On Screen vs. Off Screen: How Representations of Abortion on Contemporary American Television are Challenging the Perfect Victim Trope

By Axum Taylor and Ian Morgan

Introduction

Abortion care is not a new medical practice and may be one of the oldest medical procedures in recorded history. While the topic of abortion is an extremely controversial and sensationalized one in the United States, over the past few decades we have seen an increasing amount of visibility around abortion care and reproductive justice. However, despite this increasing amount of visibility, there is often little diversity we get in narrative or character development for individuals who make the decision to have an abortion. More than this, representations of abortion on-screen frequently misrepresent the reality of abortion off-screen in multiple areas: (1) the characteristics of the people obtaining abortions; (2) the reasons for obtaining abortions; and (3) the results of considering and/or obtaining an abortion. What people see is what people know, so the drastic disproportionate differences between on-screen fictions and off-screen realities are contributing heavily to perpetrating multiple negative stereotypes, such as that of the “Perfect Victim” trope. The Perfect Victim trope is characterized as a young cis gender woman (usually in her late teens to early 20s) typically white, heterosexual, and commonly pregnant due to sexual assault or casual “irresponisible” unprotected sex, and undergos great emotional anxieties as a result of the pregnancy and abortion. This kind of narrative is perceived to be the ‘safe’ way to represent abortion to a divided nation because these stories are percieved to be the most worthy of compassion and empathy from a general audience. Rarely do we see representations of people having an abortion without elements of this media trope. The selected images support forms of contemporary American television that have shown us abortion storylines that dig deeper than the generic Perfect Victim trope.

(1): Identity of People Obtaining Abortions On Screen vs. Off Screen

How Representation of Abortion in Contemporary Popular Culture Differs from Abortion Realities

As abortion care continues to be a significantly politicized issue, the television industry is engaging in the national conversation by offering an increasing amount of narratives focused on abortions. The research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) compiles an annual report documenting how frequently and in what manner abortion was represented on American television that year. ANSIRH’s research – led primarily by researcher Dr. Gretchen Sisson, who studies the representation of abortion in popular culture – is done through content analysis. Content analysis is a method of studying representation by actually counting the number of times something appears in media to determine how frequent it is; in this case, how many times narratives about abortion appeared on contemporary American television. From there, the depiction of these narratives is studied to form a holistic picture of how television is representing abortion. Abortion’s increased significance in national politics has clearly inspired greater representation in popular culture, as the most recent report showed a record high of forty-three discussions and disclosures of abortions on American television shows in 2019 (ANSIRH, 2019). This is a positive change in normalizing abortion, as some of the stigmatization of abortion comes from a perception of secrecy, which in turn comes from people who have had abortions being afraid to disclose this information due to stigma.

2019 Abortion Onscreen Report

However, multiple studies have found that the representation of these abortions differs significantly from the reality of abortion care. For example, according to ANSIRH (2019), a majority (65%) of characters who had abortions were white. This is in stark contrast to reality; according to the latest 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 35% of reported abortions were had by white women (note: this report seems to focus on women who have abortions and does not consider men, non-binary, or otherwise gender-nonconforming people who have abortions), and that the majority of people who have abortions are people of color. Dr. Sisson, one of the primary researchers associated with ANSIRH, found that “characters who have abortions on TV [are] disproportionately whiter, younger, and wealthier than their real-life counterparts” (2015). As an example, one of the most recently praised depictions of abortion in 2019 was in Netflix’s Sex Education character Maeve recieving support from her friends and love interest during and after her abortion experience. However despite its positive portrayal of abortion and support, following this praise there was criticism that this was still a misrepresentation of typical abortion practice. The 2019 Abortion Onscreen Report stated that “… portraying the abortion itself in what looks like an ambulatory surgical center may contribute to unfounded myths about what kinds of facilities can perform abortions”.

