by: Elise Nagy
It’s been quite a year for abortion story lines on hugely popular and widely discussed TV shows. In September Grey’s Anatomy showed Cristina Yang having an abortion on ABC (one of the “Big Three” networks), in primetime, nonetheless. And last week’s episode of the new HBO series Girls was driven by an abortion storyline, that forcibly reminded many of that other now-legendary HBO series aimed at women and supposedly representative of our greatest quandaries, pleasures, and ambitions (as long as we’re financially comfortable, non-disabled, mostly straight, thin, white, in a city in the U.S., and have brunching and Manolos as high life priorities. Which is all totally okay and valid, but certainly not universal): Sex and the City.
There’s been plenty of insightful feminist snark over the years about SATC, and I’ll try to refrain from too much of that here. I do think it’s important to note that any show that features women heavily or purports to be by, about, or for women lives in the glittery but looming shadow of SATC, which in itself is a problem. Why are we still measuring most media “about women” against an admittedly hugely popular show that went off the air almost a decade ago? That’s another question for another time.
Girls has exploded all over the internet in a veritable flood of polarized opinions: it represents the zeitgeist, both the creators and representations of women in Girls are racist and narrow-minded, it’s great that a young woman (Lena Dunham) has so much creative control over a (predicted to be) major show, it’s privileged and apathetic hipster nonsense, it really gets the (extended) girlhood of today etc. There’s been hype and backlash and a backlash to the backlash.
Before addressing the Girls storyline I want to give a quick rundown of the abortion storylines on SATC, Grey’s Anatomy: On Sex and the City Miranda finds out she’s pregnant and the Cosmo Four talk about their respective experiences with abortion — Samantha’s had two, Carrie’s had one because the guy was a waiter on roller-skates and she was 22. Miranda makes an appointment. She can’t go through with it, and comes back to her friends to announce she’s keeping it. Charlotte squeals “We’re having a baby?” and narrator-Carrie intones “And with those four little words, three aunts were born.” While it’s a feel-good moment of friendship and support, it’s interesting that it’s okay to talk about having a baby with your same-gender friends as long as they’re “aunts,” but women in a romantic and/or sexual relationship having children together isn’t usually broached in mainstream television.
Cristina Yang has been clear since the beginning of Grey’s Anatomy that she’s never having kids. The ongoing thread of “you’re my person” is introduced to Grey’s when Meredith agrees to accompany Cristina to her first abortion appointment, very early in the show. Cristina and Shonda Rhimes dodge the A-bullet with a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy twist. However, Cristina gets unintentionally pregnant again in season seven. ABC shows the procedure on primetime. Reproductive rights activists and pro-choice people everywhere cheer. Then the other shoe drops: her husband calls her a baby killer in front of all of their friends and colleagues, they make a failed attempt at couple’s therapy, he cheats on her and eventually leaves her. The language of “punishment” comes up a lot: he’s punishing her for the abortion, and so is the universe, so it seems.
Then Girls. Rather than showing up to her appointment, Jessa finds a guy to make out with, and upon ordering him to stick his hand down her pants she discovers that she’s bleeding. Girls regularly trades on awkward pseudo-empowered sexuality devoid of any and all eroticism, and then is both self-congratulatory and self-mocking of this tendency. In this one move Jessa’s magically freed from the need to make a decision, or follow through with the choice she’s made, because the uterus-fairy has granted her a pass via a surprisingly painless miscarriage or a false positive on the home pregnancy test.
What should we make of the abortion storyline in Girls? The fact of the matter is that every day, for as many reasons, women and people with uteruses have the legal medical procedure known as an abortion. An oft-cited statistic is that one in three women in the U.S. will have an abortion by the age of 45. It’s a legal medical procedure. It’s a legal medical procedure that’s been saddled with a lot of religious, moral, and political baggage, but it’s still a legal medical procedure. Do I need to repeat that once more? LEGAL. MEDICAL. PROCEDURE. We don’t usually tell our abortion stories, but most of us have at least one abortion story, whether it’s our own personal experience, family experience, or seeing a friend through one.
When John Boehner declared that the HR3: No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act was a top priority at the beginning of 2011, people concerned with reproductive rights and healthcare sprang into action and people who hadn’t necessarily been very political or public came forward with their experiences with abortion. None of these stories, however, even slightly resembled those presented in Girls last week (“Vagina Panic,” April 22nd, 2012), Sex and The City ten years ago (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” August 5th, 2001), or Grey’s Anatomy last September (“She’s Gone,” September 22nd, 2011).
