interesting plot line, whether it’s comedy, drama, TV, film, whatever, or even music, there’s the Ben Folds song, “Brick.” These infuse our culture and yet the framing of these stories and oftentimes the silencing of them or the in the end kind of revealing that there wasn’t actually a pregnancy or you know, all these, all these things, to do twist endings and, and not deal with the complicated reality, really speak to the broader taboo against discussing abortion in our culture, um, up until really just a few years ago. And so this has a lot to do with the choices that content creators and writers are making. It has to do with who’s in the writers’ room, uh, are women getting more senior roles? The proliferation of media distribution platforms. Does this enable it because there’s just so much more TV and film in general now that more stories are being told? And also who has control over this cultural production? So to dig into this a lot more, we will now be speaking with Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a qualitative sociologist who heads up the Abortion Onscreen project at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, or ANSIRH. She’s going to join us in just a sec. Please stay with us.


Nima: We are now joined by Dr. Gretchen Sisson. It’s great to talk to you today, Gretchen. Hi. Thanks for joining Citations Needed.

Gretchen Sisson: Great. Thank you for having me.

Adam: First off, we really loved your research. We have a passion here about pop culture representations and it’s so hard when you do shows on, on how pop culture represents things because our general belief is that pop culture is about 80 percent of people’s ideological ingestion.

Gretchen Sisson: Yes. At least.

Adam: Probably more, maybe I’m being generous, but it’s not something that people really dive into and dissect. And so we appreciate that to start off with. In very few other cases, it’s as pronounced or is shaping as it is when it comes to the topic of abortion. So, uh, in your research you found something I found, uh, I found very interesting was that your research discovered that there was a pretty significant gap between 1984 and 2007 of a major character on a sitcom having an abortion. Gap of about 23 years. There was the famous Maude episode in 1972. Then 12 years later there was a show called Buffalo Bill that we now sort of forgot, it was only on for two seasons, but a major female character had an abortion on that show in 1984 and then it didn’t happen again until 2007. That’s a pretty big gap to not discuss such a ubiquitous and consuming issue.

Gretchen Sisson: Yes, there was certainly a big gap there, but it didn’t mean that comedies were completely avoiding the topic or that there weren’t characters thinking or talking about getting abortions or discussing their past abortions. Um, but just as far as following a character through the decision making process to getting the actual procedure, uh, we didn’t see that on a comedy. One example that I like to use is Sex in the City. Now obviously that wasn’t a network show, but a very popular show. There’s an episode where Miranda discovers she’s pregnant and she’s planning on getting an abortion and she, she ultimately decides not to, but both Carrie and Samantha disclose that they have had abortions in the past. So you sort of see those dynamics at play. It comes up in a meaningful way now. But again, like there’s the fuzzy genre lines. Like, is Sex in the City really a true comedy? Probably not, um, but you know, these, when it comes to these categories and these topics and what counts and what doesn’t, I think it’s better just to sort of look at the aggregate trends that we’re seeing and we are certainly seeing a pronounced uptick in comedies that are including discussions of abortion in the past few years.

Nima: What impact do you think it has when abortion is, is presented, um, in a comedy as opposed to a drama and whether that’s even on TV or you’ve done great research on like abortion and reproductive issues in horror films as well, like, like how does that all kind of fit together?

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah. So in contrast to the comedy shows that are, are definitely on an uptick, I think that we also need to think more creatively about genres that have included abortion in the past. So if you look at like old school really campy horror films from the seventies, they use abortion because the, the abortion provider, the doctor is some sort of serial killer and you know, abortion is the way that, that he’s injuring or maiming or killing women. Um, but what we’ve seen in a few examples of horror more recently is this sort of mystical pregnancy trope where pregnancies kind of invade women’s bodies and they, and they become out of control and then abortion becomes the way of almost rectifying that situation. And their lack of access to abortion or their lack of ability to control their reproductive choices is the source of horror. So, you know, even though you might say like, oh, comedy is going to be really flippant about abortion when actually a lot of the comedic portrayals are very heartfelt and, and realistic, um, and, and thoughtful in some way. Or You might say that, oh, the horror programs, of course, those are going to be the bloodiest glorious ones, um, but you actually see as interesting social commentary on horror shows and, and it’s, it’s the medical dramas that end up being some of the most invasive and adverse outcomes. So I think that you can’t sort of presume what different genres are going to offer at the outset. And that’s why it’s been such an interesting project to look at in more detail is kind of exploring what are people actually saying about abortion using these different types of stories.

