Within a week of the US electing a president who has vowed to overturn Roe v. Wade, two CW shows — Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — demonstrated that the right to choose might at least remain alive and well in fiction.
These two shows accomplished a feat that is vanishingly rare on network television: They each let one of their female characters get an abortion. And they both took the position that the abortion was not harrowing or traumatizing, but simply the right choice for each character.
Neither show did a Very Special Episode about abortion. They managed the rarest feat of all: They played the reality of their characters’ lives very simply and matter-of-factly. And they acknowledged that those lives sometimes include unwanted pregnancy and a subsequent abortion.
Both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin feature mothers getting abortions
The symmetry of the two abortion plots is so striking as to be bizarre. (Although it’s not the first time these particular two shows have tag-teamed feminist issues.) On each show, the woman in question is older, approaching her 40s, and already has children. She’s in the midst of changing her life, grasping at the dreams of independence and self-actualization that she had to put aside to care for her children, and that are finally within her grasp now that her children are old enough to fend for themselves.
On Jane the Virgin, she’s the titular Jane’s mother, Xo (played by Andrea Navedo). Xo got pregnant with Jane at 16, considered an abortion, and decided against it with no regrets. Now that Jane’s grown, she’s ready to focus on herself. And she decidedly does not want more kids, so much so that she ends a relationship when she learns that her boyfriend does. “I want the next 20 years to be about me,” she says. She’s spent years being a mother first, and now she’s ready to put herself first, for the first time since she was a child herself.
On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the woman is Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), best friend to the show’s protagonist, Rebecca. Paula’s a paralegal at a strip-mall law firm, slowly driving herself crazy because none of her work challenges her: “Every morning I wake up with an emptiness and a longing,” she says. And so she decides to go to law school, where she can learn to do that work that she’s so clearly naturally suited for.
And then Xo and Paula each get pregnant.
They each examine their options, consider whether or not they can achieve their goals with another child in tow, and whether they want to sacrifice their plans for a baby once again. They each conclude that no, they can’t, and no, they don’t want another baby. They each get abortions.
And that’s that.
Abortion plots are vanishingly rare on network TV
This kind of abortion does not, in general, happen on network television. Actually, abortions of any kind don’t generally happen on network television. Usually, if a woman gets pregnant on TV, she’s going to have that baby. She usually won’t even mention the word abortion. Another character might say, “Have you thought about…” with a meaningful pause, and the pregnant woman will tearfully shake her head, and that’s it.
The conventional wisdom is that this trend is not anti-woman or anti-choice, but pro-story. If a woman has an abortion, that drives story for an episode or two, the thinking goes, but if she has a baby, that can drive story for whole seasons. Why go through the bother of setting up a pregnancy storyline, after all, if you’re not going to do a baby storyline?
But Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend demonstrate that an abortion storyline can be a meaningful way to explore character. On Jane the Virgin, Xo’s abortion serves as a way for the show to look at how she’s changed since she was a teenager, when she decided against having an abortion; it also opens the door to explore her ongoing conflict with her Catholic mother, who disapproves of her decision. And on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Paula’s abortion serves to demonstrate just how far Paula and Rebecca are drifting, because the most dramatic thing about Paula’s abortion is that she decides not to tell her best friend about it.
On these shows, abortion isn’t dramatic — and that’s what makes them so exciting
The lack of drama surrounding the actual procedure is what’s really exciting, and even a little revolutionary, about both of these abortion storylines. Both of them happen offscreen, and are revealed in a matter-of-fact throwaway line about how the abortion caused some lingering discomfort.
“To clarify,” says the narrator on Jane the Virgin, “Xo didn't have a stomach flu a few weeks ago. She had a medical abortion, which caused cramps, which she told her mother was a stomach flu.”
And on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we see Paula lying in bed with a paperback as the doorbell rings. “Mom,” calls one of her children, “I’ll get it, since you just had an abortion!”
It’s a sneakily political choice that’s all the more powerful for how understated it is. For these characters, abortion is not traumatic or horrifying in and of itself. Unwanted pregnancy is — Paula bursts into tears; Xo hallucinates — but an abortion is just a medical procedure that fixes a problem.
Under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the future of a woman’s right to choose is under serious threat. And the CW is showing us exactly what we would lose with it: women’s ability to make informed, important decisions about their futures, and to exercise autonomy over their own bodies and their own lives.