IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller, Hanh Nguyen and Ben Travers trade notes on how recent abortion storylines have been depicted on TV, how that reflects the current political climate and how it may change under a Trump presidency.
Hanh: A trio of comedies recently tackled abortion in an understated, matter-of-fact way that almost flew under the radar. On “Jane the Virgin’s” second episode of the season, we learn after-the-fact that Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) had an abortion off-screen, between episodes. Her mother Alba (Ivonne Coll) gets angry when she finds out, but eventually decides to respect her daughter’s decision.
Over on FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” Lindsay (Kether Donohue) had impregnated herself with a “turkey baster” baby intending to try and rebuild her life with her on-again/off-again husband, but once she realized that a family with Paul wasn’t what she wanted, she had an abortion. The procedure is treated very casually, as if it’s just another errand, and the only repercussion is Paul’s ire in the season finale.
Finally, on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” as soon as Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) got accepted into law school, she accidentally got pregnant and resigned to giving up her career dreams as a result. After getting good feedback on a case, however, she changed her mind, and the next thing we see is Paula in bed at home, recovering from her abortion.
Ben: I think what I’m curious about to start off with is which plot line really stuck with you after the episode ended. Clearly, each of these choices carries immediate effects for the characters within each story, but they were all handled differently; distinctly; and thus likely affected their viewers to varying degrees.
I, for one, found Lindsay’s decision on “You’re the Worst” to be the most significant because it was handled with such immediacy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say nonchalance, but the fact even an abortion protester supported her decision is telling. We all knew this was the best course of action for Lindsay, and the narrative treated it as such: talking through the decision, handling it and then moving on to Lindsay’s other priorities.
Gretchen was even surprised that Lindsay seemed fine so soon after the procedure, but that line in the script served to further clarify who Lindsay is; that’s how plenty of people handle this and the show deserves props for not going overboard in dramatizing Lindsay’s plan of action, as plenty of other shows have done in the past. Sometimes the moment calls for more hand-wringing, but this was an excellent example of how less can be more.
Hanh: Yes, I think we can all agree that Lindsay was not mother material. Calling her abortion an “a-bo-bo” is probably the best way of understanding exactly what place it held with her.
Ben: A-bo-bo! Yes! Such a crystalizing moment.
Liz: It’s odd, though: Lindsay’s definitely not mother material, but I wouldn’t say that’s because she and Gretchen have made these trips into a tradition (pie flights!) and come up with cutesy nicknames. Instead, what that says to me is how normalized the idea of abortion has become in their world, a right to be taken for granted and chased with a trip to Marie Callendar’s.
Ben: Right. I don’t think using the phrase “a-bo-bo” pointed to her need for an abortion so much as it reflected a) her rightful acceptance of this choice, and b) the casual nature to which it was handled — both of which are beautiful things to see on TV.
Hanh: Yes, I actually found her stabbing Paul (and then lying about it) far more disturbing, not to get too off topic. The way Lindsay thinks and operates in the world is overall just fascinating.
Liz: Maybe that’s what makes her different from Paula on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”? Because the execution of that choice is maybe the one that had the biggest impact on me.
We get two scenes with Paula at the end of “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?” — one where that client says she has the makings of a great lawyer, followed by Paula in bed, recovering from the procedure. In between those scenes, Paula goes from completely despondent to completely in charge of her fate, and I don’t think that’s problematic, but it did hit me the hardest, just because it was such a curveball./span>
Ben: Ah, how interesting. As soon as Paula was asked to carry out a task typically assigned to an “esquire,” I saw where her story was going, so the ending didn’t seem as surprising to me as it was necessary. I love that it hit home for you in that way, though, as I feel that was the writers’ intention. I’m just the annoying critic who was thinking too far ahead. (Sorry folks.)
Still, Paula’s story spoke to me because of her reasoning not to get an abortion. When her husband mentioned “they had options” — TV code for not using the “a-word” — Paula responded, “I’m a married mother of two. Those options for teenagers after a winter formal.” It spoke directly to how the issue is typically discussed on TV and often in the real world: as a way to make up for a youthful error in judgment, not a human rights issue necessary for women well beyond the “16 and Pregnant” stereotype. It was encouraging to see the show open up the discussion beyond what we’ve seen before.