At its best popular media is art and doesn’t necessarily have to realistically reflect lived experience. However, sometimes substituting representations of real lived experience with sensationalized plot lines enacted by characters who are idealized or simplified versions of real and complex people can be really harmful. These representations can play on some of the worst fears of viewers—if you get an abortion you’ll lose out on the child that was meant to be yours (in SATC Miranda asks Carrie “What if this is my baby?”), the person you love will think it’s equivalent to baby murder (Owen literally yells in Cristina’s face “You killed our baby!”) you won’t be able to have any more children or you’ll be forever branded as a bad mother (in Girls Jessa says, “You know, I want to have children. I really want to have children,” as if someone was suggesting that having an abortion and wanting children at some point are mutually exclusive).
Close analysis of Jessa’s speech, on Girls, reveals even more troubling attitudes. It starts out all right: she’s offended by a rule book one of the other characters is reading about “how to be a lady,” and rants:
“I’m offended by all the ‘supposed to’s. I don’t like women telling other women what to do or how to do it or when to do it. Every time I have sex it’s my choice!”
Good! Let’s have more young women characters who are self possessed enough to be pissed off by prescriptive gender expectations and feel empowered to make their own sexual decisions! YEAH!
But then it gets a little icky: “And, well, if I wanted to go on some dates I would. But I don’t. Because they’re for lesbians.” Girls plays into that horrifying trope of lesbians not only as Other– with this one line it couldn’t be more clear that none of these women are lesbians, and that’s supposed to be an assumed, good, and normal thing– but also as freakishly over-emotional and desexualized unless it’s for the male gaze.
This is a hallmark of the social commentary found in Girls: even if you can try to enjoy it, despite fully realizing that’s it’s a narrow and obnoxious group of entitled, financially well off white girls, right when you start to get a little bit into their snarky and feminist-lite opinions, they go and insult lesbians. Not cool.
Similarly problematic, in her pre-abortion speech Jessa says, “You know, I want to have children. I really want to have children. I’m gonna be amazing at it, I’m gonna be really good. And I want to have children with many different men of different races!” Cue audiences across the country glaring at the TV in a bemused and horrified manner. Way to be exoticizing and objectifying. The show is already notorious for dealing with race really badly : All of the main characters are white, one of the only visible people of color in the first two episodes is a homeless black man who street harasses one of the main characters and staff writer Leslie Arfin responded to criticism from women of color by complaining on Twitter about the lack of representation for her in “Precious.” The list goes on.
That’s how this whole thing is framed. The Woman Who Works in an Art Gallery (Mindy Kaling, anyone?) has coordinated the meet-up at the clinic (Lena Dunham’s character tells her she “threw a really good abortion”) and at one point says, “[Jessa’s] about to get an abortion. It’s about the most traumatic thing that can ever happen to a woman.” Because a LEGAL MEDICAL PROCEDURE is more traumatic than sexual or domestic abuse, structural and constant oppression, subtle and overt degradation, police violence, hate crimes, emotional abuse, or a lack of access to necessary healthcare that can result in pain, financial struggling, and death. All right.
In the Sex and the City abortion episode, Samantha says, ““It’s less than a desirable situation, but it happens. We’ve all been there. I’ve had two!” and for that Entertainment Weekly calls her “flippant,” because not only is having an abortion imbued with moral weight, but how you think about your own abortion is supposedly done correctly or incorrectly. We’re not allowed to think about it as a legal medical procedure(you could make this a drinking game), rather we should be somber and remorseful, which ten years later is still a widely held assumption even among people who are pro-choice. It’s as if the price you pay for being sexually active is deep emotional pain and regret for making a choice about having a legal medical procedure, which is just one more way to shame women and non-hegemonically masculine people into restrictive and powerless experiences and expressions of sexuality.
The writers of Girls might want to check in with some of the women and people who came forward to protest HR3 last year, and who were talking about what a relief it was to have an abortion, how it was a legal way to solve a problem that could otherwise change their lives completely and for the worse, how many people have a sense of gratitude after their abortions, and how, for many, it’s not really such a big deal. Abortion on demand and without apology is a requisite facet of reproductive justice for people with uteruses.
Is that a lot to put on a fictional TV show about 24 year old “girls” trying to create the lives they want in New York City? Maybe, but these ubiquitous representations of abortion as something you don’t go through with, something you’re punished for, or something that’s stigmatized and invisible (like Carrie and Samantha’s off-screen procedures) contribute to the discourse surrounding this legal medical procedure that has real consequences for real people’s lives.
Elise Nagy is a Women’s and Gender Studies student in Chicago working on the last year of her Bachelor’s degree and the first of her Master’s. She spends an inordinate amount of time watching television, reading, and getting emotional on the internet. She used to be a poet and a painter, and would like to learn to fly small planes and write a whole book. You can find her sporadically updated blog at Redhead Bouquet and she can be reached at email@example.com. She really loathes talking about herself in the third person.