Reviews | From ‘Dirty Dancing’ to ‘Scandal,’ On-Screen Abortion Stories Carry the Swing

In the weeks following the fall of Roe v. Wade, people have supported abortion access and rights in many ways, including spreading information about abortion pills and standing up for courageous doctors. My contribution was to think about television and films.

Abortion has been depicted on television and in film since the silent films of the early 20th century. My colleagues and I at the Abortion Onscreen program have followed over 500 abortion storylines across all genres, such as historical fiction, medical dramas, sci-fi, and even buddy-comedies. Over the past decade, as abortion restrictions have proliferated across the country, the number of on-screen abortion stories has also increased dramatically: in 2012, we only documented 15 abortion storylines, and in 2021 we found 47.

But rather than normalizing abortion, the increased visibility of abortion on TV and in movies has in many cases contributed to stigma and misinformation. As is so often the case with Hollywood’s representational issues, this can have broad implications. When the public sees abortion depicted on screen, some will incorporate what they see into their general understanding of abortion – who has abortions, how easy or difficult it is to access an abortion and how safe (or not) abortion is. And it has the potential to influence viewers’ knowledge, beliefs, and voting behaviors regarding abortion.

Take the hit movie “Dirty Dancing.” Does the public interpret Penny’s pre-Roe abortion as unsafe because it was illegal or unsafe because it was an abortion? When audiences see Annie on “Shrill” or Xiomara on “Jane the Virgin” getting an abortion without having to overcome significant barriers to access, are audiences extrapolating that abortion is under-regulated? Given the ever-shrinking abortion access landscape, we need to address the misconceptions the media create and reinforce, especially in a post-Roe world. And it behooves TV and movie creators to think more about how they portray abortion.

Screen depictions of abortion often greatly exaggerate the medical risk associated with it, overemphasizing serious complications that are extremely rare or non-existent in real life, such as infertility, mental illness and the death. My colleagues found that on American television from 2005 to 2016, a character who had an abortion had a 5% chance of dying from the procedure, more than 10,000 times the documented rate for legal abortions. Our analysis of more recent TV storylines found that depictions are improving on safety, but on-screen characters are still much more likely to have a major complication from an abortion than an aborted patient. in real life.

Another problem is demographics. Given Hollywood’s many issues with race, gender, and class representation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that most characters getting on-screen abortions are young, white, and at least of the middle class ; nor are they, on the whole, related. In contrast, true abortion patients in the United States are typically relatives and are disproportionately people of color and people who live at or below the federal poverty level.

When a character on television decides they want an abortion, they usually encounter no legal or logistical obstacles. And when she does, she typically doesn’t encounter some of the common barriers to abortion in the real world, like the inability to pay for childcare or time off work or struggling to cobble together hundreds of dollars for an uninsured abortion.

Television also routinely tells a single story about illegal abortion – one in which a desperate woman seeks an abortion from an unscrupulous provider. But the future of illegal abortion looks quite different: Today’s abortion seekers have options, such as abortion pills, which can be ordered online, which are much safer medically, even though these options may entail legal risk.

More than half of recent abortions in the United States were pill abortions, but depictions of this method on TV and in movies remain rare. It’s perhaps no wonder that many Americans are still unaware of the existence of abortion pills, let alone their safety and what it’s like to take them. When surgical abortions are depicted on screen, they are often portrayed as major medical events rather than just outpatient procedures, which they usually are.

Because many viewers approach the abortion conversation with so little background knowledge, these discrepancies fill in the gaps with misleading fiction. And taken together, inaccurate portrayals of abortion can lead the public to believe that we need to regulate it more, not less.

It’s also true that the last few years of on-screen abortion stories have come closer to portraying the reality of abortion in the United States. be both more true to life and entertaining. Recent TV series like “A Million Little Things” and “Station 19” have shown how to support a loved one through medical abortion. And in recent years, we’ve seen more characters of color having or disclosing past abortions, including Olivia Pope in “Scandal” and Mia in “Love Life.”

Our study of a 2019 episode of an abortion plot “Grey’s Anatomy” found that viewers had a higher awareness of abortion pills after watching the episode, showing that television depictions of abortion can make a significant difference, with some degree of intent on the part of creators.

There are many reasons why we don’t see more – and more accurately – portrayals of abortion on screen. In interviews with over 40 TV content creators, my colleague and I repeatedly heard about barriers to bringing abortion storylines from page to screen, such as reluctant showrunners and networks fearing backlash from advertisers and the public. Some showrunners and writers have spoken about it publicly. Shonda Rhimes told HuffPost about Olivia Pope’s abortion on “Scandal,” “I’ve never fought so hard for an episode of ‘Scandal’.” And Eleanor Bergstein, the ‘Dirty Dancing’ screenwriter, said in a 2017 interview, “The studio came to me and said, ‘OK, Eleanor, we’re going to pay for you back in the editing room. and cancel the abortion. .’ And I always knew this day would come.

Regardless of the legal status of abortion, the screenwriters found ways to tell abortion stories. Today’s content creators must face this critical moment with creativity, incisiveness, collaboration and determination. It’s time for Hollywood to agree to tell bigger and bolder stories about abortion.

Steph Herold is a researcher for the Abortion Onscreen program with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. She has co-authored peer-reviewed articles on abortion in television and film, abortion storytelling, and abortion stigma, and serves on the board of the All-Options group.

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