Friday Night Lights takes on abortion

Popular entertainment rarely deals with abortion. Often when characters on TV get pregnant “the A word” isn’t even spoken out loud – FOX won’t even let “abortion” be said by a character on their network. Abortion is rarely a real consideration. Then there are those Very Special Episodes about abortion – always trying to present two binary opposed sides to the issue.
I’ve been a fan of Friday Night Lights for a while, and I think the show’s handling of social issues is usually sensitive and realistic. But I was definitely worried when the show took up abortion in the last two episodes. The story line had flaws, but I was impressed by the overall approach to the topic.
Spoilers ahead (Friday Night Lights currently airs on DirecTV and episodes are later run on NBC – I have no idea if NBC will be airing the episodes that deal with abortion, but they haven’t yet signaled that they won’t).
Becky, the character who gets pregnant, is in 10th grade and doesn’t have a lot of money. From the beginning Becky signals that she will pursue an abortion, but almost every character she speaks with has to offer their own take on her decision. Ultimately, Becky receives support and guidance from Tami Taylor, often the show’s moral center.
The episode was not perfect. Abortion seems to always be depicted with sadness. Becky does end up having the procedure, but the episode ends with her crying. This is certainly one real and completely legitimate reaction to having an abortion. But I would like to see other reactions shown as well – abortion is not always about sadness, and I am concerned Becky may voice regret in future episodes, which is also not every woman’s truth but seems to be the only possibility for the few pop culture characters who have had abortions.
I was also somewhat disappointed in Tami’s reactions to Becky. Tami is a former high school guidance counselor and current high school principal – I think she should be a lot more comfortable with the topic of a 10th grader getting pregnant and considering abortion than she is. Tami initially hesitates to bring up abortion and acts like she’s rarely if ever supported a young person through this process before, which reinforces its strangeness. About 1 in 3 women in the U.S. have had abortions, but when it’s treated as such a shocking and rare subject the taboo around abortion is reinforced and the experiences of many women are silenced.

I thought the show did an excellent job of depicting two aspects of the lived experience of this decision, though: legal barriers faced by a young person and the pressure of other people’s opinions. Becky tells Luke, the man involved, that she needs half the money for an abortion from him – the procedure is expensive, especially for a high school student from a working poor background. Luke seems to try not to pressure Becky, but he is clearly anti-choice. Becky realizes he won’t be a resource or someone to help her through this process. Tami subtly and tactfully walks Becky through Texas’ parental consent requirement, making sure she can safely tell a parent about the abortion. Becky doesn’t want to tell her mother, but she has to. This increases the emotional pressure related to the procedure, as her mother has strong feelings and may even regret that she did not have an abortion when she was pregnant with Becky. Becky’s mother reacts angrily at the initial appointment when a doctor starts to walk Becky through state-mandated counseling and Texas’ 24-hour waiting period. Both are barriers that make having the procedure more difficult, but so is the added emotional pressure from a parent focused more on her feelings and opinions than her daughter’s needs.
Becky’s interactions with her mother and Luke present a number of barriers to access: cost, parental consent laws, state-mandated counseling and 24-hour waiting periods. But they also demonstrate an all too common aspect of the personal experience of abortion – pressure from others about what choice a woman should make, and why. Becky seems fairly clear from the beginning of the story line that she needs to have an abortion because of factors including age and class, though she is clearly upset by the decision. Reactions from her mother and the man involved complicate this, though, adding additional emotional weight to an already difficult process. What women considering abortion need is support in whatever decision they make, not someone else’s opinion about what they should do.
Tami Taylor’s interactions with Becky, while not perfect, represent a powerful counterbalance and model, to a degree, the kind of support and counsel that should be given to women considering abortion. Tami outlines Becky’s options and helps her find resources. But, possibly more important and certainly more significant to see on TV, Tami tells Becky the situation and decision are difficult but her own, that she should be supported in whatever decision she makes, and that Tami does not think having an abortion means Becky will go to hell. It’s become clear to me through talking with women trying to access abortions is that they hear far too many opinions about the right and wrong thing to do, or about what they must do. What these women often need is someone to validate their own process and decision, and to support them in whatever choice they make.
While the episode had flaws from my political perspective, I was glad to see abortion approached in a way that emphasized a young woman’s needs, barriers to access, and the sort of emotional pressure created by strong opinions about this medical procedure. Too often abortion is treated as a political issue rather than a part of women’s lived experience. This episode contained very little of the standard debate over abortion, even when it depicted Luke and his anti-choice parents. Instead it focused on the sorts of pressures put on a young woman because abortion is treated as such a controversial moral and political issue.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • miz_nichola

