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Pop Culture Doesn’t Put Abortion In a Corner: Abortion in Iconic Films and TV Shows

As the Roe 40th anniversary approaches, I’ve been reflecting on pop culture and what it tells us about how people feel about the issue of abortion. And, I’ve concluded, I think it reflects reality pretty well.

There seems to be a wide-spread assumption that Hollywood believes that abortion is too “dangerous” an issue to talk about. There have been myriads of articles about this that question why movies and television don’t show more women deciding to have a procedure that we know approximately one-third of women will have in their lifetimes.

Here’s the thing - the assumptions underlying this whole debate miss a really important point. There are many examples of films and TV shows that have proved that addressing abortion does not instantly turn a film into “box office poison.” There are both recent and older examples of films and shows that have succeeded – some amazingly – that included abortion storylines.

Although most of you readers may be able to name some recent examples pretty easily (like Ides of March, Grey’s Anatomy and Girls) what you might not realize is that there are several iconic films and TV shows that most people don’t even connect with the issue of abortion – even though they contained an abortion storyline. Here are my top 4:

  • Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in "Dirty Dancing"
    Image courtesy of Great American Films Limited Partnership & Vestron Pictures

    Dirty Dancing: This classic movie about romance across class and ethnic lines is mostly remembered for Patrick Swayze saying “Nobody puts baby in a corner” and for the finale dance to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life.” How many people remember that the plot device used to get Swayze’s and Jennifer Grey’s characters together is a pre-Roe illegal abortion? The abortion (which nearly kills Swayze’s character’s professional dance partner) is also the means the screenwriters use to have Grey’s father find out about the relationship. Dirty Dancing succeeded both financially and critically, and it is still considered one of the most romantic movies of all time.

  • Fast Times At Ridgemont High: If you are a straight man or a gay woman, your main memory of Fast Times is probably Phoebe Cates in the red bikini. For the rest of us, it is probably Sean Penn’s Spicolli ordering a pizza to Mr. Hand’s history class. But there’s a sub-plot involving Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character getting pregnant and going to a clinic to have an abortion. You may recall the scene where she tricks her older brother (Judge Reinhold) into taking her there and then he unexpectedly shows up to support her and take her home. Fast Times is on most “best movies about high school” lists and is on the National Registry of Films. And, it is famous for launching the careers of many of Hollywood’s biggest stars – in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards all had small parts.
  • Cider House Rules: This is the only movie with a central storyline that is about abortion on this list. And it’s the only movie on my list that – in and of itself – isn’t iconic. What is iconic, however, is the line that Michael Caine’s character says to the boys in the orphanage every night: “Good night, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.” The movie went on to win two Oscars, and that line shows up regularly on lists of great movie quotes. Today, when people hear, “Good night, you princes of Maine…” they don’t think “gee, that came from a movie about an abortion provider.” Instead, they feel the faith and inspiration the line conveys.
  • Sex and the City: In its fourth season, the four ladies of New York confronted the issue of abortion when Miranda found out she was unexpectedly pregnant. Although Miranda decided to continue the pregnancy, we learned that both Carrie and Samantha had had abortions earlier in their lives. This disclosure didn’t stop Sex and the City from representing a generation of single women; introducing Louboutins, “He isn’t that into you” and Cosmo’s to most of America; and lasting through six seasons and two movies. I bet if you ask any woman who was over twenty when the show aired whether she’s a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or Miranda, not only will she know what you’re talking about, but she’ll immediately tell you the answer. (I’m a Miranda with equal parts of Carrie, Sam and Charlotte thrown in.)  

So, you may be wondering why I think pop culture’s treatment of this issue is an accurate reflection of how society feels about abortion. Just as there’s a perception that Hollywood doesn’t make movies about abortion because it is “dangerous,” there is also an assumption that abortion is “controversial” – it certainly is on our list of most debated political issues.

And, just as this list shows that people are more than happy to watch movies and TV shows that include abortion, the reality is that most Americans are happy to live in a society that includes it. In fact, they prefer it -- most Americans believe that abortion should be legal. At the end of the day, the perception of how people supposedly feel about abortion and how they actually feel about it are quite different.

So, to the other pop-culture geeks out there – here is my suggestion for celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Roe. Pick two to five of the TV shows or movies from this blog, invite some friends over, make some popcorn and have a Roe Anniversary film festival. I’d love to hear which ones you picked.

Comments

Abortion in Movies

'Love with the Proper Stranger' (Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen 1963)
shows a scene of the reality of illegal abortions in that era. I think that scene
may have been the spark that ignited my pro-choice beliefs.

Movies With Unplanned Pregnancies

"Revolutionary Road," "Juno," and "If These Walls Could Talk" (with Cher and Demi Moore) all contained at least abortion discussions if not actual abortions. in "Grease" Rizzo thought she was pregnant and was incredibly relieved not to be.

Pop Culture and Abortion

While the movies and TV programs you describe above portray a more tolerant and realistic society, in my opinion the vast majority do not. When the issue of an unplanned pregnancy comes up on most programs, there is a slant toward displeasure, condemnation, etc., whenever the pregnant teen, single mother, older woman expresses a desire for an abortion. I've seen it on Law & Order (SVU) and other programs. There's always relief when the woman decides to bear the child even when her circumstances seem dire. This is the general tone of TV, I believe. It's noticeable and regrettable.

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