Foul language, divorce, drug abuse, premarital sex, homosexuality. Hollywood used to have as many taboos as a revival tent meeting. Nowadays, almost anything goes in popular culture, where the explicit is taken to ever-more-graphic levels.
Yet, one topic still makes movie and TV producers tremble: abortion.
Consider “Knocked Up,” the ribald new comedy from the folks who brought us “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” A pot-smoking wannabe Internet pornographer meets a very drunk (and very beautiful) woman at a bar, and their spirited dirty dancing leads to unprotected sex and — you guessed it — pregnancy.
Of course, this mismatched couple decide to have the baby — although the young woman’s mother seems to think they should consider abortion. Indeed, conservative critic Michael Medved says the film contains an “unexpectedly potent pro-life message.”
Abortion may be a major social and political issue, but popular entertainment avoids the debate.
“In the 21st century, abortion is at the top of the taboo heap,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. “Abortion is not only at the top of it, but it’s climbed higher, where other taboos have fallen off the mountain.”
“There have been few mentions of abortion on broadcast television in the past year or two,” said Ms. Henson, whose organization crusades against foul language and depictions of promiscuity and violence. “They are still relatively rare and usually only extend to discussions about abortion as an option, or discussions about an abortion that was performed in the past.”
Popular culture has tackled the issue in the past, most famously in the early 1970s, when the lead character in the TV program “Maude” had an abortion. Films such as “The Cider House Rules” (1999), “Vera Drake” (2004) and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the Romanian film that won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, have examined the topic in detail.
But on-screen unplanned pregnancies are much more likely to end in miscarriage — as one did on “Grey’s Anatomy” this year — or in the baby’s birth. Vice President Dan Quayle may have assailed TV’s “Murphy Brown” in 1992 for having a baby out of wedlock, but that liberal icon did not choose abortion. Nor did Rachel on “Friends,” Miranda on “Sex and the City” or young characters on “The O.C.” and “Felicity.”
These portrayals contrast with the reality of modern America. About 1.3 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2003 (the latest year for which estimates are available), according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the figures. Put another way, about 24 percent of pregnancies in the United States that year were terminated through abortion.
Why does famously liberal Hollywood shy away from representing this reality?
People who follow the issue highlight two main factors: the industry’s desire to entertain, and the American people’s deep ambivalence about abortion. Polls show that a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to choose, but they feel uneasy about abortion itself.
Mr. Thompson noted that pro-choice advocates “seldom place their rhetoric in defense of abortion. It’s almost always in the context of a woman’s right to define her destiny because nobody wants to come out and say abortion itself is a good thing.”
This dynamic, he said, can be seen in the political realm, where even the strongest pro-choice advocates cast abortion as an unfortunate necessity. Instead of celebrating the options it might offer some women, Democratic candidates repeat Bill Clinton’s famous mantra that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”
As a result, Mr. Thompson said, movie and TV producers shy away from having recurring characters undergo abortions, fearing they will be “branded with the scarlet letter — that ‘A’ — that would damage her in viewers’ eyes.”
The complex range of circumstances and emotions that lead some women to have abortions also runs counter to the tidy, unchallenging version of the world presented by most TV shows and movies, added Judith Wilt, a professor of English at Boston College. Her books include “Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct.”
“Abortion is so complex — and divisive — that Hollywood seems to have concluded that it’s not worth the trouble,” she said. “Besides, Hollywood is addicted to happy endings, and it’s difficult, though not impossible, to present abortion that way.”
Ms. Wilt’s research also suggests that abortion is at odds with how many people, even those who consider themselves feminists, want to see the world.
“The liberal cultural fantasy now is that women can have it all,” she said. “Instead of having to make the hard choice between the life you imagined for yourself or your fetus, they are far more attracted to the idea that you can have babies, work and everything else the modern world offers.”
Bill Brooks, executive director of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a conservative think tank, believes something darker is afoot — that Hollywood avoids abortion because it doesn’t want to remind people of its horrors.
“They’re afraid that if people really know the truth about abortion, they’ll turn against it,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want the rest of us thinking about it.”
For all our uneasiness, abortion remains legal. Its relative absence from popular culture sends a dangerous message to the millions of women who have abortions or will have them, argues Audrey Fisch, a professor of English at New Jersey City University, who has written about the issue for Salon.com.
“By ignoring the issue, Hollywood ends up suggesting that abortion is an unspeakable abomination and that people who get abortions are bad people,” Ms. Fisch said. “By refusing to represent the real lives of women — including the economic and social damage that can come from unplanned pregnancies — Hollywood is fostering a destructive pro-life culture.”
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