    Private Practice also dealt with abortion in the last episode (spoilers)
    when Dr Naomi’s (who is apparently anti-abortion) 15 year old daughter gets pregnant. Some of my issue with the episode was this: that we never see grown women having abortions- it’s always the young teen who unexpectedly gets pregnant instead of a failure of birth control or a fetal abnormality. I thought that overall, Private Practice did a good job showing both sides- the pressure from parents who are struggling, and it also revealed that two other drs- addison and violet had had an abortion or abortions previously and they denied regretting it. I’m glad to see more representations of unplanned pregnancy and at least discussion of abortion in tv, but there’s definitely still a long way to go.

  • emulsifier

    I stopped following the TV show last season, but this seems definitely in-line with the way they handle all social issues: with surprising honesty that’s usurped by traditional moral roles.
    Either way, if you’re confused about why sports matter in America, I really suggest reading Buzz Bissinger’s book Friday Night Lights. Probably the best book on sports ever written.

  • Kate

    I was thinking the same thing about these Private Practice episodes. Although, Addison does mention that at least one of her abortions (I don’t know if she had multiple) was after getting pregnant with Sloan’s (from Grey’s Anatomy) baby. She mentioned that she didn’t tell him before she got it and that he was upset, so even though she claimed she hadn’t regretted it, this episode made it seem like she did. I agree that it’s good television shows are talking about delicate issues like abortion, but I hate that the characters are always so black and white (Naomi being so anti-abortion and Addison and Violet seemingly not giving it a second thought). They do need to start addressing that women of many different ages and backgrounds opt to get abortions and that their reactions will also have some variety. There is some middle ground between bawling your eyes out and being completely callous about it.

  • Nicole

    I’ve commented on this oodles of times before on this and other sites, but Six Feet Under had a very positive and pro-choice abortion side-plot toward the end of the third season. I strongly recommend for any pro-choicer who’s seeking more realistic and/or fair representations to get familiarized with this show. Really, it is a great show that was unmatched in its bravery in many issues, especially this abortion story.
    *Spoiler alert*
    A young art student becomes pregnant in the third season and her decision to get an abortion is simple and she handles it all as she would any medical procedure. She gets a ride home from a friend (which offers her a chance to bond with another character that she’s always looked up to), she goes for the abortion, she goes home with the friend afterward and they share a pot of tea as Claire (the one who had the abortion) relaxes on the couch.
    It makes perfect sense. Both Claire and Brenda (the friend who drove her) have feminist elements to their characters and both, particularly Claire, are also strongly liberal. Now I’m not saying that every liberal, pro-choice feminist who becomes accidentally pregnant will undoubtedly choose abortion, but it truly does seem like the most realistic choice for Claire. And she has no regrets, we never see her cry; the issue isn’t even approached again throughout the remainder of the entire series except for one scene in the 4th season in which she confesses to the fetus’ father that she had an abortion last year. (The couple was broken up when Claire found out she was pregnant.)
    That conversation is, again, not at all threaded with anti-choice themes. The father, Russell, is only upset that she didn’t tell him, because he would have wanted to go with her and be there for her; the argument that ensues is about trust between them, and not about the fetus’ right to life, or even about Russell’s non-involvement in that decision.
    This was the only (literally, the ONLY) abortion story I have ever seen on TV where there wasn’t a shred of regret or a single tear. Regret and pain post-abortion are indeed common occurrences in real life, but surely relief is just as common, so it was so, so refreshing to actually see that experience on a TV program. Kudos, Alan Ball.

  • Nicole

    Also, I’m curious: Is this Fox rule against saying the word “abortion” new or perhaps only loosely regulated? Because Family Guy has dropped the word “abortion” many, many times. Does anyone know if the network bleeped that word out when those episodes originally aired?
    I think an entire book could be written on the words that networks choose to bleep out or not; the other day I was watching a movie on Much Music (Canada’s answer to MTV) and I noticed that the word “shit” wasn’t bleeped, but both “Nazi” and “handicapped” were. There was another word that was bleeped out about half the time but the censors ignored it the other half – I can’t remember, but I think it was “fuck.” It was really strange.

