Papa don't preach! In a spate of recent indie and Hollywood movies, inconveniently pregnant women decide to keep their babies -- and in every case, this turns out to be wise. In "Bella," an Anglo waitress allows a coworker to talk her out of an abortion; then he introduces her to his warm Latino family. Another waitress, played by Keri Russell in "Waitress," gets knocked up by her husband, whom she loathes; so she keeps the baby, bakes pies, and has an affair with her obstetrician. (Fun!) In "Knocked Up," an ambitious TV presenter won't even say the word "abortion"; instead, she encourages her one-night-stand lover to stop being such a slacker, which he does -- and all ends well. The 16-year-old heroine of "Juno," finally, briefly considers an abortion; but she decides, against everyone's advice, to have the baby and give it up for adoption. Happy endings all around.
Liberals who support abortion rights don't seem eager to challenge what we might dub (using Richard Dawkins' term) the keeping-my-baby "meme" in American pop culture -- after all, the last public figure who criticized a fictional single mother was Dan Quayle. Conservatives who support abstinence-only sex ed programs, meanwhile, apparently don't have a problem with non-abstinent fictional teens... if they keep their babies. So why does it feel like movie and TV screenwriters have come a long way, in the wrong direction, since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision? Why is abortion no longer a real option for fictional American women? "By some screenwriter consensus," laments Ellen Goodman, "abortion has become the right-to-choose that's never chosen."
There are no simple answers to such questions, but an analysis of half a century's worth of TV shows and movies that have dealt with unwanted pregnancies reveals significant trends. Before Roe v. Wade, fictional women who got abortions suffered dire physical, mental, and social consequences; in the following decade, this was no longer the case. However, as single motherhood lost its stigma, women were no longer forced to choose between abortion and adoption. That's when TV networks and movie studios, perhaps intimidated by the "right-to-life" movement, which was then hitting its stride, developed a meme.
Let's look at a few pre-Roe examples. In 1964, on the soap opera "Another World," Pat Matthews is impregnated by her boyfriend, who persuades her to have what is referred to only as "an illegal operation." (Such reticence is hardly suprising: In 1952, when Lucille Ball's character was expecting Ricky Jr. on "I Love Lucy," CBS wouldn't permit the word "pregnant" to be spoken on-air.) Fearing that the operation has left her sterile, Pat ends up murdering her lover. In a 1969 thriller, "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting," an insane man stalks a woman who aborted his child; and in the highbrow 1970 movie "The End of the Road," the film's only sympathetic character dies horribly during an illegal abortion. The message is clear: Just say "no" to abortion.
Then, in a two-part, November 1972 episode of the hit sitcom "Maude," aired while Roe v. Wade was being argued before the Supreme Court, and not long after New York's governor vetoed a repeal of the state's right-to-abortion law, Bea Arthur's middle-aged character -- who lives in New York -- gets an abortion. "When you were young, abortion was a dirty word," her adult daughter reassures her, "It's not anymore." A few months later, Erica Kane, Susan Lucci's iconic character on the soap opera "All My Children," would have daytime TV's first legal abortion -- because she doesn't want to lose her modeling job. Incredibly, neither woman was made to suffer for her decision.
But when CBS re-aired the abortion episodes of "Maude" in 1973, some 40 affiliates refused to air it, and national advertisers declined to buy ad time. Next thing you know, in 1976, Mariel Hemingway was playing a pregnant teen who exercises her right to choose... and her choice was articulated by the made-for-TV movie's title: "I Want to Keep My Baby." But the meme was ahead of its time, since as late as 1982, Jennifer Jason Leigh's teenage character in the cult movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" could get an abortion without any agonies; same thing goes for Diane Franklin's teen character in the 1982 movie "The Last American Virgin."
At the height of the Reagan and Bush era, however, the keeping-my-baby meme triumphed. In 1986, Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach," written from the point of view of a teenage girl who's "keeping my baby," topped the charts. Then, in the 1988 movie "For Keeps," Molly Ringwald plays a pregnant high school senior who -- well, you figure it out. By 1991, when Candice Bergen decided to raise a child without a father on "Murphy Brown," the keeping-my-baby meme was already well established. In fact, another fictional middle-aged liberal, the titular protagonist of the NBC dramedy "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," beat Brown to the punch by an entire TV season.
Shortly after the birth of Murphy Brown's baby, America elected a president who was both pro-choice and a devout Christian. For nearly a decade, TV screenwriters waffled along with Clinton, penning one scenario after another in which a knocked-up character agonizes over whether to have an abortion, then suffers a miscarriage before going through with it. Victims, in chronological order, of this conflicted meme include: Heather Locklear's Amanda, on "Melrose Place"; Neve Campbell's Julia, on "Party of Five"; Jennie Garth's Kelly, on "Beverly Hills 90210"; and Courtney Thorne-Smith's Alison, on "Melrose Place" again. Even the 1996 film "Citizen Ruth," which lampoons both sides of the abortion debate, would end with Laura Dern's miscarriage.
Since the election of the current President Bush, however, the times, they are a-slowin' down again. On the DVD of "Fast Times," director Amy Heckerling says that she "could never make that movie now," because its depiction of guilt-free sex (and, presumably, consequence-free abortion) is "unacceptable in the current political climate." In recent years, we've seen unmarried and unprepared women on shows like "ER," "Grey's Anatomy," and "The O.C.," choose to keep their babies, no matter what the consequences. It's enough to make the convenient miscarriage plot seem downright progressive.
So are the heroines of "Bella," "Waitress," "Knocked Up," and "Juno" the victims of a compassionately conservative meme, one that keeps replicating itself decade after decade? Yes. Until someone comes up with a better theory, I'll stick with this one.
A version of this essay will appear in this coming Sunday's Ideas section. To peruse the research I did before writing it, click here.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.