Absence of Intersectional Understanding in Abortion Narratives

The misrepresentation of the characteristics of people getting abortions on television touches upon an issue of intersectionality. The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex” and refers to how an individual can hold multiple identities simultaneously that all have various impacts on how that individual gets along in society. One glaring intersectional absence in the representation of abortion on American television is the absence of queer people of color who receive abortions. In fact, only in 2019 did the first representation of a queer person of color discussing a past abortion on American television come in the form of the show The Bold Type

Bustle 

In the episode “The Deep End”, two queer black women, Kat and Tia, disclose to each other how they both have had an abortion in the past. This conversation happened to be groundbreaking, as it was the first ever instance of queer black women discussing abortion on American television. While this is worth celebrating, it is also a reminder that many conversations about abortion lean towards single-issue analyses, such as a queer person getting an abortion or a person of color getting an abortion, and as such intersectional analyses of people who get abortions are rarely explored. Queer representation of abortion would not only contribute to dismantling the “perfect victim trope” but would also emphasize how abortion narratives are not faced exclusively by straight folks.

The Symbolic Annihilation of Trans Men and Nonbinary People in Abortion Stories

George Gerbner in 1976 stated that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” We had extreme difficulty trying to find even one example of an American television show featuring a person who did not identify as a woman disclosing or considering an abortion, and ultimately came up with nothing. The majority of people who obtain abortions are indeed women, but by not including and essentially ignoring the experience of the hundreds of trans men and gender non-conforming individuals who obtain abortions every year, popular culture is taking power away from them and erasing their social existence (Jones, Witwer, & Jerman, 2020). Popular culture’s erasure of trans and gender non-conforming people who also need access to abortion care is signifying of mass media culture’s and society’s understanding (or lack thereof) of trans issues in general. For example, many articles and much research refers exclusively to women as the people who are obtaining abortions. The “perfect victim trope” also tends to frame the debate over abortion care as a women’s issue rather than an issue of reproductive justice. So long as trans men and gender non-conforming or genderqueer individuals continue to be symbolically annihilated in the popular culture landscape, their social existence and experience will similarly continue to be erased in the social landscape. We can only hope that popular culture will soon represent reproductive justice in more inclusive terms and in doing so do justice for trans and nonbinary folks who have been left behind.

Rewire

(2): Reasons for Obtaining Abortions On Screen vs. Off Screen

How Stories of Rape and Incest Have Been Weaponized

Blogspot 

Often when articulating points from the Pro-Choice movement there is a constant reminder to consider cases of rape and incest because they cue “the perfect victim trope” to many audiences; in other words, these cases are used to generate sympathy for the victim as a way to justify an abortion, even though abortion is not necessarily something that needs to be justified. Ultimately, putting characters back into a context where they have lost agency and are pure victims draws sympathy from people who, even if they are otherwise opposed to abortion, understand not wanting to carry an abuser’s child. However, in more recent years we have seen that Pro-Lifers have co-opted this message into representing how even survivors of rape and incest should view the fetus as an independant party from the violation they experienced, regardless of how life-altering a child may be in their life. In the episode “Dearly Beloved” of NBC’s Law & Order: SVU, Detective Benson tries to verbally prevent a survivor of sexual assault from undergoing an abortion because the fetus is “innocent” and should be “loved unconditionally”. Detective Benson morally shamed a young woman she was responsible for legally defending. Detective Benson giving unsolicited advice to this “perfect victim” not only shamed her for her choice but potentially added more trauma to an already difficult situation. While it is important to protect the most vulnerable people contemplating an abortion, being Pro-Choice means respecting anyone else’s choice, without the desire to project your own morality on what they believe is best for them. While a lack of agency is an explicit characteristic of emphasized femininity, to challenge this ideal we must remember that agency within anyone means their ability to control their actions without influence of others.