  • paperispatient

    Sex & the City and Desperate Housewives spoilers lie ahead!
    I’ve been rewatching all of Sex & the City, and I recently watched the episode where Miranda considers having an abortion. Most of the characters have multiple feelings about abortion in general or their past abortions – Carrie feels a little ashamed to tell her boyfriend that she had one but by the end of the episode feels reaffirmed that it was the right decision for her; Samantha has had two abortions and has no trouble acknowledging it; and Miranda feels extremely conflicted over her decision and goes back and forth before finally deciding. I do feel like it would have been more in character for her to have had an abortion, but I also liked that her storyline gave the show a chance to depict motherhood as not being the perfect fulfilling role for every woman.
    This also made me think about an episode of Desperate Housewives from this season. Lynette, who is married with 4 kids and working while her husband goes to college, finds out that she is pregnant with twins. She’s extremely unhappy and expresses her dismay but the possibility of abortion is never directly mentioned; finally, a rather trite conversation with Susan, whose daughter is in the hospital after being attacked, about how great being a parent is makes Lynette realize that she wants to have the babies after all. The handling just felt very superficial to me – I think it would be the rare person in that situation that never even vaguely thought of abortion just once even if it weren’t a serious consideration.

  • Nicole

    I guess I didn’t mention Sex & the City’s abortion episode because it wasn’t as necessarily subversive as it could have been, given the show’s strong “independent woman” rhetoric; probably because it was just another case of a show handling abortion by making a character contemplate it, get all the way to the clinic, and then back out. I don’t think that’s very realistic at all and encourages the cliché that women who consider abortions don’t really think things through.
    However, you’re right about Samantha and Carrie-I guess I didn’t think of them in my post above because their abortions are discussed but not actually occuring during the episode, so we don’t see the immediate aftermath of the abortion. Samantha asks her friends how many abortions they’ve had as casually as though she’s asking them about pap smears; Carrie lies about how young she was when she had her abortion and the number keeps getting higher and higher (“I was 18. Well, that’s a lie, I was twenty…..two.”) I think that was an important element of the show; it demonstrated that the older a woman is, the less we forgive her for an abortion, and it showed that Carrie had some guilt, but no regret. Those are very different things.

  • paperispatient

    I agree with you that it could have been more subversive – like I said, I really wish that Miranda had decided to have an abortion after all, in part because she’s the character I most identify with and I believe that’s what I would have done.
    I optimistically thought about Miranda making it all the way to the clinic and changing her mind as conveying that ideally you should be as close to positive that the decision to have an abortion is the right decision for you before you do it, you know? Like you, though, I definitely worry that that scene could be read as reinforcing the “women don’t take abortion decisions seriously” cliche too. I think Samantha and Carrie definitely help balance that out and keep the episode from being just like all the other SOS handlings of abortion on TV.

  • Emily

    I really love that show for many reasons and I highly recommend it but I have to disagree about the show’s dealing with abortion
    spoiler alert
    I understood Russell to be upset not because of being left out, but because he truly finds it a difficult thing, he cries and says something like his having to ‘live with this the rest of his life’. Also, Claire goes through a tough time for a while after the abortion, it’s subtle but it’s there and she mentions having the abortion being one of the reasons she’s in that funk. Also, later in the show she has a long dream sequence where a dead character holds a baby and tells her that she will take care of him for Claire. Now, i don’t find any of this damning though I was a bit peeved at the dream sequence in particular, but I don’t think it is an example of abortion being portrayed as the light medical issue it is for many women, but instead, the particular path that Claire has in her life and like all issues and characters in that show, it is dealt with as a human story and not a political point with the complexity and subtly of real people. Still, it is probably the best portrayal of abortion I have seen on a TV show.

  • Liza

    And of course that would only happen on HBO. *sigh*
    That’s one of the few episodes of that show I remember seeing. I think I was pretty impressed by how Claire was so non-emotional and cavalier about the decision even though abortion was barely on my radar at the time.

  • Catie

    I agree that Six Feet Under generally handled Claire’s abortion well, but I’m not so sure about the show having a pro-choice spin on abortion. (SPOILER ALERT) In the 2nd season, when Nate finds out that Lisa is pregnant, he sees twenty or so of his “aborted children,” who say something along the lines of “Daddy! We’re all the babies you killed!”
    Something similar happened again, after Claire has her abortion, when she goes to the cemetery to see her father’s grave and encounters Lisa, who is standing with a baby boy. Lisa says, “Take care of Maya–I’ll take care of him.” The child is meant to be the “baby” Claire aborted. To me, it seems that both episodes reinforce the idea that abortion is the “murder” of a potential child, and that it is something to feel guilty about.