Content warning: abortion, childbirth, depression, suicide and self-harm.
One of the most basic principles of media is the notion that it shapes social life and provides entry into understanding of society and social action. Therefore, it goes without saying that the media we consume is instrumental in shaping our values and informing us about key issues, and that it should reflect our commonalities, concerns and experiences. It goes without saying, but it needs to be said, because the reality is so different. Women, people with disabilities, and people of colour (to name a few) have been fighting to see themselves in the media, and there have been large advancements made (with a long way still to go).
One area that has escaped the dialogue surrounding representation, however, is abortion. It has been and remains to be a critical issue, and yet balanced and accurate depictions of the procedure and its process are mere needles in haystacks of propaganda, romanticisation and simplification. There are proven, significant, widespread consequences to this – individuals being misinformed about their sexual health, suffering mental health problems due to a child they may not have wanted to deliver to term, ending their careers and, in more cases than there should be, their lives.
Film and television act as a snapshot of time. For most social issues, over time, there’s better representation and an increase in complexity. For abortion, this isn’t the case. What is most worrying is the near lack of focus on the issue, accurate or otherwise, especially close to home. I could find just one Australian example of abortion being portrayed in a ‘popular’ television show – independent films often do a much better job of portraying abortion, but they don’t serve the same informative purpose as mass media. ABC’s ‘Please Like Me’ shows secondary character Claire undergoing the procedure to terminate her pregnancy as a result of a onenight stand with a European stranger. Whilst this example is realistic and accurate, it doesn’t show and hence ignores the character’s motivations for seeking the abortion, as well as the decision-making process that they went through. It also falls into the same literary trap of romanticising the sexual encounter with the ‘mysterious, foreign’ stranger as other problematic depictions. Women seek or don’t seek abortions for a variety of valid reasons and because of a plethora of different kinds of experiences, but only the ‘regretful one-time fling resulting in an absentee father’ storyline has dominated the big screen.
Large American blockbusters which have weight and importance, and the powerful influence of a multi-billion dollar studio and star actors, should also do better. Take one of the most contentious movies about abortion – Juno. The movie has a definitive pro-life stance, and lacks a balanced argument about the benefits and detriments of abortion. The titular character, Juno MacGuff, falls pregnant due to (you guessed it) a one-night stand, and when she seeks an abortion, is convinced against it by a pro-life classmate and her experiences inside a local women’s health clinic, instead seeking the adoption of her baby as a viable option. Juno finds a suitable family to raise her child, but by the end of the film, the husband has fallen in love with a seventeen-year-old Juno (the normalisation of which discredits the movie even further), his marriage has fallen apart, and Juno gives the baby to the now single wife Vanessa. Juno and the baby’s father solve their issues and live happily ever after. Sounds simple, right? Pregnancies are no big deal, apparently.
Juno is problematic in the ways in which it ignores the significance of undertaking a pregnancy, especially as a teenager. Pregnancies require significant responsibilities, such as altering one’s diet to ensure there are enough nutrients, avoiding harmful foods and limiting physical activity/stress. The movie fails to depict this accurately and is thus problematic as it signifies carrying a pregnancy to term as a viable and easy alternative to termination for young, disadvantaged women. The movie also misrepresents several aspects of Juno’s journey, such as her experience inside the abortion clinic and the adoption process. Adoptions do happen, but it’s not as simple as the pregnant woman choosing a family and it’s done – the most beneficial adoption situation for a child is a semi-open relationship between the birth mother and the child, which means either a commitment to being in the child’s life, or a neglect of what’s best for them psychologically. Both of those are big burdens for a seventeen-year-old to bear, but the movie doesn’t address this element in the slightest.
Simplistic depictions such as Juno simply contribute to a larger issue of misrepresentation that implicate real women. A lack of accurate education not only prevents women from having the knowledge to make their own informed decisions but leads to an uneducated society that is easily manipulated by political propaganda, and thus less likely to support abortion for women (which is a necessary health service and a civil right). The media (particularly popular television and blockbuster movies) are crucial in the formation of our opinions and are the basis of our education. With more discussion, hopefully they will begin to reflect reality. I hope, for the sake of women everywhere.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.