The rules for depicting abortion in Hollywood

At Ecosalon, Katherine Butler has written a funny, but ultimately rather sad column about the way abortion is depicted in movies and on TV. Butler observes that in pop culture, most representations adhere to a set of ten rules – commandments, if you will. For example:

If your character has an abortion, make sure she is impregnated by a really bad guy.
In The Godfather: Part II (1974), Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton) aborts a male heir to the Corleone crime family. Penny Johnsons’ aforementioned lover in Dirty Dancing is a shady rich boy who is sleeping with wealthy married women. In The Cider House Rules (1999), Rose Rose (Erykah Badu) is raped by her father. Who she then murders. Because he’s a really bad guy.


European producers or financiers are more likely to back a film with an abortion plot line.
The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), written by Erin Dignam, features an abortion plot line. William Hurt is a recently released convict who went to jail after being incited into a criminal rage by the revelation that ex-wife Maria Bello has an abortion. As Dignam has said, finding financing for the film was extremely hard. Eventually the film was produced by Europeans, Arthur Cohn and Lillian Birnbaum. According to Digman, “The producers backed me. I’m sure the fact that they are European helped.”

One of Butler’s rules is, “after her abortion, your character will likely pay for her choice in some negative way.” To this, I might add the rule that if your character has an abortion, there will be negative consequences not just for her, but for anyone who helped her obtain the abortion.

Friday Night Lights followed this rule last year when Principal Tami Taylor (go Team Tami!) almost lost her job for providing a sixteen-year-old student with information about abortion. FNL avoided the question of whether or not Tami would in fact be fired for being marginally pro-choice by having her resign instead. And although we were clearly meant to sympathize with Tammy for all the hell the anti-choicers put her through, the message was clear: abortion will get you in trouble, even if it’s the right thing to do.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

Read more about Chloe

Join the Conversation