What (Most) Film & TV Get So Wrong About Black Abortion Stories

Welcome to “What’s Good,” where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy. 
What’s Good? In Season 5, Episode 9 of Scandal, Olivia Pope has an abortion. The episode aired in 2015, and aside from just being a really good piece of television (in Shonda Rhimes we trust), the actual abortion was good. After moving into The White House to be with Fitz (Tony Goldwyn), Olivia (Kerry Washington) was feeling suffocated by his typical trash tendencies, and having a baby with the Wasteman-in-Chief was the last thing she wanted to do. Olivia’s abortion wasn’t the result of a tragedy or horrific circumstances. She wanted to have one so she did. The scene in which the procedure takes place is unremarkable; it’s clinical, medical, mundane — you know, like most abortions. When talking about abortion, there may be hesitation to attach the word “good” to the topic. But stories that normalize the reality of reproductive healthcare are important. And stories that center Black women and Black birthing people in the fight for reproductive rights are not only realistic, they are necessary. 
Representation isn’t always good. There seems to be a trend now of people demanding to see Black faces in stories that only do a disservice to us in the name of “diversity” or of networks and studios inserting Black characters into shows only to sideline, exploit, or traumatize them. That’s not what I’m hoping for when it comes to seeing more Black abortion stories onscreen. I want to see more nuance, like Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) on Dear White People discussing her abortion as matter-of-factly as she does the student drama unfolding at Winchester while also internally struggling with the decision before ultimately choosing to have it. Or more stories about the history of Black women on the frontlines of the fight for abortion rights — in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade being overturned — like Marie Leaner, one of the few Black members of The Janes, an abortion network in Chicago in the ‘60s and one of the subjects of the HBO doc, The Janes. One of the best recent depictions of abortion in film was the 2019 Sundance hit, Premature in which 17-year-old Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) explore their burgeoning Black love. An abortion happens (through a pill, not surgery, which we rarely see onscreen), and we watch the messy — physically and emotional — aftermath, told through a Black couple and as a footnote in a Black girl’s story. The abortion doesn’t define Ayanna. It’s just something that she chooses for herself.
The point is that each of these narratives show the breadth of Black abortion stories and that the decision is one that Black women make every day in the U.S., whether they have access to it or not. Depicting how Black women and Black birthing people are impacted by abortion on screen is good, and we need to see more of it. 
Who It’s Good For: In times of crisis, I turn to TV and film. Call it a toxic trait or something I should take up with my therapist, but when the world is crumbling, I find comfort in watching that world reflected back to me onscreen. (I was one of the masochists streaming Contagion in March 2020 when the pandemic hit.) So when Roe v. Wade was overturned, I immediately started searching for the documentaries, TV episodes, and movies that would help me understand what a world without Roe looks like (The Janes), or just simply how reproductive healthcare in America impacts Black people – fiction or not. These stories are good for people like me, who process information better with the help of a score and a good monologue, but they are also important for the Black women, girls, and birthing people who need to know that they aren’t alone in their decisions and that the right to an abortion should be solidified for everyone, not just rich white ladies. 
Like in everything else onscreen, white women are overrepresented when it comes to who gets an abortion on TV. A report by Abortion Onscreen, led by researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), showed that last year, even though the majority of people in the US who get abortions are women of color, 68% of abortion portrayals onscreen were white women. Plus, these depictions largely ignore women who are already parents who make up 59% of abortions in America in real life. (I’m struggling to even think of an example on TV or in film that shows a Black mother choosing to have an abortion.) And, as The Guardian notes in a piece discussing how abortions have changed onscreen over time, “Both TV and film have underplayed the restrictions many women, particularly poor women and people of color, faced in obtaining an abortion even with Roe on the books.” 

Stories that center Black women and Black birthing people in the fight for reproductive rights are not only realistic, they are necessary. 

