The way ‘GIRLS’ character Mimi-Rose discussed her decision to terminate her pregnancy is not how we’re used to hearing about abortion on TV. (Photo: HBO)
Last night, the most shocking thing on the Lena Dunham-helmed HBO show GIRLS wasn’t a graphic sex act (as has become the series’ calling card). It was the straightforward and non-sensationalized way in which one of the show’s characters discussed her decision to have an abortion.
When Mimi-Rose (played by Community’s Gillian Jacobs) mentions to new beau Adam (played by Adam Driver, and who is the on-again, off-again boyfriend of Dunham’s character Hannah) that she can’t go running with him because she had an abortion the day before, her delivery of the news hits a notable mix of casualness and confidence. To Mimi-Rose, it was a non-issue: She didn’t want to have a baby at that particular time, hence her decision. When Adam, upset that he was not consulted about her decision first, asks about the sex of the terminated embryo, Mimi-Rose says, “It was a ball of cells. It was smaller than a seed pearl. It didn’t have a penis or a vagina.”
The show’s depiction of no greater conflict — only uncomplicated decision-making — helps to broaden the public’s understanding of the wide range of women’s experiences with abortion, says Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In fact, Planned Parenthood was asked to consult on the episode to “ensure abortion was shown in a realistic and non-stigmatizing way,” she says.
“Any time we get the chance to see an honest portrayal of abortion, it helps eliminate the shame and stigma that too often surrounds a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy, and it helps people have honest conversations with family and friends about this topic,” Laguens tells Yahoo Health. “The abortion storyline on last night’s episode of HBO’s Girls was an excellent example of this.”
This isn’t the first time that GIRLS has dealt with abortion; in the show’s first season, Jessa (played by Jemima Kirke) learns she is pregnant, and Marnie (played by Allison Williams) schedules her abortion for her. Though Jessa knows she does not wish to be pregnant, her inability to emotionally process her choice is made apparent by her electing to have sex with a stranger at a bar. In the middle of the act, she discovers that she has begun to miscarry. It is a strange, sad scene, demonstrating the feelings of loss, hope, guilt, anger, and relief that some women in Jessa’s situation may experience in real life.
Mimi-Rose’s abortion, however, depicts something entirely different, but no less truthful for some. “Authentic portrayals of abortion, birth control use, and frankly, women’s sex lives have been extremely rare in film and television for far too long but we’ve started to see some progress recently with television shows like Girls and films like Obvious Child,” Laguens says.
The first mention of abortion on the small screen came in 1972, when Bea Arthur’s character Maude, already a grandmother, ultimately chooses to end an unplanned pregnancy after great deliberation (and many tears) and after receiving both her husband’s and daughter’s input.
A much more common television trope, however, is the character who plans on having an abortion and then decides not to at the last minute (see: Jane on Melrose Place in 1992, Andrea on Beverly Hills 90210 in 1994, Dawson’s mom on Dawson’s Creek in 2000, and Miranda on Sex and the City, in 2001). More often than not, these characters feel sure they don’t want to have a child, but ultimately decide to not follow through with ending the pregnancy — resulting in the birth of a healthy, beautiful child, and great joy, satisfaction, and familial approval. This TV depiction is certainly the reality for many women who experience an unplanned pregnancy — but it’s important to note that it’s not the reality for all.
One notable exception to this television “rule” was on Friday Night Lights, in an episode where type-A, aspiring pageant queen Becky is impregnated by wholesome farm boy and football player Luke. Becky goes to Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor for advice; Tami does not persuade her one way or the other about what to do, but instead encourages her to talk to her own mother. When Becky does, her mother — who herself is young and single — says she refuses to let history repeat itself, and Becky ultimately terminates the pregnancy. When Luke’s mother learns of this chain of events, she launches a one-woman campaign to get Taylor fired from being the school principal for supposedly advocating immoral beliefs on school grounds. The storyline received great critical acclaim for the way in which it made the story of a young woman’s abortion deeply personal, rather than painting it in broad strokes.
As for last night’s episode of GIRLS, while “one episode may not change how women’s personal, private decisions about their families are viewed by everyone in this country … these moments can and do help open the conversation and challenge the stigma that so many women feel,“ Laguens says. “A woman’s decisions about her pregnancy should be respected and valued, and a television storyline as refreshingly real as this one should be celebrated.”