While the political battle over abortion has hardened into a seemingly intractable stalemate, the pro-life side of the issue can take some small comfort in the fact that, at least on the cultural front, abortion remains a hard sell.
To be sure, secularized liberals whose support for abortion remains an article of faith almost wholly occupy the strategic high ground – the movie studios and production houses, performing arts and publishing. Even so, it still remains almost impossible to make abortion appealing, or the decision to have one entirely free of a lingering tragic note in a movie or TV show.
Call it the “Juno rule,” if you will, after the 2007 Oscar-winning film that probably did more to undermine the image of Planned Parenthood than many pro-life strategies, and probably contrary to the convictions of the filmmakers.
Another skirmish erupted on this front recently, when the NBC primetime drama Parenthood put an abortion squarely at the crux of one of the show’s story arcs. As in any stalemate, both sides quickly snapped to their defensive positions on either side of the issue.
Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards tweeted that she thought the show was “refreshing,” while Dan Gainor of the Culture and Media Institute attacked it: “There’s no discussion of life, of faith or any of the true arguments not to take the innocent baby’s life,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “All in all, exactly how Hollywood has twisted every major national issue for decades.”
The show itself doesn’t conform to either viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean it’s either challenging or sophisticated. Parenthood, which debuted on NBC in 2010 and is roughly based on a 1989 Steve Martin film, centers around three generations of the Braverman family in Berkeley, California, and each episode manages to pack into more drama and incident into two or three days of their lives than most families could expect in a very trying year.
The controversial episode juggles several storylines, one of which concerns Drew (Miles Heizer), a teenage boy who has gotten his girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) pregnant – the baby’s conception was accidentally witnessed by Mark, one of Drew’s high school teachers and the ex-boyfriend of his mother, Sarah (Lauren Graham). She wants to get an abortion while he wants her to think about other options, insisting that whatever she does he wants to support her.
They visit a Planned Parenthood facility together, whose “friendly, antiseptic” atmosphere Gainor of the Culture and Media Institute criticizes for being depicted “minus all the controversies that plague its baby-killing operation in real life.” To be fair, a Planned Parenthood office in an upscale neighbourhood like Berkeley would probably be a pristine, flagship operation, but despite the serene staff and professional atmosphere, the young couple’s time there comes across as purgatorial, a room full of young women sitting in silent misery, one of whom bolts for the door.
The show’s general tone is high-style melodrama, the actors emoting perfervidly, the script full of a surprising amount of raw language that seems to have bled into network programming from cable. Even for someone who grew up in the ‘70s, it’s startling to realize that a TV program called Parenthood, airing in prime time on a major network, is nowhere near a family show.
There’s not a lot of emotional truth to shows like this – characters are written to voice a few key character traits, and dialogue is written to either grind out exposition or showcase writerly style. But if you can be certain of one thing, it’s that Hollywood scriptwriters would have a decent take on the sorts of attitudes prosperous white liberals like the Bravermans, living in a liberal mecca like Berkeley, would hold without questioning.
So it’s no shock that Amy stubbornly insists that having a baby will be the end of her young life, or that she quietly decides to avail herself of Planned Parenthood’s services without consulting her parents, who have likely raised their daughter to believe that the pro-choice stance was not only the default position, but the only one acceptable to people in their position.
But since Amy is a secondary character, it’s her effect on Drew that we’re supposed to watch, and as she begins emotionally distancing herself from him – the sort of shutting down that’s not uncommon to women who undergo abortions – he reels from the rejection, not just of him as a boyfriend but as a potential father. Pro-life credo holds that the child isn’t the only victim of an abortion – the mother is as well, but also the father, whose role is not only marginalized but negated, even if, like Drew, they try to be supportive of a decision they might not support.
Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards might have called the episode “refreshing,” but I only saw anguish, a take echoed by pro-life blogger Jill Stanek, who reviewed the show frankly: “Refreshing? I saw a lot of heartbreak. I saw a lot of crying.”
There’s a cynicism to a show like Parenthood, whose need to redline crisis weekly means they mine hot-button topics like abortion without examining the issue. But even in abortion-friendly Hollywood they can’t spin the fact of abortion without acknowledging that it has consequences, and that for any halfway sensible person, they’re dire. As for us, on the other side of the trenches, it’s cold but certain comfort that abortion remains a dangerous weapon whose brute realities ultimately backfire on anyone who tries to ignore them.