The tube has long had tunnel vision when it has come to portraying women. Recently, though, television shows have been broadening their point of view by addressing previously taboo subjects — abortion and body image — with surprising maturity and subtlety.
“Friday Night Lights,” one of my long-time favorite series, has paid attention to women’s health since its inception, from its diverse portrayal of teenager’s sexual lives to its confrontation of sexual violence. And, yes, it even book-dropped “Our Bodies, Ourselves” at the end of its first season.
But it truly out-did itself (and almost every other work in the history of television — or film) with an episode that aired last week on NBC that traced one character’s decision to have an abortion.
Fifteen-year-old Becky (Madison Burge), pregnant after one sexual encounter with a high school football player, turns to Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), a high school principal (but not at Becky’s school) and trained guidance counselor, to help her sort through her feelings of whether she can manage a baby at her age:
Becky: I have an appointment for my abortion tomorrow. Why do I feel so weird?
Tami: Because it’s a hard decision. Have you thought about what you want?
Becky: We don’t have any money. I’m in the 10th grade. It was my first time. I threw it away, and I don’t want to throw my life away. It’s just really obvious that my mom wants me to have this abortion because I was her mistake and she has just struggled and hurt and everyday she wanted better. And I knew better. I was just thinking forget about what she wants, what do I want? Maybe I could take care of this baby. And maybe I would be good at it and I could love it and be there for it. Then I think about how awful it would be if I had a baby and I spent the rest of my life resenting him or her. Do you think I’m going to hell if I had an abortion?
Tami: No honey, I don’t.
Becky: What would you tell your daughter?
Tami: I would tell her to think about her life, think about what’s important to her and what she wants and I would tell her she’s in a real tough spot and then I would support whatever decision she made.
Becky: I can’t take care of a baby … I can’t.
Writing in The New York Times, Ginia Bellafante discusses the significance of the episode:
With those words Becky decides to have an abortion. This took place on Friday’s episode of “Friday Night Lights” and was remarkable — abortions have been rare on serial television since the early ’70s. But the effect was particularly resonant this week. On Monday Bristol Palin, America’s most famous teenage mother, briefly appeared as herself on the ABC Family soap opera “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” bringing greater attention to a popular series that for three seasons has performed didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.
Bellafante goes on to describe numerous instances in which television has “leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy,” including a shocking (even for a soap opera) turn of events on “All My Children”:
In the most bizarre instance of revisionism on the issue, four years ago “All My Children” reversed Erica Kane’s 1973 abortion, a milestone in television history when it occurred 11 months after the passage of Roe v. Wade. A character named Josh Madden learned that although Erica had initially conceived him, he had been kidnapped as an embryo and transferred to the womb of another woman by the obviously deranged doctor who had raised him. Fans were outraged, on one level because the story line was ludicrous, even by the measure of daytime television, and on another because the twist had gone a long way toward eradicating the show’s progressive politics, and, in some sense, an entire era.
What makes the portrayal on “Friday Night Lights” even more surprising is we see the hardships of obtaining an abortion — from coming up with the money for the procedure to the time and money lost when faced with a mandatory waiting period.
And unlike an abortion episode from the short-lived WB series “Jack & Bobby” (see Jenn Pozner’s summary), FNL doesn’t dwell on issues of divided teens/parents. Becky’s mother, Cheryl (played brilliantly by Alicia Witt), supports the decision, though she’s emotionally unavailable to her daughter. The boy’s parents, though, want Becky to have the baby, noting that Mary and Joseph toughed it out — to which their son, Luke, retorts: “Becky and me are not Mary and Joseph.”
Having seen this season of FNL during its earlier broadcast on DirecTV, I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but know there will be fall-out from Becky’s decision. Meanwhile, another character is pregnant and lacks health insurance. Her storyline is also compelling and is yet one more reason you should be watching this intelligent show.
In other TV news, Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara also sees something virtually unprecedented in the recent portrayals of fat people on television who, at least three new shows have discovered, “are human after all, with a panoply of dreams, desires, foibles and stories that often have nothing to do with their weight”:
Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” broke the ice last year. Lit up by newcomer Brooke Elliott, the show wrangled its iffy conceit — an afterlife mix-up leaves a thin girl trapped in a fat girl’s body — into a surprisingly edgy comedy. This summer, ABC Family debuted “Huge,” a vehicle for “Hairspray” star Nikki Blonsky, which was no doubt the cause for much rejoicing among plus-sized thespians. Set at a fat camp, “Huge” is essentially a teen drama — with the requisite rebel, pretty girl, shy boy, tough jock, etc. — but one that also explores the complexities of childhood obesity with a clear eye and dark humor.
And this fall, pound-power comes to the networks. In CBS’ romantic comedy “Mike and Molly,” Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell play a fourth-grade teacher and a Boston cop, respectively, who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. All three of these shows take on the emotional, social and physical difficulties of being overweight, but none of them get bogged down in the slippery excess of parody or pathos that so often accompanies current tales from the top of the scale.
McNamara also makes an important clarification: “When I said television has discovered that fat people are human, I mean it’s discovered that fat women and children are human. Men have always been allowed to be fat on TV.”
She gives props to the one great exception — “Roseanne” — in which Roseanne Barr herself was remarkable for rarely remarking on any of these issues at all.