How and Why Television Fails to Address the Reality of Abortion

I wrote this paper as my final in a course I took called Analyzing Television:

In 1972, an episode of Maude aired on national, cable television in which Maude, the show’s main character, had an abortion (Aurthur 2004, 2).  During this time, discussing abortion on television was revolutionary, especially since it was illegal under federal law.  In January 1973, shortly after this episode aired, abortion became legal in the United States under Roe v. Wade.  Today, abortion is rarely discussed on cable television.  Why is it that the media has regressed so much in the course of thirty-eight years?

When television characters are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, abortion is usually discussed and dismissed, even in cases of teenage pregnancy.  Certain shows, such as Degrassi: The Next Generation, have addressed the issue of abortion but were censored by specific networks.    Then there are shows such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager and The O.C., in which the character considers having an abortion but ultimately decides to give birth to the child.  Other shows, such as MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, market themselves as reality television but completely ignore the reality of abortion.  Although different in nature, there is a notable similarity between these shows: they all have a primarily teenage audience and cast.  When the issue of abortion is addressed on cable television directed toward a teenage demographic, it is either ruled out completely or considered shameful.  “What this means for unmarried teens is that unwanted pregnancy has regained its age-old resonance of sin and doom, and motherhood again has come to feel like the near-inevitable price of sexual pleasure” (Levine 2002, 119).  Rather than discussing the different choices a woman is entitled to when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, television has glamorized motherhood in order to stigmatize abortion.

Contrary to popular belief, abortion is a safe, common medical procedure obtained by women of all different demographic groups, including race, religion, class, etc.  In the United States, one in three women will have an abortion before age forty-five. Approximately forty percent of all unwanted pregnancies are terminated (Guttmacher 2010, 1).  In fact, having an abortion is actually safer than carrying a pregnancy to term (Guttmacher 2010, 2).

Regardless of the statistics, abortion is still the focus of great controversy and debate all around the world.  If and when abortion is discussed on television, networks take great risks.  Advertisers and audience members may become upset and stop supporting the station.  For example, Focus on the Family, one of the largest pro-life organizations in the United States, paid approximately three million dollars for thirty-seconds of commercial air time during the 2010 Super Bowl (Hirschfield 2010, 1).  If a television program on CNN were to feature a woman having an abortion, pro-life organizations, like Focus on the Family, would be dissuaded from arranging future business deals.  However, this has also worked against CNN.  Pro-choice individuals were outraged that CNN would allow this commercial to be aired.  Although the actual commercial was not directly anti-choice, the principle of the matter was very problematic for two reasons.  First, Tim Tebow’s mother was advised by doctors to have an abortion for medical reasons but she made the choice to give birth.  She was fortunate enough to not experience any complications during her pregnancy, but resisting medical advice can be very dangerous.  The message she is sending is very misleading (Hirschfield 2010, 1).  Also, CNN refused to air a commercial for a gay dating website because it would be too controversial, yet allowed a pro-life commercial to be aired.  This decision aggravated many television viewers, but not the majority.  Nearly three-quarters of all Americans identify as Christian and would likely be offended by a commercial that challenged their religious beliefs, which explains why CNN and other networks may choose to avoid the topic of abortion.  If networks are so concerned about respecting individual religious beliefs, they should not promote violence, murder, and adultery.  However, these are all common themes on popular television shows.  This indicates that the problem does not lie in audience response so much as a reluctance to discuss abortion openly and honestly.

Abortion seems to be the “last topic that network television won’t explore” (Raber 1).  Abortion is unlike many other controversial issues in that it is ultimately about woman’s choice and autonomy.  Recognizing a woman’s right to control her own body would be a step towards achieving gender equality, which would ultimately dismantle the social hierarchy currently in place.  In order to sway the opinions of the masses to maintain the current social structure, television needs to shape messages in a certain way.  Since those with privilege have the ability to make important decisions, they “discipline and control the media’s own educative tendencies, dictating what can be said, to whom, at what times of day, in what quantity, and for what purpose” (Hartley 2007, 599).  Because of sexism, racism, and classism, those individuals are usually upper-class, white men.   “Women comprise 51 percent of the entire U.S. population, but own… 5.87 percent of all full power commercial television stations… Minorities comprise 34 percent of the entire U.S. population, but own… 3.15 percent of all full-power commercial television stations” (Turner 2007, 2).  In order to maintain their position at the top, they need to manipulate others.  “In a given situation, whichever party is in power is likely to use coercive authority to that power if it is challenged or threatened” (hooks 1984, 118 -119).  The association between privilege and superiority is engrained in the minds of American men and women from a young age.  For example, girls and boys are socialized to behave differently; gender-bending is considered inappropriate and often punished, whether in the form of teasing by peers or verbal reproach by parents.

