BoJack Horseman‘s hilariously subversive take on a “very special abortion episode” has been the subject of positive to glowing responses at Jezebel, Slate, Buzzfeed, Bitch Media and The A.V. Club — and, conversely, it’s been panned across the pro-life internet, including by one very betrayed piece at the Federalist. On both sides, commentators have noted that the main plotline — Diane has an abortion with the loving support of her husband Mr. Peanutbutter and moves on sans major regrets — is somewhat remarkable. To me, it felt like a culmination of several groundbreaking years, with films like Grandma and Obvious Child telling intimate abortion stories, Shonda Rhimes making abortions into major plot devices on her shows and social media campaigns urging participants to #shoutyourabortion.
This smashing of taboos and stigmas has been immensely helpful for the cause of good art. When a character in a book, TV show or film unexpectedly becomes pregnant, it can prove difficult for the narrative to avoid one of a pair of clichés. The first of these is the “keeping the baby creates the most conflict” trope — the idea that the only way character growth, change and friction can emerge from a pregnant womb is via a screaming infant. This was what defenders of films like Juno and Knocked Up, (the fabled accidental pregnancy rom-com duo) explained: “No baby, no movie!”
But the baby-equals-plot idea is a fallacy; these stories derive their plots not from the existence of children, but from the dalliances and foibles of adults. In real life, having a baby is the opposite of jumpstarting a daring new plot; it sends one’s life further into predictability and routine. That’s often why much-anticipated babies and kids born on so many television series (Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Office, and Friday Night Lights, to name a few) all but disappear, because no one wants to watch diapers being changed, and tantrums flare and diminish, over and over and over again. Remember Little Ricky on I Love Lucy? I’ll bet you almost forgot he existed. Abortions, in storytelling as in life, are just as likely to open doors of possibility as they are to close down narrative arcs.
The second, and even more prevalent, cliché is the idea that an entire storyline should hang on The Decision itself, wherein the character agonizes over whether to have an abortion, going back and forth and back again, and usually ends up keeping the pregnancy. This process is often executed terribly. Think of all of the seemingly thousands of “surprise” fake-outs at the clinic featuring the character arriving, looking around, shaking her head, and saying she just can’t do it. It’s so predictable that an exciting moment feels boring. The only time I’ve seen The Decision turn out the other way effectively is in the Friday Night Lights episode “I Can’t,” which painstakingly follows teenage Becky down the road to her decision to have an abortion, leading to a witch-hunt against those who counseled her.
BoJack, as well as Obvious Child and Grandma, ask the question: what if the decision itself is already a given and the dramatic tension arises elsewhere? BoJack‘s Diane and her doggy husband Mr. Peanutbutter agree they don’t want kids and choose to terminate. But Diane’s simultaneous frustration with pop starlet Sextina Aquafina’s brash pro-abortion song (giving the episode its “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” title) suggests that she does have her own fairly rigid ideas about how abortion should be treated and discussed — even as the state forces her to watch videos of puppies to shame her. Clearly, she’s internalized some of that shame. Diane’s struggle to get over her own hang-up is the arc that drives the episode. Any woman who has had to push past rigid notions about how other women present their sexual and reproductive lives and choices knows that this journey is more reflective of our lives than arriving at an abortion clinic, freaking out, and leaving, which is what popular tropes would have us believe is a common occurrence.
BoJack Horseman uses abortion to poke fun at pro-lifers, yes, with its all-white male panel of abortion experts on TV, and the way Diane is forced to watch those puppy videos alone. But it really uses her choice to discuss subtle antipathies between Diane and the women around her. As Claire Lobenfeld noted in her piece for Jezebel on this episode, the narrative focuses on abortion in the broader context of women’s identities around family and self-expression. More specifically, it focuses on the way women struggle to understand each other’s divergent decisions in a society that defines us too often by our family status (mom vs. childless, single vs. married, etc.) So Diane judges Sextina for publicizing abortion in a Rihanna-style shoot-’em-up video, while another character, Princess Carolyn, who is about to age out of her childbearing years, judges Diane for not taking advantage of her youth and fertility. Diane is reminded by the young girl she encounters at the abortion clinic, who finds herself empowered by Sextina’s song, that one woman’s exhibitionism is another woman’s anthem. By extension, one woman’s bundle of joy is another woman’s nightmare.
To say the episode’s moral conclusion is the pat “Media about abortion makes women feel better about abortion!” misses the idea that what appalls one woman might appeal to another. Diane doesn’t learn that TV makes people happy. She learns that there is no universal abortion or motherhood or pregnancy experience. “The hard part about talking about it in general is everyone wants it to be just one thing: ‘abortion is good,’ ‘abortion is bad,’ or whatever,” episode writer Joanna Calo told Buzzfeed. “We really wanted to talk about the fact that, of course, as a group, we support a woman’s right to choose, but also that every person is gonna have their own experience.”
The irony here is that the entire basis of the pro-life movement is in failing to acknowledge the basic unknowability of others’ point of view. The movement is fundamentally about imposing one’s morality and definitions on others — and marshaling the law in service of that imposition. To be pro-choice is to say: I can never ever walk in your shoes. But BoJack’s story goes even further to note that you can be pro-choice in theory, and even in your own experience, and still succumb to the judgmental streak that animates the other side of the debate — including judging yourself.