'You’re the Worst,' 'Jane the Virgin' and More Make Abortion NBD

Abortion has gone from the stuff of melodramatic “very special” episodes to acts of practical-minded female TV characters.

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In three seasons, You’re the Worst has quickly earned a reputation for being a show that squeezes humor out of devastating circumstances. In the past, it has tackled PTSD, depression and dealing with the loss of a parent, but with its November 2 episode, titled “Talking to Me, Talking to Me,” You’re the Worst turned its eye toward one of society’s biggest debates. Creator Stephen Falk and his writers’ gifts for dark humor added some levity to the issue of abortion when Lindsay (Kether Donohue), a character whose mantra might as well be “I can’t adult today,” has one after weeks of attempting to convince herself she wanted a family with her newly un-estranged husband, Paul (Allan McLeod). 

“We decided she’d become pregnant in Season 2 because we...wanted Lindsay to get what she wanted but be quickly sorry that she did,” Falk says via email, explaining the episode that was written by Alison Bennett and directed by Wendey Stanzler. “We approached this season with all options on the table but eventually decided that for many reasons, abortion would be the most responsible choice, her pregnancy being, as it was, a result of sibling rivalry, poor family planning, desperation to get her husband back, [and] Paul’s high seminal load.”

The simple act of a TV character going through with an abortion isn’t exactly revolutionary. Bea Arthur’s titular fabulously dressed limousine liberal had one on Maude in 1972. But while there’s no doubt that that was groundbreaking—especially because it happened before the passage of Roe vs. Wade,—that two-part episode, titled appropriately, “Maude’s Decision,” set the standard for how abortion is usually depicted. Like You’re the Worst’s Lindsay, Maude was married. But she was a grandmother and, at 47 (remember, this was the ‘70s), she felt she was too old to have another child. Similar ideas would eventually be debated when Sex and the City’s Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) repeatedly attempted to justify her decision in the doctor’s waiting room before, with all the flourish of a melodrama, she finally goes through with the pregnancy. Shows like Mad Men, Party of Five, Scandal, Everwood and even Grey’s Anatomy have dealt with the seriousness of such a decision, while the MTV teen comedy Awkward discussed the implications that a surprise pregnancy have on a woman looking forward to entering the workforce. The first episode for the comedy Girls treated abortion more as a character trait (Jemima Kirke’s Jessa is the kind of person who can’t get it together to even schedule her own abortion).

But perhaps the times, as well as the TV shows that reflect them, are changing.

“I don’t think it would really be that appropriate these days to have a show do something in the tone of the episode of Maude that famously dealt with it,” says Falk. “It’s legal. Women have more rights in the eyes of more and more right-minded people these days. I think, like anything in television, the more something taboo or controversial is brought out into the open, the less hemming and hawing or handwringing the storyteller feels like they need to do about it.”

For You’re the Worst, the scene was quite simple with the actual procedure happening off screen. After feasting on a sampling of the best pies that Marie Callender's has to offer, Lindsay has momentary last-minute doubts when she gets some texts from Paul and has a heart-to-heart with an anti-abortion picketer, but she eventually heads inside the center...and then returns to Marie Callender's for more pie.

“Networks are also gutsier these days and are increasingly being run by those with better common sense and less ideologically fear driven than previous executives,” Falk says. “But really, it all comes down to fear of losing advertisers and, luckily, advertiser boycotts over these sorts of issues seem to be either less prominent or the advertisers just aren’t as scared as they used to be anymore. But if the advertisers suddenly did become scared again and boycotts did start to work again, I’m sure things would revert back pretty quickly. So as enlightened as we may be, money still rules all ultimately.”

And—sorry, protesters—Falk’s show isn’t the only one taking this stance. The Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman offered the ultimate trolling of anti-abortionists this season when a teen pop star dolphin became the “voice of choice” and released the hit “Get Dat Fetus Kill Dat Fetus.” More realistically, this season of CW’s Jane the Virgin had Andrea Navedo’s Xiomara commit to her assertion that she doesn’t want more kids by quickly terminating her unplanned pregnancy. And the previous season of Showtime’s Shameless pitted pregnant 15-year-old Debbie’s (Emma Kenney) determination to be a single mother against her older sister, Fiona (Emmy Rossum), who was in a similar situation but chose what she considered to be the logical choice for herself and her family when she opted to have an abortion.

“We never wanted to have this ‘I’m going through with this. I’m going through with this. Oh I can’t. It’s my baby and I love my baby,’” Shameless showrunner Nancy Pimental tells Complex in regards to Fiona’s decision. “We wanted her to be really definitive about it and not mess with the audience at all. It is a choice and sometimes it doesn’t have to be an emotional [decision]. Every person’s different and some people don’t have emotional points of view about certain topics in life. We wanted to show those people.”

The fact that these episodes are airing during such a divisive time in our country has not gone unnoticed by the writers or the audience. The Jane the Virgin episode where Xiomara’s ultra-Catholic mother Alba (Ivonne Coll) finds out about her actions had the (mis)fortunate timing of airing a few days after Donald Trump’s “rip the baby out of the womb” comment during the third presidential debate.

“I didn’t want it to sit in the series like a dark secret...I wanted to show how two people who have totally different points of view can move past it and understand that they may make different choices, but they respect each other’s choices,” Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman says. “I wanted to make sure we treated Alba’s point of view with respect and didn’t belittle her. I think Americans, ultimately, think that it’s a choice that a woman can make herself...that’s what I wanted to put out in the world, especially when you have people like Donald Trump saying things that aren’t true.”

Falk agrees, saying “any reasonableness that I can bring in any tiny way to my tiny corner of television in a political season that seems to have given in to madness, is a good thing.”

Despite their different ways of handling the topic of abortion, there is position that all of three of these series do take: no slut shaming. 

“It’s important to me while writing female characters to make sure I’m always paying direct lip service to the feminist agenda I grew up with and that the female writers on my staff certainly embody,” says You’re the Worst’s Falk. “So yes, it’s incredibly important to render the female characters on the show as having large appetites for food and drink and also for sex, and to make sure we’re keeping any inkling of shame far away from them.”

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