Abortion on Screen: How Film and Television Images Have Changed Over Time | culture

TThe leaked Supreme Court opinion draft that struck down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision protecting a woman’s right to abortion in the United States isn’t official yet, but the ink may be dry, too. At best, Roe will be destroyed to an almost meaningless degree; It is very likely that in June, the ruling will be completely overturned, allowing so-called “operating laws” in 26 states to ban abortion as quickly as possible. The US in 2022 will suddenly resemble the US in 1972, when a handful of states legalized abortion and women sought shadow networks for illegal providers — some questionable and dangerous, others not.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with the consolidation of a conservative majority on the court, and as Roe’s weakness became more apparent, a handful of recent films have focused on the tense days just before legalization. Happening, French director Audrey Diwan’s film based on the memoirs of Annie Ernault is a haunting backup image of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion in 1960s France. (The film, which premiered at Sundance in January, will be released in the UK and hit US cinemas this weekend.) Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, which also premiered at Sundance and will be released widely in October, stars Elizabeth Banks. Late. A 1960s suburban housewife goes from patient to provider within Jane’s Group, a veritable underground abortion network in Chicago. The Janes, an HBO documentary chronicling the history of the Jane group, will premiere in June, possibly coinciding with the court’s final decision.

Culture is not a linear cause and effect, and it is impossible to say how film and television depictions of abortion play into such extreme decline. But they do present an imperfect mirror of a culture in flux—a culture that, unlike the courts and state legislatures, has generally made slow progress toward portraying the reality of abortion, which for many women is safe, uncomplicated, and free of shame. It is a great irony that, as on-screen abortions become less exciting and more realistic, the off-screen landscape of reproductive health care in the United States has become more hostile and skewed with public opinion.

Take, for example, the burgeoning miniature genre of Abortion Road Trip films — a handful of films from the past two years, dissimilar in tone but uniting about a woman’s right to choose, whose plots stem from the difficulties of accessing reproductive health care in the United States. Those films – Natalie Morales’ Plan B, Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely sometimes – were part of a response to a wave of nationwide crackdowns on abortion access that passed in 2019. All three – two comedy-drama friends The dismal — they took the decision of their teenage heroes to get an abortion or, in the case of Plan B, emergency contraception, for granted. Their drama hinges not on internal contradiction, but rather on real, cruel and ruthless obstacles – restrictions on age, travel hours, money, and so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” posing as medical care – to activate their will.

Unlike previous films, which portrayed a post-Ro abortion as more dangerous than it is, both the pre-Ro and the Abortion Road Trip films portray the procedure as clinical, subtle, and non-dramatic. Call Jane includes a real-time action whose steps are repeated; Nagy’s camera swings over metallic instruments, and the calm instructions of the service providers lie on the faces of several women in a relaxed, anxious and resolute state, focusing on the procedure as meticulous and professional medical care. Alex Thompson’s 2019 comedy St. Francis takes a similarly unsentimental approach to medical abortion, an increasingly popular method for American women that barely makes it to the screen. The action isn’t straightforward: We watch 34-year-old Bridget (the film’s writer, Kelly O’Sullivan), abruptly terminate a pregnancy, endure convulsions and blood clots over the course of one evening, and then go on with her life. With all its complexities and contradictions.

Halle Lou Richardson in Not Pregnant.
Halle Lou Richardson in Not Pregnant. Photo: Ursula Coyote/The Associated Press

It is noteworthy that the anti-abortion movement has its own arsenal of personal stories and cinematography, often interconnected with the religious right and the Republican Party. Unplanned, an anti-choice propaganda film, it presented a bloody depiction of a 13-week-old fetus “wringing around and fighting for its life,” says protagonist Abby—a depiction that many medical experts have deemed inaccurate and misleading. The film spread through religious groups, and sold entirely in theaters across the United States, grossing $19 million domestically. The 2021 drama Roe v Wade, a much-delayed production trapped by the conservative, reclusive Hollywood ecosystem, featured several right-wing celebrities including Jon Voight, Stacey Dash and Tomi Lahren.

On the television front, the rise of broadcast and primetime television services helped spread images of abortion as mundane and unapologetic – an aspect of the character’s life rather than her specific trauma. In general, abortion has been one of television’s last frontiers, enough that Kate Orther of The New York Times referred to it in 2004 as “the most persistent taboo on television.” As Tanya Melendez explained for Vox, abortion on TV, up until the mid-2000s with very few exceptions, can be categorized into three main lines: The character considers termination of pregnancy but does not have to confront it because of the abortion or a false positive The woman’s decision is resolved by an assumed maternal instinct; and the “both sides” scheme that places a woman’s choice and those who try to prevent her from equally understandable aspects of a complex moral debate.

There were a few exceptions—the 2010 plot line from Friday Night Lights, for example, is a rare example of an adult helping a teen bypass the restrictions of parental consent in Texas. But things didn’t change much until 2010, when Shonda Rhimes conquered network television and the rise of streaming devices boosted more opportunities for female creative talent and fewer restrictions on content. In Rhimes’s Grey’s Autopsy and Scandal, the main characters undergo abortions—clean, clinical—without emotional distress or asking for permission. The live broadcast, in 2010, saw the rise of what Jezebel called a “cold abortion.” On shows like Claws, Glow, Sex Education, Shrill, Dear White People, Euphoria, and Jane the Virgin and Girls, an abortion is a medical decision that doesn’t derail a character, and is just one of many events in her life. On the other side of the coin under Trump, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Hulu tale imagined a system of forced birth in the United States—a grim reality that many have likened embarrassingly if not inaccurately to the Republican Party’s assault on reproductive rights in the 2000s.

Austin Abrams and Hannah Zell in This is Us
Austin Abrams and Hannah Zell in This is Us. Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Network TV seems to be catching up. The 2021 episode of NBC’s hit This Is Us portrayed a teen abortion as a traumatic event that requires healing, but due to a toxic relationship, not the abortion itself. Writer and executive producer KJ Steinberg told Entertainment Weekly that she wanted the flashback story, which features scenes before and after the procedure, “to reflect the seriousness of the decision without representing it as a life-defining trauma, because it isn’t. The trauma was the abusive relationship.”

This is not to say that on-screen abortion has reached fidelity just as access to it has collapsed. According to a report by Abortion Onscreen, a project run by reproductive health researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, in 2021 television continued to overrepresent white women receiving abortions (68% of images; majority of women in the US get them. They are people). of colours) and underrepresented women who are already mothers (14%, compared to 59% in real life). Both television and film underestimated the limitations many women, particularly poor and people of color, faced in obtaining abortions even with Roe on the books.

Movies and television have undoubtedly shaped our collective understanding of abortion — there is power in revealing, in honest portrayal, in taboo-breaking. But the soft influence unfortunately cannot overturn the Supreme Court ruling. The latest small wave of abortion films looking to the past – Call Jane, Happening, The Janes – can once be seen as a warning, now as a window into a retrograde future. We’ll see how devastating the shock of that will cover the next miscarriage boom on screen.

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