Abortion on TV: New Girl vs Girls

26 Apr

A guest post from Sarah.

In the last week, much ink has been spilt over the new HBO comedy Girls. Many of these critiques, from questions about lack of diversity to nepotism in the casting process, are legitimate, and in the case of the former, important to keep talking about. However, Girls is unlike anything else currently airing in its frank discussion of abortion. In a pop culture landscape riddled with “schmashmortions,” hearing a group of friends talk honestly and humorously about abortion is a pretty daring act.

In its second episode that aired last Sunday night, Hannah, Marnie and Shoshanna meet at the clinic where their friend Jessa is scheduled to have an abortion. Jessa is late to the appointment (“These things never start on time,” she says to the bartender, needing a drink before she heads to the clinic), leaving Marnie, who scheduled the appointment to get angry. “You’re a really good friend,” Hannah mollifies Marnie,  “… and you’ve thrown a really lovely abortion.” Earlier in the episode, Hannah’s sorta-boyfriend Adam registers his disapproval that she’s accompanying a friend to an abortion, or at least what he perceives as her nonchalance about the abortion. Hannah’s response? “Uh, what was she supposed to do? Have a baby and then take it to her baby-sitting job?” Adam is appropriately chastened.

Towards the episode’s end, Jessa seems to suffer a miscarriage ex machina (or possibly, just gets her period, having never been pregnant). This might seem like a copout, and this being only the second episode, we don’t know enough about the character to say otherwise. Perhaps Jessa is the type of person who wouldn’t take a pregnancy test before scheduling an abortion but we don’t know the character well enough yet. But even if the ending of Jessa’s pregnancy is a copout, we still got close to thirty minutes of frank discussion of abortion. Which means Girls has given us, oh, twenty-seven more minutes of abortion talk than any other show this year, even shows that purport to be about the lives of women.

Take, for example, Fox’s New Girl, starring Zooey Deschanel. New Girl is actually something of a network television sibling of Girls. Both were created by screenwriting wunderkinds (Elizabeth Meriwether of New Girl, Lena Dunham of Girls) and both premiered to huge hype that highlighted their hip, young sensibilities. And on a recent episode of New Girl, a character was also forced to contemplate a possible unplanned pregnancy. The main character’s best friend CeCe thought she might be pregnant from her casual, no-strings-attached relationship with Schmidt. Obviously, I don’t expect network television shows to included honest discussions of abortion; I do expect half-hearted lip service, payed mostly via euphemisms.New Girl couldn’t even do that. In the course of the episode, before it was revealed that the character wasn’t actually pregnant, the only choices discussed were baby names, whether Schmidt would propose to a woman he’d never been on an actual date with and who’d be godfather.

No one would ever accuse New Girl of being grounded in realism; most of my criticisms of the show in general stem from its insistence on making Jess a child-like cartoon. An earlier episode centered around her inability to say the word ‘penis,’ and no functioning adult believes that unironically shouting “Hey, Sailor,” in a bar will get you laid. From what we can tell of Girls (again, only two episodes in) the show’s decision to treat adult women as, well, adults is paying dividends with stories like Jessa’s aborted abortion.

However, New Girl’s obfuscation may indicate a new normal, where not only is saying the word abortion is off the table, but even implying it is. That makes Girls, miscarriage copout and all, that much bolder. I think pro-choice audiences are allowed to have high standards when it comes to the pop culture they consume. In recent years, several TV shows have demonstrated it is possible to portray abortion in a nuanced light (Friday Night Lights and Grey’s Anatomy have both done this well). We should continue to demand stories that honestly portray the experiences of women across the spectrum of reproductive choice. But I think we should be appreciative when a show (even a flawed one) demonstrates an honesty we’d otherwise go without.

 Sarah lives in Boston and volunteers with Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund. You can follow her on twitter @SBHudson108.

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