Spoilers ahead for the mid-season finale of Scandal.
Our popular culture is light years behind reality when it comes to depicting women’s reproductive choices. Even though 1 in 3 women will have an abortion before the age of 45, the subject is rarely portrayed on TV. In the rare times there is an abortion story, it’s usually fraught and sometimes tragic (although in real life 95% of women don’t regret their abortions), or a convenient miscarriage happens so viewers never have to cope with a woman making the decision to terminate a pregnancy.
There have been exceptions to the rule, but Shonda Rhimes took a major step for network television with an abortion story on Scandal that was remarkable in a number of ways:
- The scene actually showed Olivia Pope undergoing the procedure. Last week’s episode was the first time an abortion procedure was shown on network television. As Sarah Kliff writes at Vox, “More commonly, television shows with abortion storylines will often use shots of women in abortion clinic waiting rooms or in bed after the procedure as a way to indicate what happened.” Lenika Cruz describes the scene: “The camera didn’t ogle, but it didn’t shy away from Olivia’s wide-eyed gaze either. The message? This is normal. This is acceptable. This is Olivia’s choice, and hers alone.”
- The abortion was portrayed without handwringing (or any discussion at all). Olivia is watching the news and we suddenly realize the scene is taking place in a clinic waiting room. The abortion takes place in a scene without dialogue, and we never see Olivia weighing her options and displaying the doubts and guilt often associated with abortion on TV. While I imagine this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Olivia’s decision, it was one she made by herself and executed without the drama and tension we usually see.
- The character having an abortion has the means to raise a child. As Kliff points out, “Most abortion storylines on television involve people who would struggle to take care of a newborn baby — often teenagers who plan to complete high school or go to college and have a whole career ahead of them.” In this case, Olivia has the financial resources, but chooses not to have a child. As the rest of the episode shows, she was in the midst of a toxic relationship, and she made the decision she felt was best for herself.
- Olivia doesn’t face tragic consequences after undergoing an abortion. Of course we haven’t seen how this entire storyline will play out, and just about anything can happen on Scandal. But in a cultural environment in which characters who have, or think of having, abortions often die (despite it’s being one of the safest medical procedures), it’s refreshing to see it portrayed in a straightforward way. Given the way Rhimes has handled other feminist plot lines, there’s good reason to trust her with this one.
- The abortion story takes place in the context of an episode about reproductive rights as human rights. As icing on the cake of an already groundbreaking plot line, this episode of Scandal prominently featured Mellie Grant defending Planned Parenthood in the Senate. Rhimes created a feminist fantasyland in which a female Republican senator would filibuster a budget bill that merely threatened Planned Parenthood’s funding. In a Wendy Davis-like marathon speech, Mellie points out the other government funding programs the Senate takes for granted and highlights the ridiculousness of even having to fight for basic women’s healthcare.
Of course there has been backlash to the episode. Lenika Cruz notes that some Twitter users condemned Rhimes for injecting her beliefs into the show. First of all, I’m all in favor of showrunners injecting their feminist beliefs into shows. But the fact is that she just frankly portrayed a very common event in women’s lives, and I hope more people will follow her lead.