In 2018, eighteen women television characters considered abortion. That number might seem small in our era of endless TV, but it’s a sharp increase from years past. 2018’s onscreen depictions of abortion weren’t always foolproof – one report found that many shows mischaracterized the process of medical abortion – but many showed women confident in their decisions, and the shows reflected the demographics of women who seek abortion in the United States. In a year when Catholic-majority Ireland voted to legalize abortion and the state of Ohio tried to ban abortion after six weeks, popular media showed the diversity of abortion stories among US women. The first American program to feature abortion also showed a woman emphatic and assured in her decision, but her brazenness stemmed in part from her racial and socioeconomic circumstances. Maude, a domestic sitcom about middle-aged marriage and emerging liberalism in the suburbs, discussed abortion in the two-part 1972 episode “Maude’s Dilemma”. While the episode’s content was groundbreaking for primetime network television, its ultimate permissibility and success was dependent on the main character’s various sociopolitical privileges.
The no-nonsense heroine Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) is dumbstruck after her accidental conception at age forty-seven. When confronted by her grown daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau) about the possible misuse of birth control, Maude confesses that she and her husband Walter (Bill Macy) abided by the “old-fashioned method” and “the old-fashioned thing happened. I got pregnant.” Maude’s reference to women’s slavery to their menstrual cycles and use of informal contraceptive methods showcases the generational difference between the protagonist and her daughter: While Maude may be a liberal, modern woman on her fourth marriage, she still cannot imagine a world where women have agency over their reproductive health and choices. Of course she would get pregnant, as her faith in and knowledge of birth control relied more on physical barriers than hormonal ones; of course she would keep the baby, as abortion was not only a taboo and immoral procedure, but a dangerous and illegal one that could result in Maude’s permanent infertility or death. Self-abortion options popular at the time were often fatal, such as the consumption of lead or kerosene, the striking of oneself in the abdomen, or the injection of lye, coat hangers, knitting needles, or Carol’s mocking suggestion of an “exhaust pipe”.
But these gruesome options – which are unfortunately still common for lower-income women and women who live far from abortion providers – would not serve as Maude’s fate. Carol reminds her mother that abortion was legal in New York state, and also allowed residents from other states to receive abortion services there as of 1970. “Maude’s Dilemma” aired just months before the Roe v. Wade decision, shining a light on New York’s then-radical legislative move.
Perhaps more radical than the mere suggestion of a legal abortion two months into Maude’s run on CBS was the nuance of the characters’ responses to the possibility. Walter does not threaten Maude with financial, emotional, or physical consequences if she obtains the abortion, nor guilt her into an argument on right and wrong. Carol reassures her mother that an abortion is now “as simple as going to the dentist.” This response seemed boldly dismissive for some viewers, and roughly seventeen thousand wrote in between the November 1972 premiere and the summer 1973 CBS reruns to express disapproval. Maude lost advertisers, but still struck a balance between humor and politics on air until 1978. While many viewers were outraged with “Maude’s Dilemma”, others appreciated that the oft-patronized forum of a sitcom stuck out its neck for reproductive rights.
While “Maude’s Dilemma” pushed the envelope in a variety of ways, its success was dependent in part on the show’s upper-middle class premise. Maude is an impeccably dressed woman with a neighborhood bridge club and a comfortable home. Although she has been married four times, the show represents her relationship with Walter as stable and loving with no chance of separation. Maude recounts to Carol the struggles of being pregnant with her while impoverished, but the audience knows that Maude would now have full financial and emotional support if she chooses to remain pregnant. The unlikely nature of Maude’s pregnancy at forty-seven alleviates some of the weight of the dilemma: her situation is an anomaly, so an abortion could be considered permissible. Maude is not a twenty-something single woman with no job and no prospects; she does not pinch pennies, abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in sex work, or share other characteristics of a woman whom audiences may have deemed likely to seek an abortion. While women from all walks of life have considered abortion – and Maude’s socioeconomic status may have granted her access to a safer abortion than those available to lower-income women –, Maude is not the typical face of the discussion. There are no material consequences from Maude’s abortion, which she decides to pursue in the final moments of the episode. It is not so much the New York legislature or a doctor that grants Maude access to her abortion, but rather her socioeconomic, racial, and age privileges.
In this regard, Maude was perhaps a perfect fit for depicting abortion on primetime network television, as the protagonist’s comfortable life and brass sense of humor enabled her to consider a variety of options in her pregnancy that could have been even more controversial if she were unmarried, younger, less financially stable, or non-white. Although “Maude’s Dilemma” may not have represented the average American woman’s experiences regarding abortion access, the show used its status as a cultural forum to educate its audience about the complicated and difficult decisions surrounding abortion, and to proclaim that women seeking abortion were not morally inferior or objectionable. Moving forward, TV writers and directors must continue to strive for diverse and nuanced depictions of abortion. Such media representations have and must continue to help destigmatize abortion and those who seek it.
by Amelia Merrill
Amelia Merrill is a writer and theatre artist from Baltimore, Maryland. An aspiring screenwriter, Amelia is a senior at Dickinson College studying Theatre Arts and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is an ambassador for Alma, where she writes about Jewish culture. Her favorite films include Love & Mercy, Marie Antoinette, and Cléo de 5 à 7. You can follow her on Twitter @Miajmerrill.
Categories: Feminist Criticism