Melissa Harris-Perry: On November 14th, 1972, the television sitcom Maude aired the first episode of a groundbreaking two-part series. These episodes see the central character, Maude, a 47-year-old grandmother, discover that she's pregnant, and she decides to have an abortion.
Maude: Just tell me, Walter, that I'm doing the right thing not having the baby.
Walter: For you, Maude, for me, and the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Until then, abortion had barely been mentioned on primetime TV. A little over two months after the Maude episodes originally aired, Roe v. Wade became law of the land. That didn't exactly open the floodgates to abortion storylines on TV, and those that have appeared don't always reflect the reality of abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 62% of women of reproductive age live in states that are hostile to abortion rights. That's up from 49% in the year 2000.
Steph Herold: My name is Steph Herold. I'm a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Steph and her colleagues track abortion storylines on TV. They found that in 2022, just one-third of plot lines portrayed barriers to abortion access. That's the highest it's been since they started this work a decade ago.
Steph Herold: Abortion has really been part of the American cultural lexicon since the start of all the media we've had. In the early TV shows, pre-Roe, what we really saw were depictions of doctors and detectives who would have to save women from these illegal and unsafe abortion providers. Then right before Roe in 1972, we had the classic Norman Lear Maude episode, really the first abortion depiction in primetime that really centered the woman character as the one who was really driving the abortion plot line instead of having a man come to save her.
We really didn't see that kind of thread of abortion being associated with support and empowerment again until the '90s and early 2000s. Really, after Roe, we started to see more depictions of abortion on TV. Some actually more progressive than what we saw later on. We had, in the '80s, movies like Dirty Dancing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High that showed people getting their abortions and having help from either partners or friends or their communities.
Abortion on TV has often reflected what's going on in the politics of the time. In the '90s, we started to see sitcoms focused more on the person having the abortion, but the drama often centered on the will they or won't they aspect. Some shows like Roseanne or Party of Five, a character would decide to have an abortion and then either at the last minute, oops, turns out she's not really pregnant, or decides not to have an abortion.
Other shows like Law and Order or Chicago Hope, ER had these special abortion episodes where they would have the characters act out this disagreement about abortion while in the backdrop, the episode is about clinic protests or a clinic being bombed. That's when we really started to see some of that cultural conflict appear in TV.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm interested, in a context maybe it shows where we often did see, for example, women's sexual liberation. I'm thinking here specifically of Sex in the City. We saw women making use of their sex and sexuality, and yet when it got to the very special episode around Miranda considering an abortion, it is that moment where you flash in and then, boom, she's decided not to. Tell me why that matters. What difference does it make to represent abortion in those ways?
Steph Herold: That's really a thread that we saw in the 2000s where the plot line started to go back to the characters having the abortion as the center of the plot line, except the focus of the drama was on this, will they or won't they? We saw that on Sex and the City. On that Sex and the City episode, I think Samantha talks about having had an abortion, Carrie talks about a past abortion, so in those ones, we only see characters thinking about past abortions with a lot of emotional angst, at least with Carrie.
I think she even goes back to the restaurant where the guy that she has sex with works, she daydreams about what it would have been like. The abortion plotlines of that time really imbued the decision-making itself with a lot of emotionality. I think what that does is convey this false assumption that when considering abortion, it's really a hand-ringing emotional decision for everyone.
Of course, that's the case for some of us, but for many people, the research tells us that when you find out you're pregnant, you kind of know like, "Oh, this is not the right time for this." What's difficult about abortion is actually getting access to it, not making the decision.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Your recent report also shows that abortion is very white, cis-gendered, and heterosexual. Can you say a bit about that?
Steph Herold: Yes, for sure. Over the last decade or so, we've really paid very close attention to the demographics of the characters who get abortions on television versus the real people who have abortions in real life. Like all of television, abortion plotlines tend to misrepresent the reality of who gets abortions. What we see on TV is characters who are white, who are middle class or wealthy, who are not parenting.
We know that the majority of people who have abortions are people of color or parenting. Television really chooses to tell these stories of characters who are whiter and wealthier than their real-life counterparts.
Even though we see more and more television shows that incorporate stories of characters of color, this trend really remains. We saw eight plot lines over the past year that included Black characters who either obtained an abortion or disclosed a past abortion, which is more than we've seen before, but it still is just so under representative of what accessing an abortion looks like. That means that we don't get to see the intersection of how racism, sexism, classism all intersect in this healthcare accessing experience. I think that that's really missing.
What we saw this past year is also very different than years before, is more depictions of barriers to abortion on screen. At the same time, the vast majority of characters who encountered those barriers on screen were white, were middle class, were wealthy, when in real life, the people most impacted by restrictions on abortion care by gestational bans, by outright abortion bans are people of color, are people struggling to make ends meet. Again, it's this misrepresentation, this constructing a reality in which it's very difficult, allegedly, for white people to get access to abortion when that's not what's happening.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, y'all. We have to take a break. More of this conversation in just a moment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. I'm talking with Steph Herold from the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Healthcare Research program. She studies how American television shows have handled abortion plotlines and has looked particularly at how they've handled them since the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade.
Steph Herold: I was really surprised to see that even the Dobbs decision came out in June. Even this past fall, we had quite a few medical and legal dramas that actually took up the Dobbs' decision as part of their plot lines. We had New Amsterdam, Grey's Anatomy, FBI Most Wanted, these legal and medical dramas that I think have a shorter production time than shows that might appear on HBO or Hulu that have, I think, not an expert on that, longer time between script and casting and shooting and production. My guess is we will see much more of that in the years to come, considering it takes so long. I was really impressed that some of those shows took that on so quickly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I can remember immediately after the election of President Barack Obama, there was conversation about how television movies had, in certain ways, laid the groundwork for the election of a Black president by representing presidents in movies and TV shows about other things, but the president would be Black. I'm wondering if you imagine a similar possibility around abortion stories. Do you see it as having a potential policy and political effect?
Steph Herold: Yes, I think that's a huge question. We know that TV helps people make sense of the world, especially entertainment TV. It helps us understand issues like abortion that are often discussed in polarizing ways by politicians instead of personal ways in which we experience it in day-to-day life.
As much as I think both Hollywood and many of us want to assume that there's this direct connection between what we see on TV and how we vote, I think it's much more complicated than that. I know many researchers and advocates like to also point to shows like Will & Grace as really contributing to this cultural shift around LGBT issues and marriage equality in particular. I think it's a really tricky comparison to make both because of how much TV has changed since then.
You mentioned streaming and broadcasting, we just have so much more ways to watch TV and much more TV to watch now. Who watches what programs is much more segregated than it's ever been. If you don't want to watch shows with a conservative message, or with a progressive message, you can pretty easily filter those out. Whereas that wasn't always the case before. I think we just have a lot more to learn about how TV and what we watch impacts the way we feel and think and vote on these things.
One thing that we're trying to understand right now is untangling how TV impacts people's attitudes and knowledge, and behaviors around abortion. What we're finding is it seems like some of these plotlines really increase people's knowledge, especially when there's accurate information conveyed, like how to take medication abortion pills, but it doesn't seem to increase their support for abortion in particular.
We're trying to understand why that is and what factors could we tweak or defer or suggest to showrunners that they could try to move the needle on that. We just have a lot to learn on that front.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Steph Herold is a researcher in the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health Program at the University of California, San Francisco. Steph, thanks so much.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.