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"To portray abortion in opposition to motherhood… creates a false dichotomy”
Talking pop culture representations of abortion with Steph Herold of Abortion Onscreen
While I was away last week, I decided to zone out on Netflix after a long day of writing. I stumbled on Blonde, the new Marilyn Monroe movie, based on the JCO novel of the same name. I hadn’t heard much about the film and was a little excited to watch something sensual and Hollywood and drama. Five minutes in, it was terrible. So overwrought. So stylized in a way that only films made by men ever are.
The opening scenes feature Norma Jean and her mother hurtling through a firey LA landscape, while Norma’s mother lashes out in anger, forever scarring her child. Norma’s mother is institutionalized soon after, leaving Norma unmoored (weird, so, is the implication here that mom is to blame for all the men that would abuse Marilyn in adulthood? Or maybe just Hollywood?). There is a complete lack of depth to the women in the film, but no shortage of nostalgia for their brutal, beautiful madness.
In my frantic WTF google search for reviews of the film, I was relieved to find the words of Steph Herold, a researcher for Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Steph’s take on Blonde immediately confirmed what I suspected: that I should just stop watching.
Steph tweets often about abortion depictions in popular culture and has been cited in many analyses of abortion stories, which is how I found her work a year or so ago. Her Twitter thread on the egregious misogyny in Blonde—the film includes multiple scenes of abortion and rape—went viral and was featured in Newsweek, among other publications.
Here’s Steph talking about how abortion is depicted in the film (CW):
The director of the film, Andrew Dominik, said he is “not interested in reality.” Must be nice!
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JCO endorsed the film as well, saying: “surprising that in a post#MeToo era the stark exposure of sexual predation in Hollywood has been interpreted as ‘exploitation.’” This is an annoying thing to say, but it reveals how facile our conversations about representation often are. Simply putting an abortion or a rape on screen (especially for easy consumption by an obviously male gaze) does not equal meaningful or responsible engagement with that subject, much less liberation from the violence that is being depicted, any more than simply diversifying casts in Hollywood (especially while playing into racist tropes) amounts to racial equality off the screen.
I spoke with Steph a few weeks ago, before all the Blonde hubbub, about the work she does with Abortion Onscreen. We talked about popular representations of abortion in TV and film, including some common tropes she’s found in her research—such as the indecisive abortion seeker— and how those tropes play off idealizations of motherhood. We also talked about recent shifts in abortion plotlines and about where she hopes showrunners and directors will take their narratives next.
Our conversation breaks down why representations of abortion like those in Blonde are deeply problematic and why that matters to the larger fight for reproductive autonomy. Clearly, and very fucking unfortunately, our conversation is as timely as ever.
Tell us about the work you do studying representations of abortion in film and TV for the Abortion Onscreen project.
I’m a researcher in the Abortion Onscreen program at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. Along with my colleague Dr. Gretchen Sisson, I study how abortion is portrayed on film and TV, and what those depictions tell us about how our culture understands and makes meaning of abortion. We investigate questions like: how does television impact people’s knowledge and attitudes about abortion? How do race and racial stereotypes shape depictions of abortion? How have depictions of abortion changed over time?
We just wrote and submitted a paper analyzing over 40 interviews with content creators (showrunners, writers, producers, etc) to understand how they make decisions about including abortion in their plotlines. Right now I’m working with colleagues to analyze data from a national survey to better understand if and how watching multiple abortion plotlines effects knowledge and attitudes.
What are some of the most persistent narrative patterns or characterizations of abortion in American popular culture today?
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in abortion portrayals, nearly 300 between 2010 and 2022, with plotlines increasing every year. In 2010, for example, we documented just 14 abortion plotlines on U.S. television and film, and in 2021, we found 47. The tropes we saw at the beginning of the 2010s are distinct from what we’re seeing now, in large part because the way we watch television has changed so much over the course of the last decade. We have infinite streaming content now in addition to broadcast and cable options, and people often watch while also looking at other screens— their phones, their iPads—or on the go during their commute.
