Being an anonymously sourced item on Page Six, I knew to take “NBC refuses to air Obvious Child ad with word ‘abortion’ in it” with a pound’s worth of salt. Still, the report that a major network found a procedure one in three women undergo in their lifetime “inappropriate for viewers” is depressingly believable — even more so given that the same network bleeped out the word “aborted” during the Last Comic Standing semifinals on Thursday.* Abortion’s supposed inappropriate nature is part of the reason, in fact, why Obvious Child is so remarkable: abortion is disconcertingly absent from American pop culture, mostly thanks to a speak-no-evil conservatism operating under the unstated assumption that if we just don’t talk about abortion, it’ll disappear forever.
To the casual viewer of network TV and wide-release films without any firsthand experience of unwanted pregnancy — an experience, it’s worth reminding ourselves, is incredibly common — abortion comes across as a token option to be hastily scratched off the menu, if it ever appears at all. The teen pregnancy was a stock plot device long before it made the leap to reality TV, often in the form of stock characters like The Secret Life of the American Teenager‘s Amy Juergens, the All-American Suburban Girl Who Finds Herself in a Bad Situation, and Glee‘s Quinn Fabray, a tongue-in-cheek version of same. The AASGWFHBS always, always has her baby, despite the social isolation that comes with her pregnancy, and she’s always, always glad she kept it, despite never seriously considering not keeping it in the first place. The A-word is swatted out of the way early and locked away for the rest of the subplot.
Even relatively progressive movies and TV shows tend to reinforce the implicit view of abortion as the Nuclear Option, considered but usually backed away from for reasons that often remain unclear. Secret Life may have been popular, but it was never going to be a cultural touchstone for the pro-choice crowd. Consider instead Juno, the peak-quirk comedy that made me and all my early-teen peers cry, not to mention discover Cat Power and the just-canceled Arrested Development. Juno‘s abortion clinic scene is funny and frank and quotable (“They make my boyfriend’s junk taste like pie!”); ditto its protagonist and the film itself. But Juno ultimately makes the same decision as countless other Suburban Girls in Trouble, which automatically makes it less subversive than an unusual riff on a well-entrenched trope. And there’s a reason it’s taken another seven years to give the world an honest, solid comedy that’s about abortion rather than pregnancy.
More shocking still was the way Sex and the City, the early-Third Golden Age ancestor to Girls, Broad City, and even Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, shies away from the Big A. When Miranda, cynic and high-powered lawyer, gets pregnant by her ex, the show goes so far as to dupe its viewers into thinking she’s gone through with the procedure, showing her in the waiting room minutes before her appointment. Instead, Miranda elects to keep the baby, and a series that made a point of breaking nearly every taboo in the book surrounding women and sex declined to have its most pragmatic character make the most pragmatic choice. Carrie admits to having had an abortion, yes — but it took place over a decade before the events of the show. Later, Girls came right out the gate with an “abortion party” in its second episode, only to have said abortion not be necessary after all. The incident is a perfect introduction to Jessa’s brand of destructive irresponsibility, but it’s still yet another abortion that just never plays out onscreen.
It may be unfair to single out Juno, Sex and the City, and Girls, all of which I love in a complicated sort of way. Individually, each has a reason for backing off from abortion, whether that reason is because pregnancy is the entire premise of the movie or because single motherhood is equally valid territory for a show about 30-something women to cover. But collectively, they’re part of the silence surrounding abortion, a silence so pervasive that it extends even into otherwise vocal defenses of women’s sexuality and ownership of our bodies. It’s a silence that’s sometimes enforced voluntarily, sometimes not. The latter cases are when the unwillingness to admit that abortion is a fact of life crosses into the absurd — like when abortion is the literal premise of a movie, or the literal punchline of a joke.
For every rule, there are exceptions. NBC has aired nuanced takes on abortion before: Becky Sproles’ tearful declaration that she can’t take care of a baby on Friday Night Lights, and Parenthood‘‘s take on Amy’s decision to end her pregnancy. I don’t think NBC’s higher-ups are a rabid anti-choicer cabal, both because of those examples and because network executives are usually motivated by the bottom line, not their personal views on Roe v. Wade. Exactly why NBC decided not to air the Obvious Child spot or comedian Dana Eagle’s full joke doesn’t matter, though. What does is that the decisions are part of a ridiculous unwillingness to depict abortion as it is, choosing instead to perpetuate the anti-abortion fantasy that every unplanned pregnancy is a personal revelation waiting to happen, and that a perfectly reasonable, widely available option isn’t an option at all.
Direct censorship only brings to the forefront the impact that flat-out denying abortion representation has had for years: the erasure of abortion as a valid choice, an erasure that’s typically more subtle than an outright bleeping out. Films like Obvious Child have the power to reverse that erasure. And in time, I hope they’ll win out over those that want the silence to continue.
*Update: Eagle’s manager contacted Flavorwire to clarify that the bleeped-out word in her set was actually “hummer,” not aborted; an NBC rep told Jezebel the reference to oral sex “was not appropriate for network television.” The full set is available online.