By Matt Purple — November 24, 2015
The first scene of the first episode of the hit ABC political drama Scandal goes something like this: “Blahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblahblah you’re hired.” Two Aaron Sorkin wannabes on speed meet at a bar for a job interview and spend a couple minutes shoveling impossibly complex sentences past each other, until one christens their mutual Washingtonian hyper-competence by offering the other a job. It’s one of those shows. I didn’t watch past the pilot.
Scandal somehow stayed off my radar for its next five seasons, despite its Wizard of Oz–like omnipresence on Netflix. That is, until last week’s episode. It featured Senator Mellie Grant — think Wendy Davis, only with a job — staging a sanctimonious filibuster to protest her own Republican party’s efforts to endanger Planned Parenthood funding. This is nothing new; the aforementioned Sorkin speech-torched hundreds of religious-right straw men in The West Wing.
The jarring part of the episode came when crisis-management guru Olivia Pope (also hyper-competent, in case you were concerned) was shown lying on a table to offer up her own contribution to the abortion industry. As we watched, a doctor readied a suction machine. Later, we see Pope sitting by a Christmas tree, smiling contently, sipping wine as though nothing had happened, à la Planned Parenthood’s Deborah Nucatola — who enjoyed a generous pour of vino at lunch while talking about “less crunchy” abortion techniques in the undercover Center for Medical Progress videos.
The Christmas hymn “Silent Night” plays in the background during Pope’s abortion, which seems like the optimal choice if you’re looking to callously invert the Nativity. Presumably another carol, say, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” would have been less effective, though at least that one takes the same flip approach to death.
The next day, feminists were swinging from church bells and singing in the streets. Writers at The Atlantic, Slate, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere lauded Pope’s abortion for seeming so normal. “There’s no regret expressed for the child Olivia would not be raising,” crowed Kevin Fallon. He continued: “The morality of being pro-choice? Not even addressed” and praised the scene for its “realism.”
We demand realism in our television shows these days; no longer Dickens, our guiding star is Zola. And TV has readily provided, with unvarnished examinations of call girls, unhappy Brooklyn Millennials, mob bosses, and ancient Romans. Sometimes, as with The Borgias and House of Cards, TV producers use realism as an excuse to create soapy plots and deliver excessively pitiless portrayals of humanity. But elsewhere, realism has made for incisive treatments of previously forbidden topics. Even Netflix’s incredible new show Jessica Jones — ostensibly a Marvel superhero caper — wrangles with sexual trauma in a surprisingly well-rounded way.
Abortion is an exception to this trend. The most likely way to write abortion into a modern Hollywood script is to strip it of its realism and sterilize it into a 30-second political statement that’s characterized chiefly by what it omits: “no regret.” There will never be a heroine who grieves over her choice to terminate her pregnancy. The new model is Olivia Pope, blithe with the yuletide spirit. Just as abortion must be discussed with euphemistic gibberish such as “medical procedure” and “pro-choice,” so too must it be shown in only one dimension, lest the concerns of those anti-woman extremists be validated.
Contrary to feminist hosannas, there was nothing groundbreaking in the Scandal holiday episode. Grey’s Anatomy, Degrassi, Friday Night Lights, and Girls have all featured positive or at least neutral portrayals of abortion, and Norman Lear terminated Maude’s pregnancy all the way back in 1972. With the onwards-and-upwards attitude taken by Scandal’s writers, the show merely delivered a new twist on an old theme. Outside of South Park (“Abortion is the ultimate form of cheating! You’re cheating nature itself”), it’s difficult to think of a show that has ever taken the opposite stance, attacking abortion with as much zeal as Scandal had in normalizing it.
Despite Scandal’s “no regrets” approach, though, abortion isn’t a “normal” issue. It’s controversial, multifaceted, and consequential. So it seems to me that if we’re going to have legal abortion and realistic television, then we should have realistic examinations of abortion on television. That includes the emotional consequences, the abortionists who can no longer stomach their jobs, the ultrasounds, the aborted remains in the trash, the whole kit and caboodle. So when does that show get green-lit?
Also unrealistic about the Scandal episode was Senator Grant’s illiterate objection to Planned Parenthood funding in the Republican budget. It had been wrongly categorized, Grant said, as discretionary spending and could therefore be cut in the future. In reality, Planned Parenthood is funded mostly through Medicaid, which is technically mandatory spending but also subject to the normal appropriations process, as discretionary spending is. That means Grant, and by extension Scandal, wants it instead to beoff-limits mandatory spending, which is reserved for entitlement payouts such as Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits.
That’s abortion according to Hollywood: a festivity, an entitlement, a fiction.
— Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.