Jane the Virgin has the well-earned reputation of being one of the most progressive shows on television, tackling issues like faith, female sexuality and immigration with its signature combination of optimism and humor. But while the CW telenovela has briefly touched upon abortion a few times before, it wasn't until its current season that Jane finally delivered its own quietly radical exploration of much-debated topic.
After Xo (Andrea Navedo) discovered she was pregnant by the arch nemesis of her ex-husband Rogelio (Jaime Camil), Jane broke with TV tradition by not showing a big conversation about what she should do. Having been very vocal in the past about her desire to not have more children, it was revealed this week that Xo quietly terminated the pregnancy off-screen — a fact she told her daughter Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and son-in-law Michael (Brett Dier), but kept from her vigilantly Catholic mother Alba (Ivonne Coll).
"I didn't want it be really dramatic," creator Jennie Snyder Urman told reporters following a screening of the episode. "Xo is not tortured. It is not a tortured abortion. It is not an abortion where she is unclear about what she wants or unclear about her choice. She's very clear and most abortions are that. I feel like that's an important thing to respect on TV as well. If you're sure, you're sure."
But while Xo's approach to her abortion may closely reflect reality, it's a perspective that is rarely shown on TV — a medium that not too long ago considered the topic to taboo to broach at all.
The 1972 episode of Maude, in which Bea Arthur's character decides to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, is typically credited as the first TV episode to tackle abortion and was met with vocal protest and 40 CBS affiliates refusing to re-air it. For many years afterwards, the rare abortion storylines that appeared were generally treated like after-school specials promoting the pro-life perspective, with the women almost always deciding at the last-minute to keep the baby (as seen in Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Felicity and Sex and the City).
But as abortions have become far more common on TV, with the topic being discussed 20 times on 16 different American shows in 2015 alone, the way they're being portrayed is changing. Rather than focus on the will-they, won't-they drama leading up to the decision (Degrassi, Friday Night Lights) or the uncertainty that might follow the procedure (Six Feet Under, Everwood), there has recently been a push in portraying more nuanced, and less dramatic portrayals of the experience.
In November 2015, Scandal made waves when they showed Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) calmly getting an abortion (with the procedure boldly shown onscreen) without discussing the decision with her boyfriend, the President of the United States. More recently, a 2016 episode of BoJack Horseman hilariously contrasted Diane's (Alison Brie) matter-of-fact decision to get an abortion with the media circus that surrounded a teenage pop star after she decided to fake an abortion for publicity.
Both Olivia and Diane's decisions were treated realistically, without any melodrama or hand-wringing on the women's part, and even the singer's fake abortion was used to smartly critique the public debate over reproductive rights. But while Xo is as certain in her choice as Olivia and Diane, she is also shown to struggle with what others think of her following the procedure.
Convinced Alba already knows about the abortion, Xo becomes obsessed with trying to find out for sure. Predictably, Xo's brazen attempts at investigating the situation only lead Alba to confront Xo directly about her odd behavior, prompting Xo to finally confess to getting the procedure. Much like Xo feared, Alba is upset over Xo's choice, leading to an emotionally-wrought fight that initally appears to have no foreseeable resolution.
The episode treats both Alba and Xo's perspectives with care, not only giving each woman an equal platform to share her opinion, but also showing viewers why this argument strikes such a nerve. For Alba, it reveals how much pain she still carries over telling Xo to get an abortion when she was pregnant with Jane. And for Xo, the fight exposes the continued pressure she's under to feel shame over her decision, even though she feels no such thing.
"It's my mom," Xo later confesses to Rogelio, "she's making me feel guilty - not for the abortion; she's making me feel guilty for not feeling guilty."
There are many female characters who have gotten abortions without guilt before, but by focusing on how Xo copes with Alba's disappointment, Jane the Virgin draws attention to how the stigma surrounding abortion extends far beyond the procedure itself, and how even with all the strides women's rights have made, there are still strict expectations about how women are supposed to feel about choices they are legally allowed to make.
Whenever a woman makes a decision that goes against the traditional social rules, regarding parenthood in particular, she is expected to mourn for the lifestyle she has decided against. When a woman decides to be a full-time working mom, she is expected to regret all the time she spends away from her child — a pressure fathers in the same position are never subjected to. When a woman decides to not have children, the world projects feelings of longing onto her (a tendency which perhaps has punished no one more so than Jennifer Aniston, who has the gall to be happy, 47 and childless). And when a woman decides to get an abortion, she is expected to struggle over the choice, to feel an instinctual maternal connection to the life growing inside them and to grieve for the child that will never be.
The notion of a woman getting an abortion without an internal struggle — not because she's thoughtless, but because she knows herself that well — and without any feelings of uncertainty remains revolutionary. And while shows like Scandal and BoJack have helped normalize this concept, Jane extends this conversation by exploring how the backlash to getting an abortion can sometimes be more distressing than the decision itself. Because as much as women are told they can be anything these days — even President of the United States — they are still socialized to feel guilty whenever they fail to live up to constructed ideal of how to be a "good" woman — an arbitrary benchmark that encourages women to value other people's feelings as much (or sometimes more) than your own desires.
This pressure to adhere to a single socially-acceptable emotional response is only compounded by the fact that many outsiders mistakenly believe their opinions regarding a woman's reproductive choices are as important and valid as the woman's own. This same conflict was explored on Scandal when the political opposition considered exposing Olivia's abortion, framing it as a shameful campaign secret, to which Olivia stood up to this notion, proudly declaring she wasn't ashamed of her choice at all. But rather than continue the cycle of Us vs. Them that has come to characterize the debate over reproductive rights, Jane the Virgin did the unthinkable: it showed Xo and Alba finding common ground, all without either woman having to bend their beliefs.
"Everyone's choices are different. If we could just respect each other's choices, wouldn't that be a nice thing?" Urman said of the decision to give the episode a happy ending. "I felt that was something important for the series ... Instead of discounting that [pro-life] point of view, giving value to it as Alba's point of view, but then showing a way out of it for this family."
And so while Alba's displeasure clearly shakes Xo, she never wavers in her certainty that she made the right decision, and ultimately realizes that how she feels about her abortion is the only thing that matters. By the episode's end, Alba comes to a similar conclusion, admitting that her feelings on abortion should have no bearing on how Xo chooses to live her life. "I don't agree with your decision, but it's your decision," Alba tells her daughter, before inviting the family to move forward from this experience together.
It's a touching moment that's filled with an understanding and respect that is far too rare in conversations about abortion. And by approaching the topic in this manner, Jane the Virgin not only manages to provide valuable insight on the current social climate regarding abortion, but also pushes viewers to imagine a world where these polarizing debates are a thing of the past.
Reporting credit: Kaitlin Thomas
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