Erasure of Older Women and Mothers as Pro-Choice

The Guardian 

In Episode 1 of the Netflix Series The Letdown, the protagonist Audrey is facing the internal conflict of hiding her abortion from her husband, mother, and friends. We see Audrey go through this internal battle of shame which tells her that she is a horrible mother for refusing to have another child. Contrary to the common belief that most individuals who seek to terminate an abortion are young women, this is far from the reality. In fact, “about two thirds of women who seek to terminate a pregnancy already have one child” (NAFR, 2007). Traditional images of women seeking an abortion are of a young age or in a personal / professional context where having a child is ‘obvious’ through the perspective of the audience as irresponsible. Passively this is shown through potentially living with parents, working in an industry dependent on your appearance or body’s ability, or not having the immediate resources to care for a child. What this clues the audience to is that the character in fact has no agency, and that the decision is not entirely theirs to make, but the decision expected from the audience. However, once we are shown a woman with pre-existing children and an abundance of knowledge and experience to raise a child, the critical choice to have another child falls entirely back on the woman’s character. Similarly, we readily see older women (above 30) making the choice to terminate their pregnancy. Depictions of older women often portray them as “asexual”, however this form of representation will help dismantle those ideals. To see an independent woman with the resources to have a child, would make a bold statement to the audience that her choice was to prioritize what she feels is best for her, without judgement or reaction from the audience. 

6; Reinforcing Motherhood as Women’s “Divine Purpose” 

BuzzFeedNews

In Episode 5 of Dear White People, undergrad student CoCo spends the episode contimplating whether or not she wants an abortion. Throughout the episode she imagines dropping her daughter off at college, being there for her most memorable experiences, and overall caring for her child happily in the future. Ultimately, in the end of the episode this becomes a metaphor for the experiences she would not like to withhold herself from and finally decides to have the abortion. What I found most interesting about this episode was how her internal dialogue represented the voice of social stereotypes around womanhood that primarily center being a mother as “your greatest success”. Moreover, CoCo finds empowerment and comfort in realizing that in the same way society expects her to take care of her child, she is making the decision to take care of herself and put her desires first. Dismantling prior feminist beliefs that a woman’s most important or respected job, is that of a mother and must be reviered as a gift. CoCo instead shows the distinction between 1st wave and 4th wave feminism, which articulates that a woman’s choice to postpone motherhood to accomplish her own dreams are of equal merit in today’s world. CoCo now becomes an image of the “Perfect Victim” choosing herself, without shaming herself for “not being a good girl”.

(3): Results of Obtaining Abortions On Screen vs. Off Screen

Abortion Fallacy must exist with Regret or Concequence

Buzzfeed

The concept of Emphasized Femininity tells us that women are passive, emotional, in need of protection, and lack agency. These same traits are then expanded when gender performance reinforces that women must behave “classy and nearly asexually”. Any deviance from this social expectation such as having sex is then met with consequence such as an abortion in the eyes of social narrative. Being as though abortion is often seen as consequence for one’s actions, there are more commonly story arcs of pain, anguish, and deep self hatred, like in “13 Reasons Why”’s character Chloe. Chloe, the captain of the cheerleading team (representing the quintessential image of the ideal woman) has made the decision to terminate her pregnancy with her boyfriend, the captain of the football team Zach. Despite representing emphasized femininity and feminine roles, Chloe deviates from the “perfect victim trope” in that she had sex with her boyfriend without protection. However, this misogynistic plotline is then reinforced and has self shame for resulting in pregnancy. After her decision she feels great regret, eventually breaks up with her boyfriend, and transfers schools. On the contrary, many women who undergo an abortion report feelings of relief and any high levels of reported stress and anxiety are highest before the procedure has been done due to the influx of false social expectations. “A percentage of 37.5 of characters who obtained an abortion experienced complications, interventions and / or negative heath consequences. This rate contrasts with the 2.1% of patients who experience complications” (Session, 2017)”. This false stereotype that people end up regretting their abortions is one that is constantly perpetrated by the Anti-Choice movement and further proves the sometimes steep difference in media representation versus reality. 