Nima: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s fascinating. How is public opinion being shaped by these things and where are the pitfalls that you’re finding in your research?

Gretchen Sisson: Well, I can’t, we haven’t actually studied the way public opinion is shaped by these, so I can’t speak directly to audience impact, but I do think that TV is both a reflection and a perpetuation of what our cultural beliefs are about abortion and, and that makes them really important even though we haven’t explicitly, um, examined that link when it comes to abortion. But I think what comedy is offering is a contrast to what we had seen for so many decades of public fictional stories about abortion that were mostly on dramas, mostly on medical dramas and the drama was found in plotlines having to do with medical risk. Um, so you would have a patient who needed an abortion and then, um, was hemorrhaging or needed a hysterectomy or needed a blood transfusion or something like that. Things that portrayed abortion far, far riskier than it actually is. And what the comedy does is separates abortion from that drama and that medical risk and puts it more in the everyday. So, you know, there are millions of American women who’ve had abortions, there are another million that get an abortion every year and their stories aren’t always these very fraught, heavy handed, hand wringing decisions that drama’s show them to be. And so even if they’re not light-hearted, it’s probably closer to something like a sitcom, something like a Jane the Virgin, then something like an ER episode from the nineties. Right? So I think that that’s really important that real American women have this full gamut of experiences around their abortions and allowing different genres to explore these stories in different ways makes it a better reflection of what we know women are experiencing in real life.

Adam: Yeah. I think the number you have is 13.7 percent of, of representations of abortion on TV are done in a sort of medical intervention capacity or some sort of emergency even. In real life, it’s less than two percent.

Gretchen Sisson: Yes, yes. And that’s for and, and it’s not even just the rates are off. So there are far more complications on TV than there are in real life, but the complications that we see in TV or are much more extreme than the complications that we see in real life. So for example, the complication on television might be a uterine hemorrhage. The complication in real life might be severe cramping and they need more Advil. Right?

Nima: Right.

Gretchen Sisson: So like if you count both of those is a complication like that’s what we’re looking at with the rates. But if you separate even like major and minor complications and that sort of thing, um, the major complication rate for abortion is .2 percent. So overall complication rate is 2 percent. What we’re seeing on TV is not just an exaggeration of the numbers, but an exaggeration of the actual contents, um, around the, the risks.

Nima: Right. And it’s rarer, you’ve found that abortions are seen as having a positive impact on a character’s health.

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah, there are a few, there are a few examples that we’ve seen of that on TV. Um, and those are really important stories to tell. Unfortunately and frustratingly we don’t actually have a, um, a real life data point to sort of counter that with, um, because these decisions are made between women and their doctors about whether or not they can safely healthfully maintain a pregnancy and the standard for what health is varies. So it might be some women who, um, you know, have, have had gestational diabetes with their other pregnancies and, and decided they can’t go through that again. And so even though maybe conceivably they could carry a pregnancy, like they’re not willing to engage in that level of intervention so that woman experiences it as a pregnancy that she’s not willing to carry because of a risk to her health. Um, but another woman might be willing to take that chance so we don’t have good numbers for, for sort of those real life, um, measurements of, of when an abortion is happening for women’s health or even her life. Um, and so that’s a little bit hard to compare, but I was pleased to find that those stories aren’t entirely absent in television.

