Abortion on TV: Friday Night Lights

To quote Gloria Feldt, “Media portrayals, real or fictional, don’t merely inform us — they form us.” In this series, I will be examining five films – classic, mainstream, independent, foreign, and pre-Roe – and five television shows – daytime soap, pre-Roe, drama, critically lauded, and teen-oriented – that address unexpected pregnancy, to examine how past portrayals can influence and reflect society’s view of abortion.

The NBC drama “Friday Night Lights” has been drawing critical acclaim ever since it premiered in 2006, but it has struggled to find the wide audience that this show deserves. Set in a small West Texas town where life revolves around high school football, “FNL” follows the lives of a high school coach, his family, and several of the players on the team. The first season alone dealt with infidelity, teenage sex, steroid use, and bipolar disorder – so really, the only surprise around the most recent season’s abortion storyline is that the show hadn’t explored the issue before.

The storyline played out over a number of episodes, and realistically portrayed 16-year-old Becky’s struggle.  Pregnant by a classmate that she liked but hardly knew, and keenly aware of the difficulties her own mother, who had Becky when she was a teenager, had gone through in her own life, Becky had a number of conversations with her mother, the boy involved, a close friend, and her school principal before deciding that having an abortion was the best decision.  Delicately written and extremely well-acted, the storyline served as an important corrective to the glossy, simplified way that teenage pregnancy has long been represented not just in film and television, but in the larger media as well.

Equally compelling, and realistic, was the way in which “Friday Night Lights” depicted the fallout for Becky’s principal, Tami Taylor.  The teenage boy’s parents are very religious; after learning that her son might become a father, his mother attempts to comfort her child by observing that “Mary and Joseph felt they were in a situation, too.”  After learning that Becky had the abortion, the parents filed a complaint with the school board, convinced that she would have continued with the pregnancy if Tami had not given her the “literature” about abortion that Becky requested.  The ensuing controversy over, and discussions about, appropriate adult guidance, parental involvement, and the rights of teenagers to make their own decisions accurately reflects the ongoing national conversations over these issues, and provides ample room for Tami and other characters to voice their compassion for Becky and support for her choice.  The boy’s parents and their supporters, meanwhile, seemed mean and ridiculous, and it was clear that they did not have Becky’s best interests in mind.  While Tami does lose her job after failing to make a public apology, it is likely that she will be able to work as a counselor at another local high school – and, perhaps most refreshingly of all, Becky herself moves forward with her life, relieved and healthy.

It’s easy to watch this storyline and draw parallels between the irate parents and their supporters, and anti-choice protestors.  Becky is not asking the parents to get involved; her own mother is supportive of her choice.  Becky made the decision that was best for her and is at ease with that.  Rather, it is those who disagree with her choice that presume to act on her behalf, creating problems that are only tangentially related to the young woman at the center.  No single motive is assigned to the parents who are protesting Tami Taylor – rather, they seem to be acting out of a mix of religious indignation; fear that a school official has overstepped her bounds by discussing a choice they disagree with; and unease that if their child were in a similar situation, a similar choice might be made.  They are determined to cast their reaction to Becky’s choice as a statement of caring and concern, but in reality are so focused on their own outrage that they can’t stop to think about what is truly best for the young woman they claim to care about.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.

Comments

  1. I’ve been leery of watching this episode because I love my Tammy but haven’t always been thrilled with Jason Katims’ vision of women. Glad to hear that the show appreciates the complexities of choice. None of us are independent in the absolute sense. (Although sometimes I think there are men who forget this!) It’s naive to think that any decision we make won’t somehow affect the people we’re nearest to, and I don’t doubt that most young women faced with an unplanned pregnancy do find it helps to talk to people they trust while exploring their options. In the end, though, however frustrating it may be for those giving the advice untaken, they have to step back and remember they don’t get to make the final decision for anyone but themselves.

  2. Jodi, thanks for your comment. I love Tammy, too – she’s definitely one of my favorite characters on TV. I haven’t seen the second and third seasons so I just hope that Katims and the other producers don’t mess with Tammy and the other awesome women too much. And I couldn’t agree more that no one can make a decision for anyone but themselves.

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