Hanh: Yes, Paula’s reasoning wasn’t that clear to me precisely because I am not in her circumstances, and that shows just how individual the choices are. On the flip side of that, Xiomara on “Jane the Virgin” knew she never wanted another child because she had put her development on hold when she had Jane, so now is her time. There was no hesitation, and the abortion takes place between episodes. The emphasis wasn’t on her as much as how both Rogelio and eventually Alba accepted the news.
Liz: And honestly, that worked for me. So many abortion narratives are plagued by indecision. In fact, both “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “You’re the Worst” were driven by that on some level. But Xiomara’s decision made a great deal of sense for her as a person. As she said to Rogelio, if she wasn’t willing to have a baby with him, a man she loved, she couldn’t have a kid with someone she didn’t.
Given that “Jane the Virgin” has always had this thread of religion underlying it, it was always going to be a scenario where the repercussions were more significant than the actual act. But did Alba’s eventual acceptance (if that’s the right word) ring true for you guys?
Hanh: Frankly, no. I expected more guilt-tripping or freezing Xiomara out, maybe even some emphatic swats on the arm and lecturing. And only after that maybe making a begrudging peace with her decision, which Alba would hold over her head for the rest of their lives. That’s what mothers are for, right? Then again, this is television and perhaps that sort of behavior had to be truncated in the interests of time and storytelling. What I do appreciate though is that Alba seems far more flexible and willing to admit to shortcomings than others of her generation. So maybe it was in character for her.
Liz: Yeah, and also the thing that made sense to me about it is the fact that “Jane the Virgin” still is ostensibly a comedy. I can understand why the writers didn’t want to make this into a season-long issue. Which in general speaks to the issue we’re looking at: the idea of normalizing an act that was illegal over 40 years ago.
Ben: To me, that’s what really matters about all three of these arcs: normalizing an act that is every woman’s right. “Jane the Virgin” didn’t dwell on the issue, as some may have expected given the gravity abortion plots were given in the past. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” presents it as an option for an age group who may have felt pressure to keep having kids until they physically can’t. And “You’re the Worst” recognized what Lindsay’s choice meant to her, specifically, allowing for a fresh take and a strongly human interpretation. It’s refreshing to see television uniformly embrace a woman’s right to choose, without forcing in extra drama.
Liz: This makes me wonder — is the next evolution in this the idea that pregnancy is no longer a dramatic device that scripted shows use? Like, a woman’s right to choose is so accepted and commonplace that there’s no question as to whether a fictional character should have to have a baby after finding out she’s pregnant?
Ben: Sadly, in our current political climate, it’s hard to imagine such an evolution taking place, but that’s also exactly why we need shows like these to keep pushing human rights issues as human rights issues, not a political agenda. And perhaps that’s where we’re headed, at least on TV, considering this election has already brought out the advocates in many, many creators who’ve vehemently voiced support.. There’s been a push for more women storytellers in entertainment, and they’re never needed more than now. (Not that only women can support human rights, but I will cede the rest of my time since this man has been talking quite a bit.)
Liz: A white man, nonetheless
Ben: I am the enemy.
Hanh: In that case, I would feel that while the points of view on these types of shows will remain progressive when it comes to abortion, how they treat the stories will change — such as more emphasis on the pro-con discussion, different ways to demonstrate how women’s rights must be maintained, the dangers or downside of not having the right to choose.
Last I checked, the President-elect said he wanted to appoint a pro-life Supreme Court justice who would help overturn Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal over 40 years ago. This would leave it up to the individual states to decide on whether or not abortions would be allowed.
Liz: Honestly, that’s horrifying. The issue becoming a “state’s rights” issue is the exact antithesis of what we’re recognizing here — the fact that as Lindsay so proudly declares in this week’s “You’re the Worst” finale, “My body, my choice.”
Hanh: Exactly, I feel we’ve finally reached a new normal when it comes to how the storylines are very accepting of abortion to the point where it doesn’t have to be debated to death. But now it looks like that debate may have to be resurrected.
I guess we’ll have to see how the policy plays out. It takes time for government to overturn things that have been in place for decades I would think.