WOMEN
09/06/2014 09:02 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

It's Not 'Demeaning' To Address Abortion On A Sitcom

"The Mindy Project," the laugh-out-loud-worthy FOX sitcom starring Mindy Kaling, centers around the quirky men and women who work in a New York City OB-GYN clinic. (Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan.) The show has explored race, unrequited love, the awkwardness of dating coworkers, sexting, body image and birth control. But one subject that it won't be touching appears to be abortion.

Kaling, the show's star and creator, recently told FLARE Magazine that, "It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom.”

Her comment gave me pause -- and I wasn't the only one. As Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan and Salon's Prachi Gupta have both pointed out, there are certainly examples of half-hour TV shows that have tackled the topic effectively. After all, the first primetime TV character to have an abortion was Maude of the sitcom "Maude" in 1972. Since then, abortion storylines have been rare on sitcoms, but they've happened. "Buffalo Bill" and "The Facts of Life" tackled the topic in the in '80s, Roseanne Barr's mother admitted to having had two abortions on "Roseanne" during the '90s, and "Sex and the City" and "Scrubs" both featured characters discussing abortion in the early '00s.

Beyond television, comedy is often used to grapple with dark and serious topics -- including issues of reproductive choice. Amy Schumer has done stand-up about Plan B and the definition of conception, and Sarah Silverman has touched on abortion in her comedy. The creators of the 2014 romantic comedy "Obvious Child," (which runs just 83 minutes) also chose to make the main character's choice to get an abortion part of the movie's main plotline, taking the subject quite seriously amidst the jokes.

"We wanted to humanize choice through humor," "Obvious Child" screenwriter and director Gillian Robespierre told me over the phone. "Some of the best jokes are about difficult subjects. I don't think politics or social injustice are hands off. You can be funny about anything if it’s done correctly."

So if it's possible to treat an abortion plotline with care in the context of a small or big-screen comedy, why isn't it done more often? According to Jennifer L. Pozner, Executive Director of Women in Media & News and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV -- as well as a self-described admirer of Mindy Kaling and her work -- it usually comes down to networks' fear of backlash, especially from advertisers.

"We’ve had these moments here and there, but generally the daily realities of women’s reproductive lives get erased in our popular culture," Pozner told me in an interview. "And then it leaves this huge hole, where the majority of the narrative around abortion, birth control and family planning gets shaped by conservative, anti-feminist policy wonks."

The real reason that this gap in pop culture's representation of abortion is so problematic is that it's not reflective of the actual number of women who get abortions in real life -- approximately 1 in 3 by the age of 45 in the United States. And when no one talks about abortion, myths -- about how it works, how dangerous it is (hint: it's one of the safest medical procedures out there), and how often it occurs -- run rampant.

Kaling doesn't have to address abortion on "The Mindy Project." Ultimately, it's her show, she has to answer to a major network, and the erasure of abortion from women's on-screen experiences is not her personal burden to bear. As Kaling has repeatedly expressed, being a woman of color with her own show does not mean that she is obligated to fulfill all of our pop culture feminist fantasies. But it's difficult not to think of her unwillingness to address a gynecological procedure that one-third of American women experience as a missed opportunity.

"Using comedy to address [abortion] would actually be creative and very of-the-moment," said Pozner. "Especially because Mindy is really frickin' funny! If she wanted to do this, she could do this well."

“When you were young, abortion was a dirty word; it’s not anymore," says Maude's daughter during the iconic episode where 47-year-old grandmother Maude chooses to terminate her pregnancy.

Unfortunately, judging from the semi-silence of the 2014 pop culture landscape on the topic, you'd think it still was.

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