“When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore.” That’s what television viewers in 1972 heard a woman tell her mother on the sitcom Maude, when the title character had an unintended pregnancy late in life. The episode aired just two months before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion nationwide. Maude wasn’t just a hit sitcom; it was a pioneer in pop culture for portraying a middle-aged feminist woman as a normal, complicated, and full person. Maude, of course, decided to have an abortion, and the episode made television history.
More than 40 years later, NBC’s digital ad team rejected a movie trailer because it included the word “abortion,” which a staffer at the network deemed inappropriate for audiences.
Last night, after thousands of people (including writer/actress Lena Dunham and DJ Samantha Ronson) signed Planned Parenthood’s petition protesting the decision, NBC issued a statement to clarify the situation. The network acknowledged that a digital ad had been rejected because it included the word “abortion,” and it clarified that this is not NBC’s policy and that the network is taking steps to ensure that its policies are followed consistently.
NBC was right to clarify its policies and redouble its efforts to make sure they are followed. Our discussions with the network were open, honest, and productive, and we applaud them for setting the record straight and agreeing to air the ad that was wrongly rejected.
But the controversy about NBC rejecting this ad is just a symptom of a much deeper problem. Abortion is nearly nonexistent in film and television. It’s hard to imagine the title character of a popular sitcom on one of the major broadcast networks deciding to have an abortion today. Maude, as it turns out, was much further ahead of her time than anyone imagined.
When characters on popular television shows do experience an unintended pregnancy, they suffer miscarriages (see Beverly Hills, 90210; Party of Five; and Revenge) or have unexplained last-minute changes of heart (see Sex and the City, Dawson’s Creek, and Secret Life of the American Teenager). And those are the lucky ones. A recent study showed that 14 percent of women in films and television who have abortions end up dying—either through freak medical accidents with no basis in reality or tragic suicides.
Far from reflecting reality or sparking honest dialogue, television too often perpetuates myths, stereotypes, and stigma about abortion and about women who made the complex, deeply personal decision to end a pregnancy.
That’s why an NBC digital advertising staffer turning abortion into a “dirty word” is so troubling—because there is already such a lack of honest conversation about it on network television.
There are exceptions, of course. Parenthood, Friday Night Lights, and Grey’s Anatomy have included storylines about abortion over the past few years that were rich, complicated, and authentic. But more than anything, they are rare.
Ironically, the ad at the center of the NBC controversy was for a film that is a huge step forward for popular culture portraying abortion in an authentic, responsible way. Obvious Child is a hilarious and honest story about Donna Stern, played by actor/comedian Jenny Slate, who gets dumped, fired, and pregnant all in time for Valentine’s Day. She has an abortion at a Planned Parenthood health center—talking with family, friends and even her one-night stand about her decision. She isn't ashamed. She isn’t traumatized by her decision to have an abortion, and she isn’t casual about it, either. She makes the decision that is right for her—without stigma and without judgment.
We’ve never really seen a character like Donna Stern in a Hollywood summer film, even though millions of women all across the country will identify with her story.
To be sure, this film isn’t perfect. No movie is. But it is a major turning point for how women’s sexuality, pregnancy, and abortion are portrayed.
Television and film are enormously influential in our culture, particularly for the cues they send about health and sexuality. Through popular culture, young people get the message early and often that, while they may have the right to get an abortion, there’s something wrong with them if they exercise that right.
It’s time to bring that stigma into the light, expose it, and reject it—and we all have a role to play.
That means having honest conversations within our own communities, going to see Obvious Child (because it’s a really great movie), and putting pressure on executives who have an obligation to use their influence for good.