2010’s Friday Night Lights abortion episode made headlines at the time for daring to include abortion in a show about a small Southern town. What I love about this plotline is that it focuses on compassion, care, and support for Becky, the character having the abortion. What I don’t love— that the drama is all about whether she will/won’t have the abortion, when we know that the majority of people who have abortions are very certain about their decision.
Between 2010-2015, we saw a shift in movies that portrayed abortion— for the first time, characters seeking abortions were at the center of the narrative, and abortion access, not just abortion decision-making, was the motivating factor in the plot. I’m thinking of 2014’s “abortion rom com” Obvious Child and 2015’s Grandma, two movies that center young white women in their quest to seek abortions and how this experience brings them closer to the people in their lives. This era also featured some critically acclaimed historical TV shows (Masters of Sex in 2013, Peaky Blinders in 2014, The Knick in 2014, Call the Midwife in 2015, and others) that build on tropes related to illegal abortion cemented in earlier decades of film and television— that is, that an illegal abortion is nearly always an unsafe abortion. While this is true to a large extent, it also obscures the history of both clinicians and lay people who provided safe illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era (or pre-legalization in the case of the shows set in the UK).
Perhaps most importantly, this five-year time period saw Shonda Rhimes really step into her element, with an abortion plotline for Christina on Grey’s Anatomy in 2011, depicting abortion providers and patients on Private Practice also in 2011, and feature not just one but two abortion plotlines on Scandal (both in 2015), including one in which the main character, Olivia Pope, gets an abortion on screen. It’s the first depiction, to my knowledge, of a Black woman obtaining an abortion where we see her actually have the procedure. You really can’t overstate how monumental that kind of representation is. Shonda Rhimes recently talked to the Huffington Post about how hard she had to fight for the network to be ok with Olivia’s abortion scene, which to me speaks to how challenging it is to get these stories from page to screen. If someone with power, influence, and an incredible success record like Shonda Rhimes had to fight so hard, imagine what other showrunners and writers go through.
In this same span of five years, critically acclaimed dramas like The Good Wife, Girls, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, and Transparent had one-off abortion plotlines— again, like I mentioned with the movies above, these plotlines also signaled a move away from emotional angst and abortion decision-making as the source of drama and focused more on the consequences for a character of seeking an abortion, whether it’s political (The Good Wife, House of Cards) or personal (Orange is the New Black, Transparent).
Between 2016 and today, depictions have actually changed quite a bit— you’ll notice that nearly all of the characters I talk about above are young white women. While it’s still the case that the majority of character on TV who have abortions are white, we’ve seen more represenation of characters of color over the last five years than in any previous era— this year’s P-Valley and Station 19, 2021’s Love Life and Queens, 2020’s I May Destroy You and Vida, 2016’s Jane the Virgin, and many more. This is extremely important because the majority of people who have abortions in real life are people of color, and they deserve to see themselves and their experiences represented onscreen.
These recent years also saw more queer characters have abortions or disclose past abortions (The Republic of Sara in 2021, The Bold Type in 2019, and The Girlfriend Experience in 2017), which is crucial given the high numbers of LGBTQ folks who have abortions." We continued to see fewer and fewer characters parenting at the time of their abortions (with notable exceptions like Workin’ Moms and The Letdown), a huge missed opportunity given that the majority of people who have abortions also have children.
While most abortion depictions still portray surgical abortion, we’re starting to see more shows depict medication abortion (Station 19, Vida, A Million Little Things, Scenes from a Marriage in 2021), and it’s about time because more than half the abortions that take place in the US today are by pill. Movies increasingly spotlight the extremely arduous journey of accessing an abortion, whether in comedies (like 2020’s Unpregnant) or dramas (2022’s Happening, 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Little Woods in 2019).
We’re also seeing more and more comedies incorporate plotlines about abortion access, which I love because it really helps de-stigmatize something if you can laugh about it. Some of my favorites from this period are this 2016’s BoJack Horseman episode, which really skewers politicians who restrict abortion, 2018’s Claws episode, which puts all the characters in conversation about their reproductive experiences, 2019’s Sex Education episode, which does a really poignant job of showing how to support someone after an abortion, and 2016’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which shows a mom in her 40s having an abortion and her kids caring for her afterwards. In addition to being hilarious, many of these comedies also spend a lot of time exploring how to support somehow before, during, or after an abortion, whether it’s Otis bringing Maeve flowers in Sex Education (though he doesn’t know she’s having an abortion), or Quiet Ann joking around with Virginia in the abortion procedure room on Claws.
