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How TV created inaccurate perceptions about abortion

  • Vox

    "For decades," says Tanya Melendez, "abortion on television was largely depicted as a debate in narrative form, one that pitted melodramatic anti- and pro-abortion rights stances against each other through characters audiences knew and loved. Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, researchers at the University of California San Francisco, argued in 2014 that, over time, these narratives collectively created 'common cultural ideas about what pregnancy, abortion, and women seeking abortion are like.' The result, according to Sisson and Kimport, was an inaccurate picture of who seeks abortions, and why. Fictional abortions were also overdramatized. From the origins of television all the way through the past decade, overwhelmingly male TV writers created plot lines that framed abortion as a moral issue, amping up conflict for maximum emotional journeys. It isn’t hyperbolic to say that television significantly changed the way America understood abortion and, as a result, deeply influenced public policy. Andrea Press, a communications professor who documented this relationship in a 1991 study, concluded that 'when the moral language adopted by television differs from that of viewers, television viewing influences viewers to adopt its terms.' The medium is not a passive bystander in our social debates; it is an active participant, shaping attitudes and action. In other words, the stories we see on TV help create who we are." As Melendez points out, abortion was rarely depicted before 1980: "From the first broadcast in 1928 through 1980, only two abortions seem to have happened in all of primetime television," says Melendez. "The Defenders was the first series to mention abortion, although the procedure did not include a main character. Then, in 1972, came Maude." But, she adds, "the 1980s saw an increase in television that embraced more realistic storytelling, bolstered by eager audiences and more relaxed social mores. Issues like breast cancer, domestic violence, single motherhood, rape, working life, dating, and abortion were all explored from 8 to 11 pm. But the business of television relied on advertiser support, and programs couldn’t upset their sponsors or their conservative viewers any more in 1982 than they could in 1962. After all, Catholics buy cars, too. Since narratives are driven by conflict, in an abortion plot line writers typically used the choice itself to drive the story. This approach created high-stakes, emotionally driven drama around making the decision and framed having an abortion as the worst possible outcome of pregnancy. It also established an inaccurate profile of a typical abortion seeker by linking the procedure to a particular archetype: typically young, white, and middle-class or affluent women who had no other children and who rarely struggled to find an abortion provider. The real story is vastly different. Many abortion seekers are women of color, religiously affiliated, and already have children, and in recent years most are low-income or below the federal poverty line. That’s not what we saw on our screens. Instead, for roughly 20 years — from 1980 to 2000, with a few early-aughts examples joining in — three major abortion plot lines dominated TV": The “Whew! That was close!” plot, The “ … and baby makes drama!” plot and The “both sides” plot.

    TOPICS: abortion, The Defenders, Maude