I remember watching Sex and the City for the first time a little over a year ago. Having heard so much about it, but never having actually watched an episode, it only seemed fitting that I follow in the footsteps of my sex-positive, feminist foremothers and do the same. When (spoiler alert) workaholic Miranda finds out that she is pregnant from a one night stand with her ex-boyfriend, she takes a beat, and decides to schedule an abortion. When she gets to the doctor’s office though, she decides not to go through with it, something her friend Charlotte celebrates later when they are back at her apartment.
Now, the show did its job in the sense that it did normalize abortion by nothing less than granting its leading ladies Carrie and Samantha a past with it- something Samantha mentions with absolute nonchalance over brunch. The four women have different attitudes toward the issue, but ultimately do not pass judgement on one another for whatever decision they make regarding their own reproductive rights (Charlotte maybe not so much, but she does to an extent). What bothered me about the episode though, was that Miranda, so unenthusiastic about being pregnant, so unentangled and contented with her pre-conception situation, would make the “safe choice” by not going through with her abortion at all. Yes, fine, being pro-choice I understand that the issue is a lot more nuanced than it might appear, and that pregnancy and being pregnant are completely valid options that should always remain unwaveringly supported- but why is this such a TV trope? Why do they never go through with their abortions on screen? It makes me feel a little bit like the idea of a safe, properly represented procedure on a show is near impossible to find because people still do not feel comfortable watching a character make a choice like that and still root for them, relate to them.
On television as much as in real life, it feels like we still do not talk about or normalize the question of abortion as much as we should. Pop culture has failed us, but maybe this has something to do with the fact that pop culture merely reflects a depressing reality- we might claim to be progressive, but are we actually? Why is a woman making a choice about her body and her life still so deeply controversial?
When I say that pop culture’s representation of abortion (or lack thereof) reflects reality, to no extent am I implying that abortion never happens, that it does not exist, and that when it does it is inherently dangerous and morally taunting. I mean that pop culture shows the puritanical thought process we have in relation to the things around us. The “A word” goes unmentioned in our sexual health and education classes, it remains heavily stigmatized in certain situations, and whenever it pops up in movies, somehow the pregnant 18-year-old with no financial security, a whole life planned ahead of her, an acceptance to the college of her dreams and is a prima ballerina to boot, always goes through with it even though she really doesn’t want to.
In real life I have found these discussions to be radically different from the way I see them represented. Let’s draw a parallel- Gilmore Girls is a good one. Now anyone that is acquainted with the show knows that the protagonist, Rory, is a young woman who goes from being a teenager in high school to finishing her university degree at Yale about 7 seasons after. One of her best friends, Lane, is her same age, recently having emancipated herself from an overtly strict Seventh Day Adventist home where her well-meaning (albeit terrifying) mother kept her under severe restrictions for years. In the seventh season, Lane decides that her upbringing has made it so that she does not feel comfortable having sex without being married to her boyfriend first, so he proposes (problematic in itself in its depictions of hurried, un-thought-out marriage for physical reward-perhaps a topic for another article). When they do get married, she returns from her honeymoon to tell Rory some dreadful news- the sex was terrible. So bad that she tells Rory she never really wants to do it again. She’s not even convinced that she likes her marriage at all after the absolute shit show that goes down when she’s away with her new husband. Miserable, with a stomach bug, and deeply cynical, Lane then finds out the cherry on top of the cake: she’s pregnant.
Now, Lane is a young woman defined by being the ultimate rebel, a force of nature that left her mother’s home so that she could focus on her rock ‘n roll music career alongside her band members. So when she brings up her very unwanted and unexpected pregnancy, why does Rory (who has a “stop the war on choice” poster up in her dorm room) not bring it up? Why is it expected and uncontested for Lane to keep a child (we later find out they’re actually twins), and more importantly, why do two progressive, self-labelled feminist, educated, young women not even consider it as a choice?
If I had been in Lane or Rory’s place, I know that would not have been the case, just based on the conversations that the people around me have had over the years. I have been there for pregnancy scares, actual pregnancies, abortions, etc., and the first question asked to a young person who is clearly scared about their situation, not in a stable, loving relationship with any kind of financial security, is always whether they are sure they wish to go through with it at all.
Why can’t television ever be honest about the fact that though, yes, people do slip up and pregnancy does happen, that leaving it unquestioned rarely ever does? Even in places where the procedure is offered legally, the discussion is not yet normalized.
All that I can do is think back to Gloria Steinem’s effort through Ms. Magazine, the publication that she kickstarted in the 70s- with the words in bold scrawled across two pages: “We have had abortions.” She put a list of 53 well-known women who were pushing for easy access to reproductive healthcare who came forward to share their stories. Hundreds of thousands of copies sold around the US, showing that women did and do want to see content where they see their realities accurately portrayed. We shouldn’t be scared to see abortion represented in healthy ways, we should be able to empathize with a protagonist who does indeed go through with their abortion, and above all else, we need to hear the voices of women who very desperately want someone to speak to them and for them. Pregnancy isn’t irreversible and it shouldn’t be something which you are doomed to go through with. Pregnancy is a choice- we need to see it represented that way.
Art by Sophie Dickson