For a long time, the reason we weren’t seeing abortions onscreen was because networks and studios were worried about the fan response and subsequently barred these storylines from happening. That episode of Scandal I mentioned off the top? It almost didn’t happen. Shonda Rhimes had to fight to keep the scene, set to Aretha Franklin’s “Silent Night,” in the episode. The fan response, Rhimes told EW, wasn’t as negative as ABC thought it would be. “The fans are always much more enlightened than, you know, the studio lawyers are,” she said. Those TV gatekeepers are exactly why we don’t see more nuanced, real, and diverse stories of abortion onscreen — and it’s a mistake. 
We know that Black women are disproportionately affected by abortion bans, so when television and film erase those stories, we’re left with a landscape that doesn’t accurately reflect the danger of what happens when abortion restrictions are put in place or highlight the safety of reproductive freedom. White Hollywood executives frequently say that narratives that center Black experiences are niche or alienating to other viewers, but we know that’s not true (how many white people loved Insecure? Too many in my opinion, but they did!) and there’s nothing niche about the fact that restricting abortion access for poor Black folks and criminalizing people impacts the entire country through poverty, incarceration, and basic body autonomy. If these specific stories affect everyone in real life, they should be for everyone on screen. As the old adage goes, “specificity is universal.” 
How Good Is It? Abortion stories have come a long way since the back alley brutal abortion in Dirty Dancing. And for Black women, the stories are getting better. On Claws, the episode “Cracker Casserole” saw Virginia (Karreuche Tran), a biracial Black woman, choose to have an abortion with her boyfriend Dean (Harold Perrineau). Virginia and Dean decide to have an abortion simply because they aren’t ready yet. That’s it. Their friends support their decision and share their own abortion stories. Claws is a show that can border on preposterous at times but in this moment, it made an abortion about love and community, which the decision absolutely can be. 
On The Bold Type, Kat (Aisha Dee), reveals that she had an abortion, but it isn’t shown on camera. It’s still significant because Kat is a queer Black character who refuses to express any shame about her past abortion. If there’s one thing we need to see more of onscreen, it’s Black LGBTQ+ folks having abortions and destigmatizing the issue for non-straight, non-white people. 
These two examples, plus Scandal (and other Rhimes vehicles like Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy), and the aforementioned good Black abortion stories are changing how we talk about reproductive rights on TV, but there are still improvements to be made. The Guardian breaks down past abortion tropes onscreen like this: “Until the mid-2000s with very few exceptions, be classified into three major plot lines: a character considers terminating a pregnancy but doesn’t have to go through with it due to miscarriage or a false positive; the women’s decision is resolved by a presumed instinct for motherhood; and a ‘both sides’ plot which pits a woman’s choice and those trying to stop her as equally understandable sides of a complicated moral debate.” 
The abortion storyline that unfolded on The Chi unfortunately fell into two of the three above tropes. Kiesha (Burgundi Baker) becomes pregnant through rape by her abuser, and after much deliberation and “both sides” conversations, Keisha decides not to terminate the pregnancy. She feels compelled to become a mother. The Chi’s showrunner Justin Hillian explained the plot choice to TV Guide: “My decision was born out of the theme, which is tied to the preservation of the Black family.” This quote is already bad, given the use of “preservation of the Black family” to describe continuing a pregnancy born out of a horrific crime by an abuser, but it gets worse. “This is totally random, but Magic Johnson was the last of 10 siblings, you know, and like, what if they stopped at nine? You know, there's no magic guy, you just think about like the, you know, the possibilities for the child, regardless of how it came into the world. It could turn out to be anything.” Yikes. The idea that every clump of cells is destined for greatness is used a lot in anti-abortion rhetoric, when in reality, forced birth doesn’t create more Magic Johnsons. It creates more poverty (75% of US abortion patients are poor or low-income), more criminalization, more oppression. 

It’s fitting that as reproductive rights are rolled back, and we’re seeing more abortion stories onscreen, it’s the people who are the most at risk — Black people — who are being ignored. 

Not every character faced with a pregnancy needs to have an abortion, but it’s irresponsible to position not having one as a moral choice, or as one that leads to the betterment of society. Keisha ends up seeking advice from other characters, Tiffany and Jada. “Jada is someone who decided to have her child, and Tiff is someone who decided to not have the second child,” Hillian said to TV Guide. “We didn't want to be passing judgment. We felt like everyone's decision is valid and Kiesha’s decision for her is valid.” I’ll give them points for discussing a Black mother who chose to have an abortion, but the way this storyline played out, and clearly the decision-making behind it, did pass judgment. And if we’re constantly only seeing certain abortion stories — ones that center characters whose morality is tied up in choosing motherhood — then the stigma surrounding reproductive rights only continues. 
The narrative of girls road tripping across the country to get an abortion became so prevalent in recent years, it’s basically its own genre. Grandma, Unpregnant, Plan B, Little Woods, and Never Rarely Sometimes all fit into the road-trip-abortion-movie category, and they all reflect the frustrating reality of reproductive health in the U.S. While some of these films feature women or girls of color, the genre is typically not inclusive of Black women and girls. It’s fitting that as reproductive rights are rolled back, and we’re seeing more abortion stories onscreen, it’s the people who are the most at risk — Black people — who are being ignored. 
It’s not that I think more Black abortion stories onscreen will change the minds of the Supreme Court justices who decided to roll back the rights of half the country, or that these fictional narratives will save us — it’s that documentation of Black abortions is important. Reflecting reality in our art is essential to the preservation of history and can serve as a cautionary tale for the future. There is no place, not even on TV or in film, where it should be OK to act as if Black women and birthing people aren’t losing the very rights their ancestors fought for. At the very least, these stories should spark rage, inspire activism, remind us to keep f*cking fighting. 
What Else Is Good:
• Friend of Unbothered and frequent freelance contributor Nylah Burton recently asked on Twitter, “what’s your favorite depression snack, depression TV show, and depression accessory (specific blanket, clothing, etc). Mine are very good: all-dressed chips (a Canadian thing), Grey’s Anatomy season 2, and an oversized sweatsuit. Take this as your reminder to curl up with your comfort shows this weekend.
• It’s getting mixed reviews but Loot on Apple TV+ is SO good. Maya Rudolph, you will always be famous!
• The constant care and purposeful work my colleagues put into our abortion coverage at Refinery29.
• As always, defunding the police.

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