DECEMBER 21, 2021
Over the past 10 years, televisual representations of abortion — that is, plotlines in which a character considers or obtains an abortion — have increased exponentially. In 2011, only eight series included abortion storylines, but so far this year, there have been at least 47 distinct representations of abortion across broadcast, cable, and streaming networks. This includes abortion plotlines across a variety of genres: dramas (This is Us, A Million Little Things, Love Life, Scenes from a Marriage, The Republic of Sarah), medical procedurals (The Good Doctor), legal procedurals, (Law & Order: SVU) and comedies (Chicago Party Aunt, Queens, Curb Your Enthusiasm), among many others. While abortion storylines have existed on television since the early days of the medium, the last ten years in particular mark an increase in the frequency of such depictions.
At the same time, the last decade has coincided with an unprecedented surge in the number of legal restrictions on abortion across the United States. In 2021 alone, state legislatures proposed over 500 new abortion restrictions, enacting 100 of them, including outright bans on the procedure, culminating in two Supreme Court cases that may well decimate the framework of abortion legality under Roe v Wade. While conventional wisdom suggests that increased representation of a stigmatized experience or marginalized group leads to increased acceptance, this has (seemingly) not been the case for abortion. So, what is the relationship between the increased visibility of abortion onscreen and increasing restrictions to abortion access?
Representations of Abortion vs. Real Abortions
Television abortions differ in significant and important ways from real abortions, which may contribute to a lack of political progress on this issue. Despite an uptick in movies that center barriers to abortion access in their narratives (like 2020’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant), television has yet to meaningfully and consistently depict the hurdles that most people encounter in order to obtain abortion. Indeed, on American scripted television, the majority of characters encounter few if any legal barriers to care, when in reality, the majority of abortion patients encounter a complex web of logistical and financial hurdles that dramatically alter, complicate, and delay abortion access. Even when obstacles are present — a mandatory waiting period on This is Us, the long distances to clinics in the two movies mentioned above, even forced misinformation in the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, — these barriers are easily overcome. Real abortion patients are not nearly as lucky.
Because the struggle to access abortion care — the lack of insurance coverage, the need to cobble together hundreds of dollars as soon as possible, arrange last minute childcare and travel hundreds of miles to reach a clinic — is largely invisible on television, it may give viewers the mistaken impression that abortion is largely available in their communities. In reality, the vast majority (89%) of counties in the United States do not have an abortion provider. On television, though, once a character decides to have an abortion, there are rarely any legal, financial, or logistical obstacles to overcome. Studies repeatedly find that Americans know little about abortion safety and abortion law; as more series depict abortion storylines in their narratives, television writers have opportunities to educate audiences about the realities of abortion care and access (and lack thereof) in the U.S. But, more often than not, those opportunities are squandered in favor of misleading oversimplification.
Showrunners, producers, and writers may face their own challenges in getting abortion from script to screen. Despite a marked increase in the number of series depicting abortion in singular episodes and two or three-episode arcs, there has yet to be a commercial series structured around abortion as its narrative frame. Networks have yet to greenlight a series set, for example, in an abortion clinic, or following an abortion provider, or in which a character helps others access abortions. This type of series might engage and amplify conversations about abortion on a weekly basis, allowing for a multiplicity of depictions across race, gender, religion, and abortion experiences. It could also allow space for the kind of complex representation of abortion — for patients and providers alike — that’s absent from the screen now. We can only speculate as to why studios have not invested in telling these narratives. At an ATX Television Festival panel in October 2021, TV writers detailed the difficulties of writing and producing abortion plotlines, including the need to repeatedly quell the trepidation of network executives. Perhaps it’s the insidious combination of institutionalized racism, sexism, and abortion stigma in Hollywood, culminating in an environment in which top executives don’t believe in the broad appeal of frequent abortion storytelling, and are afraid of the anticipated negative responses from audiences or commercial investors.
