The folks at NBC’s long-running legal franchise Law & Order must have thought they’d garner headlines and praise for their "balanced, thought-provoking " take on abortion last Friday, an episode called "Dignity" based on the murder of an abortion provider.
But balanced it was not: an episode that was meant to focus on the prosecution of a cold-blooded murder ended up putting women’s rights on trial–and viewers picked up on its slant right away.
Immediate twitter and blog responses showed the praise coming from one direction only. While anti-choicers were quick to heap good reviews on the episode for so-called even-handedness, pro-choicers and medical professionals were universally appalled. They condemned an episode rife with bias and medical inaccuracy. They were hurt by the way the show’s writers turned the murdered abortion provider character into a literal baby-killer, profaning the death of Dr. George Tiller which they "ripped from the headlines" to form the premise for the episode.
The charge was led by Kate Harding at Salon’s Broadsheet, who summed up the tone of the episode: “But in an episode titled "Dignity," Tiller’s memory, remaining late-term abortion providers, and women who choose to terminate pregnancies are afforded none. The writers made a weak pretense of "balance" by having two of the series regulars — Detective Lupo and Assistant D.A. Rubirosa — espouse pro-choice views, but both are ultimately shamed into thinking they just might be wrong. See how even-handed?”
Similarly enraged posts followed from abortion providers who disputed the episode’s accuracy and expressed offense at the tone of the show: our own Charlotte Taft and Jennifer Boulanger, a guest-postng at Women and Hollywood. The cry was picked up by Ms. Magazine, and noticed by Feminist Law Professors and even mediabistro. (Many of these posts all delve into the details of the episode’s plot and explain each offensive moment, so I recommend reading them.)
The angry responses, and their source, prove that the show’s writers may have had a strategy. After all, they got the controversy and headlines they wanted, without facing the ire of the organized anti-choice movement and their buddies, the legions of "keep smut off my TV screen" reactionaries. Instead, they just pissed off some feminists. And we know how deeply seriously our anger is taken by the media.
The fact that Law & Order, a once-beloved franchise that has now slipped down to somewhere between a punchline and obscurity, failed to accurately portray the experiences of women and abortion providers may not seem in and of itself to be a cause for undue alarm. The episode was buried in TV wasteland, on a Friday night, after all.
And Law & Order has always traded in stock stereotypes among its legions of thugs, con-men, vixens and victims as well as a parade of lawmen with hearts of gold and deep consciences.
But unfortunately, this episode is symptomatic of –and contributes to–a much larger disease, one we’ve talked about frequently at RH Reality Check: the absolute erasure of women’s real life experiences with abortion from the pop-cultural landscape. Feminist critics have often discussed the fact that every single unplanned pregnancy on TV magically ends up becoming a little miracle for the mother who decides to keep the baby; or if having a child doesnt’ fit the character or plotline, it somehow ends up as a miscarriage. Often, there’s cursory to zero explanation as to why abortion is not on the table.
In this case, though, not only was women’s experience glossed over, but it was falsified. After Dr. Tiller’s death, dozens upon dozens of credible, heart-wrenching stories of women who underwent late-term abortions came to light. These stories, along with the cold-blooded execution of Tiller, even softened some critics of the procedure. But during the course of "Dignity" the truth of those stories was perverted, and the women in question were portrayed as weak-willed, selfish, and childlike. As Boulanger, Executive
Director of the Allentown Women’s Center, an independent abortion and reproductive health care center in Pennsylvania, wrote: “There were so many opportunities for the writers to present the humane side of women faced with complicated pregnancies. But instead we see respected characters on a beloved TV series cast aspersions on women. This is deeply stigmatizing, even worse than how anti-abortion protesters shame women in front of clinics every day in this country. This show did nothing to enhance the complexity of depth of women’s true experiences and only added to the sensationalism and stigma that already exists for women facing these decisions.”
To me, this movement from pretending abortion doesn’t exist to denigrating women shows why we need to fight this battle on the cultural front as well as the political one. TV was already operating far from reality, so it was easy to twist it further. And Americans, sadly, haven’t always had the best track record of separating what they see on TV from what actually happens in their lives, particularly when it comes to shows like Law & Order that offer the lite version of moral dilemmas. The secrecy and stigma surrounding abortion contributes to a society where many people don’t realize that they know someone who has chosen to end a pregnancy–but everyone knows about that slut on TV and the manipulative, baby-killing abortion doctor they saw on one show or another.
The wasteland on TV is often caused by advertisers, who are extremely squeamish about the subject. As the NY Times reported: “Carrie Drinkwater, a senior vice president for broadcast television at MPG, a media planning company, said that most advertisers have clear guidelines about when they will not advertise on an episode of a show that deals with a topic like abortion. It is likely that some scheduled advertisers dropped out of Friday’s broadcast, she said.”
The reason corporations fear the subject is because the wrath of the organized anti-choicers is particularly potent when it comes to pop culture–after all this is a closely- linked movement to those who protest "indecency" for other reasons. They are allied with the forces that brought us Nipplegate, ridiculous bans on on-air cursing, and bans on adult (read: sexual) content. They are the modern day thought police.
It’s hard for us non-censorious, free-speech loving feminists to jump on that kind of bandwagon, but in this case, a complaint to NBC is warranted. The coverage of abortion on TV is already heading down a slippery slope, and we need to stand up now or the next Prime-Time travesty will be even worse.
Several ideas for how to contact NBC are circulating.
If you want to express your displeasure over this episode, write to the executive producer of Law and Order, Rene Balcer, at 100 University City Plaza, University City, CA 91608.
The Young Feminist Task Force of NY NOW has a sample letter and a link to contact NBC.