More shows are starting to depict self-managed abortion (2019 episodes of both Grey’s Anatomy and Orange is the New Black) but we have a long way to go in terms of depicting the reality of safe, self-managed abortion with pills as what it is— medically safe, legally risky. We still see very few plotlines depict barriers to abortion access, specifically the financial, legal, and logistical barriers that most people face when trying to get an abortion in the U.S., barriers that are now exacerbated by the Dobbs decision. One notable deviation from this trend is this 2020 Shameless episode, which manages to cover medication abortion, mandatory parental consent laws, and how challenging it can be to afford the cost of an abortion.
Unfortunately plotlines with that level of specificity about barriers to abortion access are the exception, not the norm. This span of five years saw plotlines increasingly tackle deceptive crisis pregnancy centers and how they lie to people about abortion (2019’s 13 Reasons Why and The Bold Type, 2021’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Taken together— lots of progress in terms of depicting abortion in increasingly nuanced ways, but there are still so many abortion experiences, and facets of those experiences, left untold.
In my own research, I’ve explored overt trends in conservative and far Right representations of abortion— I’m thinking, for instance, of films like Unplanned, based on Abby Johnson’s memoir, which portrays Planned Parenthood clinicians as callous capitalist bitches manipulating other women into abortions to turn a profit. That film also uses medically inaccurate depictions of abortion procedures to push the story that abortion is murder. But there’s quite a range of abortion misrepresentation. Are there other, more well-meaning stories you can point to that still reproduce dangerous, misleading, or stigmatizing images of people’s sexual and reproductive lives?
I am sorry to report that there’s a whole world of anti-abortion propaganda films out there that propagate these same dangerous and, frankly, insulting narratives. Some of them are totally absurd (like this one where—spoiler alert—the main character discovers that his existential angst is because his mom aborted him, and he’s staying in a hotel for ghosts of aborted fetuses) while others exploit real life traumas and tragedies in an attempt to mislead audiences about who needs and provides abortions. These are some of the worst examples, but you’re right that there’s a range of misrepresentation that’s sadly not limited to right wing misinformation.
Many people assume there’s a lack of depictions of abortion in popular culture, whether it’s film, TV, plays, or musicals, when in reality it’s not that there haven’t been abortion portrayals, but that these portrayals themselves have been pretty problematic. In our research we’ve found that abortions onscreen tend to be falsely represented as more dangerous and more medically complex than they are in real life and that characters who have abortions tend to be whiter, wealthier, younger, and non-parenting compared to their real life counterparts.
We’ve found that medication abortion is very rarely depicted, and when it is, it’s often alluded to as dangerous or coercive (thanks, Law & Order: SVU). The most common reasons real life people seek abortions— that they can’t afford another child, that they don’t want to be pregnant right now, not wanting to parent with a current partner— are very rarely portrayed onscreen.
Barriers to abortion access are also rarely portrayed onscreen, meaning that most characters don’t face the logistical, financial, and legal hurdles that today’s abortion patients encounter when trying to access an abortion. Even on shows where characters commonly talk about struggling to make ends meet, we don’t often see how it is they found a clinic, how they got there, how they paid for the abortion, if they had to take off work or find childcare.
Those nitty gritty details that would bring abortion access as a plotline to life are, for the most part, missing (with a few standout counterexamples, like the recent movies Unpregnant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and a recent episode of P-Valley).
Speaking of leaving out details, I recently wrote about the trend in film to just gloss over abortion and reproductive choice, usually with loaded sighs or unpsoken scenes that imply abortion is both too heavy to invite into the plot and too traumatizing for a character to realistically consider. This kind of portrayal of abortion as a last resort prevents us from viewing abortion as a normal part of people’s reproductive lives, but also, of course, creates a culture of shame around abortion. Are there other ways in which the erasure or elision of abortion comes up in the popular culture that you study? I noticed, for instance, that the ANSIRH database records when the term “abortion” is or isn’t used in onscreen depictions.