Adam: Um, yeah. It seems like there’s this huge gap for all these decades. And then in the last four or five years from your data that had become more normalized in the last four or five years, can you sort of pinpoint or do you have any conjecture as to why that is? What, what do you, what do you suspect is the mechanism that has kind of opened it up just a little bit? Of course it’s not, it’s not great now, but it’s a little bit opened up.

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah, I think the biggest factor is just that there’s more television in the past ten years. Right?

Adam: That makes sense yeah.

Gretchen Sisson: There are more channels, there’s Netflix, there’s Amazon, there’s Hulu, right? That’s where we’re actually finding a lot of these more recent stories is on the online streaming services. Um, and so I, I think that there’s just more TV than there was so there are more abortion stories. I don’t actually know, its a little hard to sort of quantify and control. I don’t actually know that there are more abortion, the abortion stories have outpaced the increase in overall television content, um, probably a little bit. Um, and to the extent that that’s true, what we are seeing is more on like popular shows, network, prime time TV shows, you know, sort of the binge watching shows, the shows that everyone are talking about are more likely to include that. And there’s a couple of forces driving that. I mean, one is Shonda Rhimes, I really don’t think I can overstate kind of her impact here as, as a, as a culture driver and content creator. Um, you know, she has some of the most popular shows on television. She’s put abortion on several of them. On Grey’s Anatomy, on Private Practice where Addison was a provider and talked openly about being an abortion provider, um, on Scandal and she’s included them in a number of different ways and I think that that has really opened the door for a lot of screenwriters to feel like they can take a little bit more of a risk in that way. But I mean a lot of the stories that we’re seeing are on Netflix too. And like a big range there with Glow, Alias Grace, on Hulu Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t quite had an abortion, but all of the, the focus on reproductive politics and bodily autonomy and control and uh, you know, there’s a lot of those themes playing and I think that screenwriters are just having more opportunities to pursue these in different ways and they have a little bit more freedom to do so.

Adam: Yeah. Because I know that from an interview I read with Shonda Rhimes, that they had actually had an abortion idea for the first season of Grey’s Anatomy, but it was before she was, you know, the Shonda Rhimes right? And so they were way more skittish and the network was skittish or they kind of passed on it and then eventually, I think they did it like a few seasons later and it goes to show you that you really do need people who have their own brand to kind of say, well, I don’t care, so you know, whatever. You know, you don’t want to be glib, but just kind of normalize it to make it, like you said in Sex in the City where two of them say ‘I’ve had an abortion.’ It’s like well I think for some people that’s a revelation. Right? Especially when they’re characters they identify with and like. To what extent do you think just sort of mentioning it or kind of mentioning it in a way that is not ho hum, the most dramatic thing in the world, do you think that’s kind of important? Like the sort of casualness or normalization of it is important?

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah. Well, I mean I think a couple of things are going on there with the whole normalization piece and the first is that everybody knows someone who’s had an abortion. They just don’t know that they know somebody who’s had an abortion and given the sort of secrecy and stigma and silence around abortion in our actual public spaces, I think that’s where the importance of fictional stories becomes really important. Movies to some degree, but especially on television because these are characters that you follow and people feel connected with and they see them making the decision or they see them disclosing that they’ve had an abortion in the past and that can really impact how they think about these stories and these characters and abortion and what it means and who in their life might have been in similar circumstances at some point. So I do think that that’s really important. Um, and you know, people always say, you know, I’m like, oh, abortion is so much more dangerous on TV. And they’re like, yeah, but car accidents are so much more dangerous on TV. Right? And that’s, that’s true. But the point is that, you know, today I got up, I drove in a car, I’m looking out the window of my house, I’m seeing cars go by like every few minutes. Um, you know, I have a frame of reference in my mind for what it means to drive in a car and how often people are driving cars and how safe that is and you know, even I have a reference for car accidents and how risky they generally are and what to do if that happens, right? People don’t have that frame of reference for abortion. So yes, almost everything is riskier and more dramatic on TV then it is in real life. But because we lack that real world framework for what abortion is and means that’s why these fictional stories become so important and I think have the power to, to, to offer a, a more normalized context than they might otherwise.

