How TV Talks About Abortion
Showrunners wonder why shows avoid stories about a common experience
By Sarah Marloff,
1:29PM, Mon. Jun. 11, 2018
Everyone wants to talk about sex, but few want to talk about abortion. The taboo topic closed out the seventh season of ATX Television Festival on Sunday, with a panel discussion on the way TV portrays abortion in contrast to real life. The (unsurprising) takeaway: Television gets it really wrong, most of the time.
Moderator Kate Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society (a program of University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center that provides up-to-date information for entertainment storylines on health, safety, and national security), was joined by two people behind shows that depicted abortions: Rina Mimoun, the executive producer and writer on the WB’s Everwood in the early Aughts, and Mauricio Mota, creator of Hulu’s East Los High. The three partook in a passionate, slightly unrestrained conversation on the importance of portraying abortion – correctly and honestly – on the small screen.
Folb opened the panel with a laundry list of statistics: in real life one in four women will have an abortion before they’re 50, and the majority of folks seeking abortions already have kids. In TV land, characters often have the procedure because it interferes with the future, they’re not mature enough (i.e. teen pregnancy), or rape. In real life, abortions don’t kill people, but TV characters are seven times more likely to suffer complications or die. Folb closed, “Women who get abortions on TV are whiter, richer, and younger.”
As both Mimoun and Mota explained, television has an obligation to educate its viewers, especially its younger watchers. Abortion, they argued, is just one topic deserving of truth telling. Mimoun, addressing teen drama writers who portray real life issues incorrectly for ratings, said, "Shame on you.” She added that writing a show for youth is “not a burden. You get to [teach young people].”
She also wagged her finger at NBC’s This Is Us for not bringing up the topic in season 1 when Beth told Randall she was pregnant, calling it a “bizarrely missed opportunity – those characters would’ve talked about it.” Noting that she has no idea what conversations were had, she believes the creators as well as the network decided to just avoid the topic all together for ease.
Abortion is so often unaddressed, or addressed incorrectly, because it’s a way to control women and their bodies, said Mota. Folb pondered if there are fewer abortion stories on TV because there are fewer women in the writers' room. She added, a lot of male showrunners have told her: “I can’t bring it up, because it’s a women’s issue.” “That drives me insane,” interjected Mota, who argued that manhood needs to be reframed within the writers’ room. “Is it God who put the baby in the belly?”
Additionally, Folb suggested more women executives would change the scape of television as we know. All three concluded in agreement that diverse storylines actually make money, and Mimoun stressed to the audience the importance of supporting shows, creators, and writers you want to see more of. “Put your money where your mouth is,” she urged.
Her Body, Her Choice: TV's Abortion Dilemma, SFA Ballroom, June 10.