If viewers encountered these types of abortion stories on television, would it translate to greater political support for abortion access? Not necessarily. Unlike many other social issues, attitudes towards abortion have remained relatively steady over time and are notoriously difficult to shift. Research on other so-called controversial issues (such as gay marriage, the death penalty, and immigration) points to television as a medium to influence viewers, particularly when those viewers have little contact with actual people who are effected by those issues (this is called the “parasocial effect”). Some studies, though, find that television depictions of marginalized experiences can both move viewers to support progressive policies while still holding judgmental attitudes about the very people that those policies might benefit. Increasing viewer knowledge — including on abortion — does not necessarily result in increasing support for abortion access. There are several promising studies examining the impact of abortion depictions on audience beliefs — more research must be done to assess the lasting cultural impact of these stories.
The Waning Power of Visibility
Looking at existing theories of media visibility can help us begin to understand these phenomena. For instance, both scholars of racial representation and LGBTQ media argue that visibility is a fraught concept, often intertwined with a politics of respectability that limits representational diversity to the privileged few deemed more acceptable to mainstream white middle-class viewers. Herman Gray, for instance, wonders if “we are experiencing a ‘waning’ in what the cultural politics of representation can yield.” Gray suggests that consumer culture has incorporated the politics of visibility into neoliberal and capitalist structures, so that demands for representation are no longer subversive; instead, “The object of recognition is the self-crafting entrepreneurial subject whose racial difference is the source of brand value celebrated and marketed as diversity.” In other words, attending to representation and visibility alone can sometimes ignore contemporary realities of media consumption and production, in which the occasional abortion storyline may be an asset to corporate media marketing and branding rather than a form of subversive media activism.
Arguing a similar point about the increase of lesbian and gay stories on TV in the 1990s, Ron Becker states, “Just because there are more images doesn’t mean they are inherently better.” Becker noted that stories and characters on shows like Ellen and Will & Grace reproduced images of gay and lesbian people as disproportionately white and affluent, projecting an imagined community of wealthy gay elites for marketers to advertise to, rather than reflecting the reality of a racially diverse LGBTQ community. Likewise, while representations of abortion on TV are diversifying on some demographic variables, the vast majority of characters who have abortions have historically been and still are young, white, wealthy women who have no children at the time of their abortion. This does not reflect the majority of abortion seekers in the United States — people of color, people struggling to make ends meet, people who are raising children at the time of their abortions. Characters on television who have abortions, then, often reflect the imagined demographics of the viewership of these series instead of people who actually have abortions in real life.
While conventional wisdom suggests that diverse representation leads to political progress, this has not been the case (yet, at least) for abortion. Instead, abortion visibility might be a “trap”: as Tourmaline, Eric Stanley, and Johana Burton have argued, visibility politics is marked by the paradoxical reality that an increase in representation of a marginalized community often leads to increased surveillance and violence, rather than an increase in civil rights and social acceptance. As representations of abortion have increased on TV, so too have anti-abortion, conservative, and religious campaigns to regulate the procedure, which include an increase in Christian television propaganda on streaming sites like PureFlix and movie releases (including Unplanned and Gosnell). Indeed, the overwhelming amount of Christian and anti-abortion propaganda on screen, in state and federal legislatures, and in communities across the United States vastly overshadows the increasing but still less common empathic abortion storylines on TV. In a polarized media environment in which cable channels and streaming sites cater to niche markets, the increasingly diverse and compassionate portrayals of abortion on TV may not reach anti-abortion audiences already watching content that aligns with their views.
Ultimately, representational analysis of abortion onscreen may overestimate the political power of television alone to effect widespread social change. The barriers we’ve described — the gap between the experiences of abortion patients and television characters who have the procedure; ongoing abortion stigma in Hollywood that prevents these storylines from appearing on a regular basis; and the overwhelming amount of anti-abortion media propaganda — prevent abortion storytelling on TV from creating cultural change. Some writers are already imploring Hollywood to invest in more complex, nuanced abortion storytelling, and we applaud these efforts to change the media landscape. Still, televisual representations of abortion are but one strategy in the fight for abortion rights, justice, and access. We cannot wait for Hollywood to represent abortion accurately in the hopes that the politicians making restrictive anti-abortion laws pay attention to those stories. Instead, we encourage television writers, producers, and viewers alike to fight for abortion care both on and off screen, to ensure the procedure remains safe, legal, and accessible for generations to come.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Gretchen Sisson for her comments on earlier versions of this essay.