Since I began writing this column almost seven years ago, I have had a few mantras – dictums that I’ve thought you can rely on when judging popular culture and its baleful evolution. One is that cheaper usually beats better (as in mp3s or video on cellphones versus high end audio gear and movie theatres). Another is that there’s no such thing as a period film; every film is about the time in which it’s made, almost specifically down to the month.
A third, and one very relevant to this publication, is that abortion will always be repellent to the average person, simply because of the brute facts of what it is and how it’s done. I call it the “Alfie law,” after the 1966 film starring Michael Caine and its (much lesser) 2004 remake with Jude Law. In the original film, the only time Caine’s caddish titular character is rattled and sickened is by the results of an abortion that’s caused by his heedless womanizing; in the remake, the abortion doesn’t even happen, as Alfie’s conquest decides to keep the child but discard him.
For a younger generation, it might as well be called the “Juno rule,” after the 2007 film starring Ellen Page as a pregnant teenager who decides to keep her baby after a disastrous visit to a clinic where she’s treated callously. In 1966, you could still be certain that the majority of the public and most of mainstream culture were opposed to abortion, but by the new millennia, even when public opinion was divided down the middle while a far more liberal media and entertainment establishment was firmly for “pro-choice,” filmmakers still couldn’t chance that an audience would remain sympathetic to a character who’d had an abortion.
Nowadays I’m not so sure. I don’t think there’s been a significant moment where public opinion has been overcome or the entertainment industry has decided to take its chances against audience sentiment, but there are signs that movement, slow but gradual, is going in a very troubling direction.
A month before Christmas, ABC aired an episode of Scandal where main character Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, makes time in her busy schedule as a Washington, D.C. fixer to get an abortion, while her father’s voice intones a warning about how family makes you weak, and a gospel choir sings “Silent Night.” The same episode featured another character, a Republican senator, leading a filibuster against a bill that would have defunded Planned Parenthood.
There was the odd response to the show that suggested that it was ambiguous enough to be regarded as pro-life as much as pro-abortion, but the tone of the public response to the episode was set by Planned Parenthood itself, who released a statement the same night stating that it showed “millions of people” that “our rights to reproductive health care are under attack.”
“We applaud (Scandal creator) Shonda Rhimes tonight — and every Thursday night – for proving that when women are telling our stories, the world will pause and watch. We just hope those in Congress — and throughout the nation — who are steadfast on rolling the clock back on reproductive health care access are taking note.”
It was a typically “on-message” statement from the organization, framing abortion as a “reproductive health” issue. Never mind that Olivia Pope’s character’s health wasn’t at all threatened by her pregnancy as much as her lifestyle and career were – the baby’s father was “Fitz” Grant, the Republican U.S. president in the show.
Rhimes and Planned Parenthood have chosen their scenario well; the most vocal public apologists for abortion-as-birth-control have been career women and comfortably middle class mothers. Barely two months after the episode of “Scandal” aired the Center for Reproductive Rights released a video featuring seven actresses reading positive stories from women who’ve had abortions.
It was hardly a star-studded cast of names, but they were drawn from TV shows and movies that would resonate with both young women and the viewers of critically applauded programs and quality cable – The Leftovers, Orange Is The New Black, Parks and Recreation, Pitch Perfect 2, House of Lies, Fear the Walking Dead, and, yes, Scandal. So while the Center for Reproductive Rights wasn’t able to get any A-listers to jeopardize their careers by coming out as an abortion advocate, the video did show that if you’re on the sorts of shows that the industry esteems, you can become a public face of the pro-abortion movement with impunity.
This is not an insignificant message. While unwilling to risk alienating the sorts of huge audiences that Hollywood needs to see profits on their increasingly expensive movie releases, they are taking a calculated risk that television, which has atomized its audience share into smaller, niche market segments, can afford to be more explicit in its social and political messaging, and advocate for still-divisive causes like abortion and potentially carve away further audience share.
It’s not like there isn’t a precedent for it. Canada has even done its little bit to lead the way – back in 2004, a two-part “very special episode” of Degrassi: The Next Generation featured one of its teen ensemble aborting her baby without any apparent regret. Degrassi’s creators had always thrived on hot topics, and must have felt relatively certain that their young audience (and their parents) would have taken Manny’s abortion in stride – just “one of those things” that happen to kids these days, especially in the hyperdramatic Degrassi universe, where more things happen to a dozen kids in a single school in a year than would trouble a whole town in a decade.
Perhaps Hollywood has been emboldened by gay marriage, which has gone from a fringe issue that political candidates would run a mile to avoid to the law of the land in barely a decade. It remains to be seen whether gay marriage and abortion are equivalent, but inasmuch as they’re both issues that the religious right has militated against (with decreasing success) for so long, you can understand why “pro-choice” advocacy in the entertainment industry is feeling a lot braver these days.
In any case, I’m no longer sure that we can rely on the “Alfie law” or “Juno rule” as ironclad and inviolate. Abortion advocates clearly see the finish line in sight, and the pro-life side either needs to learn to fight on unaccustomed new fronts or resign itself to damage control for a long time to