In the 1987 film
Dirty Dancing, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) obtains an illegal abortion. The abortion is treated as scandalous when Baby (Jennifer Grey) enlists her father (Jerry Orbach) to help a suffering Penny. (She went to a back alley abortionist, which had some adverse effects.) As this plot line unfolds, none of the characters in the movie ever utter the word "abortion."
Since then, abortion on screen has become much less taboo. As per
a new report released by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), 22 television shows — one of which, the Dirty Dancing remake, is actually a TV special — featured a storyline about abortion in 2017. This is a higher number than there were in 2016, but the report notes that a smaller percentages of these storylines allowed the character to obtain an abortion.
The report also notes that 2017 television tended towards dystopia, which meant that the abortion storylines took on horrific implications. But, comedies also took on abortion, proving that even the most fraught topic can be handled with levity. Ahead, see how each genre handled abortion in 2017.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Teen Drama: Degrassi: Next Class In the episode "#Iregretnothing," a character named Lola (Amanda Arcuri) obtains an abortion, and then, in true millennial fashion, shares the experience on her vlog. Lola is 16.
Photo: Courtesy of Eric Milner/Syfy.
Sci-Fi: The Magicians In The Magicians, a character named Julia (Stella Maeve) is impregnated by a demon god. Her abortion has tragic results. The report notes that this episode is part of "a trend in fantastical portrayals of abortion in which the otherworldly, magical, or mystical aspects of the story only serve to make abortion more dangerous, horrific, or risky."
Photo: Tony Rivetti/Freeform/Getty Images.
Drama: The Fosters The Fosters, a noted progressive television show, featured a teenaged girl obtaining an abortion. The report notes that in the episode, Emma (Amanda Leighton) worries that she doesn't feel guilty enough about her actions, an honest concern for many women who get the procedure.
Photo: Courtesy of WGN America.
Period Drama: Underground In the episode "Things Unsaid," the character Clara (DeWanda Wise) considers an abortion, then decides not to get one. Then, she is forced to get one — that's called "reproductive coercion," folks. This particular storyline revolves around slavery: Clara wants a child, but she doesn't want to bring a child into slavery. The ANSIRH notes that this narrative is "critical to an understanding of the philosophical origins of today’s reproductive justice movement."
Photo: Nicole Wilder/ABC/Getty Images.
Crime Procedural: American Crime In an episode deemed "unrealistic" by the ANSIRH, a sex worker fights in court for her right to get an abortion, then ultimately decides to keep the child when she is in the clinic. Most women, according to the ANSIRH, are "resolute" by the time they arrive for their appointment.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Period Drama: The White Queen In an episode titled "In Bed with the Enemy," the character Princess Elizabeth (Jodie Comer) almost gets an abortion, but decides to use her pregnancy to ensure her role as eventual queen. "The abortion story is quickly averted, and meant only to show Lizzie's hatred of her new husband," the report notes.
Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
Dystopia Future: The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid's Tale is a horror story about women's reproductive rights being taken away. It is meant to demonstrate the worst extreme of reproductive rights — in the pilot episode, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), sees an abortion provider who has been hanged on display. This isn't a detrimental portrayal, however. This demonstration of violence highlights "the extremity of reproductive social control," according to the report.
Photo: Courtesy of Erika Doss/IFC.
Comedy: Brockmire More and more comedies are taking on abortion. In Brockmire, the main character's love interest Jules (Amanda Peet) decides to get an abortion and her sometimes lover (Hank Azaria) accompanies her to get it. Throughout the procedure, the tone of the episode is light; this is helpful, the report notes, because it proves that abortion doesn't have to be melodramatic.
Photo: Courtesy of Colleen Hayes/HBO.
Comedy: Veep Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) doesn't get an abortion or even get pregnant in this episode that aired in May of this year. Instead, she jokes about having an abortion, something that's fairly expected for Veep — we can never forget the time Selina Meyer said, "If men got pregnant, you could get an abortion at an ATM."
Photo: Courtesy of Guy D'Alema/ABC.
TV Movie: Dirty Dancing It's 2017, and the remake of Dirty Dancing also didn't use the word "abortion." And, in this iteration, Baby (Abigail Breslin) lies to her father (Bruce Greenwood) about what she needs the money for. She claims it's for dance lessons, whereas in the original, she just asks for money without reason.
