How Planned Parenthood Is Paving The Way For Accurate Storytelling In Hollywood

Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images.
Planned Parenthood has garnered a significant amount of visible support from Hollywood’s elite in recent years, catalyzed by the 2016 election and the subsequent proposed legislation threatening defunding for the nonprofit. Sundance Film Festival has been a key hub for celebrity activists to gather in support alongside Planned Parenthood, case in point the wave of pink hats and “Artist Stand With PP” pins that flooded the 2017 Women’s March on Main Street in Park City, where bundled up celebrity activists lead by headlining speaker and comedian, Chelsea Handler, delivered a series of empowering speeches on the importance of Planned Parenthood in protecting women's’ reproductive rights.
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A staple of Park City programming now includes the annual Planned Parenthood’s Sex & Politics in Film and TV Brunch, where artists, distributors, filmmakers, and creatives congregate to discuss how to accurately portray women's’ reproductive rights, abortion, sex, and healthcare within the medium of entertainment for viewers. For the past two years this A-list event has been co-hosted by Refinery29, bringing together hundreds of artists, content creators, and storytellers to learn more about how Planned Parenthood works with the arts and entertainment community and celebrate the storylines that have centered sexual and reproductive healthcare. Just a few of this year’s attendees include Desiree Akhavan, Kelli Berglund, Tessa Thompson, Julie Cohen, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Rabe, and Hamish Linklater.
Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images.
The stories the world sees on screen have never been more pivotal in providing reference and accuracy in the choices we make politically, and the effort of Planned Parenthood in the entertainment space has been spearheaded by a woman named Caren Spruch, Director of Arts and Entertainment Engagement at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Refinery29 had the chance to pick her brain after the Sundance brunch to hear more about the bridge of activism and storytelling.
Refinery29: How did you find yourself in this role? Did it exist previously?
Caren Spruch: “It did not! I’d been [with] for Planned Parenthood for 10 years working so hard to protect and provide care and access to reproductive health, and saw a need to get the word out through storytelling. So, I started reaching out to people in the entertainment community because of their interest and influence. First to actors who had been outspoken about their passion for reproductive healthcare, and then to women behind the scenes.”
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So from a business perspective you saw an opportunity and decided to carve a role for yourself that hadn’t been pursued before, which is both intelligent and admirable. What exactly does your job entail?
“I work with actors to help them become vocal about issues Planned Parenthood supports that they feel passionate about. Under this government administration, women’s rights are constantly under attack, and there’s a real interest in the community to rally and leverage the power of each celebrity’s voice in a way that feels personal and authentic to them. Right now, we’re waiting on the final rule to come down on Title X. Actors want to speak out on our behalf because many were Planned Parenthood patients themselves.
“The other piece of my job is ensuring accuracy in the storytelling that we see on screen related to the issues that Planned Parenthood fights for. For example, informing scripts related to sexual reproductive healthcare and working with writer/directors in the production phase to help them become as informed as possible when they’re writing or filming. We’ll take them to Planned Parenthood centers, let them film there, connect them with seasoned professionals for consultation, and provide notes to make sure that they’re getting it right.”
Can you give a couple examples of projects we’d recognize that Planned Parenthood had a hand in?
“So many! But to name a few: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Deuce, Obvious Child The Fosters, The Tale, Masters of Sex… We know that stories spark conversation and serve as a really important educational tool for us and those who aren’t receiving proper information on their own. These stories do both. “
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What do you think has historically been the biggest challenge in storytelling within this landscape? What have been some of the inaccuracies?
“What’s really extraordinary over the past 10 years is the evolution of abortion portrayal on TV. Historically, they’ve been inaccurate and filled with shame for the female character. Shame is tremendous because sadly in 2019 we’re still fighting for access to safe, legal abortions, cancer screening, and reproductive healthcare. For many years there was no such thing as characters thinking about abortion in a thoughtful way, talking about it with family and their partners, and making informed decisions that are best for them. We just did not see open and honest depictions.
“So often women who would fall down the stairs or have a miscarriage. One of the projects I collaborated on recently was Obvious Child, which I think had a tremendous impact on television and film in that it was a rom-com — not overtly about abortion — but the main character just so happened to have an abortion in a thoughtful and compassionate way that was woven organically in the script. I think that really opened up this topic as something you could do in storylines to better the broader cultural learning curve and conversation.”
What other recent productions have done justice to women’s reproductive health and abortion from the eyes of Planned Parenthood, now that there’s more awareness of education in this space within Hollywood?
“Now that you see more women getting behind cameras and in the writers’ room, you see stories being told with more compassion, complexity, and accuracy. It’s getting there. I’m incredibly hopeful that’ll continue that we’ll see more stories, especially those from women of color, who are often impacted the most by restrictive laws. There’s an upcoming show that I collaborated on, Shrill, that depicts sexual reproductive health care accurately. We also collaborated on Little Woods, starring Tessa Thompson, that tackles access to reproductive healthcare, or lack thereof.”
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So if an artist or actor wants to work with Planned Parenthood, how should they go about that, and what can they expect?
“They should call Caren Spruch! We have grown this work recently over the years and have a team behind us helping ensure storytelling accuracy, sharing of our resources, compiling data, connecting actors with professionals, providing set design, and garnering awareness of the project within the activism community. You name it! The Sex, Politics, and TV Brunch we host together here in Park City is a great meeting of the minds, and I already have a slew of meetings coming out of Sundance Film Festival with artists at every stage of their production.
“We can also produce custom content with artists at the inception stage. One example being the Refinery29 and Planned Parenthood Her Shorts series of sketches written and directed by Rachel Bloom, which educate about a range of topics pertaining to reproductive healthcare through a comedic lens. We’re happy to lend a hand wherever it’s needed.”
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