Nima: Right. And, and that’s not dissuading you from then getting in your car the next day.

Gretchen Sisson: Right.

Nima: On this show, we like to talk about common tropes and tired narratives that pop up again and again, can you talk about some of these common tropes, especially when it relates to the representation of class and race, when we’re seeing who is actually, you know, seen as even having to make those decisions on TV and in film?

Gretchen Sisson: I think that this is really important and I think that this is where you can see the most direct relationship between TV and policy is when you look at which characters are considering and obtaining abortions on TV and the social myths that they support. So for example, we found that characters on TV who are seeking and obtaining abortions are younger on average than real women, real American women who are getting abortions. We see a lot of teenagers getting abortions on TV. Whereas in real life, you know, the, the, the kind of modal age for getting an abortion is in late twenties and early thirties. Um, so characters on TV are kind of skewing younger. They’re also skewing more middle class, whereas, you know, the plurality of American women getting abortions are low income. They’re also whiter. So we, we see a lot of these young white high school girls on TV getting abortions and, and not a lot of women of color or women who are already parenting or women are at sort of a different stage in their lives. And there are a couple of, of, of reasons for and implications for that. And one is that teen pregnancy is of course also very heavily stigmatized. Um, and so that maybe makes abortion kind of a more accessible, more acceptable, understandable decision for those characters. Um, and we also like to think of abortion as, as something that’s sort of this easier choice, like you have this entire future in front of you and, and, and that’s what it’s going to be. Instead of looking at the kind of nittier-grittier of, like, women who really need abortions because they can’t afford another child because they already have several that they need to care for or women who are making this choice in a different stage in their life. And so then you sort of see things like funding restrictions on abortion or judicial or, sorry, parental notification requirements or parental permission requirements that you see for, for younger women who are seeking abortion. Um, we also, another trope that we see on TV quite often are women changing their mind in a waiting room. That’s very common. So they’re going to get the abortion they’re in the waiting room, they are about to get called back and then they walk out the front door and, and just the connection between that and the idea of waiting periods and mandated counseling scripts, um, and women not really understanding what this decision means. We see that coming across a lot in our policy. Um, so I think there are a lot of connections between these patterns that we see often on television and, and the policies that you see most frequently restricting access.

Nima: Right. That it’s a matter of kind of youthful indiscretion and ignorance and then, and then always being able to have their minds changed. Right? So that it’s always, you’re always able to then intervene with your ideology to get them out of that waiting room. Because there’s always going to be enough time.

Gretchen Sisson: Right. Yeah.

Adam: Well, it’s, it’s sort of a deus ex machina. You mentioned the abortion avoiding plot lines as a very popular kind of get out of it, which is where someone either has a miscarriage or they decide or there’s some other force or it turns out that the test was wrong and they weren’t pregnant.

Nima: Right.

Adam: That way you get this sort of dramatic purchase of a potential pregnancy, but you don’t actually have to like make the hard decisions as a writer.

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah. We don’t see nearly as many of those, like, recently in the past ten, even fifteen years. There were a lot of those in the nineties. That’s a very nineties thing, I think like 90210 did it, Dawson’s Creek had one.

Adam: Yeah I think I remember that.

Gretchen Sisson: Like that was really the way that they, that they handled it because it gives you all the drama of the unplanned pregnancy and sort of that cliffhanger but without any of the implications for the character either way. And do you think Glee had one recently, but perhaps that tells you what decade Glee should have aired, so. (Laughs)

Nima: (Laughing) Right. So actually talking about decades, um, you’ve also pointed out that a lot of abortion plot lines in recent TV have been in period pieces, so actually not showing this in a contemporary setting. How does that in your mind work to either destigmatize or compound the stigma? Like what are the benefits and maybe drawbacks of abortion in period piece dramas?