Photo: Courtesy of Greg Gayne/Netflix.
Comedy: The Ranch The report notes that The Ranch, which stars Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson, is aimed toward a "conservative middle America." So, when Heather (Kelli Goss) decides to get an abortion, she changes her mind. And, her boyfriend Colt (played by Kutcher) works pretty hard to convince her not to go through with the abortion. In this show, abortion is treated as a poor decision. ( The Ranch recently parted ways with actor Danny Masterson after he was accused of sexual assault. The show will write off his character. Masterson denies the allegations.)
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Comedy: GLOW GLOW, a Netflix series about women wrestlers, has a women-forward narrative. The report notes that the episode about Ruth's (Alison Brie) abortion represents a positive shift for the character. When the doctor at the clinic asks Ruth for her profession, she says "wrestler" for the first time. "The abortion is, in many ways, a new start for this character," the report notes.
Photo: Courtesy of TBS.
Comedy: Wrecked In this absurdist comedy, a troupe of plane crash survivors stage a fake abortion for Rosa (Eliza Coupe) who believes she is pregnant. After receiving counseling, Rosa decides not to go through with the pregnancy. She then gives birth to a coconut. This is perhaps a spoof of how traditional sitcoms handle abortions — as you may have noticed, in many abortion narratives, the woman decides to keep the child after considering an abortion.
Photo: Courtesy of Greg Lewis/Hulu.
Comedy: Casual In an episode titled "The Hermit and the Moon," the character Rae (Maya Erskine) jokes that abortion is miserable and that no one would want to get it. (She is indeed pregnant in the episode, but it's not clear if she actually gets an abortion.) "For a show that centers around casual sex, the association of abortion with such negative outcomes is surprising; yet Rae’s ambivalence does mirror what many women experience when facing an unintended pregnancy," the report notes.
Sci-fi: Somewhere Between In an episode titled "Fate Takes a Holiday," the character Mara (Erica Carroll) is forced to have an abortion, then goes a little bonkers. This isn't a helpful portrayal, as the abortion as seen as a catalyst for Mara's instability.
Photo: Courtesy of Peter Kramer/USA Network.
Drama: The Sinner Instead of an abortion, Cora (Jessica Biel) forces a miscarriage through self-harm — she walks into traffic. The report notes that she is Catholic, so abortion wasn't an option for her. This narrative goes to prove the lengths to which women will go in order to obtain reproductive rights.
Photo: Courtesy of BBC America.
Drama: Orphan Black In the most recent season of Orphan Black, the clone Sarah (Tatiana Maslany) is shown in a flashback considering her abortion. (She was shown obtaining it in season 1.) This episode, according to the ANSIRH is helpful: "Sarah’s decision to continue her pregnancy is an illustration of her desire and ability to control her own future."
Photo: Courtesy of MItch Haaseth/ABC.
Drama: How to Get Away with Murder Shonda Rhimes received a lot of attention for an abortion-related episode of Scandal. Here, she does it again with HTGAWM. In season 4, Laurel (Karla Souza) lies about having an abortion, then goes through with a difficult pregnancy. Though she doesn't obtain an abortion, the ANSIRH notes that Laurel's decision to keep the baby is presented as a woman "taking control" of her life, demonstrating that reproductive autonomy is essential to women's rights.
Photo: Courtesy of FX.
Horror: American Horror Story: Cult In order to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the character Pastor Charles (Rick Springfield), two characters must walk through a horror house, which includes a woman bleeding out from an abortion. It's violent, but the violence is there to prove that judgement of such women is useless.
Photo: Courtesy of Sabrina Lantos/Netflix.
Period Drama: Alias Grace In Netflix's Alias Grace, Mary (Rebecca Liddiard) gets an illegal abortion, which ultimately kills her. In the show, abortion is presented as a "solution," the report notes, even though it ends in fatality.
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Drama: The Girlfriend Experience This show's portrayal of abortion is notable because it demonstrates a queer character obtaining an abortion. The character Anna (Louisa Krouse) gets pregnant so that she can raise a child with her girlfriend. When they break up, Anna gets an abortion.
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