The Importance of Abortion Comedies
In Season Two of Shining Vale, Pat (Courteney Cox) has had a tough time of it since she was forced to suspend her in-patient psychiatric treatment. Her daughter Gaynor (Gus Birney), who had to run the household in both her parents’ absence, hates Pat more than ever. Her husband Terry (Greg Kinnear) has been battling back from head injuries a psychotic Pat inflicted on him. Her Connecticut dream house is still a terrifying death trap. And her period’s back?!
This week’s episode pays off Pat’s newly restored fertility (and continues in the season’s Rosemary’s Baby riff) in the most logical way: Whatever malign force has caused Pat to start menstruating again has apparently also imposed an unplanned pregnancy upon her, so Pat has brought her mother Joan (Judith Light) with her to a local clinic. Joan’s not there for moral support, since that clearly isn’t something Joan’s capable of providing. Instead, she’s there for comic effect, musing to Pat, “I wish my mother had gone with me to my abortion.” “Yeah,” Pat cracks, “this makes up for all the missed recitals, games, birthdays and graduation!” She wearily adds that she’s not there for an abortion — she’s just getting a pregnancy test to confirm her suspicions — but Joan is on her own conversational track: She assures Pat that she’ll support whatever choice Pat makes if she does turn out to be pregnant, and adds, “I will say, having you was the second best decision I ever made.”
“I’m not going to ask what the first was—,” Pat responds.
“Getting my abortion,” Joan interrupts.
This would be a savage exchange regardless of whom Joan was having it with. That she’s having it with the daughter she did decide to carry to term adds to the hilarious shock factor. Comedy about abortion has been a lot more pointed in recent years than it used to be!
Famously, Maude’s eponymous heroine (Bea Arthur) found herself unexpectedly pregnant in a two-part episode that aired in 1972, when abortion was legal in New York but not nationally. Since that episode aired — not without controversy — depictions of abortion seemed to get more timid. As someone who is almost as old as Roe v. Wade when it was struck down last year, I spent my youth watching TV follow a predictable playbook when it came to abortion storylines: A series regular character would get unexpectedly pregnant; mention the possibility of terminating the pregnancy and maybe even make an appointment to do so; then either nobly decide she couldn’t do it (Andrea on Beverly Hills, 90210) or have a convenient early pregnancy loss (Julia on Party of Five).
Even Sex and the City, ostensibly a show about women who confidently own their sexual agency, ultimately has Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) take the Andrea route in 2001’s “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda.” The circumstances surrounding the characters are quite different — Miranda is a successful New York attorney in her 30s; Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) is a college freshman who… is played by a woman in her 30s — but both decide to have abortions and then change their minds. Obviously, parenthood is also a valid choice, if and when it is a choice made freely and not because state violence has foreclosed other options. The problem is representation: It’s frustrating to see characters deliver dialogue staunchly endorsing the right to abortion and then never actually exercise it.
A few years before “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” Alexander Payne directed and co-wrote Citizen Ruth, an unsparing abortion satire. Laura Dern plays the titular Ruth, who is unhoused and addicted to huffing inhalants. She is in state custody on pending criminal charges when she finds out she’s pregnant for the fifth time, and will face further prosecution under a fetal endangerment law. Ruth has already given birth to four children, all of whom are wards of the state, and she has no ambivalence about terminating this latest pregnancy.
When the judge concurs and offers a lighter sentence if she does, her case attracts press attention, and she finds herself in a tug-of-war between the evangelical strangers who bail her out so they can convince her to give birth again this time, and the pro-choice activists who want to make Ruth the face of their movement.
Without spoiling the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen Citizen Ruth — as of this writing, it’s streaming on Paramount+ — the prevailing attitude seems to be that both factions are equally unethical in their treatment of Ruth, as though both sides had an equal claim to morality in a “debate” over essential health care that was, at the time, enshrined in law across the U.S. Citizen Ruth is often very entertaining, but given the evolution of abortion law in this country, Ruth’s cynicism played very differently in 1996 than it does in 2023.
More recent feature comedies about abortion have approached the topic with pessimism befitting the eras in which they were released. 2014’s Obvious Child is one of the more charming romcoms about a couple who get to know each other during an unplanned pregnancy one of them is planning to terminate, possibly without ever telling him about it.
Donna (Jenny Slate) lives in Brooklyn, so her access to abortion is never in question, though she isn’t thrilled when she finds out the only dates available for her to schedule her procedure are either her mother’s birthday or Valentine’s Day. (She goes with the latter.) Though Donna’s experience with Planned Parenthood is comparatively frictionless, the subject matter opens the door for her to speak honestly with her mother (Polly Draper) about an abortion she had before Donna was born; and it grants Max (Jake Lacy), the one-night-stand who got Donna pregnant and subsequently keeps running into her, the opportunity to be supportive on the day of her abortion. Of late, Lacy is more likely to play a character who will tell you he’s a good guy but is actually a scumbag, so revisit the movie to remind yourself when he got to play through-and-through sweetie-pies.
