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Issue 32

You Can’t Do That On Television

By Rachel Fudge

On any given evening, you can turn on the TV and surf past images that not too long ago were considered too shocking, too politically contentious, or too offensive for national broadcast: interracial couples; visibly pregnant women; graphic violence; sex; homosexuality; foul language; even dancing, singing animated feces. Thanks to the rise of reality TV, it’s become acceptable to broadcast graphic, gruesome images of real or realistic medical procedures (rhinoplasties, gastric bypasses, and autopsies) and gross-out bodily functions (people eating bugs, worms, and rats; people vomiting). You’ll undoubtedly witness characters both fictional and real dealing with complicated love triangles, sex, birth, death, betrayal, and more moral conundrums than you can shake your remote at. You might even catch a comedic skit that openly mocks Jesus and God.

But there’s one thing you’re almost guaranteed not to see on TV, despite the reality of it being one of the most common medical procedures in the US: abortion. As many commentators have pointed out, as all of the old you-can’t-do-that-on-television taboos — sexual content, violence, cursing, nudity, homosexuality — have fallen away, abortion is the one hot-button issue that simply remains too hot for TV. Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and Television at Syracuse University, describes abortion as being “conspicuous by its absence,” while in a November 2004 New York Times article Kate Arthur calls it an “aberration.”

While the public and political discourse around issues like gay rights has dramatically increased over the past 30 years — and subsequently become increasingly visible in popular culture — the discourse around abortion and reproductive rights has actually narrowed, to the point where it has become more difficult to introduce the issue of abortion on a TV show than it once was.

The Debut of Reproductive Rights

Way back in 1964 — nearly a decade before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally — a main character on the soap opera Another World got pregnant and had what was referred to as an “illegal operation,” which left her sterile. Shortly after the 1973 Roe decision, Susan Lucci’s All My Children character had soap opera’s first legal abortion, with none of the health or psychosocial aftereffects (sterility, insanity, murder, etc.) that would come to characterize soap abortions in the future.

But the best-known and most widely viewed pop culture abortion took place in 1972 on Maude, the All in the Family spinoff starring Bea Arthur as the titular liberal feminist. When 47-year-old Maude, who was married and had a grown daughter, became unexpectedly pregnant, she opted for an abortion, which was legal in New York state at the time. (In a sign of just how different the times were, Maude’s producers cooked up the abortion storyline in response to a challenge from the group Zero Population Growth, which was sponsoring a $10,000 prize for sitcoms that tackled the issue of population control.)

In the wake of Roe v. Wade, and as the basic tenets of second-wave feminism seeped into the American mainstream in the ’70s and ’80s, serious adult-oriented dramas like Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Cagney & Lacey featured abortions every season or so, as did the occasional soap opera. In the real world, the annual number of abortions steadily increased until 1985, when the abortion rate leveled off. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the face of a growing number of legal challenges to Roe, a smattering of storylines revisited the specter of illegal abortions, as if to remind us of what was at stake. On Vietnam War–era drama China Beach, a young nurse named Holly has an illegal abortion; the show’s moral center, leading character Colleen McMurphy, is a staunch Catholic who disapproves of Holly’s actions. Popular shows Thirtysomething and Cagney & Lacey addressed the issue more obliquely, often using flashbacks to provide some distance from the controversial event or using an extraordinary event — like a bombing of an abortion clinic on C&L — to touch on the issue.

Moral Dilemmas and False Alarms

With the rise of the primetime teen soap (Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek) in the mid-’90s, it was inevitable that sexually active teen and young adult characters would be confronted with pregnancy, often in the guise of the Very Special Episode. Enter the convenient miscarriage. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, some 13 percent of unwanted pregnancies end in miscarriage, but on TV that number is much, much higher. The convenient miscarriage goes something like this: Sympathetic lead character gets knocked up. SLC agonizes over what to do, sometimes going so far as to visit an abortion clinic. SLC decides that although she believes in a woman’s right to choose (her boyfriend or best friend most likely feels significantly different, however), she’s going to keep her baby. Moral dilemma resolved, SLC spontaneously miscarries; SLC is sad but realizes that in the end she wasn’t really ready to be a mother anyway. (Alternatively, the pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm, an even more tidy wrap-up to the dilemma.)

The convenient miscarriage/false alarm remains the most popular strategy for dodging abortion, as it allows TV producers to congratulate themselves for tackling the tough topics without having to take an actual stand. Recently, however, a handful of shows have approached the issue head-on, even allowing characters to go through with the abortion. But there is always a measure of conflict and moral crisis: A 2003 episode of the WB show Everwood turned the issue around, to focus on the moral dilemma of the doctor (the show’s lead character) over whether he can in good conscience perform an abortion; in the end, he decides he can’t do it, and passes the case to a colleague, who does the procedure then heads off to a priest to confess his sins.

Over on HBO, an episode of Six Feet Under depicted teenage lead Claire matter-of-factly getting an abortion, without endless agonizing or moral anguish — but in a subsequent episode her aborted fetus pays her a visit, appearing as a cute infant (a plot device that wasn’t all that unusual, as dead people appear as hallucinations or ghosts on the show all the time). And last summer, a two-part episode of the made-in-Canada teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation made headlines when 14-year-old lead character Manny gets pregnant, has an abortion (saying, “I’m just trying to do the right thing here. For me. For everyone, I guess”), and doesn’t express any regret afterward. Alas, U.S. viewers won’t get to see the show: The Viacom-owned cable channel N, which airs Degrassi in the U.S., refused to air it.

Today’s Four-Letter Word

While Maude’s abortion was truly groundbreaking, it inadvertently galvanized the anti-choice movement. When CBS reran the episode six months later, some 40 affiliates refused to air it, and national advertisers shied away from buying ad time, establishing a pattern that remains in effect today. Even more significantly, after the episode first aired anti-abortion leaders took their case to the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that the fairness doctrine — which mandated equal time for opposing views — ought to cover not just editorials and public affairs but entertainment programming too. Because Maude had an abortion on CBS, they argued, they should have the right to reply on CBS. They lost the case, but won the attention of the networks. In 1987, the fairness doctrine itself was struck down; but by that point, it didn’t matter: The networks had established a pattern of covering their asses by presenting some semblance of balance as way of diffusing potentially volatile subjects.

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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