in the United States, films and series are still often irrelevant

The representation of abortion on screen is gaining ground in the United States but is singularly lacking in realism.

This is one of the paradoxes of abortion in the United States. Nearly a quarter of American women will terminate a pregnancy before the age of 45. However, the phenomenon is largely invisible on the screens. Indeed, according to a 2014 study, only three hundred and ten films and series, released between 1913 and 2012, were centered on abortion or approached it in a passing way (among them, the famous dirty dancing). A discrepancy which contributes, according to experts, to reinforce the taboo around this medical practice in society.

Will this change with the revocation of Roe vs Wade, the judgment which made access to abortion a constitutional right across the Atlantic? Interview with Steph Herold, a researcher at Abortion Onscreen, a program at the University of California-San Francisco specializing in the study of representations of abortion on screen.

Is abortion too risky a subject for film and series creators?

Since the birth of Hollywood, there have always been films and television programs about abortion. The first American film to tackle the subject dates from 1916, and the first series, The accused, of the 1960s. Over the last decade, we have witnessed a very marked increase in the number of depictions of abortion, both in cinema and on television. Last year, forty-nine series mentioned it, against thirteen in 2013. The cinema got involved too.

The reasons for this enormous change are difficult to pin down. Several actors, producers and screenwriters explained to me, during interviews, that they wanted to humanize, to normalize this medical experience through fairer representations. But they often come up against the reluctance of the big chains, which fear the reaction of the public and feed this false idea that abortion can only be a depressing subject, or political, whereas it allows to evoke an infinite number stories about sex, love, religion, power, family, death…

Certainly, Hollywood’s series and film writing circles are becoming more inclusive. But the people with the most power are always the same: white, heterosexual men…

Moreover, quantity does not necessarily mean quality…

There are many discrepancies between the way abortion is portrayed in the United States and the reality. First, abortion is an extremely safe procedure, but on television, it appears to be very risky. Misinformed, the general public will see a woman hemorrhaging and dying, and will think the procedure is dangerous and needs to be more regulated.

We also very rarely see the characters encounter obstacles in terminating their pregnancies, whereas in real life, American women have to travel hundreds of miles to get to a clinic, find funding for their trip, take from their work, have their children looked after… Now, some will have to leave their state.

Another difference: in the United States, the typical patient is non-white, lives at or below the federal poverty line, and is already a mother. However, on the screens, we generally see young, well-to-do white women, without children. Finally, medical abortion is largely invisible. This concerns me because more than 50% of abortions in the United States are done by taking pills. With the repeal of Roe vs Wade, this is going to become even more common. So we have to be able to see it on TV. This was the case in the show Station 19, where Vic takes pills, sits on the toilet… Her boyfriend, behind the door, asks her how to support her. Later, they are seen lying on the bed, saying “I love you”. I found that to be a very good model to follow.

Since the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, it has become more risky to obtain abortion pills because they are already illegal in many states. The issue of access will therefore become paramount. I hope content creators will take it up.

Do you expect any changes in the way abortion is going to be shown on screen after the Supreme Court ruling?

There’s a lot of talk in the entertainment community about Hollywood’s role in the coming chapter. There is a tension between wanting to tell a good, entertaining story and conveying messages that encourage the public to have compassion and empathy towards people seeking to terminate their pregnancies. I hope that the horrible political tragedy that we are going through will encourage the decision-makers in the sector to take their responsibilities.

Leave a Comment