My first exposure to abortion was the ’80s movie “Dirty Dancing” — not a health class or a Sunday in church, but a movie. If you’ve seen it you know the scene. If not, one of the characters finds out she’s pregnant. A few scenes and exchanges of cash later, she is found sick in her bed from some sort of infection from a “back-alley doctor.” The word “abortion” is never stated; it is simply implied. I didn’t even fully grasp what had happened to the girl until I watched it years later as a teen who could finally put the pieces of the puzzle together.
“Dirty Dancing” is set in 1963 — 10 years before the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion — when back-alley abortions like this were the norm in states where the procedure was illegal. Fast forward to 2019, nearly 50 years after Roe v. Wade: Conservative states have launched an orchestrated attack on abortion, making it a felony, banning it after a fetal heartbeat is detected (usually around six weeks, before most women even know they’re pregnant) and even leaving out exceptions for rape or incest.
With a conservative lean on the Supreme Court, these restrictive laws are looking to put Roe v. Wade back on the table and ultimately overturn it. I’m not writing to explain why overturning the legalization of abortion would be disastrous for anyone with a uterus — bodily autonomy and freedom from government-mandated pregnancies should not even be a question. Yet here we are, on the brink of a return to coat hanger abortions and telling 51 percent of the U.S. population that their choice doesn’t matter. But I want to talk about pop culture.
Pop culture is often an individual’s first exposure to varying ideas. Whether it’s a song, show, movie or play, pop culture allows someone to look outside the bubble they live in and into a world they have not yet seen. Prior to and following “Dirty Dancing,” abortion has been a plot line or topic addressed in a multitude of movies and TV shows alike. Despite this exposure, abortion is still a taboo word, inciting heated debate wherever it is brought up. Yet, dancing around the concept of abortion — why people choose it, how it makes them feel, who gets them — does no good for the discussion of it. Abortion is treated like a dirty word, not a medical procedure that about one quarter of women will undergo. To improve the conversation about abortion, we must normalize it to show, through widely consumed media, that abortion is not just its myths and falsifications.
Perhaps the first radical portrayal of abortion was broadcasted in 1972 on the CBS show “Maude” starring Bea Arthur (“Golden Girls”). After discovering she’s pregnant, Maude talks with her husband and they decide they do not want to raise a child at their age. In New York where Maude lives, abortion is legal, so she gets the procedure; thus inciting over 7,000 letters of protest to CBS. For its time period, the way abortion was depicted in “Maude” was revolutionary. It features an honest discussion with a partner and reasoning for the choice, all done a year before abortion was nationally legal. More modern media like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” show abortion as the option only “bad people” choose.
Obviously, I cannot force all media creators to cast abortion in a pro-choice light, but for those who have or want to — like the makers of “Scandal,” “Girls,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin” and others — they should at least do it right. And that’s not to say those shows haven’t. They’ve shown abortion casually, as a difficult choice, surgically, medically, as a single woman, as a married woman and more. This is what abortion is, in reality, and that can be expanded. Some of the most popular shows in America are medical and family shows; shows that have the potential to actually make an impact and start a conversation.
And they can do even more. They can show more low-income women getting abortions, as this is the main demographic; or show a devoutly religious person getting an abortion — as many do — and highlight that religion should not inhibit choice; or don’t make abortion into such a tragedy, because taking control of your body is not tragic and most women feel relief after an abortion; or show how men benefit from abortion, because that seems to be necessary when trying to get people to care about something; or even better, maybe the people of the United States can create comprehensive sex education for students to prevent these unwanted pregnancies and talk about abortion loudly instead of in hushed whispers. It shouldn’t be up to “Dirty Dancing” to teach kids about abortion, and it shouldn’t be up to the government to decide if you can get one.
Samantha Della Fera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.