Too few female television and movie characters get abortions, in the opinion of Washington Post contributing columnist Kate Cohen.
“Dammit!” Cohen swore in a recent column, angry about the plotline of the Netflix show Atypical. “I was hoping that the young, professional woman, upon learning she was pregnant right after her jerky boyfriend left her, might decide to have an abortion. Instead, it turns out, she doesn’t even consider it.”
This isn’t real life, Cohen complains. Women consider abortion. Women get abortions, and Hollywood ought to show that more often. “Nearly 1 in 4 American women has an abortion at some point during her reproductive years,” she writes, citing data published in 2017.
Importantly, Cohen sees television and film as a means to the end of overcoming remaining moral objections to abortion.
She continues, “On the federal level, the Hyde Amendment prevents government-subsidized health care from paying for an abortion, which means poor women suffer disproportionately from the cultural conclusion that getting an abortion is a bad thing to do.”
There is an obvious incongruity in her presentation. That nearly a quarter of American women get an abortion hardly suggests that the culture has concluded that abortion is a bad thing to do. And nobody, not even Cohen, is under the illusion that Hollywood has made that determination. Its prevailing political disposition is well known, and she herself refers to eight shows or movies that involve characters getting abortions.
Maybe — and I’m just brainstorming here — the reason that screenwriters don’t write abortion into their storylines as much as Cohen would prefer is because they see abortion as narratively, if not morally, problematic.
Cohen mentions Friends. Why didn’t Rachel Green get an abortion? It couldn’t have been because Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and the other Friends writers found the mores of ’90s America too restrictive. Ross’s ex-wife is a lesbian who raises their son with her partner, and Phoebe is the surrogate mother of her brother’s children. Promiscuous sex is practically a theme of the show.
I don’t know why the Friends writers chose to have Rachel become a parent. Perhaps they pitched an abortion storyline but NBC turned it down because of the “cultural conclusion” on abortion — I have no idea. But I would find that hard to believe.
Perhaps, on the other hand, abortion, as it is currently and quite commonly employed, doesn’t make for good television.
Television and film seek out drama. They need drama. Frankly, abortion, in Cohen’s moral framework, seeks the avoidance of it.
The demands brought on by childbirth and parenting — the lifestyle changes, financial pressures, emotional conflict, limits on individual freedom — provide the raw material for good storytelling. Avoiding those conditions is precisely the aim of elective abortion.
Furthermore, the set of assumptions that drives Cohen to long for more abortion in TV and film, assumptions that project abortion as “part of a kit of tools women have that allow us to determine the course of our own lives,” as Cohen says, demands firmly that there is nothing morally dramatic about abortion and its implications. It’s just a tool. It’s just healthcare.
For the purposes of making good art, there’s nothing particularly compelling about that.
Pregnancy and parenting provide for myriad narrative potentialities, for character and moral development. They provide for novel experiences, and the more characters, the better. “Keeping it” is the compelling narrative option.
Where characters seeking or contemplating abortion has made for good art — William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the film Rob Roy are two examples that come to mind — the narrative conditions treat the unborn child with moral weight. They treat the child as a human being.
These two stories, and the nine shows and movies Cohen cites in which the women maintain “unwanted” and “disruptive” pregnancies, would suggest that abortion means something well beyond the maintenance of individual freedom. They suggest that rather than securing possibility, abortion is the denial of it.