Alas, it’s no longer possible for contemporary abortion comedies to portray frictionless paths to the procedure: The rollicking sex comedies of the 1980s have given way to rollicking abortion comedies in the 2020s. In 2020’s UnPregnant, 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) wants an abortion but can’t get one in Missouri without parental consent. She can’t count on her boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) to drive her to New Mexico, the nearest place that will perform an abortion without involving Veronica’s parents, because he may actually feel perfectly fine about this unplanned pregnancy.
Veronica turns to the only other person who knows her predicament — her ex-friend Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) — for a road trip beset by low-grade disasters. Classic comic premise meets social injustice: hilarity ensues!
The stakes aren’t as high in 2021’s Plan B. Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) doesn’t know she’s pregnant; she had a condom mishap and needs the titular emergency contraception. Unfortunately, she lives in South Dakota, and gets turned down for the drug at her local pharmacy, so she and her best friend Lupe (Victoria Moroles) road trip to the nearest Planned Parenthood, which at least doesn’t require crossing state lines, but is just as hassle-filled as in UnPregnant. Both movies revolve around comparatively well-off teens who are seeking abortions to safeguard their futures, but are stymied by arbitrary geographical impediments. There are definitely jokes, but you can’t — and shouldn’t — forget that these girls wouldn’t even be on their ill-fated road trips if they just had the abortion access blue state girls might take for granted.
In TV comedies of the 2010s, abortion got matter-of-fact depictions, often but not only in shows with female showrunners. On GLOW, Ruth (Alison Brie) decides not to let a pregnancy that resulted from sex with a man she didn’t love derail her nascent career as a wrestler. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) already has children, but they’re old enough to look after themselves, more or less, and she doesn’t want to start over. Lindsay (Kether Donohue) of You’re the Worst is probably the most, uh, irreverent about her “a-bo-bo,” of an embryo conceived via stolen sperm and a turkey baster, but wanting one is reason enough for any pregnant person to seek an abortion. The more different situations audiences see revolving around abortion, the closer we get to destigmatizing it. (Full disclosure: You’re the Worst creator Stephen Falk is a friend.)
Back to Shining Vale, which has been joking about abortion since its first season. Gaynor immediately crushes on Ryan (Derek Luh), and as a student who is very much not celibate, she’s disappointed to find out he’s a charter member of the high school’s Chastity Club. Gaynor spends the season vacillating between faking Christian values to stay close to Ryan so she can eventually corrupt him, and then actually starting to let him convert her. But Pat is never convinced by Gaynor’s piety, and jokes that if the devout Ryan gets her pregnant, she will definitely have to keep the baby. Gags like this get a lot less funny for Pat when, in Season Two, Pat ends up at the clinic in the scene referenced up top, and the receptionist accidentally calls her Gaynor, closing the loop on one of the first season’s cliffhangers.
Pat and Terry have just decided to separate when she calls him back home to tell him she’s (somehow) pregnant. Terry is thrilled: “Maybe I’m supposed to be a parent.” “You are a parent,” Pat reminds him. At this stage, Pat is not taking any action, because she’s pretty sure she won’t need to, joking to Terry that he shouldn’t get too attached to the idea of a baby because it’s probably not going to get too attached to her uterus. Shining Vale co-creator Sharon Horgan also has a Miranda-esque “oh why not” TV pregnancy plotline on her CV. Horgan also co-created Catastrophe, about a geriatric pregnancy ensuing from a one-week stand. But this episode handles what seems to have been Gaynor’s off-screen abortion well: Pat doesn’t confront her with the receptionist’s slip, and calmly says that she would never judge anything Gaynor did to get through the long months Pat was confined to the psychiatric hospital.
Gaynor goes on to joke that the elderly Pat will probably love the new baby, if she has it, more than she loves Gaynor: It’ll be able to help with the dishes. “Because it’ll be a sponge, or ’cause it’ll have eight arms?”
This is, altogether, a realistic portrayal of how a real family — even a comically heightened one, like the Phelpses — would handle a late-in-life pregnancy. (The same cannot be said for the pregnancy storyline on this season’s And Just Like That, about which the less said the better.) Pat’s pregnancy may not have as many legislative entanglements as those of UnPregnant and Plan B, but — without spoiling the rest of the season — it’s part of a narrative that has just as many political implications, and puts its horror-comedy environment to extremely effective use.
Every abortion has its own story; getting more of them into pop culture, sometimes with irreverence, the more likely it is that everyone can start to see abortion as health care, period.