Gretchen Sisson: I think that’s a really interesting question and it’s a particularly interesting question now as we look at the changing makeup of the Supreme Court and the potential for us to move into a post Roe era when we consider these period pieces and what they’re offering in their portrayals of a pre Roe versus Wade era. Um, so I think that it, I mean, you know, Los Angeles, Hollywood this is like a pretty liberal place. Like I’m not going to deny that, but the intentions or political orientation doesn’t always mean that they get it right. Um, and, and impact is of course a much more complicated thing. So, and this is something that I want to study, it’s sort of on my to do list for one of our next explorations because you have these period, these historical dramas that have abortions that are very dangerous and I, I assume largely because of the broader context of the show that in most of these cases, that’s the screenwriter trying to show that illegal abortion is dangerous, right? And to make a commentary on the importance of legality and the necessity of what women went through before abortion was legal. Um, and, and those abortions are usually very dangerous, often quite gruesome, somewhat traumatic. I mean, you have these experiences, they’re not, these are not happy stories often. And um, these illegal abortion portrayals are very risky and very dangerous. And I think often, the example I like to use for this is Call the Midwife, which is a show that I personally really like. It was a BBC show, it aired on, um, so it was a British show that aired on PBS here. This is an entire show about midwives and women’s stories and women’s health and, and they had a couple abortions plot lines that were quite risky, quite dangerous, but it’s clear from the context of the show that these screenwriters aren’t trying to say that like abortion itself is inherently dangerous, but we don’t know what the viewer walks away from that show with. Do they walk away saying, ‘Oh, good thing, abortion is legal and very different now?’ Or do they walk away thinking that it’s inherently a riskier or more involved intervention than it actually is for most women? Um, and so that’s, that’s an important piece and I think that, so I don’t really know what the impact of those period pieces is. I think that if we are looking ahead to a time when abortion will be illegal or extremely inaccessible in the not so far future, storytellers are going to have to think of new ways to tell stories either in period pieces or in contemporary pieces of, of what illegal abortion looks like in order to be responsible storytellers.

Nima: Not only looking backward but in sort of a dystopic future, um, Black Mirror recently had a abortion related plot line, one part of the episode, “Archangel” showed this, there was like an abortion pill, which there was a lot of pushback on that and, and the portrayal, which even though it’s kind of imaginative and futuristic or you know, sci-fi almost like, even that, like a different reality, but even that pushed some bad information that then when it’s not counteracted, when it’s not addressed within that context of this show and is pushed out as normalized as just part of the plot can also give people wrong impressions, bad information about this kind of stuff.

Gretchen Sisson: The thing with Black Mirror is, you know, I don’t expect Black Mirror to be realistic. Right? That’s not its job, that’s not what it’s trying to do.

Nima: Exactly.

Gretchen Sisson: My issue with Black Mirror is that it was unrealistic in, in a boring way. It wasn’t, it wasn’t unrealistic in a creative way. Um, and you know, it wasn’t imagining some sort of future of abortion that’s untethered by today’s medicine and technology, right? It was just making a mistake.

Nima: Right. Playing by the same rules, but getting it wrong.