The Rise of Abortion Memes

Pinterest

While abortion narratives still primarily play out in dramas, comedies have also been incorporating abortion into their narrative. Within the last two years, popular and critically-acclaimed comedies such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Bojack Horseman have featured abortion storylines that suggest support for the Pro-Choice movement. This trend is incredibly important as it serves to further normalize abortion care as a simple facet of average life. It has also helped lead to a recent uproar of abortion / Pro-Choice memes in support of people who are publicly comfortable sharing they would have or have had an abortion. Creating or sharing memes about this topic (which has historically been considered taboo to even discuss) is a truly revolutionary act, because it helps to normalize conversations around abortion in a direct way and challenges the perfect victim trope by allowing people to rewrite the abortion narrative. Mixing this with humor has in many ways helped to eliminate fears and anxieties around abortion, making it an empowering experience that can be entirely centered around what you believe is best for your body and life. With millions of people having the ability to interact and engage with this content freely, there is little pressure from others to share or explain yourself to anyone. This form of contemporary media acts to put the possibility of representation back into the hands of the public, where we can be the representation we need, for each other.

Conclusion

The perfect victim trope was likely not created with ill intentions in mind. In fact, this type of narrative was heavily publicized as a way to justify and pass the historic Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court Decision in 1973’s 3rd Wave of Feminism. Many women found it strategically easier to convince men in political administrative positions that women most in need of this human right were women viewed as vulnerable and “worthy” of protection. Anti-abortion legislation became the most cruel punishments for “perfect victims” in the eyes of legal officials and men who influenced this court decision. However, the consequence of this narrative continuing in our national context is that we fail to think more critically about how we define agency and choice. By limiting representation of abortion to plotlines that reinforce emphasized femininity and demonize intersectional perspectives from other identities and contexts, we fail to see the critical thinking involved in supporting all people with the right to abortion. The blatant shaming of those who choose to have an abortion further stigmatizes this medical procedure and ultimately shapes the political climate influencing its stability as a human right. For us to fully support Pro-Choice ethical representation, we must be open and accepting of storylines which center the individual’s choice, and is accurate to the tangible experiences of the depicted people, over the outdated narratives like the perfect victim trope which take agency out of the individual’s hands and feel a need to justify or artificially generate sympathy for the choice to have an abortion. With a conservative majority now holding the Supreme Court, threatening the continued existence of Roe v. Wade, it is more important than ever that abortion is represented accurately in popular culture.

References

Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. Abortion Onscreen in 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved November, 2020, from https://www.ansirh.org/sites/default/files/publications/files/Abortion%20Onscreen%20Report%202019.pdf 

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. Chicago Unbound. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8/ 

Jatlaoui T.C., Eckhaus, L., Mandel, M.G., Nguyen, A., Oduyebo, T., Peterson, E., & Whiteman, M.K. (2019). Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2016. MMWR Surveill Summ 2019;68(No. SS-11):1–41. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6811a1

Jones, R. K., Witwer, E., & Jerman, J. (2020). Transgender abortion patients and the provision of transgender-specific care at non-hospital facilities that provide abortions. Contraception: X, 2, 100019. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conx.2020.100019 

National Abortion Federation Revised. (2007). Women Who Have Abortions. https://prochoice.org/wp-content/uploads/women_who_have_abortions.pdf 

Polish, J. (2019, December 18). Queer POC Who Need Abortions Are Rarely Represented On TV, A New Report Shows. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/p/queer-poc-who-need-abortions-are-rarely-represented-on-tv-a-new-report-shows-19493390 

Sisson, G., & Kimport, K. (2016). Facts and fictions: Characters seeking abortion on American television, 2005–2014. Contraception, 93(5), 446–451. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2015.11.015  

Sisson, G., & Rowland, B. (2017). “I was close to death!”: abortion and medical risk on American television, 2005–2016. Contraception. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.contraception.2017.03.010 

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