A New Wave Of TV Refuses To Make Abortion A Big Deal
A bunch of characters aren't really agonising over their decision to terminate, and we welcome them wholeheartedly.
— Content warning: This feature includes discussions of abortion. It also contains spoilers for the second season of ‘I Hate Suzie’. —
In the three-part “anti-Christmas” special of I Hate Suzie — stylised as I Hate Suzie Too — which dropped on Stan on the 21st of December, down on her luck actress-cum-dance competition contestant Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) has an abortion. And it’s not her first.
When her ex-husband — and dance partner on Dance Crazee Xmas (of course he is) — Bailey (Douglas Hodge) asks her if the abortion she had many years ago when they were married was horrible, she replies: “Blood coming out of your vagina is just a regular horror. Maybe if I was vomiting up the baby [it would have been].”
Those scenes are part of a recent trend in film and TV in which abortions are portrayed in frank and matter of fact ways, rather than the taboo they so often have been.
Take another Stan show, the sorely underrated Vida, which centres on two sisters coming to terms with both their mother’s death and gentrification in Los Angeles. One of the sisters, the no-nonsense Emma (Mishel Prada), also undergoes a quiet medical abortion, wolfing down both mifepristone and misoprostol pills that are supposed to be taken 24 hours apart, as a nurse explains in the waiting room.
Back at their apartment, Emma’s free-spirited younger sister Lyn (Melissa Barrera) suggests that Emma wait until after their bar’s big night to begin terminating her pregnancy. When Emma says she already took the medicine, Lyn is in disbelief at Emma’s good health. “The one time I took it I was sick for two, almost three days,” she nonchalantly replies. Terminating a nascent pregnancy is a no-brainer for these young women who are still figuring out themselves, their relationships and their careers.
Two other films that explore this urgency co-exist as a kind of double feature – opposing sides of the same abortion coin.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, by writer and director Eliza Hittman, was released in 2020 and focuses on a young woman, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), as she navigates the obstacles to obtaining an abortion. She’s duped by a crisis pregnancy center, which gives her incorrect information and tries to convince her to carry her pregnancy to term. After realising that, because she’s underage, she can’t get an abortion in her home state of Pennsylvania without parental consent; Autumn and her cousin steal money from their workplace to pay for bus tickets to New York.
Unpregnant, which aired the same year, is also an abortion road trip film – now officially a subgenre. The Rachel Lee Goldenberg-directed comedy follows Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson) and Bailey (Barbie Ferreira) as the latter drives the former from Missouri to New Mexico to terminate the pregnancy that will bind her to the town she so desperately wants to escape.
Whereas the protagonist of Never Rarely Sometimes Always is painfully naive and unsure of herself, Unpregnant’s Veronica is a type A, honour roll student on the fast track who plans her abortion down to a T within a couple of hours of receiving a positive pregnancy test.
The class differences between Veronica and Autumn also create different experiences of abortion.
Veronica is able to quickly come up with the several thousand dollars needed for the abortion and travel expenses. She also doesn’t seem too upset when she has to leave her backpack with all her devices behind during a bump in their road trip, presumably knowing that her upper middle class parents will be able to replace them.
Meanwhile, it takes a far longer time for Autumn to be able to put together all the pieces of her termination: money, bus tickets, figuring out which states and clinics perform abortions on minors. It takes so long that she moves into the second trimester, meaning that the procedure she thought would consist of taking a pill in one office actually ends up being a two-day operation at another clinic. Autumn and Skylar end up traipsing around New York City for a night because they can’t afford a hotel.
Though not on the face of it, the circumstances that led both girls to their unwanted pregnancies share commonalities too. (Duh, there are few ways one can become pregnant, but I digress.)
While Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes its name from the jarring intake questionnaire Autumn undergoes at the clinic — “Your partner has made you have sex when you didn’t want to: never, rarely, sometimes, always” — Veronica’s boyfriend Kevin (Alex MacNicoll) demonstrates abusive behavior in Unpregnant, too. Kevin stalks her after she refuses his marriage proposal, and reveals that he saw that the condom break and didn’t tell Veronica, resulting in her having to travel three states away when she “could have just taken the morning after pill,” as she admonishes him at one point. In the Unpregnant book, Kevin is written as having deliberately tampered with Veronica’s birth control, but Goldenberg says she wanted “a more grounded and complex version of Kevin” who “wasn’t evil.”
Both films end with the friends breathing a sigh of relief over fast food, after all of the tensions in their friendships have been brought to breaking point by the stress of trying to get an abortion in a country that prefers not to give people the right to choose whether they want to be pregnant.
Another film with a similar finish is Swallow, which centers on the meek and stifled housewife Hunter (Haley Bennett) who begins swallowing household objects like marbles and pins when she discovers she’s pregnant. So it’s only fitting that, after Hunter stages her own escape of sorts, Swallow concludes with her swallowing a burger in a food court, followed by an abortion pill.
And we can’t forget the masterpiece that is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which shares similar themes of sisterhood and men being trash. Practically the only evidence that men even exist in the world of the titular lady on fire, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), and her portraitist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), is the unwanted pregnancy of Héloïse’s young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Proving that abortion has a) always been around despite restrictions on it and b) that it is compatible with motherhood, one of the most affecting scenes portrays Sophie lying on a bed next to an infant while she induces a miscarriage using folk medicine.
Which brings us back to I Hate Suzie Too. Creator Lucy Prebble says that “most abortions happen in a practical and administrative way, with women overseeing them,” a description that immediately conjures Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Piper, too, says that I Hate Suzie is “a lot about motherhood.” “You’ve got one woman who has a child, but also had abortions, and another who is going through the very punishing experience of IVF.”
Most people who undergo abortions already have children, as does Suzie, and the rate of abortions is increasing among older women in the UK, where I Hate Suzie is set. This season of the show also feels especially urgent after the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year, making these examples both period (pardon the pun) pieces and exercises in fantasy.
None of these stories are concerned with characters who agonise over their decision to terminate. Rather, it’s presented as basically a given that young, single and economically precarious women wouldn’t want to have a child at that stage in their lives. Instead, the films make a strong statement about the obstacles to getting an abortion. While abortion is increasingly threatened, it seems Hollywood has finally caught up to the fact that, for many, abortion is no longer a big, gasp-worthy moment. It’s only a big deal when the government makes it that way.