Gretchen Sisson: Right. And it’s not the first show to do that. Walking Dead had an episode where it conflated emergency contraception and the abortion pill, um, I mean, which is basically what, what Black Mirror did. Um, it’s a common mistake. We see it all the time in anti abortion literature that they put out to, to sort of conflate the two and, and, and confuse people on how these pills function quite differently. Um, and, and so it didn’t, it didn’t seem that interesting. You know, and I, I look at like the, the real world examples where activists are using drones to deliver the abortion pill in Northern Ireland. Right? And you know, where there’s all, all these sorts of ways of kind of envisioning what access or provision could look like. Um, you know, what could happen if you had like the ability to give yourself an, an ultrasound on your phone and date your pregnancy that way and then get pills, you know, airdropped outside your window immediately? Like what, what can access be? What could we imagine that this looks like in the future? Um, instead of just like making a mistake that is actually very common in today’s politics. Um, so I was, I was disappointed in, in Black Mirror and I, and I think that the, it’s not just Black Mirror, there haven’t been a lot of stories about abortion that are set in the future that, that do that. Um, so there was a really, interesting, for lack of a better word, show called Defying Gravity that aired on ABC, I think it was summer 2009 that was set in the future and it was about this like manned flight to Venus and one of the women had an abortion. It was illegal. She had a hemorrhage. She lost the ability to have children again in the future and she was like haunted by a crying baby for the entire series. Right? Like she’s literally an astronaut on a flight to Venus and this is what they’re doing, you know, the way they’re portraying abortion is like so far behind what we’re even doing today.

Nima: Right. Right.

Adam: Haunted by the ghost of a baby. That’s, yeah.

Gretchen Sisson: Oh yeah. Yes.

Adam: I’m going to check the producers of that one.

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah, I mean, one of the writers actually, it was obviously subject to a good deal of criticism, and he mounted the defense saying that like ‘she made her choice and this was her,’ you know, but like it’s so it’s so out of line with what we know about the physical and psychological effects that abortion has on women, um, that, you know, fine, if that’s the story you wanna tell, go for it. We’re not going to tell you what to write, but we’re also not gonna watch it.

Nima: (Chuckles.) Right. Or let you off the hook if you fuck it up.

Gretchen Sisson: Right. Exactly.

Adam: I, for one, am surprised to find out it was a male screenwriter.

Gretchen Sisson: (Laughs)

Nima: (Laughing) Yeah. Shocking.

Adam: Suffice to mention that Charlie Brooker is just a nihilist and that’s, that’s the best way to understand its ideology. Um, but thank you so much for coming on. This was really fantastic. This was a super, super informative and I think we need more pop culture analysis that is as detailed and as methodical as yours.

Gretchen Sisson: Thank you.

Nima: Yeah. Thank you so much Dr. Gretchen Sisson, who heads up the Abortion Onscreen project at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. Thank you so much for joining us on Citations Needed. It’s been great.

Gretchen Sisson: Thanks.


Adam: Yeah, so that was, that’s great. There’s a lot of good research there. Unfortunately, a lot of it’s paywalled behind JSTOR, but we tried to give as much as we can. Um, I know that academics have to protect their IP, but tons of good stuff there. I think there’s something really valuable about tracking those things, again, we oftentimes think pop culture is sort of frivolous, but it’s not.

Nima: It’s really not. It really is so vitally important. And on this show we talk about broad narratives that infuse the media and we just need to keep reiterating really that it’s not just your nightly news or cable news or even your Facebook feeds because your ingestion of pop culture is so constant. For all of us, TV, music, movies, whatever, whatever it may be, and, you know, that is so fundamental to our understanding of, of our own lives and of our own society.

Adam: Yeah.

Nima: So we are going to leave it there for this week. Please tune in next week when we will address this issue from a more political, less pop culture standpoint, how the language about safe legal and rare abortions as well as the wholly invented propaganda term “partial birth abortion” really wound up infecting this entire debate and has led us to where we are now. So we will be joined next week by Cait Vaughan, who is a community organizer working in Maine. And uh, please check that out next week when it is released because it’s going to be a doozy.

Adam: And remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod. Of course, you should subscribe to us on iTunes if you haven’t already and by all means give us a good rating. And of course you can donate to our Patreon at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast the one with the black and the gold logo.

Nima: Yes. All of your support is so greatly appreciated. And the support of our critic level patrons through Patreon is especially helpful. So thank you so, so, so much. Thank you for listening everyone. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultants are Josh Kross and Sarah Lazare. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thank you so much. Welcome to Season Two. Have a good one.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 5, 2018.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.