Another major agent in the process of socialization is the media, specifically television.  As evident in television programming and advertising, sexism remains very prevalent in our society.  “It is the practice of domination that most people are socialized to accept before they even know that other forms of group oppression even exist” (hooks 1984, 36-37).  As hooks points out, sexism is ubiquitous [particularly in the media], to the point that it may not even be recognizable.  Third-wave feminism aims to restructure the media and has successfully affected different genres of television.  “Third-wave feminism embraces media visibility and enthusiastically celebrates the power that comes with it” (Banet-Weiser 2007, 334).  For example, children’s programming on Nickelodeon features many independent female characters who serve as great role models for young children on shows such as As Told by Ginger and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

However, the efforts of third-wave feminism have yet to impact how television addresses abortion.  Unlike the personalities of television characters, abortion is a much more complex issue.  Abortion is so stigmatized that it is not even discussed realistically on television programming.  This stigma, “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks the, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood,” reinforces traditional ideas about gender and motherhood (A. Kumar et al. 2009, 4).  Pro-choice advocates argue that a woman has the right to make decisions in her own best interest and control her body.  This problematizes sexist notions of female dependency and women as property.  If a woman has the right to choose, it indicates that she is a fully autonomous being that cannot be controlled by another individual (i.e. a man) because of her alleged inferiority.  This challenges the very core of patriarchy, which may explain why there is such controversy; addressing abortion would be like opening Pandora’s box.  Rather than explaining the countless reasons why a woman would have an abortion, such as lack of financial or emotional support, television continues to perpetuate myths and social stigma in its representation, or lack thereof, of abortion on television programming targeted towards teenagers.

MTV’s 16 and Pregnant began airing in 2008 and has already completed two seasons.  Each episode documents the pregnancy of a sixteen year-old woman and the hardships she encounters.  In one episode, a high school student, Lizzie, realizes she is pregnant and ultimately drops out of high school to raise her child.  She was counting on her boyfriend for emotional and financial support until she realized he had been cheating on her.  Most episodes follow a similar plot line and address some sort of hardship associated with teen pregnancy: students’ educations are jeopardized, families do not have enough money to support the child and must work multiple jobs, relationships are strained, etc.  Choosing to go through with an unwanted pregnancy is a very serious decision and this show does a great job at teaching the audience about the potential consequences.

However, the show never mentions abortion as a possibility.  This so-called reality television program ignores the reality of millions of women.  The “absence of teens who choose abortion in 16 and Pregnant feels like a dismissal of so many young women’s experiences” (Valenti 2010, 1).  In response to Valenti’s critique of the show, Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, said “showing a teenager who had an abortion would trivialize the post-abortion problems many women face because such problems often take years to materialize” (Ertelt 2010, 1).  First, the “post-abortion problems” that Wright is referring to have been “proven nonexistent” (Levine 2002, 121).  Wright claims that this would also “trivialize” abortion, but does MTV’s representation of teenage pregnancy not trivialize teenage pregnancy and motherhood?    In a sense, 16 and Pregnant glamorizes teenage pregnancy; these young mothers become instant celebrities, but ultimately the realistic aspects of the show outweigh the glamorized representation of motherhood.

Wright later goes on to say these producers are aware that documenting an abortion would not be appealing to viewers.  Wright’s theories are not well-supported and her claims are inapplicable.  Abortion is often addressed in documentary films and on private television channels.  These programs attract substantial numbers of viewers who are not turned away by the image of an abortion.  For example, HBO’s hit show Six Feet Under featured a character who terminated her pregnancy because “it was the right thing to do for her; she wasn’t prepared to be a parent” (Raber 2005, 3) The key difference here lies in the networks on which these shows are aired.  On HBO, “there are no advertisers to offend and subscribers known the kind of content they are paying to watch” (Raber 2005, 3).  The fact that this show is able to attract and keep an audience, despite addressing abortion in a positive light, indicates that abortion would not invoke the negative response that producers claim to fear.  In fact, abortion may be better accepted on cable television because the audience is more diverse.