It’s so frustrating to watch those movies, whether it’s Look Both Ways or Knocked Up, and just be thinking the whole time, “but really she’d just have an abortion!!” Obviously that’s not the story that those writers wanted to tell, right— in those plotlines, the pregnancies do a lot of narrative work to structure the arc of the films and define the relationships between characters (with predictable conflict and resolution). If those characters had had abortions, those films would’ve been very different— the writers would’ve actually had to get creative about how women’s lives can be meaningful and interesting beyond gestating and parenting!
Part of what we track every year is when abortion is considered by a character, and what ultimately happens to that pregnancy. One nefarious trend that keeps cropping up no matter the decade is this trope that a patient is at the abortion clinic, or on their way there, and all of a sudden changes her mind and leaves (most recently, we see this in a 2022 episode of The Girl Before and in 2021 episodes of The Good Doctor, Hightown, and 911 Lonestar). This seems innocent on its face— of course if someone changes their mind about having an abortion, they shouldn’t have one. This may be a dramatic scene to watch on TV, but it’s something that rarely happens in real life.
Most people who show up at the abortion clinic had to jump through so many hoops to get there, and are extremely certain about their decision to have an abortion. They’ve had to navigate financial barriers, logistical barriers, political barriers to get that care. Showing a character who changes her mind in that way undermines the reality that pregnant people are conscientious, reliable, serious decision-makers, and implies that maybe they need more time or more barriers to fully consider their options. We need to make abortion easier to access, and I am concerned that these kinds of depictions may be good for drama, but negatively impact viewer attitudes.
Often representations of abortion in popular culture are also really entangled with the idealization of cis, heteronormative, white, sacrificial motherhood. Are there any examples that stand out in your mind that speak to how these two cultural narratives inform each other?
I want to break that down a bit. Many characters— young white characters who are not parenting at the time of their abortion— decide to have abortions based on this idealization of white, wealthy, sacrificial motherhood. We see this play out in their reasoning for having an abortion— namely that they articulate that they are not ready to be a parent, or not in the “right” situation to parent, or because they want to pursue a career or finish school.
Obviously these are very real reasons for considering or having an abortion, but showing these reasons as the most common reasons for seeking abortions also does this unfortunate work of upholding this idealization of motherhood as in opposition to the self. That is, it reinforces this idea that you can’t or shouldn’t have a career and pursue parenting, that you can’t/shouldn’t pursue your education and parent, that you can, in fact, be “ready” at all. All of these concepts are pretty fraught when it comes to race and class in particular— we know that so many people do all of these things at once, particularly people of color, particularly people struggling to make ends meet.
So to portray abortion in opposition to motherhood in this way creates a false dichotomy between having a career/pursuing an education and parenting, and upholds this idea that there even is such a thing as being emotionally or financially “ready” to parent (I’m sure there is for many people, but of course not everyone).
Part of the problem, I think, is that there’s a really limited cultural script for moms as selfless and sacrificial, and for people who have abortions as selfish and self-serving, and what’s missing is that this is often the same person who’s trying to do the best they can for themselves and their family. There’s no wrong reason to have an abortion, there’s no “right” time to be a parent, yet often pop culture flattens these experiences at the expense of nuance and complexity.
Are there any more hopeful trends you’re seeing in representations of abortion? Or that you’d like to see?
Yes! More and more showrunners and writers are talking about their own abortions, their own politics, and how they are working that into the shows and movies they’re making. I think there’s an understanding that this is not a time to be wishy washy about your support for abortion, but instead a time to tell bigger, bolder stories— stories about safe self-managed abortion, about groups of people who help each other access abortions, about abortion clinic staff and abortion fund volunteers.
I’d love to see shows imagine futures in which there are no abortion laws at all, or shows that really dive deep into abortion providers as full human beings with complicated family dynamics, love lives, and workplace dramas.
I’d love to see more queer and trans characters at the center of abortion storytelling, where characters get to be fully human and we see abortion for what it is, which is both a simple medical procedure and also, sometimes, a radical act of self-love, family love, mother love.