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Monday, July 19, 2004

Television censorship

The NY Times had a pretty decent article about the portrayal of abortion on television, an issue that always bugs me.  On TV, it seems like abortion mostly doesn't exist, and if it does, it's never actually used.  And, on the rare occasion that the option is actually undertaken, the writers take great pains to make sure that it's portrayed "ambigiously", which is to say that they take pains not to offend the religious right. 
So, when unplanned pregnancy enters the picture on TV, good writing flies out the window.  On "That 70's Show" recently, a character was set up as her class valedictorian, bright, independent, aware, ambitious, and well-read.  She had sex with Kelso (hey, it happens--no problem there), blew him off (understandable), but then found she was pregnant. And while I understand that it's a light, fluffy, silly comedy show, it was impossible to ignore the option that the writers were carefully ignoring.  They were pretty much asking the audience to accept not only that a girl like that wouldn't even consider an abortion, but that no one around her thought of it either.  And that no one even seems to know that abortion is available just a few years after Roe vs Wade.  I guess they just didn't watch "Maude".
This article is pretty good--they point out that we've regressed in our ability to deal realistically with abortion since the famous episode on "Maude".  They mentioned my pet peeve--characters who consider having one, but chicken out, leaving the viewers with the impression that having an abortion is the scariest thing possible, and far scarier than being a single teenager mother.  Like on "The O.C."
Later, she asserted: "I make $11 a day in tips. Not having this baby makes the most sense." But then, after speaking to an older character who was melancholy about her own, long-ago abortion, Theresa retracted her decision. "As hard as it is to imagine having the baby," she explained to Ryan, "I can't really imagine not having it."
The writer, Kate Aurthur (what a great last name for a writer!) doesn't mention my other pet peeve--the character who considers having one and then not and is spared by a miscarriage.  Or it turns out she wasn't pregnant at all, which is more common on the shows I see lately.  But it's a short article, and not the place for a history of unplanned pregnancy on TV.
But Aurthur does fall down on the job, because she obviously called up the writers on various shows and didn't challenge them on some of the more ridiculous things they said or wrote into the shows.  Like this:
The episode ended with the doctor who performed the abortion going to church: "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he confesses to a priest. About his choice to end the episode that way, Mr. Berlanti said, "For me it wasn't the punctuation mark of the show."
Is that so?  If it wasn't the punctuation mark of the show, then why end the program with it? Perhaps Mr. Berlanti is into some sort of nouveau punctuation, but the rest of, including no doubt every single person who watched that episode, would assume that the last scene on the episode was it's punctuation mark.
I also wish she would have challenged Josh Schwartz, who created "The O.C.", about this:
Mr. Schwartz chose not to use the word "abortion" in the season finale. Characters spoke about "an appointment at Planned Parenthood" and trailed off at the ends of sentences.
Not only is that weaselly, it sounds like he's reinforcing the already widely spread misbelief that Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics are one and the same.  Schwartz may be pro-choice as the day is long, but not only did he pander to the religious right by punting a chance to have a character actually have an abortion, he played right into the hands of anti-contraception forces by accepting one of their favorite tactics of equating a birth control clinic with an abortion clinic.
The other article in the Sunday Times also dodged the important questions of what and why about the new enthusiasm for television censorship.  This article brainlessly repeats the contention that it's the portrayal of sex and violence that are under attack, an assertion that doesn't hold up under the examples that they list of things that were cut from programs.   Every example of something cut is either a naughty word or is about sex.  And all the sexual stuff that was cut makes it clear that sex isn't the problem--portrayals of sexual activity outside heterosexual intercourse, and even then only from the perspective of men, is the problem.  Things that were censored include implied masturbation, a shot of an elderly woman's breast, a man dressed as a woman, and tellingly, a female character's orgasm was cut while the male character's was approved. 


Blogger Earnest said...

If you were writing a sitcom, how would you handle the abortion issue? You have two acts. In the first you set up a situation and then in the second carry it out to its resolution. I can't imagine a way to end a comedy with a realistic portrayal of an abortion. It's much easier to use any other resolution because abortion is too sobering. One thing that I would add is that for all the "Ground breaking" Norman Lear did with his sitcoms in the 70's, how many were actually funny? The funniest of the Learcoms were the ones that went furthest away from dealing with actual "issues": One Day at a Time and Sanford & SonIn a dramatic show, you do have more room to deal with issues like abortion, but how are you going to integrate abortion, especially as a focal point, into your story without either giving it short shrift or completely turning off your audience? Well, I think you do that by presenting the issue as ambiguous-- the way Law & Order has done so many times.

Really, the only forum, in my opinion, for dealing with abortion in television is the soap opera. The soap opera's ability to accomodate vast, longitudinal stories makes it the most appropriate venue for dealing with the complexities of abortion. It makes sense, when you consider that, that Degrassi would do an abortion storyline where someone actually has an abortion. Degrassi really does deal with a lot of contemporary issues in an entertaining way. I love that show.


Blogger Amanda said...

Well, I don't think a teenage girl who was her class valedictorian giving up her ambitions to go to college so she can have a baby is thigh-slapping comedy, either. Comedy is about people, not space aliens from the Planet Baptist, and if you can't write about people as they are and make it funny, sitcom writing isn't the career for you. And people, as they are, have abortions or at least consider them.
One could find the humor in abortion just as easily as one could find the humor in a girl losing her life's ambitions because she didn't get one. And I do think "Maude" is a funny show.


Blogger Elayne said...

I think Maude was a funny show too. There are lots of funny situations you could weave around an abortion clinic. It's just a medical procedure, how many sitcom plots have revolved around a character being in a hospital for the episode? Those situations never show the procedure, they just have wacky stuff happen before or after the procedure.


Blogger Earnest said...

Alayne, I think that the larger point is that these shows tiptoe around abortions, so having an episode take place in the waiting room of an abortion clinic without there being an abortion really doesn't fix the situation.

Comedy may be about people, in general, but the sitcom is based on situations. It's name is derived, after all, from Situation Comedy. It's not that I don't think that funny abortion-related situations exist; I just don't think they integrate well into the average sitcom. These sorts of things just don't work, and those kinds of episodes of shows just seem forced. Remember the epilepsy episode of Diff'rent Strokes, the alcoholism episode of Family Ties, or even the episode of Saved By the Bell where Zach is supposed to go to the dance with an overweight girl?

An episode where a main character contemplates abortion can be funny, but for the character to actually have one? You are heading straigt to sobriety, my friends. Some sitcoms are able to accomodate abortions-- Roseanne might have been able to handle it; as a topic for TV, though, I really feel it is better suited to a multi-episodic story format like a soap opera than a twenty-two minute sitcom. (Can you imagine Jay Leno attempting to make a joke about abortion? It would go over as well as one about rape).


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