MTV’s decision to not address abortion is particularly interesting because of their recent decision to partner with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy.  This organization is dedicated to ensuring that all children are born into families that are able to support them.  This indicates that MTV wants to promote responsibility and accountability, both for itself and for its viewers.  However, by disregarding the importance and reality of abortion, MTV fails to live up to the standards it sets for itself.  Instead of discussing abortion, MTV’s 16 and Pregnant attempts to tackle the issue of comprehensive sex education.  Like MTV, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy acknowledges that comprehensive sex education can help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, which would also reduce the need for abortion.  However, these organizations differ in that MTV does not address the prevalence of abortion.  Instead,  “There’s a PSA or two about abstinence and contraception with every episode,” but these messages conflict with the commercials that advertise “for ‘The Hills’ and ‘Jersey Shore'” (Seltzer 2010, 2).  In reunion episodes featuring different teenagers from the season, the host stresses the importance of contraceptive use.  However, he does not go into much depth about how to properly use these contraceptives.  In cases of unwanted pregnancy, the problem is often user failure “resulting from incorrect or inconsistent use” (SIECUS 2010, 1).  Although the show does not need to restructure itself in order to bring about positive chance, comments describing how to use contraceptives correctly could be very effective in achieving their goal of reducing unwanted pregnancy.  This show could become a vessel for comprehensive sex education but is more concerned with the negative reactions that could arise if and when they take a political stance; this is ironic because MTV has historically been open to matters of female sexuality and sexual pleasure, and has taken on the role of an educator on issues of sexuality.  It is important to recognize that the channel needs to be balance education with entertainment in order to attract viewers, but as other shows have managed to do this in the past, this concern seems unnecessary.  When MTV has partnered with the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, it made itself responsible for providing viewers with an accurate education about sexual and reproductive health.

Unlike MTV, ABC Family was quick to take a stance on abortion.  On The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Amy, a fifteen-year old high school student has sex for the first time with a boy she hardly knows.  Later, Amy confides in her friends and tells them she is pregnant.  One friend suggests having an abortion but Amy is strongly against the idea; her response indicates horror and disgust.  Not only does this isolate viewers who have had abortions, but it teaches the audience that abortion is not the right choice.  Although Amy is entitled to an opinion, her strong, negative response sends out a very clear message: abortion is not the answer.  Amy’s reaction could be explained as a personal decision on the part of the writers, but there is more to it than that.  This program airs on ABC Family, which is owned and operated by the Walt Disney Company.  This company is known for being founded upon conservative, Christian values, which ultimately influences the content of their networks’ television programs.  Because Christianity considers abortion to be a sin comparable to murder, it cannot be portrayed in a favorable manner without the risk of upsetting Christian viewers.  In this case, the personal politics of the company skew the way that abortion is portrayed.  On The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Amy becomes the medium for communicating the pro-life political agenda.

Although anti-choice messages are popular on cable television, a few shows have challenged the social stigma.  The O.C. was a popular drama that aired from 2003 to 2007.  At the end of the first season, one of the show’s characters, Theresa, was pregnant but unsure who the father of the baby was because she had been sleeping with two men. When speaking with one of the possible fathers, Theresa says, “‘You’re not ready for this.  I’m not ready for this.  I cant do this.’ Later, she asserted, ‘I make $11 a day in tips.  Not having this baby makes the most sense” (Aurthur 2004, 3)  It seemed as though television was finally taking a realistic approach to the issue of abortion, but this ultimately did not happen.  Theresa turned to an adult on the show for guidance and the character’s “melancholy about her own, long-ago abortion” caused Theresa to change her mind (Aurthur 2004, 3).  The show’s creator, Josh Schwartz, justifies this plot twist by saying it would not have added much value to the show.  He refers to abortion as “complicated,” “messy,” and “a scary topic” (Aurthur 2004, 3)  Ironically enough, he identifies as pro-choice.  He cites the audience’s potentially strong reactions as a reason to support his decision.  Even within the pro-choice community, there is great reluctance to discuss abortion on television.

For the most part, television programs that target a teenage demographic do not provide accurate, unbiased information about abortion.  However, one show in particular stands out among the others: Degrassi: The Next Generation.  Unlike the other examples, this show is originally filmed in Canada and shown on both Canadian and American networks, most notably The N.  A two-part episode of the program was filmed in which Manny, one of the show’s main characters, had an abortion while in high school.  These episodes were aired in Canada but were censored by PBS and never shown on the N. (Newcombe 2004, 675).  Episodes of Degrassi often address complex issues, including murder, teen pregnancy, and gay bashing.  These topics were all acceptable for American audiences; the only topic that was deemed inappropriate was abortion.  This points to the “cultural differences between the United States and Canada” (Newcombe 2004, 675).  Unlike in the United States, Canadian media appears to be much more open-minded in its representation of different perspectives and political issues.

American media does not shy away from the other controversial topics mentioned earlier, or even issues such as violence and sexual abuse.  Although many arguments have been made which support the decision to avoid addressing abortion on television, they do not address the root of the problem.  The influence that the right wing and patriarchy have on American media outweigh the need to address reality.  Ultimately, American’s thoughts about abortion are being shaped by conservative and/or religious people in power.  Television could be a wonderful medium for education about matters of sexual and reproductive health but cannot do so without challenging the hierarchal structure of American society.


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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Condoms Contraceptives
    Jun 05, 2010 @ 02:13:01

    Part of the reason teenagers are so blaise about pregnancy and STDs is that there appear to be simple solutions.


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